Inside Reliance Retail’s plan to become a one-stop shop for everything


November 28, 2021

By Rasul Bailay & Writankar Mukherjee, Economic Times

November 27, 2021

Reliance Retail aims to be one of the world’s top retailers, but for the last couple of years, it has been a buyer, not a seller. It has bought a string of retail brands — from online pharmacy Netmeds and online furniture retailer Urban Ladder to digital lingerie seller Zivame, online grocer MilkBasket and haute couture label Ritu Kumar. The latest acquisition was Sri Lankan lingerie brand Amante.

These acquisitions are crucial cogs in Reliance Retail’s further push into brick-and-mortar and ecommerce, and are part of Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) unit’s larger strategy: To break into the global top ten retailers. India’s largest retailer (by sales as well as by the number of stores) is currently ranked 53rd in the world, according to Deloitte’s Global Powers of Retailing 2021. Reliance Retail reported an annual revenue of $22 billion and a net profit of $750 million for the fiscal year ending March 2021.

At the same time, the company is looking beyond pure retailing. It’s pursuing a larger play to tap into the growing pie of the country’s overall consumption story — from contract manufacturing to distribution of everything from affordable fashion and consumer electronics to grocery products in India’s $850 billion annual retail market that is expected to swell to $1.3 trillion in the next few years. (Reliance did not respond to ET’s questionnaire.)

Analysts say Reliance’s overall plan is to engage India’s burgeoning consumers in its ecosystem one way or the other at any given point of time: shopping in its vast network of physical stores or on JioMart ecommerce platform, using Jio’s mobile or WiFi networks, watching movies on Jio Cinema, paying through Jio wallet so on and so forth that it is dubbed by the petroleum-to-telecommunications conglomerate as “retail plus” strategy.

“Their plan is to weave their products and services so deeply into your life that from morning to evening you are spending time and money on their networks either directly or indirectly,” says a top executive of an online grocery retailer. “Their idea is to constantly keep consumers engaged in a Jio bubble or in a Jio world.” The executive estimates India has a middle class of around 40 crore people. “Even if they succeed in capturing 10% of that wallet share, it is going to be huge,” he says.

That’s the reason Reliance Retail is betting big on business-to-business (B2B) ecommerce, with a digital wholesale marketplace along the lines of Alibaba for products such as smartphones, televisions, garments and grocery items, among other products, according to people aware of the plan. It’s looking to service a whole gamut of retailers in cities and villages.

Reliance has already started distributing its licencee products of Kelvinator- and BPL-branded consumer electronic items and its smartphone JioPhone Next, produced in collaboration with Google, to retailers outside of Reliance’s stable. The company also boasts a whole host of private brands and many of them are making inroads into general trade.

“The market for modern retail and ecommerce put together would be 15-20% in India. The rest 80% is still in the traditional market. If Reliance can make an entry into the traditional market and partner the smaller stores, the opportunity for growth and revenue is much more,” says an industry executive aware of the plans.

“Reliance’s approach is not to be a threat to small stores or merchants, but to be their enabler, provide them merchandise at best wholesale rates, upgrade their stores and even list them on their ecommerce platforms to help them reach newer consumers,” he adds.

Reliance is doing exactly that. Earlier this year, it started supplying Puric InstaSafe-branded FMCG products like soaps, home disinfectants and sanitisers to kiranas in Punjab and West Bengal. It is planning to roll these items nationwide. The company has put in place a marketing team for the first time to push these products. Similarly, B2B portal Ajio Business is selling T-shirts for Rs 79 onwards, a pair of jeans for Rs 220 and shirts for Rs 170 onwards to small businesses. Last quarter, Reliance Retail forayed into the wholesale business of medicines through Netmeds by roping in neighbourhood pharmacies under its B2B initiative.

These are some of the steps in the conglomerate’s bet not just on pure retail play but on end-to-end gameplay in the retail ecosystem, controlling manufacturing, wholesale, supply chain, ecommerce and payments.

To augment its digital wholesale plans, Reliance Retail has already converted its network of cash-and-carry outlets into fulfilment centres.

Analysts say Reliance’s ambitions are long-term and capital intensive and the company is ready for the long haul and to spend. “Reliance’s plan to rope in and aggregate many elements together — retailers, B2B buyers, suppliers, small players — and bring them on board takes time and is a capital-hungry business,” says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of consulting firm Third Eyesight. “But controlling end-to-end is Reliance’s game plan in any business, including telecom, where it spans the entire value chain of not just providing the mobile network but also a digital interface with consumers.”

In a bid to feed its ambitious consumption plans, Reliance Retail is lapping up stores and warehouses nationwide to service both ecommerce and B2B sales through its “new commerce” omnichannel plans that will also involve legions of kiranas as last-mile delivery agents as well as buyers of Reliance’s products. Reliance Retail, which operates more than 13,000 stores of various formats, plans to open around 5,000 outlets of its Smart Point that would entail a convenience store, a pharmacy, agnostic centre, a telecom services and financial services products outlet all rolled into one across the country.

Reliance is planning to take this format to even tehsils, according to sources. Real estate agents and mall executives say Reliance is scouting for space for supermarkets, fashion outlets and jewellery and footwear stores.

They say Reliance is also planning to enter newer retail formats like a department store chain to compete with Shoppers Stop and Lifestyle. Also in the works is a Sephora-style beauty and cosmetics chain, they say.

“We will focus on expanding our store footprint multifold this year with co-located delivery hubs over the next few years. They will provide a strong network to reach and serve millions of merchants and customers,” Ambani said at the last AGM of shareholders.

Deloitte’s Global Powers of Retailing 2021 report ranked Reliance Retail as the world’s second fastest growing retailer, behind South Korea’s Coupang Corp.

Global financial and tech titans have taken notice of Reliance Retail’s play and pumped billions of dollars into it. Last year, the holding company Reliance Retail Ventures Ltd raised Rs 47,265 crore by selling about 10% stake to some of the biggest names in global private equity, including Silver Lake, KKR, General Atlantic, Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and TPG.

Reliance will continue with its acquisition spree, say analysts. However, Reliance Retail’s largest, the Rs 25,000 crore acquisition of Future Group, is bogged down by Amazon’s opposition to the proposed deal.

(Published in Economic Times)

Retail 2020

Devangshu Dutta

December 17, 2019

Remember the year 2000? After Y2K passed safely, that year some optimistic analysts predicted that India’s modern retail chains would reach 20 per cent market share by 2015. Two years after that supposed watershed, another firm declared that modern retail will be at around that level in 2020 – but wait! – only in the top 9 cities in the country. Don’t hold your breath: India surprises; constantly. As many have noted, “predictions are tough, especially about the future!” What we can do is reflect on some of this year’s developments that could play out over the coming year.

In many minds 2019 may be the Year of the Recession, plagued by discounting, but that demand slowdown has brewing for some time now. However, there’s another under-appreciated factor that has been playing out: while small, independent retailers can flex their business investments with variations in demand, modern retail chains need to spread the business throughout the year in order to meet fixed expenses and to manage margins more consistently.

To reduce dependence on festive demand, retailers like Big Bazaar and Reliance have been inventing shopping events like Sabse Sasta Din (Cheapest Day), Sabse Sachi Sale (Most Authentic Sale), Republic Day / 3-Day sale, Independence Day shopping and more for the last few years. In ecommerce, there’s the Amazon’s Freedom Sale, Prime Day, and Great India Festival, and Flipkart’s Big Billion Day Sale. This year retailers and brands went overboard with Black Friday sale, a shopping-event concept from the 1950s in the USA linked to a harvest celebration marked by European colonisers of North America. (The fact that Black Friday has a totally different connotation in India since the terrorist bombings in Bombay in 1993 seems to have completely escaped the attention of brands, retailers and advertising agencies.) Be that as it may, we can only expect more such invented and imported events to pepper the retail calendar, to drive footfall and sales. The consumer has been successfully converted to a value-seeking man-eater fed on a diet of deals and discounts. With no big-bang economic stimuli domestically and a sputtering global economy, we should just get used to the idea of not fireworks but slow-burning oil lamps and sprinklings of flowers and colour through the year. Retailers will just have to work that much harder to keep the lamps from sputtering.

Ecommerce companies have been in operating for 20 years now, but the Indian consumer still mostly prefers a hands-on experience. The lack of trust is a huge factor, built on the back of inconsistency of products and services. The one segment that has been receiving a lot of love, attention and money this year (and will grow in 2020) is food and grocery, since it is the largest chunk of the consumption basket. Beyond the incumbents – Grofers, Big Basket, MilkBasket and the likes – now Walmart-Flipkart and Amazon are going hard at it, and Reliance has also jumped in. Remember, though, that selling groceries online is as old as the first dot-com boom in India. E-grocers still struggle to create a habit among their customers that would give them regular and remunerative transactions, and they also need to tackle supply-side challenges. Average transactions remain small, demand remains fragmented, and supply chain issues continue to be troublesome. Most e-grocers are ending up depending on a relatively narrow band of consumers in a handful of cities.  The generation that is comfortable with an ever-present screen is not yet large enough to tilt the scales towards non-store shopping and convenience isn’t the biggest driver for the rest, so, for a while it’ll remain a bumpy, painful, unprofitable road.

Where we will see rapid pick-up is social commerce, both in terms of referral networks as well as using social networks to create niche entrepreneurial businesses – 2020 should be a good year for social commerce, including a mix of online platforms, social media apps as well as offline community markets. However, western or East Asia models won’t be replicated as the Indian market is significantly lower in average incomes, and way more fragmented.

As a closing thought, I’ll mention a sector that I’ve been involved with (for far too long): fashion. In the last 8-10 decades, globally fashion has become an industry living off artificially-generated expiry dates. A challenge that I have extended to many in the industry, and this year publicly at a conference: if consumption falls to half in the next five years, and you still have to run a profitable business (obviously!), how would you do it? Plenty of clues lie in India – we epitomise the future consumers; frugal, value-seeking, wanting the latest and the best but not fearful about missing out the newest design, because it will just be there a few weeks later at a discount. If you can crack that customer base and turn a profit, you would be well set for the next decade or so.

(Published as a year-end perspective in the Financial Express.)