Contact

Retail in Critical Care – The Impact of COVID-2019

Oil shocks, financial market crashes, localised wars and even medical emergencies like SARS pale when compared to the speed and the scale of the mayhem created by SARS-CoV-2. In recent decades the world has become far more interconnected through travel and trade, so the viral disease – medical and economic – now spreads faster than ever. Airlines carrying business and leisure-travellers have also quickly carried the virus. Businesses benefitting from lower costs and global scale are today infected deeply due to the concentration of manufacturing and trade.

A common defensive action worldwide is the lock-down of cities to slow community transmission (something that, ironically, the World Health Organization was denying as late as mid-January). The Indian government implemented a full-scale 3-week national lockdown from March 25. The suddenness of this decision took most businesses by surprise, but quick action to ensure physical distancing was critical.

Clearly consumer businesses are hit hard. If we stay home, many “needs” disappear; among them entertainment, eating out, and buying products related to socializing. Even grocery shopping drops; when you’re not strolling through the supermarket, the attention is focussed on “needs”, not “wants”. A travel ban means no sales at airport and railway kiosks, but also no commute to the airport and station which, in turn means that the businesses that support taxi drivers’ daily needs are hit.

Responses vary, but cash is king! US retailers have wrangled aid and tax breaks of potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, as part of a US$2 trillion stimulus. A British retailer is filing for administration to avoid threats of legal action, and has asked landlords for a 5-month retail holiday. Several western apparel retailers are cancelling orders, even with plaintive appeals from supplier countries such as Bangladesh and India. In India, large corporate retailers are negotiating rental waivers for the lockdown period or longer. Many retailers are bloated with excess inventory and, with lost weeks of sales, have started cancelling orders with their suppliers citing “force majeure”. Marketing spends have been hit. (As an aside, will “viral marketing” ever be the same?)

On the upside are interesting collaborations and shifts emerging. In the USA, Jo-Ann Stores is supplying fabric and materials to be made up into masks and hospital gowns at retailer Nieman Marcus’ alteration facilities. LVMH is converting its French cosmetics factories into hand sanitizer production units for hospitals, and American distilleries are giving away their alcohol-based solutions. In India, hospitality groups are providing quarantine facilities at their empty hotels. Zomato and Swiggy are partnering to deliver orders booked by both online and offline retailers, who are also partnering between themselves, in an unprecedented wave of coopetition. Ecommerce and home delivery models are getting a totally unexpected boost due to quarantine conditions.

Life-after-lockdown won’t go back to “normal”. People will remain concerned about physical exposure and are unlikely to want to spend long periods of time in crowds, so entertainment venues and restaurants will suffer for several weeks or months even after restrictions are lifted, as will malls and large-format stores where families can spend long periods of time.

The second major concern will be income-insecurity for a large portion of the consuming population. The frequency and value of discretionary purchases – offline and online – will remain subdued for months including entertainment, eating-out and ordering-in, fashion, home and lifestyle products, electronics and durables.

The saving grace is that for a large portion of India, the Dusshera-Deepavali season and weddings provide a huge boost, and that could still float some boats in the second half of this year. Health and wellness related products and services would also benefit, at least in the short term. So 2020 may not be a complete washout.

So, what now?

Retailers and suppliers both need to start seriously questioning whether they are valuable to their customer or a replaceable commodity, and crystallise the value proposition: what is it that the customer values, and why? Business expansion, rationalised in 2009-10, had also started going haywire recently. It is again time to focus on product line viability and store productivity, and be clear-minded about the units to be retained.

Someone once said, never let a good crisis be wasted.

This is a historical turning point. It should be a time of reflection, reinvention, rejuvenation. It would be a shame if we fail to use it to create new life-patterns, social constructs, business models and economic paradigms.

(This article was published in the Financial Express under the headline “As Consumer businesses take a hard hit, time for retailers to reflect and reinvent”

Retail 2020

Remember the year 2000? After Y2K passed safely, that year some optimistic analysts predicted that India’s modern retail chains would reach 20 per cent market share by 2015. Two years after that supposed watershed, another firm declared that modern retail will be at around that level in 2020 – but wait! – only in the top 9 cities in the country. Don’t hold your breath: India surprises; constantly. As many have noted, “predictions are tough, especially about the future!” What we can do is reflect on some of this year’s developments that could play out over the coming year.

In many minds 2019 may be the Year of the Recession, plagued by discounting, but that demand slowdown has brewing for some time now. However, there’s another under-appreciated factor that has been playing out: while small, independent retailers can flex their business investments with variations in demand, modern retail chains need to spread the business throughout the year in order to meet fixed expenses and to manage margins more consistently.

To reduce dependence on festive demand, retailers like Big Bazaar and Reliance have been inventing shopping events like Sabse Sasta Din (Cheapest Day), Sabse Sachi Sale (Most Authentic Sale), Republic Day / 3-Day sale, Independence Day shopping and more for the last few years. In ecommerce, there’s the Amazon’s Freedom Sale, Prime Day, and Great India Festival, and Flipkart’s Big Billion Day Sale. This year retailers and brands went overboard with Black Friday sale, a shopping-event concept from the 1950s in the USA linked to a harvest celebration marked by European colonisers of North America. (The fact that Black Friday has a totally different connotation in India since the terrorist bombings in Bombay in 1993 seems to have completely escaped the attention of brands, retailers and advertising agencies.) Be that as it may, we can only expect more such invented and imported events to pepper the retail calendar, to drive footfall and sales. The consumer has been successfully converted to a value-seeking man-eater fed on a diet of deals and discounts. With no big-bang economic stimuli domestically and a sputtering global economy, we should just get used to the idea of not fireworks but slow-burning oil lamps and sprinklings of flowers and colour through the year. Retailers will just have to work that much harder to keep the lamps from sputtering.

Ecommerce companies have been in operating for 20 years now, but the Indian consumer still mostly prefers a hands-on experience. The lack of trust is a huge factor, built on the back of inconsistency of products and services. The one segment that has been receiving a lot of love, attention and money this year (and will grow in 2020) is food and grocery, since it is the largest chunk of the consumption basket. Beyond the incumbents – Grofers, Big Basket, MilkBasket and the likes – now Walmart-Flipkart and Amazon are going hard at it, and Reliance has also jumped in. Remember, though, that selling groceries online is as old as the first dot-com boom in India. E-grocers still struggle to create a habit among their customers that would give them regular and remunerative transactions, and they also need to tackle supply-side challenges. Average transactions remain small, demand remains fragmented, and supply chain issues continue to be troublesome. Most e-grocers are ending up depending on a relatively narrow band of consumers in a handful of cities.  The generation that is comfortable with an ever-present screen is not yet large enough to tilt the scales towards non-store shopping and convenience isn’t the biggest driver for the rest, so, for a while it’ll remain a bumpy, painful, unprofitable road.

Where we will see rapid pick-up is social commerce, both in terms of referral networks as well as using social networks to create niche entrepreneurial businesses – 2020 should be a good year for social commerce, including a mix of online platforms, social media apps as well as offline community markets. However, western or East Asia models won’t be replicated as the Indian market is significantly lower in average incomes, and way more fragmented.

As a closing thought, I’ll mention a sector that I’ve been involved with (for far too long): fashion. In the last 8-10 decades, globally fashion has become an industry living off artificially-generated expiry dates. A challenge that I have extended to many in the industry, and this year publicly at a conference: if consumption falls to half in the next five years, and you still have to run a profitable business (obviously!), how would you do it? Plenty of clues lie in India – we epitomise the future consumers; frugal, value-seeking, wanting the latest and the best but not fearful about missing out the newest design, because it will just be there a few weeks later at a discount. If you can crack that customer base and turn a profit, you would be well set for the next decade or so.

(Published as a year-end perspective in the Financial Express.)

Retail 2.019: Navigating by Customer Experience

Do you have this feeling that 2018 went by a little too quickly? Well, however quick it seemed, it was certainly momentous for retail in India.

If 2016 was marked by the shock of demonetization, and 2017 by the pains of GST implementation, 2018 highlighted two threads – the obvious convergence of the online and offline world that had been ignored for far too long, and the interest of foreign capital in India’s consumer world.

Walmart bought India’s loss-making ecommerce leader for an eye-popping US$ 20.8 billion valuation, while ecommerce giant Amazon injecting equity into Shoppers Stop, bought Aditya Birla’s More grocery chain (49 per cent through a back-end entity), and held discussions with Future Group to acquire 9.5 per cent in Future Retail. There were rumours of a mega joint venture between Reliance Retail and China’s Alibaba, and media also reported Japan’s Softbank looking at ploughing US$200 million into Firstcry. Both rivals Amazon and Alibaba were reported to be looking at Spencer’s, one of India’s oldest retail chains currently owned by the RP-Sanjiv Goenka group.

Videos of the crush of curious crowds at India’s first, much anticipated Ikea went viral, and the company said it planned to open 40 locations over the next few years, upping its earlier projection of 25. Chinese retailer Miniso basically came out of nowhere and claimed to have clocked sales of ?700 crores in the very first year in the country.

But along with these cross-border “big bangs” we saw domestic confidence also quietly resurging. Indian retailers are not cowering before large foreign retailers and expensive ecommerce advertising splashes; today they are less defensive about their own prospects than they were two years ago. There is also a growing interest among entrepreneurs and corporates to create new retail businesses, which augers well for the diversity of competition and freshness of offerings in the market.

Going into 2019, one thing I can say with certainty is that the weather, economic and political – both in India and elsewhere – will be unpredictable, and might even turn stormy. Externally, retailers should “expect the unexpected”. To ensure that the business remains on track, however rough the track becomes, retailers must centre all major strategies and decisions on the customer. A theme that has been around for centuries, it is surprising how much it gets ignored in this most customer-facing business.

Retailers tend to divide customers into rigid segments. My suggestion would be to look at customers through the behaviour and experience lens and also recognise that the same customer behaves differently at different times and in different contexts – in effect there are no hard boundaries between “segments”.

It is often emphasised is that Indian consumers are “deal-seeking”. I don’t think we should treat this as a uniquely Indian thing: all consumers look for value-reassurance in unpredictable times and in uncertain conditions. Also remember that even in value-seeking, experience still rules. Retailers and brands that are solely focussing on price or price+feature comparisons are turning their business into a commodity. They are missing the long game: of defining the customer’s experience from the first moment of brand contact to the purchase and beyond.

In 2019, if you want to focus on a single competitive strategy, it would be this: for stickiness and sustainability, think about the customer’s experience, and actively design it, in every environment where the customer connects with you.

Lastly, technology is transformative, but tends to get restricted to being the contrast between ecommerce and physical retail. Indian retailers need to embrace technology in all forms, from using the zillions of transactions within the business and with the customer for developing actionable knowledge, to automating processes where unnecessary cost or time makes the business inefficient.

Having said that, keep the previous rule in mind when deploying at customer-facing technology – make customer-interfacing technology as invisible or intuitive as possible. When in doubt, learn from one of the leaders in the sector, Amazon: its 1-click ordering patent 20 years ago gave it a huge advantage over competitors, and it is now aiming to replicate the same seamless, friction-free behaviour physically with its Dash button. Or pick cues even from younger fashion businesses like Rebecca Minkoff, whose focus is on ease and convenience. The key reason for adopting technology is to remove friction for the customer and for processes that serve the customer.

I have no doubt that 2019 will be eventful – let the customer experience be the guiding light to keep our businesses off the rocks and afloat.

(Published in the Financial Express on 4 January 2019, under the title “Retail in 2019: Need for stronger brand-customer connections that go beyond purchase“)

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

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.

Golden Geese, Steel Safes

(Contributed to the BusinessWorld cover story – “What 2 Expect in 2010”, issue of January 4, 2010)

Everything that can be said and assumed about the Indian market is true at some level of granularity. Very simply, in India there is a segment for every product, an opportunity for every service, be it ever so small. But when bubbles are bursting all over, as the Noughties Decade comes to a close, the puzzle that is Indian consumer market also warrants a fresh look.

For most of the Noughties Decade India has seen Generation-C, the “Choice” generation, coming of age. They have moved over from being “secondary customers” consuming off their parents’ incomes, to entering the work-force and becoming customers in their own right.

It may sound trite, but Gen-C customers have grown up with many models of 2-wheelers and 4-wheelers and colour television with multiple channels. They have many more career options and many more opportunities in each career. Not only have they grown up on a diet of choice, they have also grown up with much higher confidence about the future, about their place in the world and what they can expect. And they have infected the outlook of generations older than them as well with a similar confidence.

Therefore, for most of the decade, it has been a distinctly rosy picture for consumer goods marketers and retailers. Business plans routinely expected 20-50% annualised growth, and businesses even delivered those figures on some basis or the other. Organizations as diverse as retailers and management consultants were inspired by India’s age-old image as the Bird of Gold. Supermarket chains mushroomed like never before, department stores and speciality retailers grew their footprints, quick-service and casual dining expanded covers, while electronics, durables, leisure companies, and car brands all counted India among their hottest markets.

Product off-take reflected this outlook. Amongst the FMCG sector, while basic items such as the bath and shower segment demonstrated a steady annualised growth of about 7%, premium cosmetics galloped at almost 20% a year. While the relatively mature 2-wheeler market grew at just over 7.5% annually between 2002-03 and 2008-09, the 4-wheeler passenger vehicle market demonstrated growth of almost 14% a year in the same period.

All this was before the recent rude interruption.

A speed-breaker began showing up in the consumer market in late-2007 and grew larger through 2008. Once the global financial markets melted down in late-2008, media sentiment turned acutely negative about the Indian market as well. And, eventually, with uncertainty prevailing around the world, consumer spending in India did take a hit. Consumers cut back on the frequency of purchases or traded down.

On the trade side, retail businesses began acknowledging that stores were performing below plan and went into rationalisation mode. For branded suppliers, where some of the growth had come from stuffing the pipeline and filling new shelves, wholesale order books became thinner.

Yet, as painful as the economic scenario might have appeared, the Indian consumer market has shown remarkable resilience. Demand in smaller cities and towns has remained robust. Regional brands, especially, found plenty of opportunity to grow in markets and geographical regions where they were under-penetrated or absent.

And as the mood lifted through the latter half of 2009, consumer demand clearly moved back up. The speed at which the demand rebounded would suggest that the Indian market was relatively sheltered from the global economic storm.

However, there are some critical differences to understand.

On the one hand, Gen-C’s confidence shook for the first time – a generation that has only seen upward mobility, witnessed job cuts and salary freezes or declines even if only second-hand. Comparisons with the Great Depression may be exaggerated but it is a scenario they can now imagine as a possibility. At least three new professional academic batches have or will have moved into the job market under these sober conditions. On the other hand, tremendous inflation in basic costs supports some amount of uncertainty about the future. The fact that many of the Gen-C would have just begun or would be about to begin families serves to only heighten such anxiety.

So, let’s recognise two immutable facts about the Indian consumer market in the current environment.

First: that the ancestral “steel safes” are back, at least figuratively if not literally. Customers do want to save more for now. And if they are spending, they want to feel that they are extracting far more value than the price they are exchanging across the counter, value that will last long after the transaction at the store. In recent years, this inherent ‘value orientation’ of the Indian consumer was neglected by many. Now every product, service or brand must aim to deliver this sustainable value, and demonstrate the value repeatedly.

Secondly, each business needs to look at the lifetime value of a customer if it can. Rather than cutting the golden bird open and trying to extract all the golden eggs at once, one needs need to keep the bird well-fed, happy and healthy, and enjoy its rewards over several years. Rather than creaming the market, pricing, branding and distribution need to be structured for a sustainable relationship with the customer.

Some businesses will work better than others in this market, and strategies will need to be adapted. A lifecycle approach may handy in identifying the business segments which might meet the steel safe criterion, or the golden goose criterion, or both.

The first segment that comes to mind is weddings. Wedding expenditure is seen as a “social investment” for both the families, and the actual items bought are an investment into the couple’s future together. So, bridal trousseaux and wedding wardrobes, wedding arrangers and catering, and household goods provide significantly more tangible and intangible value than the money spent.

Similarly, “first child” isn’t usually a segment in any marketing handbook, but should be. The couple’s first born, especially if the baby is the first in its generation will usually get a disproportionate amount of attention and spending on clothing and utilities. A baby’s growth into a child, of course, can provide a relationship and marketing opportunity that can last for years, but the first 2-3 years are specifically valuable. What’s more, given India’s demographic dividend in the form of a sustained under-30 age group, baby products have a sustained and growing value as a market.

As the child grows, there are clear indicators of current and future value that can drive purchases. While base schooling is an essential expenditure, extra-classes and tuitions are a high-value discretionary investment that parents are choosing to make. Sports, on the other hand, however essential they may be to a child’s development are often seen as a distraction. That is, unless the child is attending sports coaching and the parents have an eye on helping the child create a career from it – in which case, a coach who is apparently good, branded equipment and kit are definitely worth investing in. So a cricket coaching franchise might just be the ticket to fortune, while a toy company may struggle. Some may decry the decline in art, craft, philosophy and fundamental sciences, but these are not on the list of priority of most parents. In the short to medium term, parents would continue to disproportionately push their wards into academic disciplines that are seen to develop marketable skills and pay well. Expect continued growth in the engineering, medical and management education market, but also in other vocational disciplines.

On the other hand, everything is not an investment for the future. Present comforts may also provide extra value, through convenience.

Some of these comforts may be as small as enjoying out-of-home exotic meals (pizza and pasta still qualify as exotic for the bulk of the population). Or if eating out looks out of budget, ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook meals are an easy substitute. Jubilant, Yum, McDonald’s, Haldiram, Sarvana’s, Nirula’s and the thousands of other casual dining and snack food chains have a long clear highway of growth ahead, as do snacks and packaged food companies such as Nestle, Britannia and ITC.

Brown goods and white goods that offer comfort and convenience – coolers, water heaters, convectors, air-conditioners and kitchen gadgets – continue their onward march, despite the huge shortfall in electricity. Even if the big brands struggle with their price points and overheads, regional brands and private labels will continue growing strongly in these segments.

Health is another area for significant investment. With prevalence of lifestyle-ailments, from stiff necks to high blood pressure, basic pharmacists to cardiovascular specialists are all in demand. Anticipate significant growth to continue in over-the-counter medication, medical devices, as well as clinical and hospital care.

At the other end of the scale, with decent and adequate public transport lacking in most cities, we can expect personal vehicles to increase multi-fold, despite the small blip in 2008-09. About 60 million 2-wheelers and over 10 million passenger vehicles have already been added during the decade, and the growth trend looks set to resume from 2010, unless there are significant oil price or vehicle taxation shocks delivered by the government.

And as consumer confidence resurges, more overt displays or personal spends will return as well, including apparel, footwear, home products, accessories, vacations, fitness and recreation, but we would expect them to follow behind the higher priority “safe” or “geese” segments.

Finally, the one thing that marketers in any product need not be really concerned about whether there is a future in this market. Even, Hindustan Unilever, a mature FMCG company with very high distribution penetration built over decades, still counts less than 60% Indians as its customers.

Surely most companies have a much longer road ahead before they need to be worried about their markets becoming saturated.

Supermercado in Houston – Wal-Mart in Spanish

Wal-Mart has just opened a new store Supermercado de Walmart in Houston (Texas). The Houston Chronicle reports that the Supermercado aims to reach out to the Hispanic population, tailoring the foods more to Hispanic tastes and needs and adding signs in Spanish. Wal-Mart is also reportedly planning to open a Mas Club this summer, based on its Sam’s Club warehouse outlet, but focussed again on Hispanic customers. (The original article is here: Wal-Mart gives its Supermercado concept a tryout).

Going by some of the negative comments attracted by the article, it is legitimate to ask: what will Wal-Mart’s existing customers think, and how will they behave?

I guess the answer is clearly not black or white (or beige, red, yellow or brown for that matter).

Wal-Mart is segmenting and localizing its offer as a smart information-rich retailer should.

Some customers who hold a tightly parochial view may feel alienated when they read about this development and may stop shopping at Wal-Mart, but most probably won’t bother as long as their local Wal-Mart continues to deliver what they want at prices they like.

Vibrant societies and economies are true melting pots; rather than exclude, filter and ensure conformity, they imbibe and blend newness. The fact is that real assimilation causes both to change – the ones coming in and the society / geography taking them in – and we have to accept that change often brings some pain with it, as expressed by the reader commenting on Houston Chronicle’s website.

The first waves of European settlers created a change when they started landing in North America 500-odd years ago, and so has every wave of immigrants since – Chinese, Japanese, German, Irish, Italian, Eastern European, Korean, Indian, Caribbean and so on. The first settlers will always be suspicious and exclusive in their approach towards the second set, the second lot of the next and so on.

The wave of economic homogenization driven by the post-war baby boom and infrastructure expansion was possibly one of the largest in recent history (other than the Soviet Union and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which were more political than economic). However, we’ve seen the US market grow in diversity in the last 2-3 decades – not only because of differences due to race or country of origin, but also due to geographic, economic and otherwise cultural differences.

Today many of the diverse segments today in the US are large enough to express their unique needs, and expect them to be fulfilled. While the cookie-cutter approach served well during the years of national expansion across homogenized markets, that approach is counter-productive today. A retailer like Wal-Mart can’t be expected to ignore that fact.

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.)