Hyperlocals, Aggregators: Developing the Ecosystem

Devangshu Dutta

January 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Indian Retail Market

Devangshu Dutta

October 15, 2008

(Written in September 2008)

Over the last few years India has had one of the highest GDP growth rates, across the world, and consistently. In the last two years GDP growth is estimated to have been 9.6 per cent (2006-07) and 9 per cent (2007-08).

A combination of private and public investments in recent years, as well as steady liberalisation of regulations, has created a situation that is unique in India’s history as an independent country, where business growth has lead to individual prosperity which is, in turn, leading to explosive growth of further business opportunities. Although India’s per capita income still places it in the list of “developing countries”, a significant population has emerged that is truly middle-class.

Rising incomes have created visible shifts in consumption patterns. Certainly, more Indians regularly consume cereal flakes, processed cheese and fruit-based drinks for breakfast than did ten years ago. A generation has grown to adulthood wrapped in ready-to-wear clothing (with visits to the tailor mainly for wedding trousseaux). And, yes, Indian consumers are increasingly welcoming modern retail environments over the traditional

These economic developments have attracted the attention of both domestic and international consumer-goods companies and retailers, and several of these companies have seen annual growth rates 20-50 per cent in the current decade. Many of the new entrants into the retail sector are large business groups that have set up modern retail chains whose share, although still small, is growing year-upon-year.

This growth of modern retailing is also having an impact on the processes and the infrastructure deployed for the retail sector. These businesses are run as true chains which require processes and systems similar to any chain-store business anywhere else in the world including merchandising, sourcing, human resource management, logistics and store operations. These modern retail stores demand Grade-A buildings for shopping centres, with associated infrastructure and services within them.

Therefore this, in turn, has created a growing opportunity for companies that are manufacturers or vendors of consumer products, suppliers of other goods that are used within a retail business or companies providing services to the retail sector.

In the rush to grow, while challenges have been acknowledged, none of them have appeared seriously debilitating in the long term, until possibly now.

During the years 2003 through 2007, news headlines mainly focussed on joint-ventures or strategic alliances, new store openings, new format launches, and mega-investment plans. If human resources were mentioned, it was about the apparent domestic shortage, about the expatriate talent being pulled in, and about incredible salaries. If shopping centres and retail space was studied, it was the phenomenal growth in square footage and the increasing scale of the new malls that was the focus.

Suddenly, however, the tide in the press seems to have turned. There’s mention of “slow” growth plans of major retail joint ventures. There’s whisperings and denials about lay-offs, accompanied by some high-visibility exits.

It would be tempting to read the signs as evidence that the previous growth was based on hype, which has run out of steam. It would be tempting, and it would also be too simplistic.

The fact is that macroeconomic factors are also acting as dampeners in 2008, and the year may be marked in the recent history of India’s modern retail sector for the dawn of realism. Just as the growth of the retail sector was reaching into the not so profitable geographies and beginning to ride on not very efficient structures, economic growth has begun to slow down dramatically. From a 9 per cent-plus growth rate in previous years, a variety of agencies expect GDP to grow between 7.5 and 7.9 per cent in 2008-09. Further, the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council forecasts a GDP growth rate of 6.8 per cent in 2009-10.

What’s more, 2006 and 2007 have brought about phenomenal increases in two critical cost heads: real estate and human resource.

So on the one hand, retailers are facing dramatically higher operating costs, and on the other hand demand seems to be weaker than they have expected. For businesses that have been launched in the last 5-7 years, such a situation is completely new.

Estimating the Demand – Still an Art?

Since the early years in the decade, most retail chains have grown quickly by identifying new sites and replicating existing successful business models and formats. Typically, the growth was limited in its geographic spread, and the underlying consumption pattern differences between the existing markets and the new locations were not stark enough to be immediately visible. Much of the growth, in fact, came from new stores in the larger cities, including the metros, mini-metros and the next tier markets.

This high replicability has allowed the businesses to rapidly scale up into becoming truly national chains, and the presence of modern retail formats has become visible among the larger cities and towns.

As the companies have begun to feel “saturated” in the larger cities, they have gradually moved towards the smaller towns, with their existing product-price-format offer tweaked slightly.

However, the ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity of India’s 28 states and 7 Union Territories makes it less like any other single nation-state and more like a collection of countries such as the European Union. The result is sharp differences in income, tastes, habits, and culture, all of which present a challenge for consumer products and retail companies in terms of product and pricing mix.

Most European brands do not approach different markets within the EU with identical strategies. So why should we believe that the business formula that works in one part of India will work in exactly the same way in other parts?

A bigger issue is the realistic estimation of the target population. There are cases where the demand has been grossly overestimated, and the business infrastructure and investment plans are over-weighted by these expectations.

Estimates of 200-300 million middle class (50-60 million households) sound very attractive, but by what measure of income and spending standards?

Going by the pricing of many of the brands in the market today, it would be logical to use developed market income standards. If we use global income standards the middle class numbers are much smaller. The number of households earning truly middle class annual household incomes (not adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity), is less than 5 million.

Of course, the upside is that the growth rate in this income class is estimated to have been over 20% a year during the current decade and this group is forecast to comprise of over 3.7 million households or about 20 million individuals by the end of the decade. There are few other markets in the world where the target population displays a growth of over 20% a year! Moreover, the annual growth rate of the incomes earned among this population is also the highest in the country. Further, a large proportion of this population is concentrated among the metropolises, as mentioned earlier.

So it is a nice market to be in, if the business plan is sized appropriately. You can expect some homogeneity based on the socio-economic classification, and the geographical reach is also limited, allowing for organic growth.

A specific challenge for companies wishing to enter with a “western” business model or product mix is that, even through its most controlled years, India has been a market economy (unlike China’s decades of a completely centrally controlled economy). Therefore, in most consumer products there are several domestic brands and Indian avatars of foreign brands available, even if the choice is narrower than on the shelves of western supermarkets. Competing offers are available, whether from Indian companies or Indian subsidiaries of global consumer products companies. In that sense, India is not a virgin market. There is already some (or significant) amount of marketing noise and clutter, created by the existing competition.

It is vital, therefore, for any company to identify the true overlap between its offering and the most appropriate consumer segment(s) in India to assess the real short-term and mid-term potential for its retail business.

The Urban Retail Opportunity and Challenge

While we are on the subject of the cities, it is very pertinent to look at the spread of the urban population.

 As India’s population moves increasingly into cities, it is the larger cities (Class 1, with a population of over 100,000) that are growing the most. From 308 Class 1 towns, the number of Class 1 towns and cities in India had grown to 643 in the 2001 census, and are estimated to hold about three-quarters of the urban population.

These cities are also economic magnets. No matter how attractive the new boomtowns may sound, the larger cities still pull in huge numbers of immigrants from the smaller cities, towns and villages, keeping the ecosystem vibrant.

Within these, in terms of economic potential for retail businesses, it is the Tier 1 cities (metros and mini-metros) that are the still unmatched. In 2001, the top-8 cities were estimated to have 40 per cent of the urban disposable income, and despite rising costs and rising competition these remain the most attractive market for a company looking to establish a new retail business. In socio-economic terms there is more homogeneity available to a brand wishing to tap into a critical mass of customers, discretionary incomes are higher (in absolute not just percentage terms), and the infrastructure available to service the consumer is better.

Of course, the side effects of the population overloading are now visible, ever more, on the cities’ infrastructure and governance. And some of the overloading is contributed by the development of shopping centre space.

The growth of modern retail has brought with it a rapid expansion in shopping centre space. This is both an opportunity and a challenge.

While the extraordinary growth of shopping centres has provided more space for brands and modern retailers to grow their business, much of the growth has been concentrated in the metropolises.

Almost half the shopping centre space by the end of 2007 is estimated to have come up in the conurbations of Mumbai and Delhi. This “over-shopping” could potentially lead to the failure of a significant number of these malls. The failure may not result in outright closure – the better sites may change ownership, while others might get repurposed as office blocks or other commercial projects – but it will be painful, nevertheless.

Paradoxically, despite the proliferation of malls, for retailers and brands high real estate rental costs are the possibly the biggest headache. In many instances, brands have signed-on high-rent shops with the aim of balancing their portfolio over time, and fully expect these shops not to make money in the foreseeable future.

Further, the intensive development of malls, without adequate zoning and planning of support infrastructure such as roads and public transportation is now stressing not just the city, but the malls themselves. Even if there is adequate parking space within the mall (as compared to a few years ago), what good is it if a two kilometre stretch of road before the mall is choked with traffic moving at 2-3 kilometres an hour? The convenience of shopping under one roof is totally outweighed by the inconvenience of spending thrice the amount of time on the road, and is a critical deterrent to a serious shopper who is being targeted by the tenants of the shopping mall.

Tier 2 and 3 Cities – A Work in Progress

A recent study by NCAER and Future Capital Research compared 20 cities, and classified them into the Megacities (metros and mini-metros), Boomtowns and Niche Cities. The naming of these groups is quite telling.

Megacities on this list include Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Pune, and have approximately 50% of their income as surplus after household expenses (other than Kolkata and Pune which show surpluses in the 30s). They have large populations, and combined with the surpluses, this up to a massive economic opportunity.

However, the smaller cities have been developing into economic hubs in their own right. If population is a key factor, then Surat would be classified as a metro. It has a high average household income, as well as a high surplus. Similarly, Nagpur, with its logistically important location is also developing into an important market. Along with Lucknow and Jaipur, households in these cities have seen double-digit booms in terms of income growth since 2005, a trend also seen in the Megacities.

This trend of income growth, infrastructure development, trickling of business hubs into the 2nd and 3rd tier cities, will continue to broaden the base of modern retail and distribution further outside of the major cities. On the other hand, while households in cities such as Chandigarh and Ludhiana have high surplus incomes comparable to the Megacities, the much smaller base of population would force marketers to treat them as niche markets until a critical mass develops over the next few years.

Thus, while much has been made about the boom in the smaller cities and towns, the formulaic approach of rolling out the same business model will certainly not work.

The signs of overestimation of demand in Tier-3 and Tier-4 cities is visible in instances of downsizing of store-space by prominent retailers, as well as relocation or closure of some of the new stores which have not performed to expectation.

The Tug of War to Modernise Retail 

In my opinion retail is fundamentally an organic business.

Countries that have displayed inorganic growth of modern retail through large-scale corporatisation tend to be economies that have developed rapidly in the last 20-25 years. Among these are the East Asian economies and the former communist Eastern European countries. Three critical factors that have enabled the disproportionate and rapid growth of corporate retail in these countries are: financial muscle, a bank of real estate and strong political linkages. In other countries the high share of modern retail has grown over many more decades.

In other countries such as those in western Europe and North America, retail consolidation has happened over many more decades, boosted occasionally by phases of economic boom (such as the 1920s, the 1950s and 1960s, and then the 1980s).

Many observers have imagined that India’s retail growth would follow the East Asian and Eastern European countries’ pattern, and have projected that India will reach a state of significant consolidation through corporate retail businesses by 2015.

If that were to happen it would be a rather sad “monoculturisation” of the business. Fortunately, I believe, that it is not likely to happen easily.

Firstly, the modernisation of retail trade has typically moved in step with broader economic and infrastructural development. If we use per capita retail sales as a surrogate measure for the overall economic development of a country in conventional terms, the share of modern retail is closely correlated with that (see the accompanying table). Viewed through that lens, the Indian retail sector is still very far down on the list, and is likely to remain fairly fragmented for some time to come.

Secondly, India has a strong entrepreneurial and organic retail ecosystem (not just retailers, but also suppliers and support organisations). Given the diversity of the market, and the sustained fragmentation of consumer needs, I believe the growth of India’s retail sector will not be driven by large companies alone, although they are helping to accelerate the process of sophistication – indigenous, non-corporate retailers and their suppliers have a strong role to play in the ongoing development.

I believe the Indian retail sector will evolve along a path that may be a hybrid, and in fact, may be closer to the European and American model, with a significant amount of entrepreneurial competition dominating the landscape.

Therefore, it is important for the executives in corporate retail organisations to think innovatively, as an entrepreneur would – think truly like a “dukaandaar” (shopkeeper).

Would a dukaandaar open a store in a place where he has no hopes ever of making money? Would he consistently follow this strategy for years? Would he believe that he is building brand equity and goodwill by doing so, that will sustain him in the future? The honest answer to all those questions would be an unqualified “no”.

Any long-term strategy can only be built on the premise that the business will be sustained into that term. If the short-term cashflows are not available to keep the business alive, no amount of long-term thinking will help, as some retailers have recently acknowledged while shutting stores or entire businesses.

It is also important for the corporate dukaandaars to continue to evolve relationships with the fragmented supply base, and support the growth of indigenous national-scale suppliers.

Models for Inclusion

Inclusive growth has become a buzzword in recent years. However, I believe India is one of the few major economies where it is more than just a buzzword.

In 2006, at the National Retail Summit organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry I expressed the concern that we were getting too preoccupied with the western model of urban economic development and consumption and we were ignoring the gap that was creating in India (the text based on that presentation is available on Third Eyesight’s website). To my surprise, I had no fewer than 60 conversations during the day about the subject, many of them with senior managers in large consumer goods and retail companies.

Clearly, the thought of sharing the growth and prosperity more widely does strike a chord with many more Indian urbanites than one would realise. What’s more, quite a few companies are actually taking a direct approach into bridging the gap.

There is no one single model that is applicable to creating these bridges.

Some – large companies such as ITC and Mahindra or smaller ventures such as Drishtee – have created retail businesses that also act as local exchanges of services and goods in the villages. Many of them include villagers as co-entrepreneurs through franchise structures, thus helping to generate and retain wealth within the locality.

Others – such as Fabindia among the visible, or Khamir and Dastkaar – are channels for rural artisans to participate in the economic growth as suppliers to the burgeoning urban demand.

Food retailers have started co-opting farmers into supplying to them directly, where possible. The attempt is to bypass middlemen who act as aggregators, thus making more margins available to both retailer and farmer. Many farmers are indeed happy to put in some extra investment in minor equipment and some effort, to help grade, sort and clean the produce, so as to get a still better price.

Yet, certainly, more could be done. For instance, how about if the largest modern retailers in the country created a permanent display for regional crafts in all their stores, and took these along as they grow their chains in the coming years?

And how about retailers growing businesses through demand generated by economic growth in the much smaller towns? By encouraging regional suppliers and local buying (as opposed to the central purchase mindset), not only would retail chains be better merchandised for local needs, but also be plugged more into the local economy.

Let us not ignore the possibility of local retailers who are right now “flying under the radar” to become important factors in the growth of these smaller towns.

Demand generation in Tier III towns and semi-urban areas will accelerate as the logistical connectivity improves and shipping costs decline through multi-modal transport. There is significant investment happening in both road and rail connectivity, and the newly well-connected dots on India’s map are visibly more prosperous than earlier.

As these developments continue, we should fully expect strong retail chains to begin building up, first locally and then regionally.

When we speculate about who India’s Wal-Mart might be, we shouldn’t forget that the world’s largest company emerged from sleepy, semi-rural locations in the US, and similar developments might happen in India as well.

Facing the Challenges

The Indian retail sector also has some distinct environmental challenges that are bigger than the specific economic blip it is facing right now.

For instance, to my mind retail is an integral part of urban infrastructure, but in most cities retail is a sideshow for urban planners. Either the space provided is too little, or laid out in such a manner that no sensible retailer can expect to have a sustainable and profitable store in that location. Or, if a large space is provided for the private development of shopping centres, the public transportation connections are next to nil, while the car-carrying capacity of the connecting roads is usually poor.

Some of the other challenges are related to the Indian government regulations controlling the sector. As an example, in the area of fresh produce, some states still have regulations that restrict the wholesale trading of the commodities to the mandis, or controlled market yards. This means that the consolidation and processing of farm produce is more difficult and expensive.

Real estate costs are an ongoing challenge for retailers, especially those that wish to develop mall-based businesses. Some mall owners have begun evolving from being “builders” to mall managers with a long-term view on creating a business of shopping centre management, and have begun linking their rentals to the revenues actually generated by their retail tenants. However, in several cases, the real estate costs are still in the double digits.

Reacting to the high real estate costs, brands have begun looking at the possibility of generating higher gross margins to compensate. In most cases, this has meant that selling prices are pushed up, rather than sourcing costs being reduced. While the consumer has been largely transparent to these increases in the last couple of years, I don’t believe this to be a sustainable margin strategy. The cracks are already showing, in the steadily increasing volumes sold under discounts, and the emergence of discount retailers who sell off-season and surplus branded merchandise. The message, clearly, is: the real, sustainable, price is at least 25-40% lower than the MRP. The market looks ripe for the emergence of every-day-low-price business models.

If I were to list out my top priorities for retailers in India, these would be:

1. Realistic demand estimation 

Many chains are grappling with too much square footage in a certain geography in the form of very large stores or too many stores. While allowing for the fact that the market is significantly different from what it was 10-20 years ago, let us not expect entire populations to have increased their consumption multi-fold. Sales expectations need to be realistic.

2. Store productivity

For an entrepreneurial business, each store needs to produce results. Sure, there will always be some superstar stores and other locations that are a drag on the bottom-line. The performance needs to be analysed on an ongoing basis, and fairly dispassionately. Store productivity is a function of merchandise availability, store operations, advertising to build customer traffic and a host of other factors. However, unless the store is a marquee location (which very few are), there is no excuse for sustained losses. Fortunately, Indian management teams are today less scared of damage to their reputations, and more business-like when it comes to taking hard decisions on resizing, relocating or simply shutting doors.

3. Pace your growth

Think of a teenager who gets into a growth spurt, and suddenly adds length to his legs. The gait becomes ungainly and he doesn’t really know what to do with the extra inches. Many Indian retailers have gone through a similar disproportionate growth spurt. While stores have grown, the sophistication of the business has not. Let’s remember, the race for retail market leadership is a marathon, not a sprint. The appropriate rate of growth should be determined by organisational capabilities, rather than what others are doing in the market.

4. People

There is no shortage of people in India, as one of the leaders of the industry pointed out a few months ago. Let’s stop creating an artificial scarcity. There are people around who have been in modern retail trade in India for decades and are committed to it – they have the experience. There are others who have only recently entered but need direction and training. The investment in these two sets of people will possibly provide longer lasting returns than artificially inflated compensations for round-robin resumes.

A major “macro” risk to my mind is that retail is seen through narrow lens both by itself as well by as the government and its various arms.

In most cases, the governments various departments continue to treat retail as an incidental trading activity, or as a milking cow through indirect and direct taxes. The outlook towards retailing needs to change beyond the few government luminaries who can be identified as the retail sector’s friends. Whether it is provided “industry status” or not, the fact is that retailing is an industry in India, and needs to be treated with more respect. Even the local kiranawala adds significantly to the community and even the fragmented the market association keeps a vital part of the local ecosystem alive and ticking.

The other side of the story, the retail sector’s perspective of itself also needs to change. Retailers need to look beyond promoting short term consumption. As they grow larger, they are beginning to have a disproportionate impact on society, lifestyles, income distribution and the broader economic fabric of the country. In most developed markets retailers realise how much change they can drive, and many are using this power to benefit themselves and their societies at large. As Indian retailers grow in scale, I think it would be wise to build the “corporate social responsibility” gene into the DNA at this very early stage.

Looking to the Future

Given recent developments, some people may feel that the retail boom is over and it may already be too late to enter the Indian market. I beg to differ: I believe there is still a lot of steam, a lot of energy in the Indian market.

In fact, it would be most appropriate to quote Shah Rukh Khan from Om Shanti Om, “Picture abhi baaki hai, mere dost!” (“The movie isn’t over yet, my friend!”)

The road to modernising the retail sector in India is long, and we have only taken the first few steps yet. Economically difficult times are wonderful opportunities for shedding flab, challenging existing business models and assumptions, and also provide great frameworks for building efficient and lasting companies.

In closing, I would like to borrow a theme from the two great growth sectors in Indian retail: food, and fashion. Both thrive on change. Both thrive on freshness. And that could be the winning theme across the Indian retail sector.

Here’s to a fresh start in 2009!

(C) Devangshu Dutta, Third Eyesight, 2008
This article was used as the opening chapter for the India Retail Report 2009.

Are Your Deals Still in the Fridge?

Devangshu Dutta

October 14, 2008

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

Devangshu Dutta

August 21, 2008

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.

Shopping Centres – Boon or Bane

Devangshu Dutta

March 13, 2008

Many people I know treat shopping centres or malls as a new phenomenon, a progressive development of recent times or a modern blot on the traditional cityscape (depending on your point of view).

However, Grand Bazaar (Istanbul, Turkey) is the earliest known mall, with the original structures built in 1464, with additions and embellishments later.

In India, if one were to include open arcades, Chandni Chowk in Delhi is reported to have opened around 1650, with its speciality shopping streets. (Of course, more traditional bazaars have been around many thousands of years around the world.)

But even if one were to get more “traditional” about the definition of a mall, possibly India’s first mall was founded in the hottest city in the country then, Kolkata (New Market) in 1874.

In more recent history, Delhi’s municipal pride, the air-conditioned underground Palika Bazar was a novelty in the mid-1980s, while Bangalore’s Brigade Road saw several early pioneers with their shopping arcades in the late 1980s.

Then came the mall-mania beginning with Ansal Plaza in Delhi and Crossroads in Mumbai. Everyone started looking at malls as the new goldmine, being pushed ahead by a “retail boom”.

The early stage of any such gold rush usually has several experiments missing their mark, which is what has happened with the hundreds of mall-experiments that have been launched in the last 7-8 years.

Some of the significant and common issues are starting to be addressed, but many others remain.

Catchment-Based Planning is Needed

The top-most issue in my mind is “oversupply”. While this may sound absurd to many people, given the low figures quoted for modern retail, I am referring to the over-concentration of malls in a small geography. If 8-10 malls open 4-5 million sq. ft. of shopping in a catchment that can only support 1 million sq. ft., everyone knows that some of the malls will fail. But everyone also believes that their mall will succeed (otherwise, they would obviously not have invested in the mall).

What happens to the malls that fail? Depending on the design of the building, many of them can be repurposed into office space – another area where a lot of investment is still needed. So in the end, actually, most people win, one way or the other. Yet, there will be some losers. Does anyone “plan” on being one?

The second key issue in my mind has been that mall developers have been thinking as “property developers” rather than retail space managers. The successful shopping centre operators worldwide (now also in India), are actually as concerned about what and who is occupying that space as a retailer would be. They are concerned about the composition of the catchment, the shopping patterns, the volume of sales, the shopping experience. Therefore, the tenant mixes as well as adjacencies are factored into the earliest stages of planning the shopping centres.

In fact, if I were to identify the most critical operational problem for many of the malls, it is the lack of relevance to catchment and, therefore, the low conversion of footfall into sales for the tenants other than the food-courts. Customer flow planning within the mall is another factor that can make a tremendous impact on the success and failure of the tenant stores.

Once you start looking at these factors during the planning of a mall, another obvious aspect that jumps out is “differentiation”. Currently, there is little to choose from between malls (other than possibly the anchor store). However, with more clarity in terms of the target audience, the potential strategies for differentiation also become clearer. The visitors also become segmented accordingly, and there is a natural benefit to the tenants occupying the mall.

If, as a mall operator, you want to be in business for long, and also develop other properties in the future, the success of your tenants is probably the most critical driving factor for your business.

Integration into the Urbanscape

When we gauge malls from the perspective of integrating within the urban landscape, there are obviously some glaring errors being made. Instead of aesthetic design that reflects the heritage and culture of the location and its surroundings, or some other inspirational source for the architect, most malls that have come up are concrete and glass boxes.

Beyond the looks, some of the malls are a victim of their own success. They attract more crowds during the peak than they have planned for. Not only does the parking prove to be inadequate, there is no holding capacity for cars entering or exiting the mall. The result is a traffic nightmare – not just for general public, but even for the visitors to the mall. Someone who has spent 45 minutes stuck in a jam waiting to get into the parking of a mall will certainly not be in the best frame of mind to buy merchandise at the stores occupying the mall.

Some of the problems lie outside the mall-developer’s control – for instance land costs are a major driver of the cost of the project (and, therefore, the lease costs to the tenants), and land is a commodity which is independent. Real estate is available within the cities as brown-field sites (former industrial locations), but the regulations are convoluted and the strings are in the hands of too many different departments of the government (city, state and central). This needs joint creative thinking on the part of developers, the government and the public, if our cities are to develop in a more sane fashion than they have in the past.

Similarly, land deals are still not clean enough for foreign investors to be comfortable participating in many developments. This obviously is holding back a tremendous source of capital and domain expertise that could contribute to the growth of this sector.

Many other operational issues exist – manpower, systems, health & safety – some of them can be managed or controlled by the mall developers, and it is a question of time (and of their gaining experience). Other issues are more in the domain of the government, and need a visionary push to make “urban renewal” a true mission.

New Life for the Cities

In my opinion, one of the most interesting areas which would be in the joint interest of almost all parties (that I can think of) is the possibility of revitalizing the high streets and community markets, and reinventing them as the true centres of shopping.

Many of our markets are rotting (a strong word, but let me say it anyway). The individual stores are owned by individual owners who are not all equally capable of maintaining the same look and feel throughout. The infrastructure in and around the markets are owned or managed by several different agencies. To make matters worse, there is often no cohesiveness and no synergy in the interests of most of the members of the market association. None of these individually have the power or the mandate to recreate the shopping centre. But what if they could get together and take the help of a re-developer?

If an example is needed, New Delhi’s Connaught Place provides the example of one stage of redevelopment. Connaught Place had lost its pre-eminent position as a shopping centre, due to the spread of Delhi’s population and the new local markets that had come up. Further disruption was caused by the construction by Delhi Metro. But DMRC has reconstructed an “improved” centre, and the Metro connectivity has made the customers come back into CP, as it is affectionately known in Delhi.

There are clearly many such opportunities around India’s cities. These need to be looked at as a commercial opportunity for all concerned (revenue for the redeveloper, better sales for the store owners / tenants, more tax revenue for the government from additional sales and consumption). But it is also a broader social opportunity to breathe a new life into our cities, and to make them proud beacons of a growing India.

It would be a mission that would truly prove the worth of shopping centre developers, urban planners, regulators and the retailers themselves.
Any takers?