One Ring That Rules Them All

Devangshu Dutta

January 10, 2017

In this piece I’ll just focus on one aspect of technology – artificial intelligence or AI – that is likely to shape many aspects of the retail business and the consumer’s experience over the coming years.

To be able to see the scope of its potential all-pervasive impact we need to go beyond our expectations of humanoid robots. We also need to understand that artificial intelligence works on a cycle of several mutually supportive elements that enable learning and adaptation. The terms “big data” and “analytics” have been bandied about a lot, but have had limited impact so far in the retail business because it usually only touches the first two, at most three, of the necessary elements.

Elements in Operationalizing Big Data and AI

“Big data” models still depend on individuals in the business taking decisions and acting based on what is recommended or suggested by the analytics outputs, and these tend to be weak links which break the learning-adaptation chain. Of course, each of these elements can also have AI built in, for refinement over time.

Certainly retailers with a digital (web or mobile) presence are in a better position to use and benefit from AI, but that is no excuse for others to “roll over and die”. I’ll list just a few aspects of the business already being impacted and others that are likely to be in the future.

  1. Know the customer: The most obvious building block is the collection of customer data and teasing out patterns from it. This has been around so long that it is surprising what a small fraction of retailers have an effective customer database. While we live in a world that is increasingly drowning in information, most retailers continue to collect and look at very few data points, and are essentially institutionally “blind” about the customers they are serving.
    However, with digital transactions increasing, and compute and analytical capability steadily become less expensive and more flexible via the cloud, information streams from not only the retailers’ own transactions but multiple sources can be tied together to achieve an ever-better view of the customer’s behaviour.
  2. Prediction and Response: Not only do we expect “intelligence” to identify, categorise and analyse information streaming in from the world better, but to be able to anticipate what might happen and also to respond appropriately.
    Predictive analytics have been around in the retail world for more than a decade, but are still used by remarkably few retailers. At the most basic level, this can take the form of unidirectional reminders and prompts which help to drive sales. Remember the anecdote of Target (USA) sending maternity promotions based on analytics to a young lady whose family was unaware of her pregnancy?
    However, even automated service bots are becoming more common online, that can interact with customers who have queries or problems to address, and will get steadily more sophisticated with time. We are already having conversations with Siri, Google, Alexa and Cortana – why not with the retail store?
  3. Visual and descriptive recognition: We can describe to another human being a shirt or dress that we want or call for something to match an existing garment. Now imagine doing the same with a virtual sales assistant which, powered by image recognition and deep learning, brings forward the appropriate suggestions. Wouldn’t that reduce shopping time and the frustration that goes with the fruitless trawling through hundreds of items?
  4. Augmented and virtual reality: Retailers and brands are already taking tiny steps in this area which I described in another piece a year ago (“Retail Integrated”) so I won’t repeat myself. Augmented reality, supported by AI, can help retail retain its power as an immersive and experiential activity, rather than becoming purely transaction-driven.

On the consumer-side, AI can deliver a far higher degree of personalisation of the experience than has been feasible in the last few decades. While I’ve described different aspects, now see them as layers one built on the other, and imagine the shopping experience you might have as a consumer. If the scenario seems as if it might be from a sci-fi movie, just give it a few years. After all, moving staircases and remote viewing were also fantasy once.

On the business end it potentially offers both flexibility and efficiency, rather than one at the cost of the other. But we’ll have to tackle that area in a separate piece.

(Also published in the Business Standard.)

Will the Indian Apparel Sector Change its Fashion?

Devangshu Dutta

July 22, 2011

The apparel retail sector worldwide thrives on change, on account of fashion as well as season.

In India, for most of the country, weather changes are less extreme, so seasonal change is not a major driver of changeover of wardrobe. Also, more modest incomes reduce the customer’s willingness to buy new clothes frequently.

We believe pricing remains a critical challenge and a barrier to growth. About 5 years ago, Third Eyesight had evaluated the pricing of various brands in the context of the average incomes of their stated target customer group. For a like-to-like comparison with average pricing in Europe, we came to the conclusion that branded merchandise in India should be priced 30-50% lower than it was currently. And this is true not just of international brands that are present in India, but Indian-based companies as well. (In fact, most international brands end up targeting a customer segment in India that is more premium than they would in their home markets.)

Of course, with growing incomes and increasing exposure to fashion trends promoted through various media, larger numbers of Indian consumers are opting to buy more, and more frequently as well. But one only has to look at the share of marked-down product, promotions and end-of-season sales to know that the Indian consumer, by and large, believes that the in-season product is overpriced.

Brands that overestimate the growth possibilities add to the problem by over-ordering – these unjustified expectations are littered across the stores at the end of each season, with big red “Sale” and “Discounted” signs. When it comes to a game of nerves, the Indian consumer has a far stronger ability to hold on to her wallet, than a brand’s ability to hold on to the price line. Most consumers are quite prepared to wait a few extra weeks, rather than buying the product as soon as it hits the shelf.

Part of the problem, at the brands’ end, could be some inflexible costs. The three big productivity issues, in my mind, are: real estate, people and advertising.

Indian retail real estate is definitely among the most expensive in the world, when viewed in the context of sales that can be expected per square foot. Similarly, sales per employee rupee could also be vastly better than they are currently. And lastly, many Indian apparel brands could possibly do better to reallocate at least part of their advertising budget to developing better product and training their sales staff; no amount of loud celebrity endorsement can compensate for disinterested automatons showing bad products at the store.

Technology can certainly be leveraged better at every step of the operation, from design through supply chain, from planogram and merchandise planning to post-sale analytics.

Also, some of the more “modern” operations are, unfortunately, modelled on business processes and merchandise calendars that are more suited to the western retail environment of the 1980s than on best-practice as needed in the Indian retail environment of 2011! The “organised” apparel brands are weighed down by too many reviews, too many batch processes, too little merchant entrepreneurship. There is far too much time and resource wasted at each stage. Decisions are deliberately bottle-necked, under the label of “organisation” and “process-orientation”. The excitement is taken out of fashion; products become “normalised”, safe, boring which the consumer doesn’t really want! Shipments get delayed, missing the peaks of the season. And added cost ends in a price which the customer doesn’t want to pay.

The Indian apparel industry certainly needs a transformation.

Whether this will happen through a rapid shakedown or a more gradual process over the next 10-15 years, whether it will be driven by large international multi-brand retailers when they are allowed to invest directly in the country or by domestic companies, I do believe the industry will see significant shifts in the coming years.

Exotics Within Reach

Devangshu Dutta

March 13, 2009

The Indian consumer market remains one of the most attractive and sustainable markets for international companies. It has even been described as a market of a lifetime by some, meaning that a brand can live through a whole lifecycle of decades if it launches in the market today. The last decade has made the Indian consumer even more visible and desirable to consumer goods companies from around the world.

So it is hardly surprising that many international food and beverage brands have entered the market in the last few years, either by appointing wholesalers as their distributors in the market or, occasionally, establishing a more direct presence through joint ventures or subsidiaries. 

These companies have been helped along by the growth of modern retail chains. These offer a familiar sales environment to most of these companies who sell through supermarket and hypermarket chains in other countries. 

However, the market presents international brands and their distributors with two challenges. 

First, the question whether they should stick to only selling through the more “organised” retail chains. If they do so, they could focus commercially on a limited number of larger business accounts, and service them efficiently as they do the large retailers in other markets. It would also provide them – in the Indian context – an upmarket environment where the display and promotional means allow a more premium positioning.

However, even the largest store chain has a limited footprint, while India’s vibrant mom-and-pop retailers form a much larger platform and continue to reach out to a much larger market than the modern traders. So by focussing on the chain-stores alone, international brands would miss out on the majority of the Indian consumers who do not have a chain store near them, or choose to continue shopping at the traditional stores. 

On the one hand you might think that it is logical to reach out to as many customers as quickly as possible. On the other hand, “foreign” equals “exotic” in the dictionary, which equals mysterious, interesting, glamorous and so on. So some of these brands actually benefit from maintaining an aura of exclusivity, and it helps if their distribution is limited. 

This challenge, therefore, needs to be addressed by each company specifically, keeping its brand and business objectives in mind.  

The second concern is more widespread and includes both the branded supplier as well as the retailer, whether chain-store or traditional mom-and-pop. It is a given that the international brand will share a store environment with local brands. Unless, of course, an international brand creates a separate exclusive branded store (easier to do in fashion and lifestyle products than in food and grocery), or it is only sold in stores which sell only foreign merchandise (of which there are very few).

So the second question is: in the shared retail environment, should the international brands be mingled with local brands and products, or should they be displayed apart from local brands? This question is relevant even if a brand is only present in the modern Indian supermarkets.

Prices of imported merchandise of international brands tend to be high, because the base price can be high to start with, and import duties and other costs push the price up further. So a popular option so far has been to bunch imported brands together at the retail store on one or a few shelves. The reasoning is that these are speciality products, expensive and with a limited consumer base. Shoppers who know about these brands will seek them out, and they are likely to also shop for other imported brands at the same time, so it makes sense to display them together. 

Some brands are happy with this display strategy, because it makes a clear statement that their brand is a premium “exclusive” brand, and it prevents a one-to-one comparison with lower priced local competitors.

However, brands that want to be visible to a wider set of consumers would be unhappy with this arrangement.  Their take would be that by bunching high priced merchandise together, the retailer is creating an area which becomes a dead zone that is avoided by most shoppers. Thus, a brand that could be otherwise sold to more consumers is forced to become a niche product due to the limited visibility.

Regular readers would know that our approach to creating or judging strategy is dogmatic only in one aspect: “to avoid the cookie cutter”. Whether you’re selling meat snacks, exotic meal packs, kettle chips or iceberg lettuce, multiple factors determine whether a particular international product should be segregated or displayed alongside local brands. And that strategy needs to be dynamic.

The first factor to consider is how familiar is the product itself to the customer frequenting the store. Let’s take an imported salsa as an example. In a location where the customers may not be familiar with Mexican cooking, it makes sense to not just display tortillas, salsa, sour cream and beans together, but also to offer samplers and give away recipes. While the salsa may be of an imported brand, the beans may be of an Indian brand, and the tortillas and cream may be from a local supplier. 

In this case, where each component of the meal originated is less important than the fact that the complete meal needs to be presented together to the customer. Putting the imported salsa with other imported products when most of them may not be sure how to use it does not encourage customers to buy it. 

In any case, as familiarity increases with time, the product may become more widely available, other international and national brands may also appear on the shelves, and segregation becomes a non-issue.

The tendency of the store’s consumer to compare and decide on the basis of price – as mentioned earlier – can also be an important factor. In some cases, the product may need to be insulated from this comparison, and placed in a defined area with other high-priced imported brands. In other cases, if the brand is strong enough to stand on its own, it could be placed in high-traffic locations with higher-volume lower-priced brands.

The overall store positioning and product mix have a very large role to play in the decision about segregation. If a supermarket has an upmarket catchment, and carries a higher proportion of premium products, intermingling may be the norm rather than an exception. The customer who is serving herself would probably find it most convenient to have the local and imported baked beans or olive oils displayed together. The price premium may even play to the imported brand’s advantage in such upmarket environments and catchments, conveying some form of qualitative superiority. 

If a store has a wide enough assortment of imported products which are significantly higher priced than local variants, then it may make sense to do an “international corner”. But for this to work, the customer base must already be reasonably aware of the individual products being sold. The international corner also needs to be kept fresh, with new brands and new varieties of product to keep the foot traffic alive and the products moving. Even then, “packaged solutions” and demonstrations are needed to maintain visibility.

Let’s understand one fact – people adapt exotica into their consumption culture so deeply until it you can’t differentiate between the local and the international. Indian cuisine would be incomplete without potatoes, chillies and mangoes. However, the varieties of all three crops available in India today are reported to have been brought from the Americas and west Asia a few hundred years ago. Among companies, Colgate, Vicks, Horlicks and Bata are all international brands that Indian consumers commonly accept as their own. 

Most international companies want to target the millions of Indian middle class households, but their pricing, distribution and retail strategy is too exclusive, conservative and totally contrary to this objective. 

Our suggestion would be: go out as wide as you believe is appropriate, because being invisible does no good to the brand. Put your exotica within the reach of the consumer, alongside competing local products. 

As long as you’re prepared to support the brand, and sustain efforts to encourage consumers to try the product, there would be a time when your brand is no longer treated as exotic. And that would be a good thing, if you’re looking for large numbers.

Textile Facts & Fabric Sourcing – Third Eyesight Knowledge Series© Workshop – 4-5 July 2008, New Delhi, India


June 10, 2008

The Third Eyesight Knowledge Series© comprises of workshops designed and developed to help functional heads, line managers and executives refresh and upgrade functional and product expertise.  

The Soft Goods Series is specially focused at the Clothing, Textile and the Fashion Industry. Within this, the Textile Facts & Fabric Sourcing module is aimed at developing a working knowledge of fabrics commonly used by the apparel industry; identifying the domestic and international source markets for these textiles; understanding the costing of textiles based on the value add and finishing processes;  and familiarizing participants with the common and varied end uses of these fabrics.

                 Dates:                4th & 5th July 2008

                 Duration:           10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

                 Venue:               PHD Chamber of Commerce
                                           August Kranti Marg, New Delhi.

                 Workshop Fee:   Rs. 5,500 per participant (plus service tax)

Other modules in the Series cover topics related to Product Development, Supply Chain Management, Merchandise Buying and Planning, Business Communication and Fashion Brand Management.  The workshops have been designed as an integrated series. However, each module is complete and self contained and participants have the flexibility to select independent modules based on their training requirement.

Participant profile: Production Managers and Coordinators, Merchandisers, Retail buyers and Product Developers, Buying House Merchandisers.

For further information please contact us at +91 (124) 4293478, 4030162. 

History repeats – India’s role in global fashion

Sharmila Katre

April 30, 2008

India has a rich tradition of textiles which dates back many centuries. The history of the Indian readymade garment industry, however, is very recent and can be traced back to the Second World War.

During the Second World War, as a contribution to the wartime needs of British rulers, clothing units for mass production were set up to manufacture military uniforms. With India’s independence in 1947, the industry stagnated as the policies of the Government were now diverted towards building a new nation. However, the industry began to expand after 1959 with the revision of the textile policy to allow the import of machinery for manufacturing.

The 1960s witnessed social shifts as a whole generation of young people questioned the very basis of their existence, and the hippie movement was born. Tired of their materialistic ‘man-made’ lifestyle, these young people began to seek answers in communing with all things natural, love and peace being the anthem. They began traveling, to explore, to seek the ancient philosophies of the East.

This voyage of discovery not only led to a change of lifestyle, but also the way they dressed. Natural fibres were rediscovered, and principally amongst them “Cotton”. India, with its natural abundance of this fibre, was an automatic choice of a supply source. Simultaneously, the growing settlement of Indian abroad led to a ready outlet for a variety of India merchandise and clothing textiles as an article of trade because of its growing demand.

This sudden demand for cotton garments resulted in the Indian industry growing by leaps and bounds in a very short period. Export of “High Fashion” garments from India started off with the cheap cotton kurtas and hand-block vegetable dye printed wrap-around skirts in cotton sheeting to meet the demands of the western youth.

Cashing in on the boom any and everybody got into the manufacture of clothing. The Government, realizing the potential of earning foreign exchange for the country, announced incentives and tax exemption for exporters. The fallout was an industry that grew in an unorganized manner and developed a reputation for producing low cost, low quality, volume merchandise.

The 1980s established that the industry was here to stay but, in terms of product profile, India still had not been able to move out of the lower end of the world market and continued to have an average unit value of under US$ 5.

The 1990s saw the industry make a conscious effort to shake off the image of being producers of cheap, low-quality merchandise with unreliable delivery schedules. The second generation had begun coming into the business, and contributed to reorganizing their firms for clearer structure and professionalism. Funds were ploughed back into the business with the emergence of large and modern production facilities. Even though most of the export houses were family-owned, trained professionals were inducted into the business for clear-cut departments and areas of functions. Consolidation and retention of business was the focus of the late nineties as the abolition of quotas planned for the new millennium became a reality.

The industry was euphoric but at the same time apprehensive of what the post quota era would bring. Many of the producers looking for a synergy in the business and also to sustain the large production facilities began tentative forays into domestic retail. The face of the Indian consumer was changing. Exposure to the western society via the electronic media helped in creating a ‘borderless’ world for lifestyle products, and contemporary fashion merchandise found a ready market in domestic retail.

The new global consumer over the years has evolved as a demanding and yet discerning individual. The novelty factor along with price and quality has become the watchword of the new millennium consumer. As consumers around the world change, so does the product strategy to keep consumer interests alive and ensure loyalty.

The new millennium has seen the emergence of the ‘Quick Response’ or ‘Real Time’ merchandising in fashion as a strategic solution to nurture, retain and grow the business. ‘Fast Fashion’ was born. Retailers could no longer work on the concept of two major retailing seasons with a couple of promotions thrown in. Product planning and the merchandise on the racks had to be constantly current and trendy.

Fast Fashion is not simply a solution to increase consumption by introducing greater product variety but a strategy to retain, consolidate and sustain the market through proactive product development and efficient product delivery to consumers, and thereby grow the market by increasing market share or developing new markets.

However, fast fashion has been tried and tested in different avatars through the years. In the 1960s and 1970s it was present in the quick reaction time of the unorganized sector to service the demand for block-printed ethnic clothing merchandise. In the 1980s and 1990s it was represented in the proactively researched product development at the source market level by wholesale importer/designer buyers (like Rene Dehry, Giorgio Kauten, Diff and Steilmann). Today it is technology-aided product research and development techniques (practiced by Anthropologie, Rampage, Zara and H&M), coupled with responsive buying processes.

In product design terms, India has moved on from producing and selling ‘fashion basics’ to ‘basic’ merchandise, and now back to ‘fashion basics’ once again. History says that this is where India’s inherent talents and strengths as a source market lie. Rather than reinventing the wheel or try to catch up with other competitors strengths, India should cash in on its strengths to practice and master fast fashion.