Raghavendra Kamath, Financial Express
June 29, 2023
Zara, touted as “Fast Fashion Queen”, has achieved a unique feat in India. The Spanish brand has been growing its revenues without opening any new stores.
The fashion brand, run by a joint venture between Tata-owned Trent and Spain’s retail group Inditex, posted a 40.7% growth in its revenues to Rs 2553.8 crore in FY23. The catch is that while many retailers/brands garner sales from opening new stores, Zara did not open any store but closed one during FY23.
In FY21 and FY22, its store count remained constant at 21 but its revenue grew 61.2% in FY22. Zara’s revenues grew at a 15.5 % CAGR in the last five years.
“Zara did not foray into any new city and closed one store. That said, it saw an exceptional performance on store productivity (83% higher than FY19). The increase in revenues lead to highest ever Ebitda margins at 16.3%,” said Nuvama Institutional Equities in a recent report.
The contribution in productivity includes contribution from online and also increase in store sizes, the brokerage said.
A mail sent to Inditex did not elicit any response. Trent executives could not be contacted.
Experts attribute Zara’s success to increase in customer spends and improved offerings by the brand.
“The customer base they are targeting has grown and their merchandise mix has become sharper,” said Devangshu Dutta, chief executive officer at Third Eyesight, a retail consultant.
Dutta said when a retailer opens stores, it would immediately boost sales, but to maintain sales momentum, one has to have “right merchandise at right price and have stores at right locations”.
Zara is known to churn its designs and styles very fast, and target young customers. In its Indian venture also, its parent Inditex controls merchandise mix and so on.
“The said entities (Zara and Massimo Dutti) are obliged to source merchandise only from the Inditex Group. Also, the choice of product & related specifications are at the latter’s discretion. Further, the entities are dependent on Inditex for permissions to use the said brands in India subject to its terms & specifications,” Trent said in its FY23 annual report.
Zara is also focusing on opening in select locations, a reason it could not open more stores in the country, experts said.
“The incremental store openings for Zara continue to be calibrated with focus on presence only in very high-quality retail spaces,” Trent said.
Susil Dungarwal, founder at Beyond Squarefeet, a mall management firm, said that propensity to spend has gone up among Indian shoppers after the pandemic and Zara being a renowned global brand with its stylish merchandise seems to be have been the beneficiary of the trend.
“They understand customers very well and brought products which are liked by Indian shoppers in terms of looks, styles and so on,” Dungarwal said.
Zara is a case study for Indian brands as to how to run a retail business successfully, he said.
(Published in Financial Express)
Tushar Goenka, Financial Express
March 13, 2023
Flipkart Supermart, the online grocery delivery platform of the Walmart-owned ecommerce company, is betting on regional brands to unlock the next phase of growth. Over the past few months, the e-tailer has been listing brands and making them more readily available in cities where their recall value is high.
The regional push targets staples and is pronounced across categories such as atta, tea, pulses, among others. So, instead of offering, say, just the Tata brand of tea, Flipkart also showcases local favourites like Nameri Tea for the residents of Assam. Similarly, instead of selling Nestle’s Maggi and ITC’s Yippie noodles across the country, Flipkart will also let customers pick brands selling Korean noodles, popular among north east teenagers.
The shift in focus is vital in a country whose grocery bill totals $600 billion, of which offline sales account for a staggering $592 billion, while online is a much smaller $8 billion. Further, of the total grocery bill, the share of regional brands at around 60% is much higher than organised national brands that stood at 40%, according to rough estimates from EY.
So far, the plan seems to have worked for the company. Smrithi Ravichandran, head of grocery, says her unit has grown 2.5X between June 2022 and February 2023.
The reason for this shift in focus is easy to understand. In Ravichandran’s own words, “The Indian palette changes every 150 kilometres.” Consider this. The kind of toor daal consumed in Chennai is different from that consumed in Madurai. That is, even within a single state (Tamil Nadu in this case) there is a huge difference in preferences. And that is true for most categories.
Next, look at the potential. Ravichandran’s department sees about 65-70% of its orders coming from Tier 2 and beyond, with metros and Tier 1 cities accounting for the rest.
Analysts believe Flipkart’s initiative is a step in the right direction. Says Devangshu Dutta, CEO, Third Eyesight, a retail consulting firm, “Focusing on regional brands makes eminent sense not just to cater to tastes in a particular geography but to also serve consumers who have moved away from their hometowns and might find it difficult to buy their chosen brands.”
That said, catering to regional preferences is easier said than done. “If one has the same selection even for the same state, it doesn’t help. But there is a cost in catering to that varied choice and we’ll need to operate more fulfilment centres,” Ravichandran adds.
From what to how
Flipkart’s plans to double down on the regional selection in grocery will mean partnering with some of them. Here consumer data available with Flipkart will come in handy, says Ravichandran.
Angshuman Bhattacharya, national leader, consumer product and retail, EY India, believes that by offering more regional brands in categories like atta, Flipkart will deepen penetration, giving smaller players a chance to tap a wider customer base. “Smaller, regional brands will be hungrier for growth and may end up offering healthier margins than what a nationalised player would do,” he adds.
In this, Flipkart’s approach is similar to that of Future Retail under Kishore Biyani, who underscored the importance of a regional brand-led strategy. “The Future Group had launched around 10 private labels of atta and that is no easy feat. A regional brand-led focus might prompt Flipkart to toy with the idea of launching its private labels at a later stage. Or it may even end up asking the regional brands to package staples under its brand, thereby yielding much higher margins,” Bhattacharya of EY points out.
Flipkart isn’t drawing the line just yet. The company will invest in technology to tell customers about the origin of the products they order. “Conscious consumerism is another aspect we will focus on. So, on the packet of a toor daal, consumers will have traceability regarding where and when exactly the daal was harvested,” Ravichandran adds.
This journey will not be a cakewalk for Flipkart. Analysts point out that to be able to partner with Flipkart and address its customer base of over 450 million, smaller brands must up their supply chain spends. That apart, there is always the fear that if the e-commerce giant does not get the desired results, it might discontinue such tie-ups, leaving the regional players in the lurch. Flipkart must allay these fears right at the outset.
(Published in Financial Express)
Written By Mihir Dalal
(From left to right) Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart, which owns Flipkart; Mukesh Ambani, chairman and MD of RIL; Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon
BENGALURU : Last month, Nimit Jain, an entrepreneur, ordered biscuits, shampoo, toothpaste and other items for his family in Kota. He used JioMart—the new online shopping app by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited—lured by its low prices and freebies.
JioMart was to deliver the order within two days, but Jain’s family didn’t receive the items on time and JioMart didn’t inform Jain about the delay. The delivery was done four days after he had placed the order, a few hours after Jain had complained to the firm via email and Twitter.
A few products were missing, Jain’s parents informed him. It took time to figure out the missing items because the details of the order weren’t available on the app. Jain had paid online and asked JioMart for a partial refund. Instead of receiving an acknowledgement for his refund request, he received a response for his previous email about the delay in delivery. Five days later, Jain got a refund.
Mumbai-based Jain, a computer science graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, usually orders groceries from BigBasket and sometimes from Dunzo. He said that he doesn’t plan to use JioMart again.
“A couple of my friends and relatives (in Mumbai and Kota) have also had similarly bad experiences. It doesn’t look like JioMart is ready for online groceries. Their operations and customer care teams weren’t in sync,” Jain said.
Since JioMart expanded to more than 200 cities this summer, scores of customers like Jain have complained about missing products, delayed deliveries and generally poor service. Still, industry executives say that while its service levels have been inconsistent, JioMart is registering similar order volumes to BigBasket, the largest e-grocer, on the back of aggressive marketing and discounts.
These volumes still comprise a small fraction of the overall business of Amazon India and Walmart-owned Flipkart, the two dominant online retailers. But that’s because JioMart is only selling groceries now; it plans to sell other products like fashion and electronics soon. It’s clear that after many years of talk and hype, Reliance, which owns India’s largest offline retail chain, is finally becoming a serious challenger to Amazon and Flipkart, as well as BigBasket and Grofers.
Still, industry executives, logistics firms, consultants and analysts that Mint spoke with said that Reliance will find it tough to break the dominance of Amazon-Flipkart in e-commerce, similar to how Walmart is struggling to challenge Amazon in digital sales in the US even as its stores continue to prosper. Amazon and Flipkart both have deep pockets, proven expertise in e-commerce, popular brands and good knowledge of the Indian market.
“Reliance has the financial muscle, but Walmart (Flipkart) and Amazon are no pushovers,” said Harminder Sahni, managing director, Wazir Advisors, a consultancy. “Today, most people who want to shop online are happy with Flipkart and Amazon. These companies have achieved significant scale and have very few weaknesses. As a latecomer, it will be very difficult for Reliance to make a big dent in the market.”
Reliance did not respond to an emailed questionnaire seeking comment.
Local internet powerhouse
During the pandemic, Reliance has not only moved fast to make inroads into the e-commerce market, it has also consolidated its leadership in organized offline retail. Last month, Reliance bought most of the businesses of Future Group for about $3.4 billion in a deal that will take its retail footprint to nearly 14,000 stores—by far, the largest in India.
In the past six months, Reliance has raised more than $21 billion for its digital unit Jio Platforms. This month, Reliance kickstarted a separate fund-raising spree for its retail unit, Reliance Retail, bagging about $1.8 billion from private equity firms Silver Lake and KKR, two of the investors in Jio. Several more investment firms, including other shareholders in Jio, are expected to join them.
These moves are part of Reliance’s efforts to transform itself into a 21stcentury digital behemoth. It is positioning itself as India’s answer to Amazon, Facebook, Google, Alibaba and other world-class digital giants, and unlike local startups like Flipkart, Ola and Paytm that have or had similar ambitions, Reliance enjoys some unparalleled advantages.
It is now accepted wisdom among politicians and regulators that India needs a ‘local’ internet powerhouse to counter the dominance of America’s Big Tech and the growing influence of Chinese firms, partly because of sovereignty concerns. Reliance’s mastery in lobbying and its political clout makes the firm best-placed to exploit this urgent establishment need to find a domestic internet powerhouse.
Amazon, Flipkart, Facebook and others face many policy-related restrictions that not only serve as obstacles to them but pave the way for domestic firms led by Reliance to enter the fray. For instance, foreign investment rules prevent Amazon and Flipkart from owning inventory or selling private labels (though critics say that these firms do it anyway using clever legal workarounds), while Reliance has no such constraints. Apart from a supportive policy environment and huge capital resources, on the business front, too, Reliance has an enviable digital distribution network and reservoir of customer data on account of Jio.
But despite these formidable advantages, Reliance has yet to prove that it has the chops to realise its ambitious vision.
The war among Reliance and Flipkart and Amazon and other internet firms is also not restricted to retail, but will extend to other sectors like financial services, content and business-to-business commerce. The technology-centric nature of the battle is more suited to the internet companies than to Reliance. There’s little doubt that Reliance will be a major player in the digital business, but the jury’s out on how much value the firm can corner. Its foray in e-commerce and B2B will provide early answers to this question.
After JioMart began testing its service late last year, media reports said that the company would deliver products to customers from local kirana stores. After Facebook invested in Jio in April in a deal that included a business partnership between JioMart and WhatsApp, Ambani said that JioMart would soon connect some 3 crore kirana stores with their neighbourhood customers.
Many analysts, too, expect the partnership with WhatsApp, the most popular app in India, to be a game-changer. In July, Goldman Sachs estimated that Reliance’s entry will help expand the online grocery market by 20 times to about $29 billion by 2024. Reliance’s partnership with Facebook could help the firm become the leader in e-grocery and garner a market share of more than 50% by 2024, Goldman said.
But Mint learns that Reliance is sourcing a majority of orders on JioMart in many cities through Reliance Retail’s supply chain; only a small number of orders are served through kirana stores. JioMart is signing up a few thousand kirana stores every month, but its expansion is happening at a slower rate than many analysts expect. Two industry executives said that JioMart’s average order value is lower than that of other e-grocers, which means that Reliance is losing larger amounts of money on every order.
According to one e-commerce executive, for BigBasket and Grofers, the delivery cost is about 3-4% of the average order value, which exceeds ₹1000. For Reliance, the delivery cost is presently much higher because its order value is below ₹800. The lower order value is partly because most of JioMart’s 200 city-markets are non-metros. BigBasket and others generate an overwhelming majority of their business from the metros. Reliance is betting on expanding the e-grocery market rather, than taking market share from incumbents, which generate an overwhelming majority of their sales from 10-15 cities. But while Reliance may be able to attract customers in smaller cities initially with discounts, profitability will be tough.
“The economics of serving metros are very different from the rest of India. In the mass market, bill values are much, much lower. Right now, Reliance’s main focus is to scale JioMart, so they aren’t worried about the delivery cost,” the executive cited above said. “But eventually, reality will catch up, and they will have to increase basket sizes because this model isn’t sustainable. Grocery has very thin margins to start with. “
Private label push
One obvious way for Reliance to boost margins is by selling more private label products. In the grocery category, Reliance Retail already generates 14% of its revenues from private labels. People familiar with Reliance’s plans said that the company wants to push its private label products to kirana stores. While there are hundreds of well-known brands in FMCG, the grocery category (products like rice, pulses and flour) is largely unstructured. Reliance plans to sell its private label products both in grocery and FMCG.
Apart from retail, Reliance is also rapidly expanding its B2B business. Its private label products form a key component of its retail and wholesale business plans, the people cited above said.
The private label push, however, is making large FMCG companies like Hindustan Unilever, Marico and Dabur, which sell competing products, wary of working with Reliance’s B2B arm.
Like Flipkart and Amazon, which are also expanding their B2B businesses, Reliance’s grand vision over time is to have an integrated ecosystem of wholesale and retail in which it connects consumer goods makers with kirana stores and retailers, supplies a large number of private label products across many categories to retailers and end-customers, and becomes the biggest omnichannel retail firm in the country. But realising this vision will require Reliance to work seamlessly with millions of kirana stores, thousands of brands, modern retailers (all of which will see the firm as a rival to an extent)—and provide exceptional service in a profitable manner to retail customers.
Analysts and industry executives said that Reliance has a higher probability of finding success in categories like fashion (in which it already runs a portal called Ajio) and grocery that are mostly unorganised and have a shortage of established brands. In these categories, Reliance faces fewer barriers from existing players and has a better chance of pushing its private labels in both the wholesale and retail markets. But in categories like electronics and FMCG, which are dominated by entrenched brands, kirana stores and e-commerce firms, Reliance may struggle to scale as fast.
For instance, Flipkart and Amazon dominate online sales of electronics and fashion, which together comprise more than 75% of all e-commerce. To win significant share in electronics, Reliance will have to spend enormous amounts on discounts, marketing and offering favourable terms to brands . But, in fashion, Reliance can tap its low-priced private labels to lure customers without resorting to value destruction.
“The market is too varied for one player to be big in all categories,” an investment banker said. “Reliance will have to carefully choose its battles. There’s a risk that it may spread itself too thin, so it’s wise for them to have started with grocery.”
Meanwhile, while Google and Facebook have together invested more than $10 billion in Reliance, both companies are continuing to expand their own businesses in India. Google and Facebook have ambitions to enter e-commerce and expand in other sectors like payments and content. What this means is that while Google and Facebook will end up collaborating with Reliance in some areas, they will also compete with the firm in others, joining Flipkart and Amazon in the war of the digital conglomerates.
Flipkart and Amazon have already stepped up their lobbying efforts with the emergence of Reliance as a threat. Because of the pandemic that has made e-commerce indispensable, there has been a thaw in the government’s attitude towards the US e-commerce firms. A more antagonistic attitude may return when the pandemic passes.
Eventually, though, the war will be decided by customers. Here, experts are divided on whether Reliance will emerge as the winner. “Reliance still has to do a lot more on getting the customer experience in place, but given the strides they’ve made, it is well-placed to compete in the digital space,” said Devangshu Dutta, head of retail consultancy firm Third Eyesight.
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.
“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.
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.)
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.