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.

Can industrial agriculture be sustained?

Devangshu Dutta

May 25, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dis-Economy of Scale

Devangshu Dutta

May 1, 2008

We touched upon food price inflation last month and – no surprises – it is still hogging the headlines. It is, after all, an emotive topic. We are terribly concerned not just as food and grocery professionals, but also as consumers and general public. After all, food and grocery are typically half of our monthly spend, give or take a few percentage points.

Inflation often brings with it swift (sometimes knee-jerkingly quick) reactions – price controls, export controls, subsidies to farmers and food producers, and various others. Some of these measures work but only in the short term, while others may have no immediate visible impact on the market at all but may be truly insidious because of that.

However, a significant set of questions has not really been touched yet: how the food supply chain is structured, how it is driving consumption, what impact that might have on food prices and several broader cost implications.

Thousands of years ago, when hunter-gatherer human beings stumbled upon agriculture, it was a breakthrough similar to the discovery of controlled fire. Hunter-gatherers were dependent on the natural availability of food, while agriculture created the opportunity to have some control over food supplies and reduce the natural feast-famine cycle. Thereafter, farming, processing and storage techniques kept evolving incrementally to ensure that more food could be produced for each unit of land and effort, and stored for longer – all moving towards ensuring “food security”. This led to the age of empire-building, where monarchs grew their wealth (essentially food territory) with the help of military-imperial complexes, and the greater wealth in turn supported the military-imperial complex.

This remained the trend for a few thousand years, until the age of industrialisation and the age of petroleum. Through the industrialisation and the world wars, the military-imperial complex gave way to a military-industrial complex, which essentially became the military-industrial-petroleum-agricultural complex. Suddenly, there were not just machines to plant, reap, thresh, sort, clean and process, but also petroleum-based substances to dramatically increase output and to keep the produce fresher for longer.

As US farms and then European farms industrialised, the parameters that began to be applied were the same as in any factory – how to produce more while spending less – and every year the target was to grow more for less. Underlying this was the principle of “efficiency from larger scale”. The same philosophy played out further down in the supply chain – from processing to extend the shelf-life of the product as it was (such as chilling, cleaning, sorting) to processing and packing in order to change the nature of the product itself and gain additional value (such as tomatoes to paste or potatoes to chips).

Standardisation became a vital link in industrialisation – if you can standardise produce, you can cut down human handling – while you may lose product variety (including flavour and colour) you gain in terms of driving down the cost of production. By reducing unpredictability you can also concentrate on building the scale of business, because it becomes more repetitive.

The interesting side-effect of this is that, gradually, we are converting ourselves (and people in many industrialised economies already have) into petroleum-burning machines rather than those running on solar energy, because increasingly the agricultural supply chain is dependent on non-renewable petroleum and its products, rather than by the natural energy of the sun being converted into food by the plants.

And the important thing to keep in mind is that, in this switch-over, the energy efficiency is actually going down rather than up – we are using more calories of fuel source to produce each calorie of food energy.

The issue is more acute now than ever before, because now the growth markets of choice for industrial agriculture companies are China and India. If these two countries move through the exactly same path as have the western economies in terms of agriculture and food processing, given the population base itself, clearly the impact will be 5-7 times (or more) on the demand for petroleum as well as the fall-out on the ecosystem.

You may ask, why should retailers worry about this?

Firstly, pure cost considerations – clearly, the costs of petroleum are not coming down, and explosive demand through industrialised agriculture will only serve to push them up. How far can you push the food bill every month, before people start buying less? What impact would that have on large retail supply chains and farmers whose processes are increasingly built around products of industrial agriculture?

Secondly, what consumers are already beginning to express in western markets will possibly happen in India in the next few years as well: concern about where and how the product has been produced, what has been the fall-out on the environment and on the overall health of people involved with that supply chain as well as the health of consumers.

Carbon footprint, food miles & locavores (people who only consume food that is produced within 100 miles of where they live) are terms that retailers are increasingly hearing.

And an alternative set of questions is also being raised. Is it ok to burn non-sustainable fossil fuel if you get “carbon credits” by planting trees somewhere else – have all the carbon costs been accounted for from the start to the finish of the production process? Is it better to reduce the food miles and have food produced locally in a high-cost economy’s industrial agricultural model, or to have naturally grown foods from a more primitive farm in Africa or Asia where the environmental impact is only the “carbon debit” of the air-freight. And, even if the produce is carbon-friendly, what about the nitrogen footprint (from the fixation of nitrogen into fertilisers) and the methane footprint (from large scale animal farming)?

This one page is surely not enough to present any in-depth analysis, but I hope it will serve to kick-start the process of questioning how India (and China) should take the lead in creating an alternative and more sustainable model for food security for large populations. There is a lot of research being done, and much yet to be done, to quantify the true cost of blindly pushing for scale in the food chain. Truly “progressive grocers” need to take an active role in supporting this.

Could Lower Prices Cost More?

Devangshu Dutta

April 4, 2008

April has opened eventfully around the world, when it comes to food prices.

A leading Indian business daily opened the first week of April 2008 with a story saying that chain-stores may be as much as 15-40% cheaper than street vendors for staple vegetables and fruits. When we put this against the backdrop of concerns at skyrocketing global prices of rice and fuel, as consumers we may have a reason to thank the chains for helping to balance our monthly budgets.

But is this really a victory for proponents of organized retail, or a blow against retail chains?

The same article went on to state that chain stores were offsetting the hit they were taking on food by selling other products that offered them more margin, “an option not available to hawkers”, and also quoted leading Indian retailers.

The very same day, media in Hong Kong were covering a survey that stated that supermarket prices in the city were on average 12% higher than independent grocers, with some branded products being sold for as much as 20% higher. The Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, which carried out the survey, cautioned consumers that they should not be misled by supermarket ads for big discounts and advised them to compare prices frequently between chains and independent retailers.

(The study did not compare price differences now to what they might have been 20-25 years ago, when the market was not so consolidated. Such a study may provide some other interesting insights.)

During the same week, the government of Ivory Coast in Africa also responded to protests by women and youth in Abidjan against rising living costs with an emergency meeting and lower import duties on key food items.

Obviously inflation, especially in food prices, is a global concern right now, so this simultaneous appearance of news across countries is hardly a coincidence.

They, however, do raise concerns about how the chain of food supply and retail is structured, and also some important questions about competitive strategy.

Let’s deal with competitive strategy first. Obviously, the terms “loss leader” or “key value item” have been coined in the last few decades, but the strategy itself has been well-known and widely used since the time humans started trading thousands of years ago. 

The foundation of the strategy is built on items that are a staple, usually widely compared by consumers or used as a benchmark when comparing different merchants.  A merchant may place a very low margin on such a product, or sell it at cost (or even at a loss).

The concept is simple: attract a customer into the store with an irresistible offer, but make sure that consumer also buys other products that provide enough profit to the retailer. 

As a consumer you may feel outraged that someone is “cheating” you, but in our “sensible” and rationally-aware moments we as customers know that this happens frequently, and know how to avoid it. However, we are not always rational – if shopping were purely a rational exercise then automated comparative software would be fulfilling all our shopping needs by now.

Stepping beyond the retailer-consumer relationship, there is also question whether this can be classified as free or fair competition when cash-rich organizations with a wide basket of goods, take the strategy to the doorstep of the small individual trader whose product offering is much narrower and usually concentrated on the staple goods that are being discounted.

There is no really easy or quick answer to this question. 

On the one hand, large retailers such as Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Tesco, Metro and others, have been widely credited for achieving cost-efficiencies from scale, and then passing on these efficiencies to the consumer in the form of lower prices (and, apparently, higher standards of living).  That is a good thing and definitely of benefit to the population at large, especially in inflationary times such as these. Rather than keeping prices high due to inefficient sourcing, wasteful and expensive handling, and non-value-adding costs in the supply chain, it is surely a good to push for lower costs.

On the other hand, there is no simple way to draw a line when competitive benefit to the consumer becomes predatory pricing within the trade. 

If a retailer took price reduction as a “strategic investment” to grow a market (as happens in markets and product categories around the world), when do you start calling it “unfair”? And should you even attempt to label it unfair? What is the cost to the market, when it could eventually concentrate and consolidate market share in few hands? Is the cost to society more in supporting small inefficient retailers, or more if these retailers lose their independence and become employees? (If you’re looking to me for the answers…sorry, I don’t have them yet!)

Value judgements are almost always subjective rather than objective. ‘Large versus small’ conflicts are frequently emotive rather than rational. And even though there are no easy answers, I believe we should think about these questions, as businesspeople, as consumers and as social individuals.

There are some rather interesting (and by no means conclusive) studies, opinion papers and books that have looked at the structure and economics of the food supply chain, but constraints of space force me to postpone that aspect to another column. The questions and competitive strategy will not be disappearing quickly, so I’m sure these will still be relevant then. 

Meanwhile, I’m sure we have enough food for thought!