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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”

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.

Are Your Deals Still in the Fridge?

If you’re like me, then at any given point of time you have a vague idea about what is in your refrigerator, but not quite. That must why we end up buying stuff that duplicates what is already in the fridge.

Here’s an example of what that translates into for me:

  • A second bottle of chilly sauce, when the first one is only half-way through
  • Three semi-consumed jars of jams and preserves, none of which look anywhere near finishing for the next couple of months
  • Three packs of juice because one came “free” with two others (and all open because the family does not coordinate its consumption of flavours!)

At other times, it is the semi-consumed half-loaf of bread that gets trashed half-way through its fossilization process. Or the new flavour of cheese spread, where the price offer may have been tastier than the spread itself.

I sure there will be at least some among you who would have similar stories. (I would be shattered if I’m told that I am the only one with these tales of inadvertent consumption!)

In the normal course, we would not call ourselves excessive consumers. For the most part, we believe we display rational shopping behaviour. We make our lists before leaving for the market and we generally know which shop or shops we want to stop in at. So, why do we end up doubling or trebling our purchases, when we aren’t actively “consuming” double or triple the amount of food?

Well, the lords of marketing spin have mapped their way into our minds. In a strategy that has been proven over centuries, we are offered things ‘free’ or at a significant discount. The very thought of getting something for free, or for less than what it is worth, is so seductive and irresistible.

(As an aside, just look at what has happened during the last few years in the real estate market and the stock market – everyone thought that they were getting a good deal because the stuff was “worth actually more” than the amount they were paying. Not!)

We believe we are being rational in buying the three packs of juice at the price of two – never mind the fact that juice wasn’t on the shopping list in the first place. The danglers and end-caps jump out and ambush us, as we walk through the aisles. The samplers entice in their small voices: “try me”.

You might say that the really traditional kiranawala is the customer’s greatest friend and also a barrier against uncontrolled consumption.

By keeping the merchandise behind the counter or in the back-room, he maintains a healthy distance between the addiction source and all us potential shopaholics. In fact, he goes beyond the call of duty, and even prevents us from stepping anywhere near the merchandise by delivering to our homes.

The enticing deals and offers that you can’t see won’t hurt you. You won’t call to get that new, exciting BOGO (buy one-get one) offer, because you don’t know that it’s there in the store.

Unless, of course, the sneaky brand with its accomplice – the advertising agency – sidesteps him, and puts out the temptation in your morning newspaper.

By now, surely, you’re wondering whose side I am on.

Well, as a consumer and a customer, I am only on one side – mine!

As someone who is intensively involved with the retail sector, I’m also on the side of the brands and the retailers.

And believe me, we are all actually sitting on the same side of the table.

The years in this decade, after the recovery from the minor blip of dot-com busts, have been like one mega party and most people have forgotten that parties seldom last forever. And the morning after the wild party can start with quite a headache.

Retailers and brands have recently acted as if there is no end to multiplier annual growth rates, and consumers have been only to happy to prove them right. Until now.

Currently, we are passing through a fairly serious global economic correction which started in 2007. But it has only really hit hard in the last couple of months, as the headlines have increasingly started talking about recessions and depressions. Naturally, there are some people who have really lost money, others may be looking at the possibility of lower income. But even those people who sustain their current incomes are “feeling poor”, just as they were “feeling wealthy” when the markets were booming.

Of course, superfluous or discretionary expenditure such as movies in multiplexes, eating out etc. are the first to get hit. But should grocery retailers rest easy – after all, people still have to eat, right?

And how about deals, and multi-buy discounts – isn’t this the scenario where “more for less” will be the strategy which will work?

Well, I don’t believe it is quite so cut-and-dried, or quite so simple. The grocery shopping lists will not only become tighter, but will also be more tightly adhered to. Anything that looks like it may be a wasteful expense will be unlikely.

Remember the deals in the fridge? What you are throwing away now starts looking like money being put into the trash.

Pardon the seemingly sexist remark, but men: your wives will not let you get away with driving your trolleys irresponsibly into aisles where you are not supposed to be!

So how should retailers and brands respond?

Well, a good starting point would be to understand what the real market is. Let us not infinitely extrapolate growth figures on a excel spreadsheet on the basis of the early-years of new businesses. Let us not extrapolate national demand numbers from the consumption patterns of select suburbs of Delhi and Mumbai.

When we have the numbers right, let’s look at the business fundamentals at those basic levels of consumption. Is there a viable business model?

Is the business full of productive resources, or are we overstaffed with “cheap Indian labour”?

Is your modern retail business or your food / FMCG brand really providing value to the Indian consumer? For instance, two very senior people from large retail companies were very vocal this last weekend in stating that the value provided by local business to the value-conscious consumer was grossly underestimated by the industry.

I believe that best filter for business plans is the filter of business sustainability. How sustainable is the business over the next few years? What is the real demand? What are the true cost structures, and can these be supported on an inflationary basis year-on-year, or will you be squeezing the vendors for more margin at every stage until the relationship goes into a death spiral?

Let’s look at macro-economics. Are you actively looking at generating and spreading wealth and income around, or is your focus only on stuffing that third pack of juice into the fridge for it to go stale? If your strategy is the latter one then, to my mind, that is neither a sustainable economic model nor a sustainable business.

There’s more about the current and developing economic scenario, “realistic retailing” and other such issues, elsewhere on the Third Eyesight website and blog, including a presentation made at the CII National Retail Summit in November 2006 (download or read as a PDF). (The article based on that presentation is here.)

I really look forward to your thoughts and would welcome a dialogue on how you believe retailers and brands should work through the next few years as we unravel the excesses of the recent past.

Modernizing Retail – An Alternative View

Picture an upper-middle class consumer out shopping groceries in a large, air-conditioned hypermarket after catching the new movie at the mall.

Global best-practice is the standard here. The aisles are wide enough to allow two shopping-carts to pass each other comfortably, and are organized according to product categories. The shelves are neatly ticketed, and the products equipped with bar-codes to allow for quick checkout. The emphasis is clearly on convenience. But (surprise!) the store has apparently underestimated the demand for the conveniently pre-cut and packaged vegetables. The loose vegetables are going untouched, while the pre-cut packs are almost sold out. Looks like another win for modern retailers.

This scenario would seem plausible to most people who have observed or been part of the growth of modern retailing in a market like India.

The “organized retail boom” and “growing consuming class” are consuming miles of newsprint and eons of airtime, while the malls are the gleaming new temples at which every devotee of retail must pay respect. This is the picture of modernization or organization of the Indian retail sector that comes to the mind of most people.

On the other hand, the picture that comes to mind when one thinks about the traditional sabziwala (greengrocer) is a total contrast. A messy side-street, with the push-carts overflowing with an indifferent mix of vegetables, other than the occasional yellow bell pepper or some other such “exotic” produce. Or the typical kirana shop owner scrawling an illegible list of items and figures on a scrap of paper and handing it over as the “bill” for the groceries one has just bought. Surely, a business model that is not going anywhere fast.

So, to most people, the line between modern or “organized” retail and traditional or “unorganized” retail is quite clear, and the differences quite stark. “Organized retail” usually means large, “corporate” stores that personify the so-called “retail revolution” which apparently is about 3-5 years old, while traditional retail business usually means “unorganized” and “belonging to the past” (or at least, soon to belong to the past).

However, a revolution is when the majority starts getting impacted. When only a few create a change that mainly benefits them, it is a coup.

To anyone who has been involved in the retail sector for longer, in fact, there has been a far more interesting, widespread and ongoing change in the retail business over the past couple of decades, and possibly further back. This is not restricted to a few corporate groups. It is not even restricted to the front-end (store-end) of the business.

The change is created by the feedback loop between customer expectation and the minimum acceptable standard of service which is constantly being moved up. Of course, the newly-minted corporate retailers have a role to play in this. But, more than that, it involves many small changes accumulating organically over a period of time involving individual kirana owners, farmers, wholesale traders, market associations, the FMCG companies and even the migrant villager who sets up a hand-cart that may be stocked daily with rolling credit from the money-lender.

And that is my point. The modernization of retail is an ongoing process, and it is sustainable because it is widespread.

In recent Indian retail history, as customers we may identify a point where we saw the local shop shift from stocks in a dingy back-room to being displayed openly, setting the example for other shops in the market.

But the changes needed were not just at the retailer’s end – they also required the wholesale vendor’s approach as well as the FMCG principal’s approach to begin changing.

Certainly a shift occurred in service standards, when vegetable vendors started taking home-delivery orders on mobile phones – impossible without the wider telecom price-quality revolution. And when credit card swipe machines started appearing in the kirana, something that could have only happened with the support of the banks and their intermediaries.

And the pre-cut packaged vegetables whose demand the hypermarket had underestimated? Well, the sabziwala has that covered as well – beginning with the packs of cleaned baby-corn, this list has now expanded to include pre-shelled green chick-pea (chholiya), cut jackfruit and chopped sarson saag – vegetables that can be quite inconvenient to clean at home when time is scarce.

The impact of this modernization was brought home to me, when I observed a customer reprimanding the local sabziwala for not keeping adequate stock of shelled peas. The interesting aspect was that this was not one-half of an upwardly-mobile DINK couple. The customer here was a domestic helper, whose complaint was that he had many other jobs to get done around the house, and shelling peas was something that was too time-consuming and best “outsourced”!

So, to all those who have the question, “what is the key to succeeding in the Indian retail market”: the key may lie somewhere entirely different from where you have been looking, or the customer-profile that you have been building.

We are surely underestimating the business potential amongst India’s middle and not-so-middle classes – as we would discover if only we were to re-state business objectives and tweak strategy a little bit, and look at the market without high income-tinted glasses.

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.]