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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

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.)

Creating & Managing Lifestyle and Fashion Brands – Third Eyesight Knowledge Series© Workshop – 23 August 2008, New Delhi, India

The Third Eyesight Knowledge Series© comprises of workshops designed and developed to help functional heads, line managers and executives refresh and upgrade functional and product expertise.  

Third Eyesight’s next workshop in this series is focussed on Creating & Managing Lifestyle and Fashion Brands.

 

IS THIS FOR YOU?

This workshop will be useful to you, if you are 

  • a brand owner wanting to look at growing your scale
  • a manufacturer wanting to add value to your products and to gain additional margins
  • a retailer wanting to invest in your own brands / private label
  • a brand manager looking to expand the footprint of your brand over more products
  • an entrepreneur wanting to launch a new brand
  • an investor who wants to understand how brands create value 
  • an exporter or buying office professional wanting to understand your customers and markets better
  • a brand owner and believe that your business is undervalued
  • a designer wanting to scale the business beyond yourself
  • a marketing or sales professional looking to add value to your skill-base
  • a service provider working with the lifestyle and fashion sector
  • a teacher or researcher looking at understanding the process of brand development

THE WORKSHOP CONTENT

This workshop will help participants in understanding:

  • the basics of lifestyle brands and their positioning in the lifestyle consumer goods industry
  • the development of the brand ethos
  • how to translate the brand intangibles into reality,
  • how to attract and retain new customers in the competitive environment, and
  • how to sustain and nurture the brand value over a period of time

REGISTRATIONS

Click Here or Call +91 (124) 4293478 or 4030162

Tippy Tippy Tap – What “product” do you want?

A few days back I met a friend, a mother of a six year old and a primary school teacher by choice (so that she can be “gainfully occupied”!). We exchanged the woes of being a working woman, and she exclaimed that she was planning to begin getting her lunch and dinner organized through a “dabbawala”. This would free up the time spent on “non productive” chores of buying monthly grocery, the weekly veggies and stocking up to spend on “more important” activities in life.

No, she is not necessarily representative of a particular consumer segment, nor can one say at this stage that there is a significant number of such women in our society that “dabbawalas” should sit up and take notice of, who would want to give up the pleasures of browsing, shopping and bargaining and then let go of the appreciation that follows conjuring up the delicious cuisines.

But it is does make one think about how our changing lifestyle and attitudes are changing our needs and wants (and hence the desired products and services).

It makes one want to gaze into the crystal ball and see what promise does the changing social fabric of India hold for the market of products like pre-cut vegetables, or ready to-eat food, what about products like sanitized wipes. What does it mean for the potential of services like that of a qualified nanny or a temporary baby-sitter, or house cleaning services, or professional laundry services or dial-a-cab?

What would you (as a consumer or a marketer) like to add to the wish-list?

DIG To Find Hidden Gold

BOOK REVIEW: HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: Erich Joachimsthaler

In the midst of extensive or frequent civil works, fluorescent high-visibility clothing contributes to the invisibility of the individual, and can serve as a superb disguise. Similarly, in the midst of extensive research and in-depth analyses, basic insights can go unnoticed.

Erich Joachimsthaler has plenty of examples in his book Hidden in Plain Sight to drive home the point that attention to stuff that is not so obvious to competition can lead to brilliant success such as Sony’s growth through innovative products (the WalkmanT, for one) that met unexpressed consumer needs. Conversely, an inability to spot this can bring even the leaders down, illustrated once again by Sony’s loss of leadership in mobile personal entertainment to Apple’s iPod.

The challenge for companies is to uncover the hidden opportunities by looking into their business from the outside rather than the usual inside-outwards view, and by accurately defining the ecosystem of demand. For most management professionals, this will be harder than it seems.

The exercise begins with the question, “Why didn’t we think of that?” This is intended to remind the reader of how the obvious escapes attention as we sink deeper and deeper into complex analysis and in developing ever more complicated scenarios. And Joachimsthaler sets out a framework that he believes can help larger companies to innovate in a structured way.

Of course, the reader may feel differently, and quote George Bernard Shaw who divided the world into two kinds of people, the reasonable and the unreasonable, and credited innovation to the latter. Or one may agree with Henry Ford who, apparently, felt that customers did not really know what they wanted. He is reported to have quipped: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, ‘A faster horse'”

Yes, at the cutting edge, innovation may seem to be more about the innovator’s creative desire to do something different, and less about “meeting customer needs”. Yet, it is the unmet and, more importantly, unexpressed customer needs, that offer the greatest source of competitive advantage.

This is why innovation seems to spring more from small companies, or companies that are started up around a specific idea that is unique or new. In such a small company or a start-up, typically the founder/innovator/inventor is drawn from the same pool as the target customer. Therefore, while they may be addressing a need they feel acutely, the innovators are unconsciously plugged into their customer’s unmet/unexpressed needs. There are seldom any silos; the whole team is generally focussed on the one problem to be solved.

However, as companies grow larger, functional specialisation emerges — division of labour based on skill-set is deemed to be a more efficient way of doing things. The design folk design based on “trends”, the marketing folk market as they know best, and the manufacturing folk produce to specification and the “demand” generated.

With this speciality of skills taking over, there is a growing disconnect between their efforts to dig for insight and the gold that is “hidden in plain sight”. While data is available in abundance, real knowledge is scarce, and insight just gets buried in well-structured processes and hand-offs between functional silos.

This trend has only accelerated in the past 15-20 years with pervasive information technology that enables the mundane operational process to the most strategic. Never before have management teams been so focussed on information and analyses. As businesses grow, data warehousing and data mining are defined as the competitive cutting edge, pushed along by interested parties (including IT solution providers, but that is another book!).

However, in reality, excessive information is increasingly passed off as knowledge. An inward focus on the management team”s own objectives is often disguised as insight gained on the customer or the market. Functional specialists analyse the market, the latent needs and the gaps in their own way, and if the company is lucky to have some generalists, some of those dots get joined to form a more complete picture.

It is in reminding management of this reality that Joachimsthaler’s book provides a tremendous service. It presents a well thought out model named, curiously enough, DIG – short for Demand-First Innovation and Growth. The three elements laid out sequentially begin with a framework for defining the demand landscape, identifying the opportunity space within it, and then creating a strategic blueprint for action.

Joachimsthaler’s process to define the demand landscape requires managers to put themselves in the customer’ shoes – a process demonstrated with examples from Proctor and Gamble and Pepsi”s Frito Lay. Using the customer’s goals, actions, priorities (there’s the “GAP”), needs and frustrations, demand clusters can be developed and filled out with additional research. The strategic fit between these demand clusters and the brand can then feed into the next steps of identifying the opportunity space.

The filters, or lenses, as the author calls them, are the “eye of the customer”, the “eye of the market”; and the “eye of the industry”. At every step, assumptions and presumptions need to be challenged. Using these lenses, the sweet spot or spots and the growth platforms can be identified, and extrapolated into the strategy. On the downside, the book is clearly about a framework, which may have been best detailed in an article, rather than being stretched over a book.

The author does stress at one point that it is not about “brainstorming”, but about structured thinking. However, he seems to do this in a tone that suggests brainstorming as something vaguely distasteful due to the lack of directional structure.

While examples from the companies studied keep the text alive, yet in places one struggles to correlate the examples with the framework. Indeed, there may well be too much structure to this book, and not enough examples of how inter-disciplinary thinking and functioning can actually produce sustained innovation.

Understanding the model itself can be a fairly involved process. The best way to tackle it may be to approach it as a project, and use the DIG framework as a how-to guide for a real problem. If you are a structured, methodical, sequential kind of manager and possibly work in a large company, the book could provide tools to put that thinking to work for innovation in a team. On the other hand, if you are more of a “people person”, you may want to leave this book alone. [For more, here’s the book on Amazon.]

Time to Take Off the Blinkers

When I am at the receiving end of expectations, business plans and such like, of companies that are looking to ride the current retail boom in India, one thing stands out, and scares me the most: the opening slides, paragraphs or pages that are devoted to the “opportunity presented by India’s booming middle class and its rising income”.

In the previous part to this column (“The Case of the Missing Millions“, 27 April 2006), we concluded that for most international companies looking at India, the potential target market was in the region of 18-19 million people, or over 3 million households. When international companies look at the “middle class” they may be looking at annual household incomes adjusted for PPP in the region of US$ 40,000 (Rs. 5 Lakhs, in absolute terms, not adjusted for PPP), and this population number is what appears on the radar.

Clearly, this less than a tenth of the figures around which many new businesses are being launched in the hottest retail market globally (as global comparative studies are stating). 200 million, 300 million – take your pick – they’re all in the mythical range!

So is it time to put out a missing persons alert for the hundreds of millions of so-called “middle class consumers”, on whose back the current retail boom is to be built?

Hang on – the trick is in changing the frame of reference. Let’s first define what the characteristics of the middle class should be.

In my opinion a good starting point is a simple one – look for a segment that is on the middle of the income scale.

Most marketers and their reference guides live in a high-income urban India paradigm (read, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore). Passing out of even a second-tier business school today, starting salaries can easily be over Rs. 20,000 a month. When you get into the middle-management segment, metropolitan salaries in the private sector can easily be Rs. 35,000 – 50,000 a month. This may not sound like much money when you live life from the Delhi-Mumbai-Bangalore paradigm, but trust me, it is still a very large sum of money as you go further down the list of cities and towns in India. In those towns and in semi-urban and rural India, the rupee goes a much longer way.

However, the income scale can be defined subjectively by different people.

So, to this evaluation I would add one other important attribute – this middle segment should be a substantial proportion of the total population. Clearly, a population that is only 2 to 3 per cent of the total is still very much at the narrow tip of the pyramid. We definitely need to move further down the income scale to find the real middle class.

The next annual household income range defined by NCAER is Rs. 2 Lakhs to Rs. 5 Lakhs. Now it starts to get interesting. In this income segment we are talking about approximately 9 million households or a little under 50 million people. An income of Rs. 2 Lakhs (US$ 4,500 in absolute terms) is equivalent to a little over US$ 16,000 by PPP, which is well below middle-class standards in developed economies. However, in India an income of Rs. 16,700 per month brings a number of aspirational and discretionary purchases within reach. This size of population is about the same, or larger, than many countries in Europe and will grow to 70-80 million by the end of the decade.

However, as far as my criterion of significant proportion is concerned, this still doesn’t cut it – we’re still only in the range of 6 per cent of the total population. We need to move further down the income scale, to the Rs. 90,000-200,000 annual household income range.

Bingo!

NCAER identifies this segment as having over 41 million households – that is over 225 million people – about 22 per cent of the total population. Large towns (population of over 500,000) have about 30 per cent of this population, while rural India has about half of this income group.

Earning between Rs. 7,500 a month to over Rs. 16,000 a month, this is the population that, in my opinion, is the real growth engine for the great Indian retail dream. This population has discretionary income, and yet it spends with discretion, if you will pardon the pun. It is a population that is only just beginning to be touched by cashless spending, a population that is beginning to appreciate the comforts and conveniences of modern retail, and its power as a driver of markets. It is possibly more firmly rooted in Indian traditions than aspiring to move to western standards. It is a population that is probably discovering the benefits of investing as much as it is the joys of spending thus reducing the free cash available.

Many brands are ending up planning for the 150-200 million real middle class population, while offering products and prices that are more appropriate for the ersatz “middle-class” of 15-20 million.

Consumer markets are structured around obsolescence, replacement and repeat purchases. If your product fits well within the price-value equation for repeat purchases, you have a winner. If you don’t, then what you get is a bunch of occasional purchases from most of your consumers, with long replacement cycles (or even, no repurchase).

The end result is the sales plateau that is the characteristic of so many brands in India.

If you want to volumes, prepare a product and price offer that makes sense to the real Indian middle class. The small shampoo packs make sense, the “chhota recharge” on the mobile phones makes sense. Does your product?

The missing millions aren’t really missing – they’re just invisible through our Delhi-Mumbai-Bangalore upper income blinkers. It’s time to take off the blinkers.

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