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Retail 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Festive discounts, online shopping and retail evolution in India

P. Karunya Rao of Zee Business in conversation with Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive, Third Eyesight and Narayan Devanathan, Group Executive & Strategy Officer, Dentsu India, about festive discounts, the evolution of ecommerce and retail business in India.

 

The Season of Opportunism

(The Hindu Businessline – cat.a.lyst got marketing experts from diverse industries to analyse consumer behaviour during the last one month and pick out valuable nuggets on how this could impact marketing and brands in the years to come. This piece was a contribution to this Deepavali special supplement.)

Two trends that stand out in my mind, having examined over two-and-a-half decades in the Indian consumer market, are the stretching or flattening out of the demand curve, or the emergence of multiple demand peaks during the year, and discount-led buying.

Secular demand

Once, sales of some products in 3-6 weeks of the year could exceed the demand for the rest of the year. However, as the number of higher income consumers has grown since the 1990s, consumers have started buying more round the year. While wardrobes may have been refreshed once a year around a significant festival earlier, now the consumer buys new clothing any time he or she feels the specific need for an upcoming social or professional occasion. Eating out or ordering in has a far greater share of meals than ever before. Gadgets are being launched and lapped up throughout the year. Alongside, expanding retail businesses are creating demand at off-peak times, whether it is by inventing new shopping occasions such as Republic Day and Independence Day sales, or by creating promotions linked to entertainment events such as movie launches.

While demand is being created more “secularly” through the year, over the last few years intensified competition has also led to discounting emerging as a primary competitive strategy. The Indian consumer is understood by marketers to be a “value seeker”, and the lazy ones translate this into a strategy to deliver the “lowest price”. This has been stretched to the extent that, for some brands, merchandise sold under discount one way or the other can account for as much as 70-80 per cent of their annual sales.

Hyper-opportunity

This Diwali has brought the fusion of these two trends. Traditional retailers on one side, venture-steroid funded e-tailers on the other, brands looking at maximising the sales opportunity in an otherwise slow market, and in the centre stands created the new consumer who is driven by hyper-opportunism rather than by need or by festive spirit. A consumer who is learning that there is always a better deal available, whether you need to negotiate or simply wait awhile.

This Diwali, this hyper-opportunistic customer did not just walk into the neighbourhood durables store to haggle and buy the flat-screen TV, but compared costs with the online marketplaces that were splashing zillions worth of advertising everywhere. And then bought the TV from the “lowest bidder”. Or didn’t – and is still waiting for a better offer. The hyper-opportunistic customer was not shy in negotiating discounts with the retailer when buying fashion – so what if the store had “fixed” prices displayed!

This Diwali’s hyper-opportunism may well have scarred the Indian consumer market now for the near future. A discount-driven race to the bottom in which there is no winner, eventually not even the consumer. It is driven only by one factor – who has the most money to sacrifice on discounts. It is destroys choice – true choice – that should be based on product and service attributes that offer a variety of customers an even larger variety of benefits. It remains to be seen whether there will be marketers who can take the less trodden, less opportunistic path. I hope there will be marketers who will dare to look beyond discounts, and help to create a truly vibrant marketplace that is not defined by opportunistic deals alone.

Chargebacks – the Ugly Side of Retailer-Vendor Partnership

A lively discussion / debate took place on Retailwire.com about whether retailers were using chargebacks as justifiable penalties for poor performance by vendors or an unjustified means of generating income for the retailers.

The fact is that fees, discounts and chargebacks are becoming more common, and in private conversations – when no retail customer is within earshot – vendors will verify this. Retailers say that such chargebacks are only compensation for vendors not complying with processes that have been clearly laid down and agreed to, since non-compliance creates extra costs for the retailer, or loses the retailer margin.

But is vendor performance really becoming worse with each passing season? Or is it that difficult trading conditions or insufficient skills are making buyers take this easy road to margin?

It’s an open secret that merchandise quality and delays – the two most common causes for chargebacks – are easily overlooked when the market is hot and the product is in demand.

Chargebacks are a dangerous tool in the hands of a lazy, short-term thinking buyer who is incentivised on gross/realised margins from season to season; to him/her they are a quicker way to get to that bonus check for the season. Pragmatic vendors, for the most part, don’t want to antagonise the buyer because that risks not just business with the current retail customer, but any retailer that the buyer moves to in the future.

It’s ironic that vendors are mainly cited as “partners” when it comes to sharing the retailer’s pain. I don’t recall any retailer calling such vendor-partners up to a stage for distributing checks to share extra margin in particularly profitable years. Comments are welcome from anyone who can remember that happening; we’ll all have something inspiring to quote in industry meets, then. (And I’m really hoping some comments quoting such incidents will appear soon!)

The Retailwire discussion on this topic (with comments justifying both sides) is here – “Clothing Vendors Take a Chargeback Hit” – and the original article in Crain’s New York Business is here – “Retailer fee frenzy hits designers“.

More Luxury Customers at Outlet Malls

The recession is taking a toll on the business models of premium and luxury retailers.

According to the Los Angeles Times, faced with sales declines at their full-price stores, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom are lavishing more dollars and devotion on their outlets which are performing better than their traditional stores.

According to Robert Wallstrom, president of Off 5th, Saks Inc.’s outlet division, “These days, customers are saying they want a brand, customer service and a deal.”

Outlets may just be the lifeboat needed by some of the brands to get through the current downturn, with the mix of the “real steal” deals to get the footfalls and the “just a little off the top” to get the margin. The current outlet stores are good enough to avoid severe damage to the brand.

However, a critical question does remain unanswered: once the consumer becomes used to shopping at a certain price level, might some brands struggle to move back up the curve?

Discounted Luxuries

Luxury has its ups and downs. Assuming that the economy will look up at some point of time in the near or distant future, luxury brands will shine again, even if they’ve muddied themselves slightly in the puddles of discounting.

Public (and industry) memory is short, especially in fashion, where you might be as good/bad as your last collection. There are plenty of luxury brands which had once been pushed to the dustiest back shelves, that have come back into fashion in recent years. So I’m sure many of the brands will be forgiven their current trespasses.

And, as a precursor to that, someone’s going to come back very soon with the bumper sticker from the post dot-con days which read: “I want to be irrationally exuberant again!”

But on a more rational note, brands which have tried to “democratize” luxury by tinkering with the basic product quality and not paying attention to the brand values would find it harder to climb up again. Just because you want to reach a larger audience you cannot inherently reduce the promise of a brand. Especially when there is true quality available across the price spectrum today.

Who knows, we might even get back to the days when the joy of luxury was based on having truly superior products rather than just a name that a lot of people recognise.

 

A Discount By Any Other Name

A discount outlet store sells merchandise that is off-season (such as summer merchandise in winter or vice versa) or out-of-fashion (hence possibly two-three seasons old) or comprising of manufacturing over-runs.

However, in India discounts are prolific even in the high street market. In clothing as an example, a large chunk (estimates vary from 40% to 70%) of ready-to-wear stock is sold under discount. Some of it is sold in factory outlets, but a significantly larger proportion is sold throughout the year in regular high street stores under offers that run throughout the year.

There are also discount streets within the city (such as Fashion Street in Mumbai or Sarojini Nagar in Delhi) operating the year round. This reduces the benefit that a discount outlet specifically provides to the consumer.

Second, discount stores typically are based “off-locations” away from regular customer traffic. In markets such as the US and the UK, an “outlet village” may be located 50-100 km from the nearest suburban or urban centre but quite close in terms of drive time. In India currently, due to poor road conditions, the stores have to be in higher cost locations.

Most critically, a sustainable and sizeable discount outlet also needs a base of many brands that have built up high profile and that operate consistent price premium at full-price levels. The brands must have enough scale so a discounting outlet cannot damage its brand image. This enables not just standalone discount outlets, but entire “outlet villages” to be set up. These clusters can generate a much bigger and sustainable customer footfall, much like a shopping mall. That ecosystem of brands has been weak in the past in India but has recently accelerated, and we are likely to see critical mass emerging in future, which may allow the discount business to grow.

In the coming years, expect more action, with clustering of stores and brands, specialist discount malls, and possibly even innovative and India-specific models to come up. How about air-conditioned haats with proprietary bus connectivity to town centres?

Let the good, discounted, times roll.