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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”

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.)

Patanjali – from Yoga to Noodles (Video)

Third Eyesight’s CEO, Devangshu Dutta recently participated in a discussion about the phenomenal growth of the Patanjali brand, from yoga lessons to a food and FMCG conglomerate taking well-established multinational and Indian competitors head-on. In a conversation with Zee Business anchor, P. Karunya Rao and FCB-Ulka’s chairman Rohit Ohri, Devangshu shared his thoughts on the factors playing to Patanjali’s advantage. Excerpts from the conversation were telecast on Brandstand on Zee Business:

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.

New perspectives needed for food and agricultural growth

These are thoughts shared in an emailed interview with the AgriBusiness and Food Industry magazine (published in the November 2014 issue.)

A Perspective on the Indian market:

Our first word of advice to companies that are looking at India as an evolving and large market, is to acknowledge the fact that that it has very diverse cuisines and food cultures.

Both Indian and international companies wishing to enter this market for the first time need to understand and acknowledge that one-size certainly does not fit everyone.

The variety of finished products needed requires food companies to address smaller quantities and to have flexible production.

Therefore, suppliers of capital equipment and technology also need to be able to think about how they can make their solutions more flexible to adapt to changing market needs, and also to price them appropriately for the Indian market. Simply extending solutions that work in large, developed markets such as Western Europe and North America is not the best approach.

I would use the example of one of our clients, a manufacturer of bakery automation equipment, who have approached the market with an open mind. After initial investigations they have gone back to the drawing board and created production lines that have smaller capacity, can produce multiple products including Indian specialities, and which are techno-commercially more feasible for an Indian customer to adopt.

There is no reason to think that India’s food industry should follow exactly the same development curve as the west. The population is much larger, with significantly lower income, and needs that are far more diverse and changing far more rapidly than in most other economies. The technical and technological models for India need to be strongly focussed on four major attributes:

  • Water efficiency
  • Energy efficiency
  • Flexibility
  • Cost efficiency

Agricultural, horticultural and animal husbandry practices and technologies, as well as those in the downstream sectors such as food processing, need to perhaps even look at setting new benchmarks for accessibility and long-term sustainability.

Food processing and the Indian consumer market:

Food processing has been part of human history since we learned to transform hunted, gathered and farmed raw products into new foods through curing, cooking, culturing etc. This processing has been driven by mainly two major factors: to make the raw material into a product that is more palatable and easily consumed (for example, from raw grains to bread), or to extend the storage life of the raw material (for example, in the form of cheese, pickles, or sweets, or using cooling and freezing).

However, during the last century, processing has been driven mostly by “convenience” by providing partly or fully cooked options, to reduce the time spent by individuals in cooking and to instead apply that time to activities outside home. Social structures in India are changing, as individuals are migrating out of their home-towns to other locations within the country. The number of households is increasing dramatically, while cooking time and cooking skills are both declining. With this, out-of-home consumption as well as partially or fully-cooked packaged foods are bound to rise, leading to greater need of food processing capacities.

Also, with increasing industrialisation of food manufacturing, standards have become important both for efficiency and for safety. We’re seeing signs of such development happening in recent years in India as well – expectations of both consumers as well as regulatory authorities are higher with each passing year. The industry needs to invest proactively in better technology and processes in all areas – cultivation, handling, processing, packaging, storage and transportation – to raise the standards of hygiene, safety, traceability etc.

Food productivity needs urgent attention:

India is among the largest producers of many agricultural products. However, our yields per head of workforce, per animal, per hectare, or per litre of water consumed can be improved significantly. Not only is the population growing, but per capita consumption of most products will rise as the economic situation of each family unit changes. Better practices, technologies and know-how need to be acquired and applied to dramatically improve Indian agricultural productivity.

An interesting model of development to look at is the “golden triangle” approach followed by the Netherlands – active and intensive cooperation between the government, academic institutions and the private sector.

So far, by and large, academic institutions in India have limited themselves to “teaching” and have stayed away from actively collaborating with industry. Academic institutions and the industry typically connect only for the occasional “lecture” by senior individual from industry, or during the time of recruitment of fresh talent. Government largely limits itself to creating macro-level policies. More effective communication and coordination between these three legs could help to dramatically improve the standards in the agricultural and food sector in India and make the nation not just self-sufficient but significantly more competitive in both cost and quality of the final products.

Similarly, active collaboration within the industry itself is important to achieve combined growth, which can only happen if companies step beyond the usual industry association framework.

Local production and service of food processing equipment is an important factor:

In cases where the market is large enough, local production of the equipment should certainly be investigated because it can help to bring down the initial capital cost for customers, and also provide a quicker service and support base.

A first step that a company takes is to create a local presence, either through a distributor or agent, or by directly opening a sales and service office of its own. However, most international companies need to gain a certain degree of confidence in the market, both in terms of sustained demand and in terms of operating conditions, before they would invest in manufacturing in India, since it takes a whole different level of management commitment as well as financial involvement.

With the announcement of the government’s “Make in India” initiative, hopefully more international companies will come forward to take advantage of the changing operating environment in the country.

The Franchise “Space Programme”

(Published in ETRetail.com on 6 December 2013)

Franchising isn’t rocket science, but advanced space programmes offer at least one parallel which we can learn from – the staging of objectives and planning accordingly.

A franchise development programme can be staged like a space launch, each successive stage being designed and defined for a specific function or role, and sequentially building the needed velocity and direction to successfully create a franchise operation. The stages may be equated to Launch, Booster, Orbiter and Landing stages, and cover the following aspects:

  1. Launch: assessment of the franchiser’s own readiness to launch and manage a franchise network in the target geography
  2. Booster: having the franchise pack ready to target the appropriate geographies and franchisee profile
  3. Orbiter: franchisee recruitment
  4. Landing: operationalising the franchise location

Stage 1: Launch

The first and perhaps the most important stage in launching a franchise programme is to check whether the organisation is really ready to create a franchise network. Sure, inept franchisees can cause damage to the brand, but it is important to first look at the responsibilities that a brand has to making the franchise network a success. Too many brands see franchising as a quick-fix for expansion, as a low-cost source for capital and manpower at the expense of franchisee-investors. It is vital for the franchiser to demonstrate that it has a successful and profitable business model, as well as the ability to provide support to a network of multiple operating locations in diverse geographies. For this, it has to have put in place management resources (people with the appropriate skills, business processes, financial and information systems) as well as budgets to provide the support the franchisee needs to succeed. The failure of many franchise concepts, in fact, lies in weakness within the franchiser’s organisation rather than outside.

Stage 2: Booster

Once the organisation and the brand are assessed to be “franchise-ready”, there is still work to be put into two sets of documents: one related to the brand and the second related to the operations processes and systems. A comprehensive marketing reference manual needs to be in place to be able to convey the “pulling” power that the brand will provide to the franchisee, clearly articulate the tangible and intangible aspects that comprise the brand, and also specify the guidelines for usage of brand materials in various marketing environments. The operations manual aims to document standard operating procedures that provide consistency across the franchise network and are aimed at reducing variability in customer experience and performance. It must be noted that both sets of documents must be seen as evolving with growth of the business and with changes in the external environment – the Marketing Manual is likely to be more stable, while the Operations Manual necessary needs to be as dynamic as the internal and external environment.

Stage 3: Orbiter

Now the brand is ready to reach out to potential franchisees. How wide a brand reaches, across how many potential franchisees, with what sort of terms, all depend on the vision of the brand, its business plan and the practices prevalent in the market. However, in all cases, it is essential to adopt a “parent” framework that defines the essential and desirable characteristics that a franchisee should possess, the relationship structure that needs to be consistent across markets (if that is the case), and any commercial terms about which the franchiser wishes to be rigid. This would allow clearer direction and focussed efforts on the part of the franchiser, and filter out proposals that do not fit the franchiser’s requirements. Franchisees can be connected through a variety of means: some will find you through other franchisees, or through your website or other marketing materials; others you might reach out to yourselves through marketing outreach programmes, trade shows, or through business partners. During all of this it is useful, perhaps essential, to create a single point of responsibility at a senior level in the organisation to be able to maintain both consistency and flexibility during the franchise recruitment and negotiation process, through to the stage where a franchisee is signed-on.

Stage 4: Landing

Congratulations – the destination is in sight. The search might have been hard, the negotiations harder still, but you now – officially – have a partner who has agreed to put in their money and their efforts behind launching YOUR brand in THEIR market, and to even pay you for the period that they would be running the business under your name. That’s a big commitment on the franchisee’s part. The commitment with which the franchiser handles this stage is important, because this is where the foundation will be laid for the success – or failure – of the franchisee’s business. Other than a general orientation that you need to start you franchisee off with, the Marketing Manual and the Operational Manual are essential tools during the training process for the franchisee’s team. Depending on the complexity of the business and the infrastructure available with the franchiser, the franchisee’s team may be first trained at the franchiser’s location, followed by pre-launch training at the franchisee’s own location, and that may be augmented by active operational support for a certain period provided by the franchiser’s staff at the franchisee’s site. The duration and the amount of support are best determined by the nature of the business and the relative maturity of both parties in the relationship. For instance, someone picking up a food service franchise without any prior experience in the industry is certainly likely to need more training and support than a franchisee who is already successfully running other food service locations.

Will going through these steps guarantee that the franchise location or the franchise network succeeds? Perhaps not. But at the very least the framework will provide much more direction and clarity to your business, and will improve the chances of its success. And it’s a whole lot better than flapping around unpredictably during the heat of negotiations with high-energy franchisees in high-potential markets.

The Year That Could Be

The transition between calendar years offers a pause. We can use it to evaluate what passed in the previous year, chalk out our journey for the next one.

The first response of most people to the question “What happened in the Indian retail sector in 2011” would be probably something like this: lots happened, and then – at the end – nothing did!

That is because one theme ran through the entire year, month after month, fuelled by tremendous interest in the mainstream media as well. This was about the change expected, hoped for, in the policy governing foreign direct investment (FDI) into the retail sector. Hearing the debate go back and forth, on one side it seemed as if FDI was going to cure every ill of the Indian economy, and on the other it seemed as if the country was being sold out to neo-colonists.

It’s worth remembering that not too long ago foreigners could invest in retail businesses in India freely. Benetton ran some of the key locations in the network through its joint-venture which subsequently became a 100 per cent owned subsidiary. Littlewoods (UK) set up a 100 per cent owned operation in India during the 1990s before its home market business collapsed, and its Indian operation was bought by the Tata Group to form Westside. And well before all these, one of the early multi-nationals, Bata, had already built a humongous network of stores across the length, breadth and depth of India.

The motivation for the decision to exclude foreigners from this sector may have been political, economic or mixed – that is not as important as the timing.

By the mid-90s India had just started to attract interest as private consumption was just about picking up steam. Several international apparel, sportswear and quick service brands entered the market during this time. Many of these brands started setting up processes and systems that changed the way the supply chain worked. They gained market share, and more importantly mindshare, with young consumers. In this process some of the domestic brands did suffer, some of them irrecoverably. However, with foreign investment suddenly blocked-off, many brands that wanted direct ownership in the business in India turned away. In their opinion the opportunity just wasn’t big enough to take on the hassle of a partner. Some did enter, but with wholesale distribution structures rather than in retail.

During this last decade, the Indian retail landscape has changed dramatically. During the 2000s the economic boom happened and India became “hot” again. So did retail and real estate, as large corporate houses pumped in significant amounts of capital into setting up modern chains to tap into the fattening consumer wallets. Clearly, FDI was going to come up on the agenda again, but not quite at once. Indian companies needed some headroom to grow; and grow they did, partly with indigenous business models and brands, and partly as partners to international brands.

By 2011, there was more of a clear consensus among the Indian businesses that retail could be opened to FDI and must be. Internationally, too, political and economic heavy-weights from the significant western economies pitched for opening up the retail sector in India to foreign investment. Here’s the small public glimpse of the hectic activity that happened internationally and domestically:

  • January: UK pushes for FDI; Indian ministers say the decision would not be rushed but look forward to attracting $250 billion FDI between 2011 and 2015
  • February: some ministers say that the government is close to a decision but the timing is not yet right
  • March: a senior government official notes that FDI is not essential to bring down inflation, while the finance minister reiterates that there is no decision yet
  • May: another senior government official says that FDI is needed to tame inflation
  • July: the prime minister says that the government is working to build consensus; the Committee of Secretaries recommends relaxation in FDI norms
  • August-October: pronouncements progressively indicate a relaxation, but without a definite time-line
  • November: cabinet approves 100 per cent FDI in single brand retail and 51 per cent in multi-brand, but severe political backlash pushes government to reconsider
  • December: murmurs emerge about the delinking of decisions on single brand and multi-brand retail, so that some progress can be made

Such an anticlimax! For many, 2011 was the year that could have been a turning point. Could have been! If you had slept through the year and woken up on New Year’s Eve, would you have found nothing had really changed?

Ah, that’s the thing! I think most people observing the retail business actually slept through the year, because they were just focused on the FDI dream. Those actually engaged in the retail business know that many other things did change, some of which create the foundation for further growth.

The government did push on with the GST (goods and services tax) agenda. While stuck in politics at the moment, we look forward to incremental changes in harmonizing the taxes and tariffs regime, vital for truly unifying the country in the economic sense. On the downside, excise being levied on the retail price of clothing was a blow to retailers.

Growth continued. Indian’s retail giant, Future Group, grew to around 15 million square feet. The other giant, Reliance, announced renewed vigour and focus on the retail business with additions to the management team partnerships with international brands such as Kenneth Cole, Quiksilver and Roxy. Other new partnerships were announced, including significant American food service brands Starbucks (with the Tata Group) and Dunkin’ Donuts (with Jubilant). The British footwear brand Clark’s announced that it was aiming to make India its second-largest source country and among its top-5 markets within 5 years. Marks & Spencer pushed to expand its chain by more than 50 per cent, adding 10 stores to 19, while Walmart said its focus was on building scale rather than trying to squeeze profitability from its US$ 40 million investment so far. For fashion brands, the Rs 500 crores (US$ 100 million) sales threshold seemed more achievable as they used the accelerated pace of growth.

Many in the retail business talk about “the people problem”. Fortunately, some decided to demonstrate positive leadership, reflected in RAI’s announcement of an ambitious skill development plan for 5 million people in next 4-5 years, and industry veteran BS Nagesh announcing the launch of a non-profit venture, TRRAIN.

There was some bad news on the issue of shrinkage: a sponsored study placed India at the top of the list of countries suffering from theft. But the level was reported to be lower than the previous study, so there seemed to be hope on the horizon. The study didn’t say whether consumers and employees had become more honest, better security systems were preventing theft, or whether retailers themselves had become better at counting and managing merchandise over time.

A significant highlight was the e-commerce sector, which has found its way to grow within the existing restrictions and regulations, even as the online population is estimated to have grown to 100 million. Flipkart delighted customers with its service and racked up Rs. 50 crores (US$ 10 million) in sales. Deal sites proliferated and media channels celebrated the advertising budgets. Even offline businesses, notable among them pizza-major Domino’s, found their online mojo; Domino’s reported 10 per cent of its total revenues from online bookings within a year of launching the service.

In all of this the biggest story remains untold, which is why I call it an Invisible Revolution. This revolution is made up of the changes that are happening in the supply chain in the entire country, including investment by private companies in massive, large and small facilities to store, move and process products more efficiently. And in spite of the high costs of capital, suppliers are continuing to look at investing in upgrading their production facilities as well as their systems and processes. While the companies at the front-end will no doubt get a lot of the credit for modernizing India’s retail sector, it would be impossible without the support of the foundation that is being built by their suppliers and service providers.

2011 seems to have ended with a whimper. 2012’s beginning will be tainted by large piles of leftover inventory that needs to be cleared. Inflation seems tamer, but consumers have already tightened their belts, anticipating difficult times. The policy flip-flops and the political debates are sustaining the air of uncertainty. So what does 2012 hold?

Remember, the ancient Mayan calendar stops in December 2012, and no doubt there are many predicting doomsday! However, there are several others that see this as a possibility of rejuvenation, renewal.

Hope and fear are both fuel for taking action. Investment cycles are caused by an imbalance of one over the other.

In 2012, we’ll probably continue to see a mix of both. I recommend that we don’t take an overdose of any one of them. Even if you think 2011 was “the year that could have been”, I suggest still treating 2012 as “the year that could be”.

Here’s wishing you a successful New Year!

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.)

Where is the Love? In the Brand.

A few months ago, when asked to speak about value-addition at a food industry seminar, I decided, in a deviation from the usual discussion, to dissect the meaning of “value”.

Most people in industry focus on only one dimension of value-addition – the economic value added by processing and transforming food raw materials – virtually ignoring two other dimensions which are required for most of the (undernourished) population: calorific value and nutritional value (see “Perishable Value Opportunities”).

At the end of that seminar session, an agriculturist from the audience put forth a very pointed question: “What is the cost of the potatoes in a bag of branded chips that sells for Rs. 10? Or to put it another way, how much of the retail price actually goes back to the potato farmer?”

The question, of course, was completely loaded with angst on the economic imbalance between farm and factory, supplier and buyer, small and big, rural and urban. But it also underlined missed opportunities to capture economic value, which in turn accentuate the imbalances in growth.

Economic value can be added to food through improvement, providing protection, changing the basic product and through marketing. Improvement typically focuses on seeds, growing techniques and post-harvest areas for improved quality of harvests, disease resistance, better colours, size and flavour, possibly nutrition. Protection initiatives work across cultivation, harvest and post-harvest, storage, during processing, through packaging, while change is essentially focused on processing techniques (cooking, combining, breaking down and reconstitution).

There is a lot of work going on in the food supply chain to enhance the value captured closer to the farmgate. And, certainly, the “value-added” earlier is vital to maintaining and building value later in the supply chain.

However, what is striking is the fact that as we move downstream towards final consumption, the economic value captured as a price premium also increases dramatically.

So, as depressing as the multiplier may be to the farmer, on a kilo-for-kilo comparison, the bag of factory-fresh potato chips is priced many times higher than his farm-fresh potatoes. And, the maximum economic value is created, or at least captured, by the act of branding and marketing.

The Love is in the Brand

A short quiz break: can you recall the “most valuable company” in the world in August 2011, as measured by valuation on the stock market?

The answer is Apple. It is a company that physically manufactures nothing, but tightly controls the design, development, sourcing, distribution and, yes, branding of a group of products and services, whose fans seem to grow by the minute.

Of course, one can argue that Apple “produces” by the very act of designing completely new, highly desirable, products that are not available from anyone else, and that this is what provides the premium. But similar premium – which is due to branding and marketing, rather than proprietary products – is also visible in thousands of companies, across product sectors, including food. That sustained price premium is the sign that the consumer trusts and wants a particular brand’s product more than another one. There is a hook, a strong connect, due to which that consumer is willing to lighten her wallet just that much more.

In India, surprisingly, “value-addition” discussions in the food industry focus almost entirely on cultivation, storage and transformation through processing, virtually ignoring branding and marketing. In fact, branding is usually only discussed in the context of multinationals or some of the largest Indian companies. What’s more, most of the brands discussed are focussed largely in the area of processed food products that originated in the west.

Run these tests yourself. When you think of food and beverage branded companies who do you think of? And, when you think of food brands, what kind of products come to mind first?

The answer is that the brand landscape is dominated by products such as biscuits and cookies, jams, fruit and non-fruit beverages, potato chips, 2-minute noodles, confectionary products and food supplements, mostly from the portfolio of some of the largest companies operating in the market.

Of course, there are some alternative examples.

Aashirvaad and Kitchens of India present quintessentially Indian products (albeit from the gigantic stables of ITC which also has a multinational parent).

And, yes, there are cooperatives such as Lijjat, as well as home-grown mid-sized companies such as the Indian snack maker Haldiram’s, spice brands such as MTR and MDH, pickle brands such as “Mother’s Recipe”, rice brands such as Kohinoor and Daawat.

But, given the size of the Indian food market and the width and depth of Indian cuisine, shouldn’t there be more brands that are Indian and focussed on essentially Indian food products?

This is a tremendous opportunity – a gap – not just in the Indian market (among the largest and fastest growing in the world), but also globally.

The Hurdles to Branding

So, why aren’t there more Indian brands?

Let’s face it, for most companies, marketing fulfils one need: to communicate their name to potential customers. Most of them generally hope that if they do it enough, they would actually be able to sell more volume.

Of course, no one has been able to draw a straight line graph that correlates more marketing expense with higher sales.

Those are two self-destructive notions. Obviously, if marketing is an expense, then it must be minimised! And secondly, if it cannot be proven to be effective, why would you spend money doing it? For most people, branding is even fuzzier in that regard, in terms of what it is and what it achieves.

However, the picture changes when you look at marketing as an investment rather than an expense. As we evaluate any investment, there should be an expected return that should be quantifiable. Examples of Apple and other brands make it amply clear that branding and marketing, when done well, can certainly create quantifiable financial returns on the investment.

The second hurdle to branding and marketing is that they require consistency, which is not a strong point for most wannabe brands. They end up with too many messages to the consumer, or the messages keep changing and shifting. The company, the name, end up representing many things, sometimes everything, and eventually nothing.

The third, enormous, hurdle is the time needed to develop a brand with a decent sized marketing footprint and a deep relationship with the consumer. Most small and mid-sized companies, constrained as they are for resources, focus on areas that seem to offer more immediate returns, such as distribution margins or discounts, or even expansion of production capacity. Especially in the early years of the business, the benefits of branding and marketing seem to be too far in the future to be a priority for investment.

Due to these one of these reasons or a combination, many companies are unable to see their brands through to success. In fact, sadly, most companies do not last long enough to become owners of successful brands.

Even those who do achieve success and even market leadership, sometimes choose to cash-out on their success by selling their brands to larger competitors, rather than competing with the financial might of the giants (such as Thums Up being sold to Coca Cola; Kissan, Kwality and Milkfood being sold to Hindustan Unilever).

In the past, one of the other barriers in India was the hugely fragmented retail and distribution system, which essentially sapped energy, resources and focus for any company that wished to grow a brand across regions. In fact, one of the key lessons from the western markets is that the growth of brands has been closely linked to the expansion of retail chains. So, certainly, we should view the growth of modern retail in India as a platform for the emergence of regional, national and global Indian food brands.

However, there is a flip side to this retail growth. In the west, most retailers were focussed on running shops, and were content to leave product development and brand development to their suppliers, the national brands. These retailers began looking at private labels only as an additional source of margin well after they had gained scale, and even then they ventured rather carefully into the space. In India, on the other hand, private label is very high on the priority list of our nascent modern retailers, precisely because the effectiveness of that business model has been proven elsewhere and because there are such few national brands that have a strong, irrevocable connect with the consumer.

Should You Invest in Branding?

The short answer is to that question is: yes.

It doesn’t matter if you run a small company or start-up, or a more mature company. It doesn’t matter whether you are selling a consumer product directly, which is the most effective and most necessary playing field for building a brand, or an intermediate product or service where you can still achieve a premium within the trade.

If you are committed to selling only commodities, where your selling prices are determined only by the tug-of-war between supply and demand, government policies and Acts of God, then you wouldn’t be reading this article.

Since you are reading this, you should brand.

In the short to medium term, if you do the job well, your customers will pay you a premium. And in the mid to long term, financial investors looking to ride India’s economic growth are more willing to put their money in a company that has a recognisable hook and a trading premium over its generic competition.

The brand can be built on any platform for which there could be a discernible premium. This can be trust (quality, quantity), simplicity and convenience (prepared snacks and meals, pre-ground spices, flour instead of grain), or even novelty (fizzy coloured sweetened water, reconstituted potato “chips” so uniform in shape and size such that they fit into a cylinder). Organic, vegan, fair-trade – you take your pick of the platform on which to build the brand.

Possibly the strongest driver of premium and brand value is a properly maintained heritage. Some brands have a past, some of them even have a history, but very few have a heritage. If your business has a history, there is a heritage waiting to be discovered, and it is worth a lot.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that a brand should become anchored at a certain historical time point and expect to only milk its age. Heritage is always viewed in a cultural context and culture evolves over time, so the most effective brands maintain a link between the attributes of their past to their ever-evolving present.

As with most other things, it is good idea to start early. Take on board the lessons of branding early in the company’s life so that the foundation is strong, and the brand can grow organically. As a side benefit, strongly branded companies also have strong and cohesive organisation cultures, a fantastic defence during times of high employee attrition.

The Global Branding Opportunity for Indian Food Companies

One of the most important ingredients of a good brand is clarity of identity and origin.

Often we confuse identity with the name, the logo, fonts or colours associated with a brand. Yes, a brand’s identity is certainly indicated by these – as much as our name and our physical appearance indicate our identity. However, the identity itself is much larger; in fact, it is helpful to think of the brand’s identity as a personality. The personality gets expressed in many different ways, but is tied together in a definable manner and has some strong traits that define its actions.

There are clear statements that can be associated with effective brands, whether or not they have been expressed by the company or brand in any of its formal communications. For instance, some globally relevant Indian brands include Tata Nano (“frugal engineering”), the Taj Mahal (“timeless beauty”), Goa (“party”), Rajasthan (“royal exotica”), and Kerala (“bliss”).

(I am deliberately picking “global relevance” as a theme to keep in mind that there is, literally, a world of opportunity that we could be looking at.)

We find a high number of tourism-related brands in this list, because these are destinations that pull the customer in – as long as they are true to themselves and relevant to the context of the consumer, they will be successful.

More conventional consumer product brands, on the other hand, must work harder to fit into the consumer own context, especially as they move away from their geographical origin, their home market.

This is particularly true of food, which is widely divergent across geographies. Some products can be adopted into multiple cuisines, offering more easily accessible opportunities and potentially greater scale. Rice and generic spices fit the bill here. However, for most other food items, the context of the home country cuisine is vital. Therefore, the growth of food brands, not surprisingly, is linked to the expansion of cuisines across borders. It is partly driven by the movement of people, and partly by the movement of culture (television and movies being the most important in current times), mostly both together.

For Indian companies, there is certainly an opportunity to ride on the back of the Indian diaspora across the world. And now there is an additional opportunity: expatriates who spend a few years living and working in India can also help to carry the cuisine and its associated brands out.

Finished product brands such as Tasty Bite, Haldiram’s and Amul are good examples of diaspora-led expansion, where the original driver was to bring people of Indian-origin a taste of home. In fact, Amul has recently announced that it wants to set up a manufacturing plant for cheese and other dairy products in the US, to service the Indian-origin population more effectively. Should it be restricted only to that? Certainly not; availability, if supported well by branding, can help it to cross into other segments as well.

As the consumption of Indian food grows across ethnic lines, it is likely to drive the growth of Indian ingredients as well – a perfect vehicle for branded ingredient suppliers. What’s more, Indian recipe books could even specify Amul Cheddar Cheese, MDH Chaat Masala or MTR’s Dosa Mix as ingredients – they wouldn’t achieve a 100% hit rate, but it would certainly be significantly higher than zero!

There is an opportunity to capture economic value that branding offers, which is very often greater than any other process in the food supply chain. Remember two phrases made famous by Hollywood: “show me the money” and “show me some love”. In the business of brands, these are one and the same.

It’s worth asking: do we have the patience to live through the lifecycle of a brand, and can we commit resources to nurturing it? If the answer is “yes” to both, we are most likely to benefit from branding.

Here’s to more Indian food brands that grow within India and across the world.

(If you need support with growing brands, do connect with us.)

Fan-tastic idea from Dyson

It’s curious how James Dyson consistently gets “more” (price) for “less” (components). First it was the bagless vaccum cleaner, now it is a bladeless fan. The retail price is currently pegged at £200, and the product is initially being targeted at the US and Japanese markets, which obviously have more people facing hotter temperatures for more weeks in the year than Dyson’s home country, the UK. Or perhaps a bigger market segment for the latest tech toys that perform well in addition to looking cool.

Branded the Dyson Air Multiplier, it is certainly a fan-tastic idea, and the uphill struggle should be significantly less than when he was trying to sell bagless vacuum cleaners. If anything there is now a “Dyson premium” available to him on the price.

However, in this case, the prices definitely need to be more accessible, or he’ll be facing clones within months. Fans are already a more acceptable reality in income poor countries, and the market significantly larger in those countries. At some lower price point the addressable market will be exponentially larger, and someone else will definitely tackle it. Patent or no patent.

Here’s a Youtube video of Dyson explaining how the fan works. Share your thoughts below, after you’ve watched the video.