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Retail in Critical Care – The Impact of COVID-2019

Oil shocks, financial market crashes, localised wars and even medical emergencies like SARS pale when compared to the speed and the scale of the mayhem created by SARS-CoV-2. In recent decades the world has become far more interconnected through travel and trade, so the viral disease – medical and economic – now spreads faster than ever. Airlines carrying business and leisure-travellers have also quickly carried the virus. Businesses benefitting from lower costs and global scale are today infected deeply due to the concentration of manufacturing and trade.

A common defensive action worldwide is the lock-down of cities to slow community transmission (something that, ironically, the World Health Organization was denying as late as mid-January). The Indian government implemented a full-scale 3-week national lockdown from March 25. The suddenness of this decision took most businesses by surprise, but quick action to ensure physical distancing was critical.

Clearly consumer businesses are hit hard. If we stay home, many “needs” disappear; among them entertainment, eating out, and buying products related to socializing. Even grocery shopping drops; when you’re not strolling through the supermarket, the attention is focussed on “needs”, not “wants”. A travel ban means no sales at airport and railway kiosks, but also no commute to the airport and station which, in turn means that the businesses that support taxi drivers’ daily needs are hit.

Responses vary, but cash is king! US retailers have wrangled aid and tax breaks of potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, as part of a US$2 trillion stimulus. A British retailer is filing for administration to avoid threats of legal action, and has asked landlords for a 5-month retail holiday. Several western apparel retailers are cancelling orders, even with plaintive appeals from supplier countries such as Bangladesh and India. In India, large corporate retailers are negotiating rental waivers for the lockdown period or longer. Many retailers are bloated with excess inventory and, with lost weeks of sales, have started cancelling orders with their suppliers citing “force majeure”. Marketing spends have been hit. (As an aside, will “viral marketing” ever be the same?)

On the upside are interesting collaborations and shifts emerging. In the USA, Jo-Ann Stores is supplying fabric and materials to be made up into masks and hospital gowns at retailer Nieman Marcus’ alteration facilities. LVMH is converting its French cosmetics factories into hand sanitizer production units for hospitals, and American distilleries are giving away their alcohol-based solutions. In India, hospitality groups are providing quarantine facilities at their empty hotels. Zomato and Swiggy are partnering to deliver orders booked by both online and offline retailers, who are also partnering between themselves, in an unprecedented wave of coopetition. Ecommerce and home delivery models are getting a totally unexpected boost due to quarantine conditions.

Life-after-lockdown won’t go back to “normal”. People will remain concerned about physical exposure and are unlikely to want to spend long periods of time in crowds, so entertainment venues and restaurants will suffer for several weeks or months even after restrictions are lifted, as will malls and large-format stores where families can spend long periods of time.

The second major concern will be income-insecurity for a large portion of the consuming population. The frequency and value of discretionary purchases – offline and online – will remain subdued for months including entertainment, eating-out and ordering-in, fashion, home and lifestyle products, electronics and durables.

The saving grace is that for a large portion of India, the Dusshera-Deepavali season and weddings provide a huge boost, and that could still float some boats in the second half of this year. Health and wellness related products and services would also benefit, at least in the short term. So 2020 may not be a complete washout.

So, what now?

Retailers and suppliers both need to start seriously questioning whether they are valuable to their customer or a replaceable commodity, and crystallise the value proposition: what is it that the customer values, and why? Business expansion, rationalised in 2009-10, had also started going haywire recently. It is again time to focus on product line viability and store productivity, and be clear-minded about the units to be retained.

Someone once said, never let a good crisis be wasted.

This is a historical turning point. It should be a time of reflection, reinvention, rejuvenation. It would be a shame if we fail to use it to create new life-patterns, social constructs, business models and economic paradigms.

(This article was published in the Financial Express under the headline “As Consumer businesses take a hard hit, time for retailers to reflect and reinvent”

Retail 2020

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.)

Retail 2.019: Navigating by Customer Experience

Do you have this feeling that 2018 went by a little too quickly? Well, however quick it seemed, it was certainly momentous for retail in India.

If 2016 was marked by the shock of demonetization, and 2017 by the pains of GST implementation, 2018 highlighted two threads – the obvious convergence of the online and offline world that had been ignored for far too long, and the interest of foreign capital in India’s consumer world.

Walmart bought India’s loss-making ecommerce leader for an eye-popping US$ 20.8 billion valuation, while ecommerce giant Amazon injecting equity into Shoppers Stop, bought Aditya Birla’s More grocery chain (49 per cent through a back-end entity), and held discussions with Future Group to acquire 9.5 per cent in Future Retail. There were rumours of a mega joint venture between Reliance Retail and China’s Alibaba, and media also reported Japan’s Softbank looking at ploughing US$200 million into Firstcry. Both rivals Amazon and Alibaba were reported to be looking at Spencer’s, one of India’s oldest retail chains currently owned by the RP-Sanjiv Goenka group.

Videos of the crush of curious crowds at India’s first, much anticipated Ikea went viral, and the company said it planned to open 40 locations over the next few years, upping its earlier projection of 25. Chinese retailer Miniso basically came out of nowhere and claimed to have clocked sales of ?700 crores in the very first year in the country.

But along with these cross-border “big bangs” we saw domestic confidence also quietly resurging. Indian retailers are not cowering before large foreign retailers and expensive ecommerce advertising splashes; today they are less defensive about their own prospects than they were two years ago. There is also a growing interest among entrepreneurs and corporates to create new retail businesses, which augers well for the diversity of competition and freshness of offerings in the market.

Going into 2019, one thing I can say with certainty is that the weather, economic and political – both in India and elsewhere – will be unpredictable, and might even turn stormy. Externally, retailers should “expect the unexpected”. To ensure that the business remains on track, however rough the track becomes, retailers must centre all major strategies and decisions on the customer. A theme that has been around for centuries, it is surprising how much it gets ignored in this most customer-facing business.

Retailers tend to divide customers into rigid segments. My suggestion would be to look at customers through the behaviour and experience lens and also recognise that the same customer behaves differently at different times and in different contexts – in effect there are no hard boundaries between “segments”.

It is often emphasised is that Indian consumers are “deal-seeking”. I don’t think we should treat this as a uniquely Indian thing: all consumers look for value-reassurance in unpredictable times and in uncertain conditions. Also remember that even in value-seeking, experience still rules. Retailers and brands that are solely focussing on price or price+feature comparisons are turning their business into a commodity. They are missing the long game: of defining the customer’s experience from the first moment of brand contact to the purchase and beyond.

In 2019, if you want to focus on a single competitive strategy, it would be this: for stickiness and sustainability, think about the customer’s experience, and actively design it, in every environment where the customer connects with you.

Lastly, technology is transformative, but tends to get restricted to being the contrast between ecommerce and physical retail. Indian retailers need to embrace technology in all forms, from using the zillions of transactions within the business and with the customer for developing actionable knowledge, to automating processes where unnecessary cost or time makes the business inefficient.

Having said that, keep the previous rule in mind when deploying at customer-facing technology – make customer-interfacing technology as invisible or intuitive as possible. When in doubt, learn from one of the leaders in the sector, Amazon: its 1-click ordering patent 20 years ago gave it a huge advantage over competitors, and it is now aiming to replicate the same seamless, friction-free behaviour physically with its Dash button. Or pick cues even from younger fashion businesses like Rebecca Minkoff, whose focus is on ease and convenience. The key reason for adopting technology is to remove friction for the customer and for processes that serve the customer.

I have no doubt that 2019 will be eventful – let the customer experience be the guiding light to keep our businesses off the rocks and afloat.

(Published in the Financial Express on 4 January 2019, under the title “Retail in 2019: Need for stronger brand-customer connections that go beyond purchase“)

The Oneness of Retail

Amazon Go; Source-Wikimedia (Brianc333a)

[Accompanying Image credit: Amazon Go; CC/Wikimedia Commons/Brianc333a)]

To many, retail seems to be having an identity crisis.

Closed storefronts on American and European streets and dead malls in India and China are blamed on the growth of online retail. At the same time, the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon, is opening physical stores and buying offline retail operations in the US and in India, while the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, is busy digesting India’s ecommerce market leader. Even India’s online fashion and lifestyle websites – among them Myntra, Firstcry, Yepme and Faballey – are acquiring offline brands or opening stores. Or both.

What in the world is going on?

The short answer: consumers want choice; and retailers have no choice.

For many, ecommerce still seems to have the “new car smell” after more than 20 years, the message pitched so desperately by the founders of and investors in ecommerce companies still echoing: that this “new kid” will make customers’ lives a quintillion times better and wipe out the competition. Two decades on, and hundreds of billions of dollars of investment later, online retail is estimated to be about 12% of the global market. Ecommerce is 10% of the US market, of which Amazon takes up about half. In India the figure is in the vicinity of 2%, with that share is virtually stitched up between Walmart-owned Flipkart Group and Amazon.

Clearly, consumers value offline retail stores, whether for convenience or as holistic brand ambassadors. You can’t take away the fact that retail for us is theatre, experience, social.

Over at physical retail businesses, managers have been terrified of “channel conflict”. Senior management have squeezed resources for online, even when return-on-capital was demonstrably better than a new store. Some have refused to publicise their own company’s website through in-store banners, fearing that the customers would get sucked away from the store. It has been strange to see this opportunity being passed up – if a customer is trusts you to walk into your physical store, why would you not want to connect with them at other points of time when they are not near your store?

As I’ve written earlier, retail is not and should not be divided between “old-world physical” and “upstart online”. Successful retailers and brands have always been able to integrate multiple channels and environments to reach their customers.

For instance, British fashion retailer Next has long used a combination of physical stores (of varying sizes) as well as mail order catalogue side-by-side, and then ecommerce as the digital medium grew. Another British retailer, Argos, took another angle and embedded a catalogue inside the physical store – first a paper catalogue, and then on-screen.

American designer Rebecca Minkoff has taken this unification further. Without the weight of legacy systems, the brand attempts to create a seamless experience for the customer, unifying the store, in-store digital interfaces such as smart dressing rooms, the website and the mobile.

No doubt, for older companies, integrating is tough; business systems and people are in disconnected silos, incentivised narrowly. Each channel needs different mindsets, capabilities, processes and systems, to ensure that the optimal customer experience appropriate for the interface, whether it is a store, mobile app, website or catalogue. But etailers opening physical stores have their own challenges, too, tackling the messy slowness of the physical world, where you can’t instantly switch the store layout after an A:B test. They now need to develop those very “old-world skills” and overheads that they thought they would never need.

Regardless of where they begin, retailers need to mould and blend their business models with proficiency across channels. In the evolving environment, any brand or retailer must aim to offer as seamless an experience to the customer as feasible, where the customer never feels disconnected from the brand.

Varying circumstances make customers choose different buying environments. At different times or on different days of the week, even the same person may choose to shop in entirely different ways. Successful retailers that outlast their competitors have used a variety of formats and channels to meet their customers, and will continue to do so.

To my mind, retailers have no choice but to see the retail business as one, even as it is fluid and evolving. A retailer’s only choice is to bend with the customer’s choice.

(Published in the Financial Express under the title “Uniting retail: Why online versus offline debate must end“)

Food Processing – Supply Chain Conflicts and Food Security (Video)

This is a recording of a short, candid talk by Devangshu Dutta (chief executive, Third Eyesight) at the ASSOCHAM’s 8th Global Food Processing Summit in New Delhi, India.

He touched upon the inherent conflicts in the food supply chain we need to be aware of before formulating policies and practices, and strongly urged everyone to look at food security from the point of view of sustainability and risk-management. (Transcript below.)

TRANSCRIPT:

I’ll just take just few minutes to share a few thoughts with you on the sector.

The session was titled “Make in India: Platform for investment opportunity in food processing sector and 100 percent FDI in food retail”.

As we all know, whoever’s been following the news, there’s all this buzz around FDI into retail being allowed, not only for physical retail but also for e-commerce companies, and there are two very strong sets of drivers. On the one hand is the likes of Walmart and Tesco and people who want to actually set up food retail. and you know food is the largest consumption in our basket of consumer products, so they obviously want to tap into that demand. The second side is Amazon and the likes of it where again you know there are no barriers in terms of location, you are buying on the net, tapping into a consumer who’s looking for convenience, and there you need to actually service that demand with food and grocery which is packaged, so there is obviously a very strong push a very strong lobby for that to happen. At the same time there’s a very strong lobby against that because there are domestic retailers who invested a lot of money over the last maybe 10-15 years in setting up a lot of retail stores. In the recent years there have been a few e-commerce companies that have come up as well with domestic and foreign capital. So there is this conflict.

In this whole ecosystem of food production and supply and retail there are some fundamental conflicts that we need to be aware of, before we get into any kind of thinking about what should be done with the sector.

First of all is foreign vs. Indian; this is a conflict which is there the world over, and I think we will see that increase in Europe, in the US, and in other places. You know, “local versus foreign” is a conflict which we will keep seeing. I think we have moved a little bit away from that within, not only this government’s regime but also the earlier government’s regime, where we started to welcome foreigners back into the country and said, “let’s do trade together”.  I think it’s important to keep it in mind that local interests will always always be take predominance over foreign interests. If any government comes in and says, “I will give foreign interests precedence”, it’s going to not be there in power the next time, so that’s something which is to be kept in mind.

The second is this is a conflict between large and small…large retailers versus small retailers. A Reliance had to close shops in Uttar Pradesh, had to close shops in Kerala because they were impacting small retailers. So it’s not just about Walmart impacting small retailers, it’s also about the large Indian companies impacting smaller companies.

The third conflict is between traditional and modern, and this is happening again even in farming. Indian farmers tend to follow traditional practices, there are fragmented land holdings, and then you have modern entrepreneurial farmers, you have cooperatives which are adopting different techniques, and there is a conflict which happens at that level as well. At the local level it can get hugely political and then it starts raising barriers. So if you talk about the food supply chain, it’s not a simple thing to deal with.

Fourthly, the biggest biggest conflict – and that’s not really a conflict outright because these are people who are working together – but there are differences of interests and, therefore, there are conflicts…that is between retailer, supplier and the farmer, the interests are not aligned. A retailer wants lower prices, a supplier wants even lower prices, but the farmer wants higher yield and higher prices, so that conflict, just something on account of price and commercial terms and various other things, is bound to create friction in that supply chain.

Having understood that, I think we need to also acknowledge the fact that retailers are unlikely to invest in the supply chain and in farming. Amazon is not going to set up food processing. Amazon is not going to set up farms which are contract farming. Let’s face it, even Future Group hasn’t. Future Group has set up a food park. Future Group has taken over companies which are in food production companies but Future Group has has not set up, ground-up, contract farming. They’ve tried but it’s not their core competence, it’s not even their core interest. Reliance has done a little bit, ITC has done a few things but it’s not something which is fundamentally their business. They’re retailers, that’s what drives them, so what they can do is they can create an ecosystem.

Let’s take the example of McDonald’s or a Pizza Hut or say a Domino’s. These are foreign quick service restaurants which have come into the country. A McDonald’s had to actually build its supply chain from scratch to get the potato fries, to get the burgers done, to get the patties done and they created an ecosystem, in some cases they invested or co-invested with Indian partners, but in most cases they encouraged Indian partners to talk to their partners from Europe, US etc.

When we talk about people like Future Group, it has done a lot in being a platform for Indian companies to come on board and sometimes international companies as well. They’re a platform for them to launch and grow their business. So what the retailer can do is create the ecosystem, create the demand pipeline. Beyond that it is up to the food producer, it is up to the farmer, to take that opportunity and move on. It’s not for the retailer to handhold from scratch all the way to selling on the shelves.

In terms of the practices that we need to adopt I’d like to say this, that while we keep talking about international standards, food is a very local thing. We may be going into a world where 50 years down the line all of us will be having a white-gray powder which has no flavour and that’s what the future of food…I hope not!…The fact is the food is a very local thing because of tastes, because of cultures, because of the environment that you are in. And we are actually losing a lot. People who are here from farming, if you look back not, even very far – maybe 20-25 years – certainly, if you look back 50 years, what was being farmed we’ve lost probably 30-40 percent of that produce, because there is no demand, because it is difficult to grow, because it’s seasonal, because it is difficult to process,  difficult to sell. If you go to the sabziwala today versus if we went to the sabziwala 10 years ago, you will find that the variety of produce has actually diminished. So while we are talking about food processing, what is happening is…and I’d like to mention this…You know, sometimes we come to conferences like this and we run our businesses, we run with a split personality. We do what is convenient for the business, we do what is good for the business in terms of cost, in terms of ease of processing, in terms of ease of selling etc. When it comes to us as consumers, we want fresh, we want variety, we want flavor, we want colour, we want all of it. Why do we have the split personality? Why can’t we actually combine the two and do what is right for us as consumers, our children as consumers, the environment, and the future as well?

Sustainability is should be a big driver and we forget that the kind of food processing which is going on right now, by and large the kind of plants which are being put up, are based on technology which was developed in North America and Europe between 1900 and say 1960-70. That’s been the most wasteful part of the last century in terms of energy, in terms of water, in terms of labour, in terms of anything. It’s resource intensive. Now imagine even if 20% of India – over 200 million people – started to live and depend on that kind of a lifestyle and that kind of an industrial structure! This country will be finished, certainly! The world would be finished! We cannot do that, so we’ve got to do stuff which is good for us as consumers, the environment as a whole, and good for the business. It can’t just be one. We cannot be uni-dimensional in our thinking.

Last point: I think diversity is a very, very important part of the food supply chain and diversity means that there are “many”. We tend to look at large companies as being the standard and, therefore, large being good. But the fact is that if you take food which is an integral part of our lives…You cannot live without air, you can live without food and water for a few days, you can’t survive. You can live without clothes for your entire life.

If let’s say the food supply chain and even the processing, the acquisition and everything else, if it gets consolidated beyond a certain point it becomes extremely vulnerable. Anybody who’s looked at financial services risk management or any any kind of risk assessment, you would know that it is good to have a diversified basket. From the point-of-view of farming, from the point-of-view of manufacturing, from the point-of-view of retail, consolidation beyond a certain point is actually detrimental to quality and to safety. So if you’re looking at food safety, if you’re looking at sustainability, we need to actually encourage many, many, many entrepreneurs, many small businesses.

For that…I don’t know if anybody is there from the government sitting in this audience…but Make in India will only happen if we make it easier. Today all of us who are in business know that India is one of the most hostile environments to do business of any sort. It does not matter whether you are in manufacturing, whether you’re a truck driver, whether you are running a consulting business. With all the regulations…we don’t lack regulation, there’s too much regulation…we don’t have an environment where it is easy to do business. If that can happen we will find that we will have an extremely diverse and vibrant ecosystem which will grow and we can actually be the standard, the international standard which can be followed by everybody else. I think what we should do is try and get the government to work in that direction. If we can do that, if that’s one outcome we can achieve out of this conference I’ll be really, really, really happy.

Thank you so much!

One Ring That Rules Them All

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.)

Grow Up To Find Growth

In 2016, brick-and-mortar modern retailers seemed to have begun recovering their confidence, and cautiously investing in expansion. However, currency shortage has significantly dampened demand at the end of the year. The hangover would continue into the first half of 2017, and consumers could be muted overall on discretionary purchases, including fashion, mobile upgrades and out-of-home dining.

On the other hand, while digital transactions introduce a note of caution (friction) in the consumer’s purchase decision, for e-tailers they do reduce complexity, cash-handling costs and potential returns which could provide significant unexpected wins.

I’ve written about this for years, and don’t tire of reiterating: the retail sector must recognise that shopping is a unified activity for the consumer; physical stores and non-store environments are alternative but complementary channels. Brands can and must use whatever channel mix works for them, and brick-and-mortar retailers need to invest in creating an integrated growth blueprint towards “unified commerce”.

On their part, while e-commerce companies are constrained by FDI policy, they will need to invest more in developing “old economy” strengths – strong product differentiation and distinguishable brands. Fashion, accessories, home decor and other lifestyle products are strong drivers of gross margin for all multi-product retailers, and e-commerce players struggling on the path to profit would focus on these even more, as well as on private labels. They also need to have management teams that are able to cast their minds 3-5 years into the future, while keeping close watch on immediate cash flows. Capital is available, but turning risk-averse. All businesses need to focus on up-skilling their teams, retaining good people, improving processes and adopting technology. In recent years, growth in the retail sector seems to have been driven by a “spray-and-pray” approach, not necessarily management sophistication. Spending like there’s no tomorrow is a sure way to no tomorrow.

In short, 2017 could be the year where the entire retail sector grows up – a lot. We hope.

(This piece was published in The Hindu – Businessline on 29 December 2016).

For QSRs, India isn’t a quick-fix but a long game

Dominos India

When American fast food standard bearers McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza stepped into India in the mid-1990s, the market was just ripe enough for take-off.

McDonald’s and later Domino’s Pizza can be credited with not just growing the consumer appetite for fast food but also for fostering an entire food service ecosystem, including fresh produce, baked goods, sauces and condiments, and cold chain technology.

India has been typically difficult for business models driven by scale, replicability and predictability. The customer is price sensitive, operating costs are high and non-compliance of business standards is a frequent occurrence. In this environment, these brands have reinvented the meaning of meals, snacks and treats.

Their growth has set the stage for other international players and also set business aspirational standards for Indian food entrepreneurs and conglomerates alike.

Product experimentation has also been an important part of their success; it keeps excitement in the brand alive and help improve footfall. However, how far a product sustains and whether it becomes a menu staple can’t be predicted accurately. New products also need significant investment in both supply chain and front-of-house changes in standardisation-oriented QSRs, so the new product launch cannot be undertaken lightly. This is one reason these successful QSR formats don’t overhaul their menus drastically but make changes incrementally.

For these market leaders, future scale and deeper penetration is only feasible with higher visit frequency. For growth in middle-income India, they need to become a significantly cost-competitive option to be seen as more than a ‘treat’ or celebration destination.

So, while both McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza have invested significantly in Indian flavours and menu offerings, perhaps it’s also best for them to reconcile with the fact that there will be a significant part of the consumer’s heart, stomach and wallet that will remain dedicated to indigenous offerings.

In a global environment that’s turning hostile to fast food, India isn’t a quick-fix growth market, but it’s certainly one to stay invested in, for the longer term.

And I have no doubt that as much as these companies aim to change India, over time India will also change them.

(Also published in Brand Wagon, The Financial Express)

Festive discounts, online shopping and retail evolution in India

P. Karunya Rao of Zee Business in conversation with Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive, Third Eyesight and Narayan Devanathan, Group Executive & Strategy Officer, Dentsu India, about festive discounts, the evolution of ecommerce and retail business in India.

 

Heat Spots in the Cold Chain

The cold chain sector is expanding quickly due to increased investments from Indian and international organisations going towards both modernisation of the existing facilities and establishment of new ventures. Over the last few years cold-chain has gained a buzz, finding its way not only into industry presentations but also into budget speeches in Parliament. It is widely reported that India needs to build more cold chain capacity, especially to reduce the enormous amount of waste of food products in the chain from farm to consumer.

India is one of the largest producers of agro-products i.e. fresh fruits and vegetables, milk and related products, fishery products and meat. However, due to lack of the required facilities, spoilage of products is comparatively high.

In recent years, significantly incentivised both by business logic and by tax breaks, there has been a fair amount on investment in cold storages. However, the sector is still highly fragmented; there is inequitable distribution of cold storages, interlinkages between storages is also very poor and many facilities are also operating below capacity.

The National Centre for Cold Chain Development (NCCD) reported that as of December 2014, 70% capacity was utilised, where the total number of cold storages available in India was around 5300 and approximately 6000+ vehicles, providing about 30 Million Metric Tonnes capacity of storage. Most of these facilities are located in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Punjab, Maharashtra and West Bengal.

Storage and transportation capacity is only the very first step in strengthening cold chain capabilities but, unfortunately, that is where many entrepreneurs and investors in cold-chain are stopping their thought process. Many players in the industry have been using obsolete machinery, and storages are majorly for a single commodity. The result, predictably, is underutilisation of capacity or mishandling of food products leading to operational problems, cost escalations, spoilage and other losses. Just to mention a simple example that many seem to forget: even domestic refrigerators have at least 3-4 temperature-humidity zones: the freezer, the chill tray, the large cool area, and a vegetable tray. In comparison, many cold stores are built without adequate thought to the various influencing factors. It’s important to recognise that in developing a cold chain capability, the products to be handled, the environment in which the cold chain will operate, not only storage but intake, handling and transportation, all have a role to play.

With a fragmented operating environment, both in terms of production as well as distribution, often a single investor or company may not be able to create the business logic to set up a cold chain facility. Collaboration between multiple individuals and agencies may be a way out.

An example of successful use of integrated cold chain is the Tamil Nadu Bananas Growers Federation. Banana growers in the Tamil Nadu belt were diminishing due to lack of appropriate storage facilities, and farmers were forced to sell produce at throw away prices. With introduction of integrated cold chain solutions, the federation of farmers from Tamil Nadu has now managed to gain a hold of the banana market again. They have managed to increase their income manifold by growing better qualities and storing bananas for longer period of time in the integrated cold chains.

Cold chain logistics in the true sense begin with harvesting and post-harvest handling, going on to controlled atmosphere vehicles, cold storages, sorting and grading facilities, modern pack houses and controlled atmosphere retail stores. Most importantly, even operational know-how is something that is not made part of the investment plan, leading to unviable, unprofitable cold chain facilities.

The focus should be to integrate the cold chain, and also build capacities in all areas. As per NCCD (December 2014), India has approximately 6,000 reefer vehicles against a requirement of 60,000. Similarly the number of pack houses available is 250 and the projected requirement is for 70,000. Hence, the need for a more balanced investment in terms of modern pack-houses, refrigerated transport units and ripening chambers is evident and will bring far better results, both operationally and financially.

In addition, there has to be a significant improvement in developing the know-how and skills sets available to the sector. While the country is faced with large-scale unemployment annually, a well-thought out development of the cold chain sector including due investment in knowledge-based initiatives can create significant numbers of better paying jobs around the country, especially in rural areas from where the produce is sourced.

With development of the consumer and retail sector supporting its growth, integrated cold chain development should be at the top of the agenda for government as well as for private business.