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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”

Macro Consumer Trends: Implications for the Events Industry – (2014 March, Devangshu Dutta)

B2B event companies don’t often think about consumer spending as something directly relevant to their business. However, consumer trends can allow industry event and exhibition organizers to get an advance view of where the opportunities can lie in the future. In this Keynote address at UFI’s Asia Open Seminar in Bangalore, Devangshu Dutta shares his views about the key consumer trends in India, and the implications for the events and exhibitions industry.

(This presentation was delivered on 6 March 2014 in Bangalore, India.)

 

The Business of Government – An 8-point agenda for Growth

(If you’re in a hurry, go to the Slideshare presentation, and bookmark this post for a complete read later.)

These pages usually focus on the consumer and retail sector, its constituents, its problems and the opportunities therein.

The consumer and retail sector is all about choice, and it is worth noting that we’ve just concluded what was possibly the most massive consumer event in the world.  I’m referring, of course, to the Indian elections, where more than 500 “consumers” were bombarded with above-the-line and below-the-line marketing by various organisations pushing their brand, product (candidate) and services (ideology and manifesto).

The sum total of analyses of India’s 2014 election results already exceeds what one sane person can read in a lifetime. The BJP and its allies have won a majority of seats unprecedented among non-Congress alliances, in the first-past-the-post system. While opinions may be fractured, the Parliamentary mandate is clear.

In this context and in this spirit, it is also relevant for us to take the big picture view. Retail is a sector that touches the lives of virtually every citizen of this country on a daily basis. So anything that affects their lives and their aspirations have a direct bearing on the retail business as well.

India’s citizens are creative and entrepreneurial. They are hungry for growth. While they are respectful of heritage, they are also devastated by the decline that has come about over decades, centuries, and are determined to change this situation. What they need is the government to shoulder its responsibilities.

If there is one narrative that can pull diverse, divided strands of opinion together, it is “inclusive growth”.  Throughout his campaign Narendra Modi has repeated the mantra: “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (literally “all together, development for all”).  In recent weeks, on more than one occasion he has extended this to mean pulling together the efforts of leaders across the political spectrum as well. At the time of this writing, the Prime Minister elect Modi has already set out to manage expectations. He has positioned himself as “mazdoor (labourer) no. 1”,  and is asking the electorate for 10-years, making it amply clear that there is no magic broom to remove the dirt of corruption overnight, nor a magic hand that will conjure out ever-increasing incomes out of bottomless magic pockets.

While there are many problems to be tackled at the macro and the micro-level, I think the “business of government” can be captured broadly in an 8-point agenda, and each of these has a significant bearing on the consumers of this country, and the businesses they transact with:

1. Healthcare: While India’s average life-expectancy has improved steadily since Independence it still hangs in the mid-60s while China’s and Brazil’s is over 73. India offers less than one bed for every thousand of its citizens, while both China and Brazil are well over 2. The United Kingdom, whose National Health Service is constantly lambasted as being “overstretched”, offers about 4 hospital beds per 1000 people, and the average for former British colonies is also around 4. Public healthcare infrastructure in India – from primary to speciality – remains critically under-funded, and the public hospitals that exist are chronically under-equipped and under-staffed.  Where equipment exists, it is underutilised, as commission-seeking individuals refer patients to the burgeoning private clinics and hospitals. Over the last decade or so private healthcare providers have achieved prominence in the media and among investors, and concessional access to public infrastructure and assets such as land, but they have proved to be consistently out of reach of the general public. Livelihoods and family savings are routinely destroyed in the search for better-quality healthcare in the new, profit-maximising business models. Health should be every citizen’s fundamental right, as one of the foundation stones of a strong nation. It is a right that is denied daily to hundreds of millions. Providing health support is the core business of the government, and needs urgent attention and substantial investment dispersed nationally.

2. Power:  India’s power consumption average is about one-third of the Chinese average and less than a tenth of the USA, and this is not only because Indians have smaller homes or live more frugally, but because hundreds of millions of Indians spend most of their days and nights without electricity. If you think you can get a sense of the deprivation from a household that gets power a few hours a day, you actually have to visit one where power availability has improved due to grid power or micro or off-grid availability through solar or biomass units – the enormous impact that the improved power availability has on the lifestyle, livelihood and quality of life can only be truly gauged then. Across the nation, private participation has been invited into the power sector at different times, but the execution has been mixed.  Private companies would also like to serve those areas where population concentration and decent financials allow the private provider to create a profitable business. Large swathes of the Indian population lie outside of such areas, and the onus is upon the government to provide the required electricity for households to live a fuller life, for students to complete their lessons, for healthcare and administrative facilities to run effectively, for small entrepreneurs to be able to grow their businesses.

3. Clean water: Imagine one train crash every day of the year, each killing all passengers on board. Sounds catastrophic, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t that get some serious attention? Well, it is estimated that around 1600 deaths are caused every day by diarrhoea alone (higher than the train wreck fatalities), and that 21% of communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water. The problem is not only in far flung villages, but acute even in the largest cities of the country. Both those numbers are shamefully high for a nation that wants to see itself as a global superpower. There are no technological gaps for effectively harnessing the existing water resources, and for maintaining cleaning, distribution and recovery systems – only management gaps.

4. Transportation infrastructure: While India has one of the largest rail networks in the world, at about 20 kilometres per 1,000 sq km of land area it compares unfavourably to highly industrialised European countries (Germany: 115 km per thousand sq. km., UK: 65, France: 53) or even the large less densely populated USA (26 km per thousand sq. km.). On road development India’s picture has improved in the last 15 years, but it still trails world-leading economies in terms of length as well as quality.  Poor transportation systems cut people off from economic opportunities, and force them to migrate to already overloaded cities, perpetuating problems in both urban and rural areas. Historically, all strong nations, democratic or otherwise, have flourished due to extensive, superior transportation networks.  Where people and goods can move quickly and freely, both trade and culture flourish, and build the strongest ties that bind people together.

5. Education: This is another area which has systematically been under-invested in by the government.  From pre-schools to universities, the growth of educational institutions for the last 30-40 years has predominantly been in private hands, where affordability is not the prime driver.  The number of seats in government-run institutions has not grown in proportion with the population, let alone in correlation with the demand. Access remains a problem, as does the quality. There is no reason why government-run educational institutions need to be bad – there are enough examples around the country within government schools and colleges, where organisational systems and individual intent produces excellence. Without immediate and adequate government focus on education, the massive young population of India will go waste, at worst it would be a ticking time-bomb of under-skilled frustrated underachievers.

6. Environment: This might seem like a strange inclusion in this “development-oriented” list. However, it is essential that the environment should be on a list of core items that the government needs to manage well. The government is usually in the news for either not doing enough (such as not monitoring the systematic encroachment in and destruction of the Aravalli Hills) or, at the other extreme, getting in the way by holding back environmental approvals to development projects. Another term for the environment is “the commons”, reflecting that the natural resources belong to the people, together. The commons need not just protection, but regeneration, resurgence. Defence and political experts around the world list climate change and clashes over natural resources as among the highest conflict risks in coming years, and the evidence is frequently visible. When “growth” is measured only by those activities that extract and deplete the common resources, support and encouragement is provided for those individuals and companies that do this the “best”.  It is short-termism and selfishness of the worst sort.  Evidence of large scale climate-related changes and the debilitating impact on civilisations exists around the world and across the span of history; the closest might be the Ganga-Saraswati civilisation that is said to have dispersed due to the depletion of one of its greatest rivers. We don’t even need to forecast huge impacts far into the future.  Millions of Indians increasingly are born and live with chronic diseases that are related to deteriorating air quality, depleted water resources, polluted soils and disappearing vegetation. Indigenous natural species of plants and animals are declining, mostly invisible to the nation at large. A comprehensive, evolving framework is needed that goes beyond short-term planning and management by knee-jerk reactions.

7. Competition: This is an area which requires little investment, relative to the other items on this list, but a huge amount of intent and follow-through.  No economic system is perfect and, indeed, it is the imperfections and discontinuities that provide business opportunities.  When the imperfections are exploited by many, competitive forces balance each other out.  The need to diversify is well-understood by people who care to think about risks.  Concentration of efforts, resources, power behind a few initiatives or organisations can bring about disproportionately good results, but also creates the risk of wipeout.  Diversity is a challenge because it creates fragmentation, but it is also an essential source of innovation, combating not just present risks but future threats as well. Self-moderation is too much to expect from even the most enlightened of large business leaders and even the most progressive of industries. Anti-competitive and customer protection frameworks have improved in recent years, but are still understaffed and underequipped. As the economy grows, so does the need to provide oversight against unethical behaviour by large organisations.

8. Accountability: None of the above can truly happen without transparency in governance, and productivity in public service i.e. respect for schedules, budgets and commitments.  Measures such as Right to Information (RTI) have moved the country several steps up the transparency ladder, but accountability to “service deliverables” is still missing in a vast number of people employed in government departments. Entry into “government service” is seen as a ticket to a reasonably comfortable employment if you are inclined to not rock the boat. The idea is to not question the status quo as far as possible, and to ensure that the outcomes for the “overclass” are taken care of. This attitude needs to change. In fact a small start could be made by replacing the phrase “government service” with “public service” – the business of government is to serve the public at large, and this needs to be recognised and acknowledged by everyone involved in it. Efforts in all the other areas will fall flat if accountability and productivity are not embedded into the money and efforts invested. (Imagine if we could sign SLAs – service level agreements – with each and every individual hired for public service roles!) The roles that accountability brings with it include “upholding the law” and “enabling an environment where each citizen has a fair chance of success”.

Someone else might come up with a slightly different list – this is mine, the seven pillars and the overarching beam. I’ve not listed the areas in any specific order of priority. Some of them need more government intervention, some need less private intervention, a few (such as education) need both.  These are all areas that are the foundation on which everything else is built.  These are the areas which, to a very large extent, determine the levels of dignity with which a country’s citizens lead their lives.

In this day and age, the government is not needed to run steel mills, airlines or even handicraft retail stores.  But without high quality and high availability ensured by the government in the above areas, even the most capable individual will find it easier to build a life and even the best private enterprise will find it more profitable to do business elsewhere in the world.

A much-followed new-generation business leader recently rhetorically asked in a social media post that, if we have an economy swinging towards services with a large chunk of it being technology, “Why do we need government?”

The reasons above, my friend, are why and where we need government, because business is not delivering on these areas in an equitable manner, and these are areas where technology will not necessarily provide all the answers.  We have years of evidence of this, in some cases decades, and it is time we choose to move.

By and large, most people would rather choose to move something, than move somewhere (else). And the retail business will be one of the first to benefit.

Click here

 

Free the Golden Bird

About six years ago, Kishore Biyani of the Future Group and I were discussing a presentation I had delivered at CII’s National Retail Summit, during which I had mentioned “Purushartha”. This millennia-old living philosophy takes a balanced view of life. Aspects related to consumption are two of its major components including Artha (wealth, commerce) and Kama (sensory pleasure). Dharma (righteousness in society and individual life) and Moksha (liberation) are the other two. My point was that most “traditionalists” and certainly policy-makers in the country have tended to view the retail sector negatively or dismissively.

Of course, at that time most businesses themselves hardly demonstrated any sense of balance, let alone any connection with the reality of India, whether in terms of the consumer’s needs, or in terms of the operating environment in the country. By and large the theme was: push explosive growth, margins be damned; promote “westernised” consumption aspirations, regardless of capability to fulfil those aspirations. Conversely, the four years after the global financial crisis in 2008 have been possibly the worst that the retail sector has faced in recent decades, whether in terms of total losses or the quantum of lost growth opportunity, and business sentiment has swung to the other extreme.

On its part the government has not done much to encourage the sector. After several policy flip-flops, approving investment proposals of some high-profile global brands is a positive signal to the outside world, but none of them so far have unlocked or grown the value of Indian retail businesses in any significant way. There is no doubt that foreign brands and retailers can and should be an integral part of India’s developing retail landscape, but they cannot be the prime drivers of the retail business in India or the saviours of its supply chain. That vision and energy needs to come from within, and the resultant growth will benefit all – Indian and international companies, consumers and the government.

From the ancient treatise Arthashastra, Professor Thomas Trautman quotes the concept of concept of “shad-bhaag” (the state having one-sixth share) as “entrepreneurial” because it has a sense of mutual interest, promoting production and the growth of everyone’s share. This spirit of co-ownership and entrepreneurial participation is largely missing in today’s governance. Direct and indirect taxation remains a complex net for all but the savviest evaders, not to mention all the other regulation and approvals that each business – large or small – needs to comply with.

Somehow the mandarins don’t seem to see that the retail business is a platform for the multi-fold growth of new enterprise, that it is a vehicle for urban renewal, and that it can help enormously in channelling the economy into visible taxable revenues. It also seems to escape them that the biggest drivers for this growth and change will typically be small entrepreneurial businesses, who themselves can only thrive in a simpler and non-adversarial regulatory environment.

The wishlist is not large, but needs some bold steps: enact policies that free up unproductive real estate to reduce costs, reduce regulatory hurdles, remove tax traps, reduce import duties. For instance, one estimate for illegal imports in watches is 75 per cent, where the beneficiaries are the smugglers and those who oil the wheels for them, not the consumer, not the brands or retailers, not the revenue department.

It is an important budget year politically due to impending elections but also economically due to the dismal GDP growth. The animal spirits that the Prime Minister has referred to in the recent past are more in the nature of a “bheegi billi” right now rather than a roaring tiger. The caged golden bird will not lay any golden eggs. Will the Finance Minister choose to crack the whip this year, or cut the chains? We watch with bated breath.

(An edited version of this piece was published as in Daily News & Analysis – DNA on 19 February 2012, under the title “Foreign brands can’t be prime drivers of retail”.)

Retail’s Elves

(Published in “BusinessWorld SME Handbook 2012-13”, released on Oct. 29, 2012 in New Delhi, and “Indian Management”, the journal of the All India Management Association in January 2013, published by Business Standard.)

There are parallels between Christmas and the growth of modern retail. At Christmas much of the attention is fixed on Santa Claus, while the elves labouring away behind the scenes barely get any air-time. So also in the retail business, the focus very much is on the retailer; the bigger the better.

The Indian retail sector’s sales are estimated at about Rs. 26 lakh crores. Of this, more than 80% of the product requirements are estimated to be met by small or mid-sized businesses. We don’t usually think about these myriad manufacturing and trading companies that make up the retailer’s supply chain. Large branded suppliers – multinational or domestic corporate groups – are still able to make their presence known, but most others remain largely invisible. Many of these fall not just into the small-medium enterprise (SME) classification, but in micro-enterprises, even cottage-scale. Not only do the large retailers source from SMEs directly, those small suppliers in turn work with other upstream SME manufacturers.

Chicken or Egg?

Most of us are inclined to view the growth of modern retail as a precursor to the growth of the SME sector. Actually the reverse is equally true, perhaps even more so. Without a robust base of suppliers having taken the initial risk of setting up better-organised manufacturing facilities and supply chains, modern retailers would not be able to set up their businesses in the first place. We may view modern retailers as the catalyst for this development; however, they are first beneficiaries of SMEs, and only after they achieve critical mass can they catalyse further SME growth.

For instance, through the 1950s and 1960s, as the American and western European economies grew with the baby boom, it was the growth of manufacturing entities and brands – most of them SMEs – that led the charge. As these SMEs consolidated their growth, modern retail chains actually rode upon this. Subsequently, of course, retail chains have put most of their suppliers in the shade in terms of overall size and profitability. Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, Taiwan and Korea during the 1970s and 1980s, and China during the 1990s and 2000s also saw similar manufacturing-led prosperity and consumption, although their growth was driven initially by exports to the west.

In India, too, the tremendous social and economic changes in the last two decades have encouraged a resurgence of the entrepreneurial spirit. The consumer sector is specifically attractive to entrepreneurs as something that is tangible, provides visibility of the business fairly quickly and can be communicated and positioned well within the entrepreneur’s family and social circle, an important driver.

The Rationale for Supporting SMEs

We tend to ignore the fact that India has a workforce estimated at over 750 million, and which is growing annually by 9-10 million. Most of these people will not be employed by the government, or in large organisations or in the much-feted service sector. Allowing for a declining active employment in agriculture, it is manufacturing, trading and retail by small businesses that is needed to keep the economic engine running.

It is also important to remember that growth of SMEs raises prosperity rather more equitably than other sectors. Widespread growing incomes lead to growth in consumption, supporting retail growth, which in turn can feed back into further growth of SMEs. There are enough significant examples of such economic growth worldwide, whether we look at economies such as Western Europe and Japan recovering from the ravages of war, or at the Asian tigers, China and others emerging countries who’s GDPs are not overly dependent on extractive natural resources.

Innovation is another reason to nurture SMEs. Consumer needs are changing more rapidly than ever before in India’s history, with rising incomes, and evolution of life styles and social structures. Small companies are better at foreseeing or at least reacting to rapid changes. Large companies compete on the basis of their sheer scale and aim to maximise returns from every investment made, but small businesses have no choice but to be innovative in some way simply to enter the market or to stay in business. Experimentation with products, business models, service level and commercial practices is what SMEs thrive on. Differentiation is what makes small suppliers attractive to retailers. With the technology and tools available today, we should expect ever increasing amount of innovation to emerge from small rather than large companies in the consumer sector.

Small suppliers also provide diversification of supply risk for individual retailers, as well as for the market overall. Concentrating on a few large sources has, time and again, proven to be a risky approach, whether it is due to the balance of power tilting unduly towards a specific supplier, or simply the risk of product not being available in case the dominant large supplier’s business is affected. A mix of small suppliers is more like a supporting cushion – a bean bag, if you like – which can be adapted and moulded more easily to changing customer needs.

The Role of Modern Retail

There are three areas in which modern retail can be a significantly more important partner for SMEs than traditional channels.

Firstly, modern retail stores are possibly the most effective route to launch new products, or even entirely new categories. As a platform they offer a more consolidated and effective way to reach a new product to consumers, and to gain visibility and acceptability quicker.

As a follow-on to this, due to their innate need to scale-up successful initiatives, a product and or a service proven in one store or region would typically get included in buying plans for the retailer’s stores across the country. This provides a quicker and more efficient scaling up opportunity than the small brand or supplier trying to reach myriad stores across the country on its own.

Third, whether it is quintessentially Indian brands such as Fabindia, or Indian products through international brands and retailers such as Monsoon, Gap, Mothercare, Ikea, Marks & Spencer, these are but a few examples of the access route for small Indian companies to major world markets. In fact, B. Narayanaswamy suggested in an article titled “Opportunity Lost is Gone for Good” (July 2012), that the Indian government should negotiate hard with retailers interested in investing in India to open supply opportunities to the retailers’ businesses globally, rather than putting minimum sourcing requirements for the small Indian business alone which only act more as a constraint than an enabler. The government has, in the past, used such opportunities to allow investment in the consumer sector while enlarging the playing field for Indian businesses – Pepsi is a case in point.

For some companies, modern retail is in fact a launch pad for wider ambitions, as they evolve into building brands themselves. Mrs. Bector’s has grown from a contract supplier to the likes of McDonald’s to launching its branded products not only in India but also in international markets targeting Indian expatriates. Genesis Colors went from being a Satya Paul licensee for ties to being the owner of the brand, and then further to being a partner for many internationally established premium and luxury brands who want to be part of the India growth story. Others become growth vehicles for larger businesses after being acquired by them, such as ColorPlus by Raymond, Fun Foods by Dr. Oetker (Germany) or Anchor by Panasonic (Japan).

Making Business Easier

India is one of the few countries to have a Ministry dedicated to SMEs. However, India’s SME sector is very far from competing effectively with SMEs in other countries.

The German Mittelstand employs more than 70% of Germany’s workforce and is acknowledged to be at the leading edge of technology and efficient business management. Other western European countries such as the UK and Italy also have vibrant SME sectors. All these countries have not only been competitive globally as exporters, but have also co-opted into the growth of industries elsewhere including the BRICs.

Three enormous obstacles stand in the way of the growth of India’s SMEs, as a huge amount of entrepreneurial energy is wasted tackling these areas. The government certainly has a large role to play in all, but one of these is also the responsibility of large corporate groups.

The lack of adequate infrastructure is arguably the most recognised obstacle, followed by compliances that can hold SME operations hostage under outdated laws, many of which have not been reviewed since India had an Empress! Entrepreneurs and businesses lose millions of manhours annually managing these two areas.

However, the one area in which not just the government but large retailers can play a role is in ensuring that SMEs are funded adequately. Bank sources in the form of term loans and working capital limits is only the start. The rest comprises of actual cash flow, much of which are limited by the long credit period demanded by retailers. Payment can stretch as far as 6-8 months, and include sale-or-return terms which squarely place the burden of funding the retailer’s business on the SME supplier. Unless we can mandate better payment practices, the boom of retail giants will be created using millions of dead or barely alive SMEs as building blocks. And what we don’t realise is that the retailers’ own health is also at stake, because lazy payment terms create a maze of poor practices, from product planning at head office all the way to the retail store. For instance, products that will not sell get stocked for short-term margin through placement fees, and block shelf-space and cash flow that affects other suppliers. Promptness of payment to SMEs must become a metric to measure the health of retail companies – after all, what gets measured gets tackled. And for the proponents of “Corporate Social Responsibility” – what better way to promote CSR and wide-ranging economic well-being than by ensuring the the smaller businesses in the ecosystem are not starved of the funds that are rightfully theirs!

SMEs are not just the foundation, but also the beams and pillars on which the glass and steel cathedrals of modern retail are built, and a vital indicator of the economy’s overall health. The sector needs to be tended to proactively and holistically, both by government and by large businesses, as an investment in India’s economic future. Perhaps we will even create some world-beating companies along the way.

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.

Can industrial agriculture be sustained?

A few days ago, I wrote about the possible “Dis-economy of Scale”, when we start to add up the hidden costs in industrial agriculture.

I’ve just found an interesting article from Fortune about Jason Clay, described as a “thinking environmentalist”.

He calls for intensification of agriculture, and “economies of scale”. However, the critical departure from usual proponents of industrial farming, his view is to make agriculture “both more productive and sustainable” (i.e. “generating more output from fewer inputs”).

I wonder if that means using truly fewer inputs through the entire chain. That is really the key, since the current intensive and industrial model of farming actually seems to use more input (fuel and production) calories to produce fewer output (food) calories. Unless that changes, the model of industrial agriculture is unsustainable over time.

(The earlier post is here: The Dis-Economy of Scale)

And while we are on the subject of sustainability, it’s always good to remember that human beings haven’t suddenly become rapacious in the industrial and post-industrial age. We’ve displayed similar behaviour of overdoing things over centuries – a good book to pick up is Jared M. Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”. (Here’s his profile on Wikipedia, and book on Amazon).

“India Rising, Bharat Awaits…” – NCAER and The Economic Times share our concern

An article by Shailesh Dobhal and Bhanu Pande in The Economic Times today refers to a growing inequality of income in India. (“India Rising, Bharat awaits for the trickle to turn flood”)

The change for all of urban India is reported to be 15%, which is quite visible, especially in the larger cities where the change is possibly greater. What is worrying is that even in rural India the change is 13%.

And these figures are for 2004-05, from a report authored by NCAER’s Dr. Rajesh Shukla. My guess is that the difference would be even higher now, 3 years later.

Obviously at a personal level this should concern all. Each person is part of the ecosystem – there is only so long one can hide in ivory towers behind tall walls and locked gates. We are most secure and content when our neighbour is secure and content. Stark disparities that grow even more stark are not a way to develop security.

However, one might ask, why should business managers in consumer goods and retail sectors concern themselves with this phenomenon from a business perspective?

The answer should be self-evident – as shared in a presentation at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) National Retail Summit in 2006 – a retailer can grow its market by encouraging the development of smaller enterprises, especially those in lower income areas. As these enterprises grow, so does prosperity and available income.

“Grow your wealth by growing someone else’s.” That may seem like an odd notion. But think – is it so odd?

In May 2007 Arun Maira, Chairman of the Boston Consulting Group’s business in India, presented scenarios that were developed in an exercise a few years ago, about the possible developmental trajectories of India. These include:

  • “Atakta Bharat (India Stuck)” described as ‘Buffalos Wallowing’,

  • “Bollyworld” (the crazy mix of glamour and tragedy) described in two parts as ‘Peacocks Strutting, Birds Scrambling’ and ‘Tigers Growling, Wolves Prowling’ and

  • “Pahale India” (India First), subtitled Fireflies Arising.

Here’s his very thought-provoking article (India: Many Million Fireflies Now) that is well worth a read.

Blooms Better Than Booms

The recent stock market mayhem brings to mind another ‘boom’ – the much-hyped retail boom.

Booms and busts are complimentary, and always follow each other (if history is a teacher which we would care to listen to).

We are already seeing the signs of what people might call a slow-down in the Indian retail market. (Those people would have built their business plans, made investments and planned expenditure based on 50-500% annual growth, and would see a 15-25% growth as a slowdown.)

But for the most part, retail is an organic business, and a 15-25% annual growth is far healthier for most companies. It allows for infrastructure and processes to grow in a planned way. It gives the companies time to mature their processes and their organizations, and build businesses that are more sustainable. It allows the development of brands that are more lasting.

Growing retail businesses over time also allows them to develop the ecosystem around them organically – in my opinion absolutely vital for a healthy economic and social environment. (See The Consumption Game
and Myth and Reality of the Retail Revolution.)

But such an opinion may be a minority voice amongst crowds who are cheering the loud booms of explosive growth. 😉