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Opportunities & Challenges for Dutch (Semi-)Processed Food Companies in India

A seminar was organised on the 12th of May in Zeist (the Netherlands) on “the Opportunities & Challenges for Dutch (Semi-) Processed Food Companies in India”. Highlights of a report and other insights were presented by Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight. Other entrepreneurs who also shared their experiences in India, and the Dutch agricultural counsellor, Wouter Verhey, was present at the event.

The sessions included:

  • Welcome and opening remarks by Wouter Verhey, Agricultural Counselor India & Sri Lanka at the Embassy of The Netherlands in New Delhi.
  • The market for processed food in India by Devangshu Dutta of Third Eyesight, India.
  • Entrepreneurial challenges in the food sector in India by Peter Uyttewaal, Partner India of Larive International. The characteristics and strengths of the Dutch Food and Grocery Industry by Sekhar Lahiri of FNLI.
  • Discovering the Pot of Gold in India by Sumit Saran of Future Consumer Enterprise Limited, India.

You can download a summary of the report via this link: India – Opportunities Challenges for Dutch Processed Food Companies

The Relationship between Consumers and Brands

Panel Discussion moderated by Mr. Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive, Third Eyesight at the Indian Retail Congress 2015 (17-18 April 2015). The panel included Mr. Manish Mandhana (Managing Director of Mandhana Industries with the brand Being Human), Mr. Sanjay Warke (Country Head of Toshiba India), Mr. Tanmay Kumar (Chief Financial Officer of Burger King India), Mr. Kinjal Shah (Chief Executive Officer of Crossword Bookstores) and Mr. Ranjan Sharma (Chief Information Officer of Bestseller India, with the brands Vero Moda, Only, Jack & Jones).

Retail India and Etail India conference - Manesar - 2015-04-17

Will the Indian Apparel Sector Change its Fashion?

The apparel retail sector worldwide thrives on change, on account of fashion as well as season.

In India, for most of the country, weather changes are less extreme, so seasonal change is not a major driver of changeover of wardrobe. Also, more modest incomes reduce the customer’s willingness to buy new clothes frequently.

We believe pricing remains a critical challenge and a barrier to growth. About 5 years ago, Third Eyesight had evaluated the pricing of various brands in the context of the average incomes of their stated target customer group. For a like-to-like comparison with average pricing in Europe, we came to the conclusion that branded merchandise in India should be priced 30-50% lower than it was currently. And this is true not just of international brands that are present in India, but Indian-based companies as well. (In fact, most international brands end up targeting a customer segment in India that is more premium than they would in their home markets.)

Of course, with growing incomes and increasing exposure to fashion trends promoted through various media, larger numbers of Indian consumers are opting to buy more, and more frequently as well. But one only has to look at the share of marked-down product, promotions and end-of-season sales to know that the Indian consumer, by and large, believes that the in-season product is overpriced.

Brands that overestimate the growth possibilities add to the problem by over-ordering – these unjustified expectations are littered across the stores at the end of each season, with big red “Sale” and “Discounted” signs. When it comes to a game of nerves, the Indian consumer has a far stronger ability to hold on to her wallet, than a brand’s ability to hold on to the price line. Most consumers are quite prepared to wait a few extra weeks, rather than buying the product as soon as it hits the shelf.

Part of the problem, at the brands’ end, could be some inflexible costs. The three big productivity issues, in my mind, are: real estate, people and advertising.

Indian retail real estate is definitely among the most expensive in the world, when viewed in the context of sales that can be expected per square foot. Similarly, sales per employee rupee could also be vastly better than they are currently. And lastly, many Indian apparel brands could possibly do better to reallocate at least part of their advertising budget to developing better product and training their sales staff; no amount of loud celebrity endorsement can compensate for disinterested automatons showing bad products at the store.

Technology can certainly be leveraged better at every step of the operation, from design through supply chain, from planogram and merchandise planning to post-sale analytics.

Also, some of the more “modern” operations are, unfortunately, modelled on business processes and merchandise calendars that are more suited to the western retail environment of the 1980s than on best-practice as needed in the Indian retail environment of 2011! The “organised” apparel brands are weighed down by too many reviews, too many batch processes, too little merchant entrepreneurship. There is far too much time and resource wasted at each stage. Decisions are deliberately bottle-necked, under the label of “organisation” and “process-orientation”. The excitement is taken out of fashion; products become “normalised”, safe, boring which the consumer doesn’t really want! Shipments get delayed, missing the peaks of the season. And added cost ends in a price which the customer doesn’t want to pay.

The Indian apparel industry certainly needs a transformation.

Whether this will happen through a rapid shakedown or a more gradual process over the next 10-15 years, whether it will be driven by large international multi-brand retailers when they are allowed to invest directly in the country or by domestic companies, I do believe the industry will see significant shifts in the coming years.

Celebrities as Mindful Consumers

Retailwire hosted an interesting discussion on ethical consumerism, based on Andrew Benett’s description of the decline of hyper-consumerism, and the emergence of a more conscious, frugal consumer in his new book, “Consumed: Rethinking Business in an Era of Mindful Spending”.

In a recent article Benett identified 10 public figures who also act as beacons for mindful consumption. The list includes people as diverse as US first lady Michelle Obama, talk show host & actress Ellen Degeneres, investor Warren Buffet, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi  and rapper Ludacris.

Of course, Ellen, Ludacris or Oprah have a communication reach that most marketers would kill for. Walmart pushing sustainable technologies in its supply chain could possibly achieve more than many governments around the world would hope to, because its powerful carrot of buying budgets is far stronger for many vendors in Asia, than the sticks of legislation. Many of these are genuine, praiseworthy attempts.

However, much as I would like to believe that all celebrities and high profile businesses are evolving into mindful, careful consumers, that would be a gullible step too far. In the current economic climate, consuming too conspicuously is just “not done.” But that may change as markets improve, jobs expand and incomes rise again.

Having said that, if the current fashionable rash of mindfulness raises the profile of concerns around over-consumption and waste, if it actually drives us towards more sustainable behavior and be more gentle to the planet and our future generations then, well, the end justifies the means.

Andrew Benett’s list is here: Top 10 Public Figures Who Are Also Mindful Consumers.

And this is the discussion on Retailwire on this subject.

Consumers against toxic products (or just a fear bubble?)

There’s been a lively debate on Retailwire.com initiated by Tom Ryan (Managing Editor), and prompted by an article in the Washington Post about how consumers are literally taking matters in their own hands and testing toys and domestic items for the presence of toxic substances.

Some of the commentators feel that this is going too far and could create waves of unnecessary panic, that consumers and consumer advocacy groups do not have the necessary expertise nor a balanced judgement, that it is a job for the government agencies. Others support the move and say that such moves are absolutely in order.

In my opinion, despite good intentions on the retailer’s part and the humongous bureaucracy in the supply chain, if product safety compliance is incomplete and if consumers feel insecure, then they will provide the wake-up call any which way they can.

We may decry the paranoia, but let’s also consider the increase and concentration of risk in recent years due to factors such as:

  1. Vague responsibility for unsafe products due to the nature of the current supply chain
  2. Extreme focus on factory costs leading to corners being cut in the supply base
  3. Long lead-times between the buying decision and actual delivery, with multiple hand-offs (and sometimes, meanwhile, people changing jobs and responsibility)
  4. Significantly larger consumption and disposal volumes than earlier generations
  5. “Strategic sourcing relationships” leading to concentration of sourcing volumes–if one product line has been produced with unsafe toxins by a vendor, the likelihood of others being handled the same way are higher as well. While we all hope that more business gets concentrated to a vendor with better practices, such is not always the case.

However the industry may feel about it, I think consumer advocates have the steering wheel on this one. Unless government outlaws ‘unapproved’ testing…but I wonder how palatable that would be, politically speaking.

Here’s the original article from the Washington Post.

And the discussion on Retailwire.com is here (needs a free sign-up).

Customer segmentation – Learning from the Vedas

Advertising Age recently carried an article titled “The Death of Customer Segmentation”, by Michael Fassnacht.

He questions the traditional marketing hypothesis that the better we segment consumers, the better we know what is relevant and the better we can market to them.

Fassnacht argument is that:

  1. Segments are becoming more volatile [totally agree!]
  2. Consumers are never part of just one segment [fashion companies discovered that a few years ago, and began marketing to “purchase occasion segments” rather than plain-old consumer segments defined by demographic and static psychographic profiling], and
  3. Consumers are preferring to choose what information would be relevant and of interest.

This last point is of particular importance, since electronic media – especially websites that customize themselves based on analysis of the users behaviour and history – are becoming more prevalent communication platforms. In fact, for the last few years “mass customization” and “a consumer segment of one” have been fashionable phrases thrown about in marketing circles.

Fassnacht quotes Amazon, Apple and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to support his well-structured argument.

However, it may be a challenge for traditional retailers and brands to apply the learnings from these brands in their physical stores.

Going further and on a lighter note  – or perhaps not 🙂 – if we are to believe the philosophy of the Vedas, the Universe has a head start on “self-segmentation” and “customization of consumer experience” technology. According to it, the world and our experience of it is “Maya,” an illusion product of our mind, and we are free to create and mold it, and experience it as long as we hold the illusion.

If that’s the case, our modern techies and marketers have a long time to go before they climb that technology curve.

The original article is available here: The Death of Consumer Segmentation?

Asians in America & the new (old) Indians

New American Dimensions and Asian-American advertising agency interTrend Communications has just put out a report titled “Asian Indians in the US”.

It is amusing to come across the term “Asian Indians”…only in the USA!   :-))

That aside, the executive summary has some interesting insights including:

  • Though relatively new to the U.S., first-generation Indians show many signs of advanced acculturation. However, they often go through an intense retro-acculturation later on life as they begin to realize the uniqueness of their culture. 
  • This group champions American individualism. They respect this value, as it allows them a greater freedom to succeed. Females appreciate this land of opportunity as it creates more possibilities for them to get ahead in life. 
  • Although highly acculturated and proficient in English, most express the desire to preserve their native culture through food, music, entertainment and language, and to pass it along to the next generation. 
  • Though they use a lot of media in English with American content, they still consume a considerable amount of Indian media both in-language and in-content. The younger segment (18-34 yr.) consumes the most Indian media, including television, radio and internet; while the 44-54 group reads the most Indian newspapers.

Retailers in the US might draw a leaf out of British retailers that have significantly tailored their product mix to suit specific immigrant populations. Sure, the UK has a higher proportion of Indians (and other South Asians), but there are enough areas in the US where the South Asian population is high enough to warrant more specific merchandising and marketing. 

When I think of the “Indian stores” owned by someone of Indian or South Asian origin in concentrated catchments of high-income South Asians (LA, Houston, Boston etc.), I can’t help thinking of the opportunities missed by the chain stores.

On a separate note, the study says that some respondents “felt that the Asian classification was negative, an attempt to lump Asian Indians in with the rest of Asia when they have a distinct, rich culture that should stand by itself.” 

I’m sure other communities would also take exception to such “lumping”. 

It is indeed interesting that marketers tend to use the term “Asian”, throwing together diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds from Turkey in the West all the way East to Japan, and throwing segmentation disciplines out of the window.

(The executive summary is available here.)

Retailers vs Brands – the reactions

Delhaize and Unilever may not yet have felt the need to visit a relationship counseler, and of course, the jury’s still out on who (if anyone) will actually win in their battle.

For now, Unilever has lost shelf-space for around 300 of its brands at Delhaize stores.

Delhaize may potentially lose some of the sales that those brands got for it, in case consumers want a specific brand rather than a private label or a substitute brand.

The consumers lose not just in terms of their choice being reduced, but perhaps also in becoming confused about the specific value / benefits of competing products when the certainty of their customary brands is removed. Remember, brand loyalty is built on the predictability of a repeated experience over a period of time. If  you remove that factor from the purchase, each purchase becomes an experiment again, until a similar predictability is found.

(For those who missed the previous post, you can read it here.)

Referencing this battle, reactions to a discussion in at least one online poll on www.retailwire.com seem to favour retailers, or equally blame both retailers and suppliers. Only about a quarter of the respondents felt that retailers were not being fair. Considering that the respondent universe comprised of professionals from retail companies, suppliers as well as service providers, this seems to be a surprising result. Or perhaps not? Perhaps brands are no longer delivering a significant value to be able to command a premium over private label?

Some of the reactions from that discussion are reproduced below with permission from Retailwire.

  • It’s hard for me to feel for both retailers and vendors when they obviously do what’s best for themselves, regardless of the long-term impact. In this case though, I would tell Unilever to go aggressive and pull all their lines from Delhaize. Then up the marketing of these lines with a cooperative marketing program involving the other retailers. Let Delhaize try to survive with shelves full of private label products and see how long they last. (Marc Gordon, President, Fourword Marketing)
  • First, you seem to be talking more about Europe than the U.S. and that’s a different animal. However, given the universality of the question, I’d say first that the best and worst of people and companies come out during hard times. The best redouble their efforts to build meaningful long-term relationships with their trading partners. Unfortunately, it seems that most are simply trying to squeeze an extra penny or two out of the other. To your specific question–No! CPG companies are only starting to rationalize their portfolios. There are still way too many products out there simply for the sake of putting their name out there–not because the product moves. Some manufacturers are starting to cut back on their lines, but I suspect much more is needed. As to developing private label, what do you expect? Retailers have been copycating for years. But I think consumers have gotten wise to the fact that just because it looks like a brand doesn’t mean it has the same quality. And to any retailer who can’t do any more than copy, shame on them! (Len Lewis, President, Lewis Communications, Inc.)
  • Fast moving consumer goods companies still need to rationalize brand portfolios in many cases, as so many retailers are finding higher profits in reduced SKU counts, without losing shopper loyalty. Depending on how this shakes out with specific retailer strategies over time, this may or may not make room for more local brands and niche players in some instances. Private label is a whole different animal today than it was even four or five years ago. The top tiers are not just inferior substitutes for national brands; they are national brand equivalents (or better) and widely recognized as such by consumers who are switching, and are not likely to come back. As for retailers copycatting, that’s always been a factor. Sometimes retailer behavior is outrageous, but there are laws protecting trade dress, etc., and branded manufacturers frequently litigate, and win. (Warren Thayer, Editor, Refrigerated & Frozen Foods Retailer, BNP Media)
  • There is significant brand proliferation in FMCG. Think about cereal, ketchup, salad dressing or the myriad of other categories that have duplication on top of duplication. I led an industry-wide study that proved retailers could remove 12 – 18 percent of the actual SKUs from a given category (almost across the board) and not lose sales–in fact retailers will grow their sales (by unit volume and revenue). Consumers want true variety and differentiation – not the same thing in the same size. How many red ketchups in the 24oz bottle do you really need on the shelf? In many cases, there should be a couple of national brands and the store brands.
    The study also showed that the very large marketing dollars thrown at retailers to help promote products are in many cases not enough to cover all of the downstream costs and activities retailers engage in to accommodate duplication of brands. The inventory carrying costs alone are staggering. The FMCG companies will not want to hear this, but without fail, we found that there is too much duplication and with careful consumers, retailers should make sure they are offering the very best solutions for their customers while maximizing profits and opportunities. (Kevin Sterneckert, Research Director, Retail, AMR Research)
  • How many shoppers (in the US, anyway) would drive out of their way to get Unilever soap? Probably not too many. Price, proximity and shopping habits are stronger than most CPG loyalty. Higher ticket items, like durables, and higher involvement categories like skin care, have more resilience. Retailers are understandably using the recession as a catalyst to drive sales of private label. Are they playing fair? Well, no.  Manufacturers are over a barrel, giving as much information as they can in order to stay in good standing with retailers. Further, some retailers have even used promotions that pull on national brand strength to promote private label. Publix Supermarkets ran a Buy-One-Get-One, where shoppers could buy a national brand (Thomas’s English Muffins) and get the Publix private label brand free. This drove trial – and presumably–conversion to their brand. No, they aren’t playing fair. The question for national brands is how to stay relevant and on shelf. (Liz Crawford, President, Crawford Consulting)
  • Technology and collaboration should be helping to solve this problem, and it is a problem that existed before the current downturn and will continue when the recovery comes (hopefully very soon!!). If the retailer can show empirically that the new product lines do nothing to add to the profit mix, or worse do something to harm it, at the store, the supplier should yield and remove or not introduce the items. If the manufacturer can show empirically that the new product lines work to bolster the profit mix at the store level, the retailer should yield and add the items. This may be over-simplifying the situation, and there will always be exceptions, but without collaboration both retailers and suppliers are going to lose and the shopper will suffer as well. (Ron Margulis, Managing Director, RAM Communications)
  • “SKU Rationalization” is a dangerous game…as the volume of sales per item does not necessarily reflect the impact to the brand as a whole. The push-pull of private label vs. branded product has been going on a long time and it’s not stopping any time soon. While it’s possible to create an apparel store built solely on private label merchandise, I don’t believe it’s possible in FMCG. All those advertising dollars have, in fact, made a difference. It’s also true that not all private label merchandise is create equal. I might be okay with generic canned food, but there are other products that have a distinct difference in quality. Q-Tips, Band-aids, some cheeses come immediately to mind. There’s a reason why book sellers carry slow movers. There’s a reason why apparel retailers buy a full compliment of colors, even if the percent contribution isn’t the same across all of them. Similarly, there’s a reason why FMCG retailers need to carry brands. It adds to their own brand credibility. (Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research)
  • I’ll take on whether retailers are “playing fair” by copy-catting national brands/morphing them into private labels: 8-10 years ago, I would have cried foul; these days, it’s par for the course. Yet another reason why vendors have to keep their innovation pipelines full or risk being one private label switch away from extinction. Think of your retailer knocking you off as the sincerest form of flattery (if you can bear it)! (Carol Spieckerman, President, newmarketbuilders)
  • As indicated in the poll questions, there is sufficient blame on both sides. Retailers are dealing with manufacturers who force impractical line extensions through financial influence (incentives) detracting from a balanced category. Private Label is skimming the cream of category sales and threatening to take a disproportionate amount of shelf space. Private Label also can trade down category average pricing through poorly thought-out pricing schemes that do not reflect the market place. The extreme in either direction reduces the optimization of the consumer-centric effort we are all chasing. Manufacturers are the Mecca of product innovation. Private Label merely mimics. When we deviate from true innovation and the goal is to reduce the shelf space of competitors, everyone loses. The leap to Private Label is a result of cash-pinched consumers looking for a bargain. Private Label has a place in retailer strategy, but it should not be the entire strategy. Nor should the overwhelming ownership of space by a single brand. The premium or angel customers will continue to buy brands that exhibit the features and benefits of quality and consistency. Which customers do we want to develop as our base? Angel customers or bargain hunters? By lowering standards, quality and differentiation, we move into a downward spiral into Heck. Manufacturers must put forth innovation and quality as the model. Retailers need to maintain the balance in the categories that maintains a profitable mix of customers. It is about strategy and thinking beyond next week. Ask John Galt. (‘GMROI’)
  • There were several reports on just-food.com last week out of the Consumer Analyst Group of New York (CAGNY) conference in Florida about what some of the bigger brands plan to do about rationalizing their portfolios. Some were particularly interesting and relevant to this discussion. As for the sub-debate about differences between the US and the ROW (rest of the world)–also very interesting and relevant especially when looked at in the context of globalization vs consumer preferences for locally produced food (a subject on which there is still much to be said as it cannot possibly be, in my view, an either or proposition). ( Bernice Hurst, Managing Director, Fine Food Network)
  • For FMCG, a CPG firm must ensure they have a brand strategy to address the intended audience. Most will say they have that, but the truth is that they try to “cover the Earth” with a wide assortment to capture any and all consumers they can. In these economic times, there will tend to be even less “rationalization,” so to speak, since CPG firms will try to grab any demographic who is spending money.  Of course, regions vary in their propensity to embrace things like private label, however there are great examples across the globe of deep penetration of P/L, some of which have already been mentioned, and also Trade Joe’s in the US. P/L success has more to do with intentions of the retailer, rather than the line of products, specifically. (Ralph Jacobson, Global Consumer Products Industry Marketing Executive, IBM)
  • Where’s the data? Which consumers are buying which products? Which ones are not selling so well? Where’s the demand? Both sides can play the win-lose drama as long as they like and both will lose. (Camille Schuster, President, Global Collaborations, Inc.)
  • Brands are the initiators of product and package innovation.
    • Until Private Label companies or a collaboration with retailers can fund research and development and spend back big dollars back against the brand, the brands will always have customers looking for their new products.
    • Retailers cannot give up the slotting fees that brands pay for shelf space. That is why many stores get more branded skus then they probably need.
    • I am not sold that manufactures can’t execute with creative accounting, “Brand partnership stores.” Retailers work on slim margins but as more retailers self manufacture there is AN opportunity to sell to yourself.
      (‘YOURBOYS’ )

Less Could Be More

For all those who have admired the consistency and presentability of produce in western supermarkets, here’s proof that tough times really focus us on substance and force us to look beyond skin-deep beauty.

Even in fruits and vegetables.

British supermarket Sainsbury has challenged European Union guidelines that restrict the sales of fruits by certain physical standards. Sainsbury’s is questioning EU regulations that prevent selling “ugly” fruit and vegetables. Due to EU regulations such as size of cauliflower (minimum 11 cm diameter) and the shape of carrots (requirement that there should be a single root, not multiple), Sainsbury estimates that up to one-fifth of what is produced in British farms cannot be sold in the supermarket. According to Sainsbury’s estimate, not following these regulations can help to reduce prices by up to 40%, and reduce wastage by up to 20%. The retailer is also trying to drum up customer support by running an online poll (94% responses were in favour of Sainsbury’s move, at the time this column was being written).

So less beauty could mean more veggies in the supermarket, and more money in everyone’s pocket including, hopefully, the farmer.

And this may also vindicate anyone who has complained that the beautiful veggies and fruits in western supermarkets taste inferior to their “ugly” counterparts sold on Asian hand-carts. Give us more substance and less style, any day.

Let’s look at some other substantial issues that merchants should consider.

Remember “I can’t get no satisfaction”? That’s what Mick Jagger and his mates in the Rolling Stones hit the world in the face with in 1965, allegedly in response to the rampant commercialism they had seen in the US.

After 43 years – at least judging by the modern supermarket shelves – apparently we still ain’t getting no satisfaction. In fact, the array of choice tends towards “overload”.

A typical developed country supermarket is estimated to carry over 40,000 SKU’s. Can you think of 40,000 types of items (or even 10,000) that you would need from the supermarket for your home?

So here’s the result. During my travels, if I’m in a store that is unfamiliar I could spend over an hour wheeling a trolley around before reaching the checkout. The first 5-10 minutes are focussed on figuring out the aisles based on my list. The next 10 minutes are spent picking what is actually on my list. And the rest of the time before the checkout is usually spent browsing through the thousands of SKU’s and picking stuff that we never knew we needed when the family made the shopping list.

Now, the guys who run the supermarkets are generally a smart bunch – they’ve figured that the more options you put in front of consumers, the more they buy. My cash receipts are proof of that. But, as American professor and author Barry Schwartz (“The Paradox of Choice”) says, the point where the choice becomes counter-productive is already well-past in developed markets.

With such overwhelming choice, consumers get into analysis-paralysis. And even after they finally purchase something out of the enormous range, you get shades of post-purchase dissonance. Only, in this case the dissonance, the dissatisfaction is not related to a bad product, but: “What if there I had made another choice? What if there was a better product than this? What if there was something available for less?”

During these times, it is pertinent to also put this in the context of business costs. There is surely a cost of providing that humongous choice in supermarkets. Have we considered what the saving could be, if the variety was reduced, if the product range was consolidated?

Consider the time (and therefore cost) spent on product mix and pricing decisions – surely merchandising teams have to be larger if you have a larger product mix, since each person can only handle a finite workload. Consider the cost of logistics of handling a widely diversified range. Consider the efficiencies lost in diverse production mix. So, does the consumer really need, really even want all that choice?

Retailers like the German chain Aldi raise precisely those questions. Aldi sells about 1,100 SKUs compared to the usual 40,000. And it claims that the typical shopping basket in Aldi’s UK stores is 25% less than competing supermarkets.

Indian retailers, of course, are possibly yet to reach that pain threshold of choice. There are possibly some potentially useful choices that are still missing. But even here, it is well worth taking a hard look at the product offering. With availability levels that can dip as low as 50-60%, it is probably worth asking – what if we dropped XYZ product from our range? Would it really hurt our sales or even our image; or would it help us to focus better on the products that really matter?

If we took our attention away from building such false choices, could the business become more profitable and therefore more sustainable?

The US and European markets are often the source of many a management thought and business model related to consumer products and retail, and of “best practices”.

So, in closing, I should share this question someone asked me recently: “when do you think consumer spending will bounce back in the US?” My first response was, “If only I had a crystal ball”. But the next thought in my mind was what if US consumers actually came to a decision that they had “enough”? What if their excessive consumption was no longer the role model for consumers in emerging economies? What if, instead, the frugal consumers of India and China became the global role model?

What would your business model look like then? Would your corporate be more socially responsible? And would it have a better chance of lasting longer?

For those who are interested in taking this inquiry even further, I can recommend John Naish (“Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More”, 2008), John Lane, Satish Kumar, M. K. Gandhi, Alan Durning (“How Much is Enough?”), or any number of ancient Indian, Chinese, Greek or Roman schools of thought, many of them pigeonholed into “religious” or spiritual categories.

You might also like this video of a talk by Barry Schwartz on Ted.com (below).

Do please share the results of your inquiry with us, too.

Indian Consumer – Really Hard Nut to Crack?

“The Indian consumer is a damn tough customer”, said a senior manager a large retailer in India.

But is it really so?

  • Let’s understand that the Indian consumer is “value conscious” and not “cost conscious”: She’ll buy extra kgs of rice for a discount but not atta (the quality of properly stored rice enhances with time; atta deteriorates …… she knows it). The discount offered should definitely be higher than her “return on capital” involved in buying the inventory (however miniscule the capital involved may be).
  • The Consumer is Smart: If we try to sell him a branded pressure cooker at 15% discount on printed price and he does not buy it, let’s understand that he has done his homework very well; he knows that 25% discount on printed price is available in every local “kitchen shop” that he goes to.
  • Localization is King: Let’s draw some inferences from an old Indian adage “Kos Kos par paani badle chaar kos par baani” (which means, in India “the quality of water changes after every mile and the dialect changes every four miles”). In such a diverse country everyone can’t be served the same way, with the same products – localization holds the key. When you sell Dudhi in Mumbai and Ghiya in Delhi, you are selling the same bottle gourd but the nomenclature is important. Does inventory of srikhand in Delhi and paneer in southern India give any distinctive edge to your retail offer, or should you focus on something that is consumer more locally?

Are we trying to open a simple combination lock (the Indian consumer’s mind) with a complex cryptographic fingerprinting algorithm?

Retailers need to invest in understanding, gauging and benchmarking the local preferences.  They need to be able to react to those preferences in a highly local manner.  And they need to acknowledge that the consumer is an intelligent value-conscious buyer, not a cost-focussed idiot.

That is the magic 3-number combination to the riches of the Indian consuming market.