India’s Reliance has ruthless Retail ambitions

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November 19, 2022

Chloe Cornish, Financial Times (select extracts)

Mumbai, November 19, 2022

Billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s oil-to-data conglomerate Reliance Industries, India’s biggest single listed company by market capitalisation, profits most from its refinery, the world’s largest. But Reliance wants to embed itself in India’s towns and cities by dominating the $800bn retail market as well, from partnerships with luxury fashion houses like Balenciaga to acquiring a Coca-Cola copycat.

Despite being India’s biggest retailer by revenues, Reliance’s 16-year-old shopping unit has often been overlooked, as Ambani’s Jio mobile network stole the limelight in transforming India’s data landscape.

Taking advantage of restrictions that hamper foreign companies’ ability to compete in India’s fragmented retail sector, still largely made up of mom and pop shops, Reliance is expanding its shopping empire at a rate of seven stores a day, using acquisitions to accelerate growth and investing around $3.6bn last financial year. It has 16,000 stores across India, while online purchases contribute 17 per cent of revenues, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

India’s tycoons have long ventured into consumer businesses, from the Tata family, once best known for steel and now also boasting jewellery stores and a joint venture with Starbucks, to industrialists like Aditya Birla, whose conglomerate includes a large fashion business. Reliance, however, has aimed to control entire supply chains, all the way from the petrochemicals in the fibres it uses to produce textiles.

“The ethos of the group is dominance,” said Devangshu Dutta, founder of Gurgaon-headquartered retail consultancy Third Eyesight. “Unless other businesses step up to the plate, their dominance is a foregone conclusion.”

In its latest potential acquisition, Retail has reportedly bid $500mn for German wholesaler Metro’s Indian business. Indian rules allow foreign companies to own 100 per cent of a cash and carry business, but only if they do not sell directly to consumers. Reliance, by contrast, could unlock value by extending the business to sell direct to shoppers through Metro’s 31 distribution centres, said a person familiar with the company’s thinking.

Reliance has also announced it will launch its own fast-moving consumer goods company by the end of this year. The person close to the company said it would look to acquire brands to build the business, akin to its August deal for Campa, a nostalgic Indian fizzy drink, as well as exploring licensing and joint ventures.

While its ecommerce business JioMart has recently tied up with WhatsApp, owned by Reliance investor Meta, to increase its online reach, Reliance further boosted its physical shop space this year. It swooped to thwart potential foreign competitor Amazon in a battle over failing shopping group Future Retail.

Reliance Retail recorded quarterly revenue of around $8bn for the three months ending September 30, earning a net profit of $283mn, a 36 per cent increase year-on-year.

Reliance Retail declined to comment for this story.

Additional reporting by Andrea Rodrigues in Mumbai