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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”.)

Itches, Cuts and Fractures

(Based on the special address By Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive, Third Eyesight opening the second day of Prime Source Forum 2009, Hong Kong)

I’d like to thank the organizing team at Prime Source Forum for this opportunity to address this distinguished group of top management from the global apparel and textile industry.

I’ll take you through a brief presentation that’s slightly different in flavour. it’s a little bit of a step back from what we discussed yesterday and will continue to discuss during the day today. It’s looking at the world as we’re seeing it evolve and unfold – discuss things are possibly being seen, heard but not really understood.

I’ve titled my presentation “Itches, Cuts and Fractures” and I’ll explain that seemingly strange title shortly.

First of all, as all of us were discussing yesterday and you must have felt it – there’s a sense of uncertainty; nobody seems to have the answers. Certainly not the experts; the experts got us here. The experts had all the answers till about six months ago and all the answers turned out to be wrong.

Instead, I’d like to take a step back and look beyond numbers, beyond rationales. All explanations and analysis seem to ignore one of the strongest drivers of humankind – emotion. Underneath all the thinking, reasoning, logical layers, it is emotions that actually drive many of our decisions.

When it comes to uncertainty – when it gets to an extreme – we tend to get into a fearful situation. When we don’t know what’s happening, or what’s going to happen, fear is actually the emotion that drives a lot of the decisions. We’re beginning to see a lot of that in the world, around the world in different countries. You might think that this might happen in the more developed economies, others might think that this is likely to happen in the less developed economies, but it is actually happening around the world.

And when it comes to another step further, fear actually causes friction.

 

Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive, Third Eyesight at Prime Source Forum - Hong Kong, 2 April 2009

As students of Zoology, we learn about how animals respond when they are threatened. In a shifting environment with many potential threats, fear and survival instincts trigger the “fight or flight response”. The animal can either try to fight the threat or to escape.

It is no wonder, then, that ‘friction’ is the first reaction in a world where there is a lot of uncertainty and lots of fear.

And we’re beginning to see the signs of that…if you caught the news yesterday about what’s happened in London while the G-20 leaders get together for the Summit. There’s clearly a lot of anger, a lot of resentment which is bubbling over. You might remember a small news item from a few weeks ago, about somebody’s expensive car being torched by a group of youngsters in western Europe, some of whom had recently lost their jobs.

In uncertain times, not only do we stand up to fight potential threats, we even see many more things as threats than we did earlier.

Let me ask you this question – how many of you remember how the 1930s Great Depression ended? It didn’t end in a “Great Revival”, it actually ended in a World War. I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but people do stupid things when they are under pressure. We all do. That is something that nobody wants, but sometimes your hand is forced and you end up taking actions that you regret later.

This is one of the issues that I think should concern all of us, and I’d like to talk a little later about how to deal with that.

If you look at some of the actions that have happened in the political domain, it’ll be clear how this is affecting what we have discussed in this area – the global trade in apparel and textile products.

Well, we’ve already seen in the last 2-3 months the push-backs coming from different political parties in various countries, raising barriers, taking actions that are essentially “warlike”.

In fact, not very far from here [Hong Kong] American and Chinese ships actually got into aggressive posturing on the high seas. This may have been a political statement from either side. We don’t know what was going on or who was right, but clearly there is conflict arising out of friction.

This could go on to its logical conclusion, or we have the choice of a step back.

When you look at the textile and apparel business, and I mentioned this yesterday, is one of the most international around the world, this becomes critical whether you are looking at sourcing or exploring new markets. How do I know which countries are safe to go to?

A few weeks ago The Economist very helpfully published a table rating 165 countries. I could say it is surprising but it is not. Of the 165 countries rated in 2007 and 2008, only 2 countries showed an improvement from the previous year’s score, 12 showed no change (of which 7 were anyway in the very high risk or high risk category), and the rest all showed an increased vulnerability to economic, social and political unrest.

There is no surprise in the list of the countries at the top of the table or at the bottom of the table. What is surprising is the change in the rating, or the risk outlook. Countries like New Zealand, Austria, Australia, Mauritius, Norway…look at the change…as a percentage the change is very high. These are countries which you would think are fairly stable. So it is not just the already unstable becoming more so, but the potential of friction and conflict rising in relatively stable countries as well.  The map looks redder – indicating higher risk – than it did last year.

So there is clearly a lot of uncertainty – we don’t know when it’s going to end, we don’t know when this recession will bottom out and we’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel. The situation looks fairly grim and the question is, what do we do?

We talked about the fight response, let’s talk about the flight response. One of the responses we have available is to not fight but to retreat, to protect ourselves.

That leads me to the other form of dealing with a threat – flight or escape. In individual terms this may literally mean running away from a location, in other cases this can mean deploying protection measures to cocoon oneself: a tortoise retracts within its shell, a squid squirts ink, while a hedgehog deploys its prickly quills.

What you’re trying to do is to protect yourself, your mind and emotions included, from all the uncertainty outside the boundaries you define.

Since countries can’t physically run away, governments build walls and engage in protectionism in the form of tariff barriers as well as non-tariff barriers such as procedural hassles in the way of imports, and get into trade fights which are essentially delaying tactics. You don’t really project too much aggression so as to get into a conflict but enough so as to present a barrier.

But – the good news is that there is hope! I believe that, fortunately for us, as Homo sapiens – “thinking humans” – we are not locked into our biological response systems alone. We have a third choice: to discuss and debate, to open a dialogue.

Partners who have turned opponents seem to be talking – there seems to be willingness to sit down at the table and talk things through. How quickly and what result will emerge remains to be seen. It is encouraging to see in this morning’s South China Morning Post a quote from the White House that the USA and China in their meeting yesterday “also agreed to work together and address the economic crisis, resist protectionism and to resume discussion about human rights as soon as possible.”

So, should we wait to see what emerges from these talks in London, and from the policy measures being announced by governments around the world? What do we do, as businesses, as individuals?

Well, I don’t think that freezing into indecision is an option. I don’t think inaction is an option. We have no way of knowing how the market will shape up, how the supply base will emerge, but we need to take steps to address our business concerns. Proactively or reactively we need to take action.

All the companies represented here in this room clearly need to respond to an economic situation that most of its management has never faced and most may never face again.

I have found as I have talked to people in the US in January, in the UK, in Europe, in India that many, many companies are postponing decisions, and the postponement is not rational.  It is not to say that something will happen, and I know the window of time in which that event will happen, therefore I am postponing my decision to that future. They’re just postponing – it’s just “I’ll look into this later”, it’s procrastination – it’s not even postponement of a decision. And that is not an option. I don’t think we can sit tight and wait for this to blow over.

So what should we do? How should we respond – on the sourcing side and on the market side?

I’ll talk about the sourcing side first.

The first thing we need to do, is to break from what one author called “the Tyranny of Or”. For instance, in discussions with colleagues from the industry I’m struck by how much we think along bipolar lines of growth. We prefer things to settle either one way or the other way, for them to be conveniently predictable for us.

I would suggest that rather than debate between extremes, we need to accept that different markets and supply bases will evolve differently. It is not a choice between consolidation or fragmentation, globalization or localization (“could manufacturing move back to Europe, or to the US?”). Should we be strategic or be reactive? There has been discussion about partnership, long-term relationships, but that partnership was shaped in a world very different, many months or years ago when the world was very different. Shouldn’t we react to that change?

Should we look at getting the lowest cost or should we look at speed? Clearly when you look at speed, you would be looking at supply bases that are more capable and potentially more expensive. Should there be a trade-off?

That leads me to a second issue: eggs. That is, risk. There are two philosophies.

One philosophy says: put all your eggs in one basket and watch it very very carefully. The other more common saying advises that we should spread your risk around a little bit and spread the eggs in different baskets.

That’s the thing about risk – you can try and minimize risk, but you also need to try and mitigate risk , diversify risk.

Well, if there is just one thing we need to learn about risk, it is to “diversify, diversify, diversify”. Minimizing risk is only possible to a certain extent. So I would tend to go along with common wisdom here. And even if you believe in the first philosophy, it only works even partially if you have multiple eggs.

Yesterday we talked about a few other things – consolidating the business, conserving cash flows and being careful with our resources, and so on. But it also leads to conservatism. If you look around the room and see the number of black suits around, including the one on the stage, you’ll get a flavor of what I mean. These things are not divorced from each other. We deal with our business and rational decisions through the lens of our emotions. And when things are looking uncertain, we tend to contract, whether to regroup our energies or to protect ourselves – fight or flight which is a very instinctive, natural response.

The thing that we need to remember is that when you look at the fashion and the retail businesses, both of these businesses are fundamentally entrepreneurial in nature. Of course there are corporate businesses as well, but the successful ones promote entrepreneurship within the corporate.

And the thing about entrepreneurs is that there is a certain quality…you could call them mavericks. The night before last there was a conversation about how the average size of manufacturers and brands in this industry is much smaller than in other sectors.  The reason for that is that the entrepreneurial drive actually takes precedence over any corporate diktat. The industry actually allows and encourages entrepreneurs to break off, and go and do their own thing. And that causes fragmentation.

Standing here today, after all that discussion on the sourcing panel yesterday about supply base consolidation, I have to say this: fragmentation, to my mind, in the current scenario is a good thing.  You might call me crazy, but let me give you my reasoning for saying that.

Think about a beanbag – there is a lot of air in between the small pieces of foam, and the bean bag is a lot softer than one single solid piece of foam. The cushioning effect comes from the fact that there is a lot of air in between.

We need the cushion of diversity in the industry at the moment because there is no way – no way – we can predict who will succeed.

Some of the best known names in the industry have disappeared in the last six months. Twelve months ago nobody could have said, with any certainty, that they will disappear. So how do we decide what’s good, who should consolidate with whom, who will survive? We can’t! Nobody has a crystal ball, nobody can identify certain survivors. I would urge you to allow fragmentation to exist rather than just travelling on the consolidation route.

I think supply base consolidation and market consolidation has gone beyond strategic considerations, and almost become a fad. Consolidation does have some logic, but when it comes to risk, diversification is certainly preferable.

The recent crisis in global financial systems dramatically demonstrated not just how risky it is to depend solely on a few large institutions but also how the risk gets multiplied manifold due to these institutions might be interconnected.

In the textile and apparel business, instances such as SARS and the temporary re-introduction of quotas have demonstrated, again and again, the fallacy of over-depending on consolidated supply chains.

Also, too many people believe that the industry worldwide has no choice but to consolidate, that mergers and acquisitions are inevitable, and that large companies will dominate the business from retail to fibre. We forget that we are talking about the fashion industry, not the automotive or aerospace industry. Entrepreneurship here doesn’t cost billions or even millions of dollars.

We also need to look at balancing our approach – everyone has been looking at efficiency, which is a great driver: you strip out extra cost, extra time etc. but what I said about the risk is also true of innovation. You want different sources of innovation. There is not a single company in this room, or around the world in this sector, has the prerogative of being the only innovative company in the world.

As I said, this sector is entrepreneurial, and there is innovation coming from all kinds of people, from all kinds and sizes of companies. There is the need to allow that to happen and we would miss out tremendous innovation opportunities if we consolidate all our eggs into one or a few baskets.

So when you next look at dropping suppliers, think about what capabilities you might be losing or what risks you might be multiplying.

When you look at what that means for the sourcing approach, obviously you do want to reduce costs, when you are dealing with a predictable product, but the share of unpredictable is growing with every passing month.

In uncertain times such as now, and with unpredictable products, the prime driver is to “Catch the Trend” and the focus must be on “Response”. So you need to look at making the buying decision closer to the season and closer to the market. Development lead times must be shrunk and the lead time heavy decisions (such as fabric commitments, lab-dip approvals etc.) must be taken out of the critical path. This may even drive more sourcing from supply bases that are close to the market.

The panel on sourcing talked about lead-time yesterday. A lot of lead time is spent just going back and forth in the supply chain. The only way to handle this is for suppliers to not only become more capable, but to stand up and say “we are more capable”. They need to be able to say, “We don’t just convert fabric into garments, we can also do a lot of other stuff – we can design and develop new product, we can actually look at your sales trends and tell you what products we should be developing together.” This is an art, or a science, that seems to have disappeared (or is disappearing) over the last 15-20 years, as we’ve gone into this, dare I say, management consulting-led ‘strategic sourcing’ drive. The art of being a merchant is not only a retailer’s prerogative, but also something for a supplier to do. You need to be able to read the market, not just respond to a tech-pack, and I think that’s a skill set that needs to be emphasized and encouraged in the current market.

What should buyers do? Certainly, speed to market strategy is at the top of the agenda. Another response to this is to look at sourcing closer to home.

In this environment suppliers in global hubs should certainly be more concerned about reducing their “sketch-to-shop” lead times.

In fact, today buyers may look to proximity for more than just speed-to-market and the concern for clothing miles (“proximity sourcing is environmentally friendly”). Underlying that is the sense of security – that it is closer to home, more in the known territory than unknown, more “predictable”, it’s familiar – “I can manage it better”.

We’re going to see more of that – I don’t think we have a choice. Buyers are human beings, despite what several suppliers sitting in this room might think. Emotions do drive buyers’ decisions as well, and that is one of the emotions that will be driving some of the decisions.

Just a quick word on the market side: both factories and their buyers need to define the value that they bring to the market,

There is a lot of talk about partnership in this sector but, let’s be honest, there isn’t much partnership in this sector around the world. Companies do need to question what is the value they are bringing to their customers, and whether that value is greater than last year.

You can’t take it for granted that the consumer will trade down, or even trade up  to a better product that will last longer. Why should they buy your product?

One of the kneejerk reactions in this kind of a market is to cut down on marketing. There is a need to sustain investment in branding (as targeted to the consumer or within the trade). In fact, if you are a supplier and have not invested in this area so far, I would suggest that the time to sow the seeds is now. Whether it is developing markets, new segments in a developed market, a country that is new to you, it takes a few years to develop a credible market presence. It’s cheaper right now – marketing costs are lower now, people are available, advertising is cheaper; the time to plant the seed is now.

On a different note, I would like to reiterate a particularly significant concern.

The fashion industry has one driving principle – that everything becomes unfashionable. We have what is called planned obsolescence. Without planned obsolescence how do you make next year’s sales? Any consumer business is built on the same principle, but the fashion industry is particularly important because it is very visible and raises the aspirational level very high.

Imagine the population as a cylinder, and imagine aspirations being pulled upwards like a piston. This upward aspirational pull affects not just those who can afford to indulge their aspirations, but also those who can’t. The stress is felt most at the bottom end.

Consumption, aspiration, stress, inclusive growth, inclusive economics

I have to confess, this slide is about 3-years old, when I used it at a conference organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry. I used it again today because the signs that were just becoming visible at the end of 2006 are now on the news every day. The crime and the conflict arising out of this stress is apparent around the world. [Edit.: Articles referencing the original presentation are in the Business Standard of 30 November 2006, and on Third Eyesight’s website.]

What if the fashion industry’s consumers decided to opt-out? What if they said, we don’t want to buy more, we want to buy less? What would the business look like in that environment?

I think we need to start thinking about that now, because many companies will face that in their market. I think there are certain companies and segments in the US market that are already facing that pressure, and we will find that happening across the world.

Our business models are geared towards outdating merchandise in a matter of weeks or days or hours, and selling more to replace stuff that is still fairly serviceable. What if consumers got into the mode of conservation that many people in this room are already getting into: that “I need to conserve my resources”. Let’s not forget, we’re all consumers. Let’s looking at our spending behaviour; is it the same as last year? I would guarantee you, 80-90% of the people here would say that they have made some cutback since last year.

So how do we get out of this situation? Well, the situation is out there in the market and we can’t just get out of it, so we need to deal with it.

The manufacturing of apparel products has been and remains a great vehicle to spread income and wealth to the financially less well-off people. Also, the textile and apparel industry has such low barriers to entry that I believe it is also one of the greatest vehicles to promote entrepreneurship and self-reliance.

 

 

The reason I shared that video is to explain the strange title of my talk.

I believe that many of us are experiencing the equivalent of an itch or maybe a scratch. Some have a cuts and bruises, and a few have fractures. But the fact is that we’re not dead yet. Most of us have lost much less than David Hoffman, whose presentation you just saw on the Ted.com video.

Let’s not forget: this industry has faced downturns before and has come out of them; it will again. Meanwhile we need to get our heads down and go through with doing whatever we are supposed to be doing.

Someone said: this crisis is too good to waste. There is too much opportunity in this crisis to not use. We can make changes that would be difficult in the best of the times. In the best of the times you’re going strong, everything is going well, there is no motivation to change.

The kind of transitions that look tough at other times, those investments that you can’t make at other times – this is the time to make them.

Mark Twain said, “If you feel like you’re going through hell, just keep going.” And I think that’s what we need to do.

Thank you.

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.

Freedom of Ownership

August is the month when India celebrates gaining its independence in 1947.

So it is quite apt to think about the implications the word “independent” has in the world of grocery retailing as well.

India’s food and grocery retail sector (as most of the other product sectors) is full of traditional “mom-and-pop” operations. Estimates of their share of the market vary from 97% to 99.5% of the total food and grocery sales – but it is given that “independent” retailers rule the roost, and the estimates vary only in the degree of predominance.

The word “independent” in this context differentiates an entrepreneur-run stand-alone operation from a chain store, and encompasses all the kiranawalas and corner shops – traditional, modernizing, as well as the best-of-breed. The business owner-manager of these operations is solely responsible for merchandising, buying, staffing & HR, finance and the rest of it. If he works well, he makes a decent living and helps others to make a living as well. If he doesn’t work well, others may still make a living but he will most likely just scrape by.

In many ways, of course, the word “independent” is related to “freedom”. The phrase “independent retailer” also conjures up a picture of overall economic freedom, of self-ownership of one’s business and economic destiny.

There is freedom from an externally imposed operating framework, freedom in selection of products, freedom in pricing, freedom to service local customers for the store in the most appropriate and locally-relevant way, freedom to manage the cash-flows as the owner-manager wishes to, and so on.

This picture obviously is based on the premise that the independence that is assumed is actually available, as it would be if the market remains hugely fragmented and the supply base also becomes fragmented with many suppliers and brands fighting out for their share of the pie.

Clearly, to anyone who is actually involved in the retail sector that is a huge assumption.

Yes, the supply base is certainly becoming more diverse than earlier as new brands get launched in the market and battle for shelf-space. These brands include not just start-ups or mid-sized companies, but also large companies who are well-equipped to deal with the large incumbents on their own terms. This is surely a good thing for the independent retailer, as it provides him more choice and makes his shelf-space more valuable.

However, there is a quantum difference in the sophistication in organisation, information availability and financial capability between a single-location independent retailer, and even a mid-sized branded supplier, and the balance of power is actually more fragile than it seems. As a supplier grows, it builds up a differentiated position and a distinctive branding and becomes less easily replaceable, while each independent retailer becomes more and more generic, and therefore replaceable. The major differentiating or sustaining factor for most such retailers is their physical location, whose desirability and marketability is not as much within their own control.

When you add large modern retailers into the mix, the economic freedom of the independent looks even more fragile.

Some observers would have us believe that in India modern retailers have little or no impact on the long-term health of independent retailers. This is quite contrary to the ample evidence available from the modernization of retail over several decades in other markets around the world. (Should we chant the old hymn, “But India is different”?)

The fact is that modern retailers don’t suddenly lead to a boom in consumption of food and FMCG products. While there may be some increment due to greater supply and better retail techniques, a new store will invariably take business from existing retail channels. After all, given a choice of a wider variety, a better shopping environment, similar or better products, and similar or better pricing, why would consumers not shift some or all of their spending to a modern retail store?

This, then, brings us to the (sensitive) question – what would happen to the independent retailers in such a circumstance?

Of course, we can take heart from the fact that independent retailers continue to exist even in highly-consolidated and more “developed” markets, and imagine that such a thing will happen in India as well.

Let’s not forget that in some developed and consolidated markets, independents may be supported by local laws and regulations (such as urban planning constraints), while in other places they are supported by the community which may not just show their support by shopping at the mom-and-pop store but also by actively blocking the entry of large retailers and chain stores.

In India the picture is a bit more complex and nuanced.

One the one hand, the consumer is apparently quite happy to enjoy better shopping environments, the convenience of all-under-one-roof. And, while estimates of “wastage” in the food supply chain vary widely, it is widely acknowledged that modern retailers can have a significant positive impact on product quality, value addition, and logistical infrastructure. That is surely a good thing for the country when it is vital to explore every bit of efficiency in food production and its delivery to the population.

On the other hand, regulatory or activist blocks have started to appear already, very early in the growth cycle of modern food and grocery retailing. A few state governments have even taken to banning or at least restricting the growth of corporate-promoted retail chains. Traders’ associations in many markets are quite clear in their perception of the threat from modern retailers to the independent’s normal existence. They express the wish to retain a livelihood threatened by corporate-backed retail operations that are perceived to be competing unfairly with their deeper pockets.

One of the core issues here is the sense of ownership, of being one’s own boss, the dignity offered by being an entrepreneur. Think about what we said earlier about the sense of freedom. Is there a way to retain, or even improve upon that?

The answer may lie in franchising. This may be the bridge between the two sides, and the vehicle for a “co-opted” growth of both.

In a fragmented market like India, it will certainly be a while before corporate retailers can understand and service diverse localities as well as the independents can, or have operations that are as efficient as a kirana-store. As long as independents evolve their own business to offer consumers better service, keep their operating expenses low, manage their inventory closely and retain the energy to run their family business, they will thrive. Imagine if that management capability, sense of ownership and drive became available to a corporate retailer.

At the same time, surely the sourcing scale and marketing muscle that are available to retail chains could be useful to an independent retailer, and help him build more business.

The fundamental successful structure for franchising is identical the world over. The franchiser is an entrepreneur or a company with a product or service that has a market beyond what he can immediately service. The franchisee is an entrepreneur who wants to have the pleasure and privilege of being a business owner, but would also like to benefit from being part of an organisation.

For a win-win, both franchiser and franchisee have to bring something to the table, they both have obligations and responsibilities and both have rights. The framework of the franchise relationship has to be clear in defining these, and yet allow operational flexibility. The partners must also be able to break-away if things don’t shape up the way they have planned, without being too restrictive of each other after the break-up.

The Indian market is not new to franchising. Lifestyle products such as apparel, footwear and others have franchise networks that date back to the 1960s. However, food retail has only seen sporadic attempts at franchising (many of them unsuccessful).

Some of the problems can be tackled by improving the operational and system rigour, while others (such as how do you manage fresh produce consistently at franchise outlets) may be insurmountable in the short term and will require some constraints to be built into the business model.

I believe food and grocery retailers need to explore the option of franchising for faster and possibly more efficient growth, and for encouraging a spirit of partnership in the development of the grocery retail sector. Inclusive growth is a trite phrase, but very true in this context.

India has been and will remain a land of entrepreneurs, and companies would be wise to co-opt that energy.

Who knows – you may even be giving birth to a retail giant. After all, Sam Walton also began his business as a franchisee of another company.

“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.

CSR – Philanthropy or Empowerment

We’ve been discussing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and whether its implications (and need) is fully appreciated by businesses.

A couple of years ago I did a project with the weavers of Chanderi and it was a good reality check of the India that struggles to live behind the facade that the world thinks real India is. India really isn’t only about Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kolkata, or Jaipur, Jodhpur, Agra for that matter. Neither is it about the stage set villages with its token computer/cyber point dressed up for visits of foreign heads of state. The potential to develop an economically sound India actually lies in its rural areas, in its cottage industries, in the small scale businesses of the unorganized sectors. The talent, the pride, the dignity of human life, the shrewd and competent business brain all exists there, but need to be nurtured and developed and most importantly need to be given a fair hearing and chance. Rural India is not looking for charity or ‘assistance’ – it is looking for empowerment. Unfortunately most of us don’t understand the difference. Corporate Social Responsibility is about empowerment, and does not mean ‘giving’ but ‘encouraging, developing, nurturing and sustaining’. CSR practiced in its truest sense would be a ‘win-win’ for both the buyers and the sellers in a given business environment.

With the growth of consumerism and wealth in urban India, businesses must realize that community awareness and service is not an option but a requirement. CSR can no longer be a sub-department of the personnel and HR division of the company. There is need for the ownership of CSR at a much higher level, on par with all other activities and decisions that drive the business. Corporate activism must be sustainable and accepted as a valuable change agent of today’s business environment. Corporate Social responsibility must have a much broader implication in modern India and reduce dependency on the government for social change.

Empowerment and concern for the society is often misunderstood as socialism. However one must realize that a capitalist economy only thrives when every citizen is a contributor and a participant in it and has the opportunity to succeed. As a recent example, ITC’s e-Choupal has demonstrated the success of such a concept in the current business environment, as did the success of Amul and Mother Dairy co-operative movement of the pre ‘CSR’ era of Indian business.

And yet, there is so much more to be achieved.

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. 😉

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