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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“)

One Ring That Rules Them All

In this piece I’ll just focus on one aspect of technology – artificial intelligence or AI – that is likely to shape many aspects of the retail business and the consumer’s experience over the coming years.

To be able to see the scope of its potential all-pervasive impact we need to go beyond our expectations of humanoid robots. We also need to understand that artificial intelligence works on a cycle of several mutually supportive elements that enable learning and adaptation. The terms “big data” and “analytics” have been bandied about a lot, but have had limited impact so far in the retail business because it usually only touches the first two, at most three, of the necessary elements.

Elements in Operationalizing Big Data and AI

“Big data” models still depend on individuals in the business taking decisions and acting based on what is recommended or suggested by the analytics outputs, and these tend to be weak links which break the learning-adaptation chain. Of course, each of these elements can also have AI built in, for refinement over time.

Certainly retailers with a digital (web or mobile) presence are in a better position to use and benefit from AI, but that is no excuse for others to “roll over and die”. I’ll list just a few aspects of the business already being impacted and others that are likely to be in the future.

  1. Know the customer: The most obvious building block is the collection of customer data and teasing out patterns from it. This has been around so long that it is surprising what a small fraction of retailers have an effective customer database. While we live in a world that is increasingly drowning in information, most retailers continue to collect and look at very few data points, and are essentially institutionally “blind” about the customers they are serving.
    However, with digital transactions increasing, and compute and analytical capability steadily become less expensive and more flexible via the cloud, information streams from not only the retailers’ own transactions but multiple sources can be tied together to achieve an ever-better view of the customer’s behaviour.
  2. Prediction and Response: Not only do we expect “intelligence” to identify, categorise and analyse information streaming in from the world better, but to be able to anticipate what might happen and also to respond appropriately.
    Predictive analytics have been around in the retail world for more than a decade, but are still used by remarkably few retailers. At the most basic level, this can take the form of unidirectional reminders and prompts which help to drive sales. Remember the anecdote of Target (USA) sending maternity promotions based on analytics to a young lady whose family was unaware of her pregnancy?
    However, even automated service bots are becoming more common online, that can interact with customers who have queries or problems to address, and will get steadily more sophisticated with time. We are already having conversations with Siri, Google, Alexa and Cortana – why not with the retail store?
  3. Visual and descriptive recognition: We can describe to another human being a shirt or dress that we want or call for something to match an existing garment. Now imagine doing the same with a virtual sales assistant which, powered by image recognition and deep learning, brings forward the appropriate suggestions. Wouldn’t that reduce shopping time and the frustration that goes with the fruitless trawling through hundreds of items?
  4. Augmented and virtual reality: Retailers and brands are already taking tiny steps in this area which I described in another piece a year ago (“Retail Integrated”) so I won’t repeat myself. Augmented reality, supported by AI, can help retail retain its power as an immersive and experiential activity, rather than becoming purely transaction-driven.

On the consumer-side, AI can deliver a far higher degree of personalisation of the experience than has been feasible in the last few decades. While I’ve described different aspects, now see them as layers one built on the other, and imagine the shopping experience you might have as a consumer. If the scenario seems as if it might be from a sci-fi movie, just give it a few years. After all, moving staircases and remote viewing were also fantasy once.

On the business end it potentially offers both flexibility and efficiency, rather than one at the cost of the other. But we’ll have to tackle that area in a separate piece.

(Also published in the Business Standard.)

Hyperlocals, Aggregators: Developing the Ecosystem

Aggregator models and hyperlocal delivery, in theory, have some significant advantages over existing business models.

Unlike an inventory-based model, aggregation is asset-light, allowing rapid building of critical mass. A start-up can tap into existing infrastructure, as a bridge between existing retailers and the consumer. By tapping into fleeting consumption opportunities, the aggregator can actually drive new demand to the retailer in the short term.

A hyperlocal delivery business can concentrate on understanding the nuances of a customer group in a small geographic area and spend its management and financial resources to develop a viable presence more intensively.

However, both business models are typically constrained for margins, especially in categories such as food and grocery. As volume builds up, it’s feasible for the aggregator to transition at least part if not the entire business to an inventory-based model for improved fulfilment and better margins. By doing so the aggregator would, therefore, transition itself to being the retailer.

Customer acquisition has become very expensive over the last couple of years, with marketplaces and online retailers having driven up advertising costs – on top of that, customer stickiness is very low, which means that the platform has to spend similar amounts of money to re-acquire a large chunk of customers for each transaction.

The aggregator model also needs intensive recruitment of supply-side relationships. A key metric for an aggregator’s success is the number of local merchants it can mobilise quickly. After the initial intensive recruitment the merchants need to be equipped to use the platform optimally and also need to be able to handle the demand generated.

Most importantly, the acquisitions on both sides – merchants and customers – need to move in step as they are mutually-reinforcing. If done well, this can provide a higher stickiness with the consumer, which is a significant success outcome.

For all the attention paid to the entry and expansion of multinational retailers and nationwide ecommerce growth, retail remains predominantly a local activity. The differences among customers based on where they live or are located currently and the immediacy of their needs continue to drive diversity of shopping habits and the unpredictability of demand. Services and information based products may be delivered remotely, but with physical products local retailers do still have a better chance of servicing the consumer.

What has been missing on the part of local vendors is the ability to use web technologies to provide access to their customers at a time and in a way that is convenient for the customers. Also, importantly, their visibility and the ability to attract customer footfall has been negatively affected by ecommerce in the last 2 years. With penetration of mobile internet across a variety of income segments, conditions are today far more conducive for highly localised and aggregation-oriented services. So a hyperlocal platform that focusses on creating better visibility for small businesses, and connecting them with customers who have a need for their products and services, is an opportunity that is begging to be addressed.

It is likely that each locality will end up having two strong players: a market leader and a follower. For a hyperlocal to fit into either role, it is critical to rapidly create viability in each location it targets, and – in order to build overall scale and continued attractiveness for investors – quickly move on to replicate the model in another location, and then another. They can become potential acquisition targets for larger ecommerce companies, which could acquire to not only take out potential competition but also to imbibe the learnings and capabilities needed to deal with demand microcosms.

High stake bets are being placed on this table – and some being lost with business closures – but the game is far from being played out yet.

The Relationship between Consumers and Brands

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

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

Shopping Malls – Start-Off on the Right Foot

If you’re planning to develop a mall, here’s a short-list of key issues you must address:

Fail-proof the business plan by focussing on the customer: Focus on the development of retail brands and not solely on quick returns on investment. The primary responsibility should be that of catering to the consumer catchment and driving footfalls for the retail occupants. The other requirements follow from this simple premise. Also, a tenant-unfriendly revenue model that overloads the tenant with a high rent (whether fixed or as a percentage of sales) leads to a churn in tenants, and in combination with other factors, keeps the best tenants out of the mall making it unattractive to customer as well.

Do a thorough recce of the catchment: Ask questions like “can the catchment support the development in terms of consumer footfall and spending?”, “Is there a connect between the needs of the immediate catchment and the occupants of the mall?”, “Are there too many malls in the catchment area?”

Offer a good occupant mix: You cannot have mall occupants who have little relevance for the target consumer. Also, the retailers must complement each other in a healthy way rather than cannibalise customers and sales from each other.

Ensure good access: Accessibility and connectivity to get the traffic smoothly in and out of the mall is a must; ensure there is adequate parking space.

Avoid undersizing: A small-sized is a straight handicap because it will lack variety, and you run the risk of getting dwarfed by the next big mall that throws its hat into the ring. [However, the specific size can vary depending on the state of development of your own catchment.]

Focus on design: This involves making the mall brands ‘visible’, ensuring appropriate ‘zoning’ in terms of entertainment, multiplexes, kids’ areas, food courts etc. This will result in better customer flow management. Bad design and poor customer flow management within the mall leaves large parts of mall “invisible” to visiting consumers, or improper zoning that confuses customers and breaks up the traffic.

Finally, remember, it’s not so much about the “square feet”, as about the feet that will occupy it! Focus on the consumers that you want visiting the mall and why they should return again and again.

Is Retail Design Tone Deaf?

At the outset, let me say that this is the personal complaint of a consumer. However, I’m airing it here because I believe it is also important to the future profitability of our readers’ businesses.

Over the last few years I have felt increasingly uncomfortable with the noise in public and commercial spaces.

It may be that my sensitivity to this has increased with age, but it is a fact that noise levels have also increased dramatically in every urban public space around us. In fact, it has reached a point where I now feel that people involved in the architecture and design are either addicted to noise or, at the very least, completely immune to it.

I can’t think of any other reason why locations such as retail stores, malls, restaurants, large office receptions, and other public spaces are designed and built so badly from the point of view of handling sound.

Fundamentally Unsound

The retail soundscape, if I might call it that, is littered with noisy and uncomfortable spaces. Sound levels in busy restaurants and shopping malls can be as high as 70-110 decibels, which is the equivalent of a busy construction site. Sportswear stores play loud and fast-paced music throughout the day; are they trying to make you believe that you are in a nightclub at 11 a.m.? Internal equipment such as air-conditioning and fans add to noise levels. Restaurants and cafes are worse: noise sources include the kitchen, customers using the crockery and cutlery, chairs moving as people sit or leave, apart from the conversations going on.

For sustained exposure, 80 dB is judged to be the outside limit, and we are frequently exposed to sound levels that are higher than that, for long periods of time.

Unfortunately, it is also a vicious upward spiral of sound. Loudness feed loudness. We all raise our voices when we are competing with the surrounding sounds, and only end up adding to the noise further.

Developers spend millions on picking the right stone, fancy fixtures and creative layouts to make the place “look good”. I don’t remember ever coming across a retail space designer in India who says that the space should “sound good”. Even stores selling high-end audio equipment are badly designed and executed!

I remember sitting in a restaurant belonging to a popular Indian quick service chain after a “modern” redesign. No matter how much I tried, I could not understand a word of what my wife is saying (and that’s not just because we’ve been married for so long!). The reason my wife was inaudible was the high level of ambient noise, echoing from all the hard surfaces around us. What was worse was that I could very clearly hear a stranger who was sitting 5 tables away because the false ceiling had dome that perfectly captured his voice and bounced it across the room to me.

Toning it Down

The most basic thing to remember is this: noise has a negative impact. Not only are the customers uncomfortable, high noise levels actually interfere with the staff’s health and performance. Noise increases physical and mental stress.

What’s more, if conversations are not possible at a normal volume and tone, we have to put in more effort into hearing and understanding what the other person is saying. There comes a point when we just give up. Can you imagine what impact that has on a sale?

Studies have shown that noise can drive sales down by more than 80%. On the positive side, if sound is managed well, sales can rise by more than 1,000%! Isn’t that worth looking into?

A plea to architects and retail managers: do consider the fact that customers coming to the mall expect that space to be qualitatively different from an open market. Making a space noisy is not enough to recreate the feel of an open market – it only means that your space is noisy, and probably worse than an open market will be.

Materials selected for building and fitting out the retail outlet, the mall or the restaurant can have huge implications for how sound is handled in that space. A lot of “modern” design depends on hard, polished, reflective surfaces of stone, glass or metal. The floor, the ceiling and the walls, as well as the fixtures are all surfaces from which sound reflects back into the space, not just once but many times before it dies down. So not only do the sounds get amplified in such a space, the reflections also interfere with each other, adding to the problem.

Not Just the Sounds of Silence

Of course, just making every space a quiet “dead” space is not the answer. Sound and silence affect us positively as well as negatively.

The ancients believed that sound could transform the energy of human beings and their surroundings, and from various base sounds they created “simple” beej mantras to complex Vedic chants. Anyone who has chanted or sung hymns, or even an old peppy film soundtrack knows that sound has the power to affect our moods.

At one extreme, most people are uncomfortable in a heavy engineering factory, or for that matter, a modern shopping centre on a busy weekend, without realising why. At the other end, most people would also be uncomfortable in a recording studio, because it suppresses ambient sound as much as possible, leaving the space “empty”.

In some cases (e.g. a night club, or discount store), sounds need to be louder to ensure that the place “feels” lively, even when it is not full to capacity. In some places our enjoyment is enhanced by noise. Watching a cricket match in a stadium while wearing noise-cancelling headphones would hardly be as much fun. A school playground is “happy” when hundreds of children are running around screaming and shouting at the top of their voices, and “solemn” during a quiet morning assembly.

In some cultures and countries, normal social interaction is “louder” than would be acceptable in others. (For example, a British acquaintance mentioned to me how heavily she felt “the sounds of silence” when she moved back to England, after spending many years in Asia.)

So the key is to first define the ambience and the mood that you want to create in your space. What is the objective: who do you want to attract, who do you want to send away? (For example, operators of public transportation systems have successfully used classical music to drive away loiterers who were undesirable.)

Disney offers an inspiring example of how sound can be used. Over the years they have evolved systems combining sophisticated software and hardware in their amusement parks, such that you can walk through the whole park without the decibel-level changing too much. The music sets the appropriate mood for each specific zone. What’s more, the transitions are smooth as you move between zones.

Not everyone needs the sophistication of a Disney amusement park, but I believe it is worthwhile for most retailers to think about how sound is affecting people in their stores.

I would urge you, at the very least, to look at how it impacts conversations between customers, and between the customer and members of the serving staff, because that will definitely impact sales.

A leading cafe chain proclaims: “A lot can happen over coffee”. Yes, it can; but not if you make conversation impossible.

Try it. Tone it down. You’ll see an upswing in productivity, sales and customer satisfaction.

(Read “How Mr. Q Manufactured Emotion” in the Disney parks, on Dustin Curtis’ blog.)

The e-tailing sunrise, finally?

Amazon went public in 1997, when there were a total of 50 million internet users in the world. I remember making my first purchase on Amazon in 1998, and being delighted at the experience of finding something specific, quickly and conveniently. Over the next few months, a “revolutionary” fashion site in Europe – boo.com – raised and spent more than US$ 100 million of venture funding, and heralded a world under the domination of dotcoms.

A few short months later, chatting with a journalist in New Delhi, I found that India too had caught the dotcom bug. We weighed the pros and cons of retail on the internet in India. The previous year, ecommerce sites in India were estimated to have transacted all of Rs. 120-160 million (US$ 2.7-3.7 million) worth of business, but the figure looked set to explode.

I felt then that while the growth could be rapid, even exponential over the next few years, the outcome would still be a very small fraction of the total retail business in the country. We estimated that by 2005 e-commerce in India could be anywhere between Rs 5 billion and Rs. 15 billion on a best case scenario. Despite several apparent advantages in the online business model, the outcome depended on a variety of factors including internet penetration, the appearance of value-propositions that were meaningful to Indian consumers, investments in fulfilment infrastructure and the development of payment infrastructure.

In fact, by the middle of the decade the business had reached just under halfway on that scale, at about Rs 8-9 billion (US$ 180-200 million), despite 25 million Indians being online. Dotcoms became labelled dot-cons, with an estimated 1,000 companies closing down. The retail business discovered a new darling – shopping centres – which pulled funding away for another explosion, that of physical retail space.

The Second Coming

Today, though, dotcoms seem to be back with a vengeance.

The Indian e-commerce sector has received more than US$ 200 million investment in the last couple of years. Now India’s Amazon-wannabe Flipkart alone is looking to raise approximately that amount of money from private equity funds in the next few months, to push forward its aggressive growth plan.

Estimates for internet users in India vary between 80 million and 100 million, and the total business transacted online is projected to cross Rs 465 billion (US$ 10 billion). Online, the Indian consumer seems spoilt for choice, with offers ranging from cheap watches, expensive jewellery, speciality footwear, premium fashionwear, the latest books to feed the intellect, and organic foods to satisfy the body.

However, a closer analysis shows that product sales (or “e-tailing”) are still straggling, being forecast at about Rs. 27 billion (around US$ 550 million) in 2011, which would be merely 6 per cent of all e-commerce, and just about 0.1 per cent of the estimated total retail market. 80 per cent of the business remains travel related, with airline and railway bookings taking the lion’s share, and most of the rest is made up of services that can be delivered online.

The success of online travel bookings shows that the consumer is increasingly comfortable spending online. While a low credit card penetration remains a barrier in India, websites and payment gateways have created alternative methods that give the consumer a higher degree of confidence, including one-time cards through net-banking, direct debits from bank accounts, mobile payments, and, if all else fails, cash on delivery.

An e-tailing presence offers “timeless” access without physical boundaries. For a retail business, reducing and replacing the cost of running multiple stores, with their heavy overheads (rent and store salaries being the largest chunks) seems like a dream come true.

Similarly, merchandise planning and forecasting is typically fraught with error and multiple stores only compound the problem. An internet presence can minimise the number of inventory-holding points, thus reducing the error margins significantly. These factors should, in theory, make the online business more efficient and the value proposition more compelling for the consumer.

Then why isn’t e-tailing growing faster?

Barriers to Growth

The answer is that, while the online population is bigger and payment is no longer the hurdle that it once was, there are two other critical factors that have changed only marginally and incrementally over the years: the consistency of products and how effectively orders are fulfilled. With an airline or a train ticket, one has a reasonable idea of the product or service that will be delivered. Unfortunately this isn’t true of the online merchandise trade, which is plagued by poor products, poor service and, as a result, low consumer confidence.

Individual companies, of course, are spending a large amount of management effort as well as money, to ensure consistency. For instance, the team at Exclusively.in told us how they fretted over design, (including the thread and the number of stitches in the embroidered logo on the T-shirts) to ensure that the final product had a “rich” feel and to ensure that their product in quality to some of the most desirable brands in the market. Flipkart highlights its in-house logistics operations to ensure high service levels, in addition to using traditional courier and postal services.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that the consumer’s confidence can only be built over a period of time, by constantly providing consistent product quality and high levels of service. Businesses need to spend a few years before they achieve a “critical mass” in this area.

This issue of confidence is more of a problem in some products, due to their very nature. For instance, buying fashion and accessories online is very different from buying a book online.

Businesses such as Amazon have made it more convenient for the customer to search for books, compare them with others on the same subject, and read reviews before finally deciding to buy the book. But, even more importantly, they now also allow us to preview some of the pages or sections, so that we can do what we do in a bookshop – flip through the text, to get a sense of whether the book actually speaks to us. However, when we think of putting fashion products online, the problem that immediately comes to mind is that there is no effective way yet of the consumer getting a similar touch-feel experience. Avatars and virtual placement are a poor substitute to holding the product and physically placing it on oneself.

Accessories – such as jewellery and watches – are an easier sell than clothing and footwear, and if we could classify mobile phones and other electronic items also as “fashion accessories”, then we can declare the online accessory market a runaway hit. As long as the product quality and the accuracy of the picture depicting the product are high or consistent with the offer, it is the pricing and convenience that will drive business growth online, and the business can benefit from all the efficiencies inherent in the online model.

However, with clothing and footwear two major concerns remain: sizing and fit. For the answer to why this is so, we need to remember the fact that these are indeed two separate barriers. There are usually anywhere between three to six sizes options in any product, sometimes more (especially if you account for half-sizes in shoes). This translates into 3-6 times the complexity of managing inventory and, at the very least, doubles the possibility of returns (since customers may order multiple sizes to discover one that fits them). However, the other aspect is perhaps even more important and a bigger problem: fit also depends on styling, not just the size. We know from our own experiences in buying clothing and shoes that the same size in two different products does not mean that they will fit in a similar manner. This is less acute for clothing, especially products such as T-shirts, shirts and blouses which may have some allowance around the body, but is absolutely critical for shoes, which must fit close to the feet.

The American online shoe retailer Zappos – also owned by Amazon now – has found a way to overcome this barrier by offering free shipping both ways (i.e. for delivery to the customer and for any products that need to be returned), a 365 day return policy and a process whose final objective is customer-delight. As long as the product is in the same condition as it was when it was first delivered to the customer, Zappos accepts returns at no cost to the customer.

On the other hand, Indian sites Bestylish.com and Yebhi.com (also now owner of Bigshoebazaar.com) have different policies to deal with returns, but both are less flexible and less customer-friendly than the Zappos policy mentioned above.

I’m sure the Indian websites have sound commercial principles and clear strategic reasons for structuring their policies as they have, but it certainly presents a significant barrier to customers who may be debating whether to buy shoes online or buy offline after trying the shoes on. Unfortunately, the convenience factor is just not a big enough driver yet to overcome the fit barrier for most customers.

Among other products, the food and grocery category stands out as having the largest chunk of the consumer’s wallet. However, selling this electronically is a challenge, especially since the biggest driver of purchase frequency is fresh produce that is tough to handle even in conventional retail stores in India, let alone via non-store environments.

However, grocery retailers could ride on the back of standardised products, if they can overcome the challenge of delivering efficiently and quickly.

Another barrier is the desirability of shopping online versus offline. Management pundits may borrow Powerpoint slides from their western counterparts, describing “time-poor and cash-rich” customers for whom the internet is the most logical shopping source. This holds true for a small base of Indian consumers, but for most people product-shopping remains predominantly a high-touch activity and a social experience to be enjoyed with friends and family. In spite of the inconvenience related to driving and parking conditions, the pleasure of walking into a physical store has not diminished. If anything, during the last five years the “retail theatre” has become capable of attracting more customers with better stores and better shopping infrastructure. The convenience of shopping online is just not compelling enough for most of India’s consumers.

Emerging Opportunities

On the plus-side, consumers located in the smaller Indian cities, with less access to many of the traditional brand stores, are finding the online channel a useful alternative. However, fulfilling these orders in a timely and cost-effective manner remains a challenge for most companies.

One potential growth area is the “clicks and bricks” combination for existing retailers. Indeed, worldwide, leading retailers have moved on from multichannel strategies to being “omnichannel” – present in every location, format or occasion where their consumer can possibly be reached. Many of the chains in India have gained the trust and goodwill needed to tip the customer over to online shopping. However, for them the challenge would be to ensure that the internet presence is designed for an excellent user experience and serviced in a dedicated manner, just as any flagship store would, rather than as an online afterthought.

Retailers who have achieved a high degree of penetration and consumer confidence can also use a combination of “sell online, service offline” in locations where they have critical mass, as first demonstrated successfully by Tesco in the UK.

Delivery-oriented food services are a potential winner for consumers in urban centres in India who are pressed for time, again on the back of standardised service and product offerings, and their existing delivery mechanisms. For instance, quick-service major Domino’s, which hits 400 outlets this year, already has 10% of its annual sales coming from internet orders within just a year of launching the service, and that share is expected to double in the next year. What’s more, the online orders are reported to be of higher value than its other delivery orders. All in all, a phenomenal shift for the brand that promises delivery within “30 minutes or free”.

There is no doubt that e-tailing will grow in India. The confluence of increasing incomes, a growing online population, improving connectivity, and more businesses starting up on the net will lead to what would be “stupendous” year-on-year growth figures. We can expect the e-tailing revenues to be between Rs. 50 billion and Rs. 80 billion by 2015.

However, we need to remember that this will still be a very small share in the total pie, because the rest of the retail business is evolving and growing rapidly as well. Costs of acquiring and retaining customers will remain high and only increase, cost-effective fulfilment and high service levels will continue to worry most players. Per capita spends are also not going to be helped by discount-driven websites.

It is not a false dawn for e-tailing in India but, to my mind, the sun is as yet below the horizon despite the recent sky-high venture valuations.

Teams that are building for an exit must remember: most are likely to never achieve one. If you are losing money on every transaction, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future, there is no future. Entrepreneurs and investors who are being over-enthusiastic and blithely ignoring the real costs of doing business may be in for their darkest hour.

However, those who are careful in tending to their flickering flames and have a longer term view of remaining in the business, may get to see their own e-tailing sunrise in the next few years.

(Updated in November 2011.)

Local Chains

The world’s largest retailer earned bouquets as well as a few brickbats when it recently opened a Hispanic version of its large store format, named Supermercado de Walmart. The signs around the store are in Spanish as well as English, selling traditional Mexican national brands as well as traditional Hispanic food like tacos, tortas, aguas frescas, sopes, carnitas and barbacoa at the chain’s customary low prices. 

The surprise, if any, was that this store was not in a city in Mexico but in Houston, Texas, USA.

Wal-Mart’s logic behind the format is that it would be more relevant to the heavily-Hispanic population in the catchment of the store in Houston, and that it was a natural evolution to what they had been doing for years. 

However, some customers and observers do not agree. Quite a number of people are up in arms against this “pandering to immigrants”, which they see as a threat to the unity, homogeneity and identity of the United States of America. One internet commentator condemned this segregation with a rather unique view, saying that segregating customers like this was actually “racist” and belittled the Hispanic customers who live in that area.

We should probably wait for the dust to settle on this debate. Spanish-speaking customers may actually respond positively – or not – to this new format. Yes, some defensive or aggravated English-speaking customers may also boycott Wal-Mart over this move. 

As for me, I believe that it is a good move for Wal-Mart to test how far customization can help their business and how finely they can tune their response to customer demands, because they will need all the learnings they can get to effectively tackle markets that are even more different around the world.

Of course, many retailers and marketers in a market such as India would be puzzled by all this fuss. After all, if a Chennai-based company opened stores in Maharashtra, it wouldn’t put up signs in Tamil, neither would a Punjab-based retailer expect its customers in Imphal to understand promotions in Punjabi. Fragmentation and customization is a fact of life to the Indian retailer.

Or is it really that clear? 

In fact, India has its share of marketers who seem to think and plan mainly in upper income metropolitan-English, and this bias creeps in not only in the content and structure of promotions but also, unfortunately, influences the merchandise mix. Even while PowerPoint presentations are made about how diverse the country is, and how it is possibly more like many countries rolled into one, we often make use of cookie-cutters for designing our product plan, our marketing strategy and everything else that defines the retail store and the customer experience. 

Now, before I am labelled unfair for making sweeping generalizations, let me also say that other than any such urban English bias, there are also another couple of reasons why a retailer may take a template-based or cookie-cutter approach to the market.

Firstly, if you’re launching a new retail chain, there is a need to derive efficiency by driving scale as quickly as possible. Repeating the product formula across locations allows a retailer to increase the impact of merchandising efforts in terms of additional margins due to volume margin terms and better negotiating power with the supplier. Also, the management effort is used in a much more focussed manner, lowering effective management costs.

Secondly, there is the need to demonstrate a consistent image across the entire footprint of the chain, and to appear to be a chain. Repeating the product and presentation formula reinforces the common image and branding.

However, the pertinent question is whether there is any point in following a consistent identity if it appears alien and irrelevant to most of your target customers? In a category such as grocery, where the customer don’t really shop across multiple stores in a chain, is it better to be locally relevant rather than consistent across the country or even a region? Clearly, if you have a national or international template that is locally irrelevant, you don’t have any chance of succeeding with the consumer. 

On the other hand, is it really organisationally possible for a chain-store to be local, and if so how can it best strike the balance between chain-wide consistency and tweaking the offer to provide local focus? 

To my mind the starting point is the definition of an identity based on a clear value proposition and operating principles. This includes a range of factors from the visual elements of branding to how the staff stack shelves or interact with the customer. 

The next step is to make the merchandise locally relevant, because that is what creates the transaction. The answer to “how much local” would also provide the answer to “how the locally-relevant merchandise should be managed”. Organisational models could range from entirely centrally-managed local merchandise and data-driven decisions, to central management of range architecture and purchases but local pull-based replenishment, to outright purchase from local vendors by the specific store’s management to create a truly local store. 

Of course, devolving range and purchase decisions to local management raises issues about maintaining control as well. To a certain extent processes and system can help to mitigate the risk of fragmentation of the identity or potential mismanagement. 

But the strongest glue is culture, as the manifestation of the organisational identity. Culture defines most strongly “the way” the organisation works. 

Imagine the business as an individual with a well-defined personality. In different cities that individual might speak different languages and dress in different clothes, but still express the same values.

With a well defined and well expressed organisational personality, localisation can occur without fear of corruption of the brand identity, consistency and controls. Then the chain-store can truly become a local store and part of the consumer’s life as it is.

The other choice, of course, is to wait for a significant part of the local consumer to adapt to your international or national template. Would you be prepared for that?

Brand Immortality and Reincarnation

The entertainment business suggests that nostalgia is a very powerful driver of profit.

It is quite clear that retro is “in”. The movie business worldwide is full of sequels, prequels, re-releases and remakes. The music business is ringing up the cash registers with remixes and jukebox compilations.  Star Wars and Sholay still have a fan following. ABBA has leaped across three decades, Hindi film songs from 30-60 years ago have been given a skin-uplift by American hip-hop artists, while Pink Floyd is hot with Indian teens along with Akon and Rihanna.

As copyright restrictions are removed from the works of authors long-gone, the market gets flooded with several reprints of their most popular writings. Of course, we know that classic literature survives not just a few years but even thousands of years. Examples include the still widely-read 2,500-year-old Indian epic Ramayana by Valmiki, the Greek philosophers’ works that continue to be popular after two millennia and the Norse legends that have been told and re-told for over a thousand years.  Spiritual and religious leaders’ writings are also recycled into the guaranteed market of their followers and possible converts for a long time after their passing away.

On the other hand, the basic premise of today’s fashion and lifestyle businesses is that silhouettes, colours and design-cues will become (or be made) obsolete within a few weeks or a few months, and will be replaced with new ones.   This principle is true not just of clothing and footwear, but is applied to home furnishings, furniture, white goods, electronics, mobile phones and even cars.  In fact, the fashion business (as it exists) would find it impossible to survive if customers around the world chose only classics which could be used for as long as the product lasted in usable form.

What Fashionability Means for Brands

Other than individual styles or products falling out of favour, as fashions move and as the market changes, it is evident that some brands also become less acceptable, are seen as “outdated” and may also die out as they lose their customer base.

Of course, that some brands become classics is quite apparent, especially in the luxury segment where brands such as Bulgari have survived several generations of consumers, and continue to thrive.

However, the past is of relevance to the fashion sector because, other than planned or forced obsolescence, the fashion business has also long worked on another principle – that trends are cyclical.

Skirts go up and down, ties change their width, and the colour palette moves through evolution across the years.  A style formula that was popular in the summer of a year in the 1970s might be just right in another summer in the first decade of the 21st century.

So, the question that comes up is whether the same logic that is applicable to individual products, styles and trends, could also be applied to brands.

The answer to whether apparently weak, dead or dying brands could be brought back to life is provided by brands such as Burberry’s, Lee Cooper and Hush Puppies.  Sometimes innovative consumers create the opportunity – as with Hush Puppies in the 1980s – while in other cases (such as Burberry’s, Volkswagen’s Beetle, or Harley Davidson), vision, concerted effort and resources can make the brand attractive again.

The question then is not whether brands can be relaunched – they can. The more important question for brand owners is: should a brand be relaunched. And using the logic of the fashion business, rather than being left to linger and then dying a painful death, could brands be consciously phased-out and later brought back into the market as the trends change?

The Brand Portfolio – Diversifying Opportunities and Risks

These questions are particularly important for large companies, or in times when market growth rates are slow, or when the market is fragmented. Organic growth can be difficult in all these scenarios, and companies begin to look at developing “portfolios” by acquiring other businesses and brands, or by launching multiple brands of their own.

The car industry worldwide has lived with brand portfolio management for long. Even as companies have merged with and acquired each other, the various marques have been retained and sometimes even dead ones have been revived.  The companies generally focus the brands in their portfolio on distinct customer segments and needs (such as Ford’s ownership of “Ford”, “Volvo” and “Jaguar”, or General Motors with its multiple brands), and then further play with models and product variants within those.  When things go right portfolio strategies can be quite profitable, but the mistakes are especially expensive. Sensible and sensitive management of the portfolio is absolutely critical.

In the fashion and lifestyle sector, the players who already follow a portfolio strategy are as diverse as the luxury group LVMH, mainstream fashion groups like Liz Claiborne (with brands in its portfolio including Liz Claiborne, Mexx, Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand Jeans) and LimitedBrands (Limited, Victoria’s Secret, La Senza etc.), retailers such as Marks & Spencer (with its original St. Michael’s brand having given way to “Your M&S”, and also Per Una) and Chico’s (Chico’s, White House | Black Market, and Soma Intimates) who wish to capture new customer segments or re-capture lost customers.  Some of these companies have launched new brands, some have relaunched their own brands, and some have even acquired competing brands.

The issue is also relevant to the Indian market, whether we consider Reliance’s revival of Vimal, the new brand ambassador for Mayur Suitings, or the PE-funded take over of Weekender.  As the market begins evolving into significantly large differentiated segments, branding opportunities grow, and so will activity related to existing or old brands being resurrected and refreshed. An additional twist is provided by Indian corporate groups such as Reliance, Future (Pantaloons) and Arvind that are looking to partner international and Indian brands, or grow private labels to gain additional sales and margin.

The issue also concerns those companies whose management is attached to one or more brands owned by them which may not have been performing well in the recent past, but due to historical or sentimental reasons the management may not like to close down or sell them.

It is equally critical for potential buyers who would like to take over and turn brands around into sustainable profits. This is a real possibility in this era of private-equity funds and leveraged buyouts, where a company or a financial investor might find it cheaper and more profitable to take over an existing brand and turn it around, rather than building a new brand.  This is already happening in the Indian market. More interestingly, Indian companies have also already acquired businesses in the USA and Europe, and the potential revival or relaunch of brands is certainly relevant for these companies as well.

When to Recycle and Reuse

Relaunch or acquisition of an existing active or dormant brand can be an attractive option when building a portfolio, or when a company is getting into a new market.

For the company, acquiring an existing brand is often a lower cost way to reach the customers, and also faster to roll-out the business. The company may assess that the brand already has an existing share of positive customer awareness that is active or dormant, and that the effort and resources (including money) needed to build a business from that awareness will be much less than that to create a new brand.

The risk of failure may also be lower for a relaunched brand than for a new brand.

This is because the softer aspects, the hidden psychological and emotional hooks, are already pre-designed. This provides a ready platform from which to re-launch and grow the brand.

From the customer’s point of view, there is the confidence from previous experience and usage, and possibly also nostalgia and comfort of the ‘known’.

‘Age’ or vintage is respectable and trustworthy. This is especially powerful during volatile times or in rapidly changing environments when there is uncertainty about what lies in the future, and makes an existing brand a powerful vehicle for sustaining and growing the business.

On the Downside

However, when handling brands it is also wise to keep in mind the cautionary note that mutual funds issue: “past performance is no indicator of the future”.

In re-launching active or dormant brands, there is also a downside risk.  While the brand may have been strong and relevant in its last avatar, it may be totally out of place in the current market scenario.  The competitive landscape would have shifted, consumers would have changed – new consumers entering the market, old consumers evolving or moving out – and the economic scenario itself may now be unfriendly to the brand.

Also, the “awareness” or “share of mind” may only be a perception in the mind of the person who is looking to re-launch the brand, and the consumer may actually not care about the brand at all.  There are instances where the management of the company has been so caught up in their own perception of the brand that they have not bothered to carry out first-hand research with the target segment to check whether there is actually an unaided recall, or at worst, aided-recall of the brand. They are imagining potential strengths, when the brand has none.

It is also possible that, during its last stint in the market, the brand may have gathered negative connotations – consumers may remember it for poor products or wrong pricing, the trade may remember it for late deliveries, vendors may remember it for delayed payments…the list goes on. In such a scenario, it may be a relaunch may be a disaster.

So how does one know whether to resurrect a brand, or to reincarnate it in another form, and when to just let it die?  The answers to that lie in answering the question: what is a brand? And then, what is this brand?

A Critical Question: What is a Brand?

Even in these enlightened marketing times, many people believe that the brand is the name. They believe that once you advertise a name widely and loudly enough, a brand can be created. Nothing could be further from the truth.  High-decibel advertising only informs customers of the name, it cannot create a brand.

If we put ourselves in the customer’s shoes, a brand is an image, comprising of a bundle of promises on the company’s part and expectations on the customer’s part, which have been met.  When promises are delivered, when expectations are met, the brand develops an attribute that it is defined by.

The promise may be of edgy design (think Apple), and the customer expects that – when the brand delivers on the promise and meets the expectation the brand image gets re-affirmed and strengthened. However, these attributes are not always necessarily all “positive” in the traditional sense. For instance, a company’s promise may be to be low-cost and low-service (think Ikea, or “low-cost airlines”), and the customer may expect that and be happy with that when the company delivers on that promise.  The promise may be products with a conscience (think The Body Shop), which may strike a chord with the consumer.

What that brand actually stands for can only be created experientially. Creating this image, creation of the brand, is a complex and step-by-step process that takes place over time and over many transactions. Repetition of the same kind of experience strengthens the brand.

The brand touches everything that defines the customer’s experience – the product design and packaging, the retail store it is sold in, the service it is sold with, the after-sales interaction – all have a role to play in the creation of the brand.

For instance, to some it may sound silly that market research or how supply chain practices can help define a brand, but that is exactly how the state of affairs is for Zara.  Changeovers and new fashions being quickly available are what that brand is about, and it would be impossible for Zara to deliver on that promise without leading edge supply chains, or a wide variety of trend research.

Similarly, it may sound clichéd that your salesperson defines the brand to the consumer, but even with the best products, extensive advertising, and swanky stores, for service-oriented retailers everything would fall apart if the salesperson is not up to the mark. This is indeed a sad reality faced by so many of the so-called premium and luxury brands.

Of course, brand images can be changed or updated, but the new image also needs to be reinforced through repeated action, a process just like the first time the brand was created.

Reviving a Brand: the New-Old Seesaw

Given that a brand is created over multiple interactions and repetitive delivery of certain attributes, it is only natural that the older the brand, the more potential advantage it would have over a new brand.  Just the sheer time it would have spent in the market would give an old brand an edge.

An old brand can appear to be proven, experienced and secure, while a new brand could be seen as untested, raw and risky.  An old brand may have had a positive relationship with the consumer, but may have been dormant due to strategic or operational reasons.  In this case, reviving the brand is clearly a good idea.  There is already an existing awareness of an older brand, which can act as a ready platform for launching the same or a new set of products or services.  Often, there may be a connection with the consumer’s past positive experience of the brand.

On the other hand, a new brand may appear to be fresh, more up-to-date and relevant, and vigorous, compared to an old one that may be seen as outdated and tired.  Certainly, if nostalgia had been all that brands needed to thrive, then old brands would never die and it would be difficult to create new brands.

Clearly, there is no single answer to whether it is a good idea to re-launch an existing or old brand.   If you are considering whether it would be a good idea to revive an old brand, or to acquire and turn an existing brand around, ask yourself this:

  • Is there evidence of enough customer awareness and support for the brand?
  • Are there positive connotations for the brand that can be built upon in the current market context?
  • Is there an opportunity to refresh the brand, so that it does not appear outdated, while retaining its core promise and authenticity?
  • Does the company have the resources and inclination to be a “caretaker” or “steward” of the relationship that has been created in the past between the brand and its customers?

If the answer is “No” to any of these questions, then one needs to think again.  However, if the answers are all “Yes”, then a resuscitation is just what the doctor might have ordered.

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.]