India’s consumption landscape: Consumers acquire a taste for premium as mass market lags

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January 26, 2024

Sagar Malviya, Economic Times

Mumbai, 26 January 2024

Hindustan Unilever and United Spirits together present a study in contrasts that seemingly reinforces the current purchasing trends in India’s consumption sector. At the country’s biggest consumer-goods and alco-bev companies, respectively, premium brands are flying off the shelves, but mass-priced products remain relative stragglers.

“At the premium and luxury ends, they (consumers) are continuing to spend, continuing to experiment, continuing to do repertoire drinking, especially experimenting with the white spirits, drinking at home,” Hina Nagarajan, managing director at Diageo-controlled United Spirits, told investors in a post-earnings call. “However, Middle India, or the value-oriented consumer, is actually cutting down on the number of occasions (to spend) to manage their money.”

The maker of Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff posted a 12.4% volume decline in the mass-priced segments, while pricier prestige and above categories saw a 10% growth during the December quarter. The Indian unit of the world’s biggest distiller said it expects this trend in purchasing behaviour to continue over the next couple of quarters.

At Hindustan Unilever, the country’s biggest consumer company by both sales and market value, the story isn’t vastly different. The FMCG bellwether said its premium portfolio expanded more than two-and-a-half times the mass segment over the past few quarters.

This trend was seen even in the rural areas that make up nearly half the annual sales at the maker of Dove soaps and Glow & Lovely skin creams. Pricier products now constitute a third of Hindustan Unilever’s total sales. “In rural areas, there are people who can afford and spend money, and hence, the premium portfolio in has also grown well – like it has grown in urban parts of the business,” Rohit Jawa, managing director, Hindustan Unilever, told investors after the December-quarter earnings. “We have always seen that essential and discretionary are the two realities of (the) rural (market).”

Incomes & Business Cycles

This dichotomy in purchase decisions appears to be a function of income disparity and is market-agnostic, experts believe. For instance, rural India that accounts for nearly 40% of the overall FMCG market saw a noticeable drop in demand for a year due to inflation and erratic monsoons. Cities, meanwhile, appear to be at the vanguard of overall consumption demand across categories as urban incomes, typically linked to organised sectors of the economy, are more resilient to business cycles and promise better protection against broader inflationary pressures. “Even if the consuming class, mainly upper and middle class, saw an impact on their incomes, it is still not significant to affect their discretionary spends,” said Devangshu Dutta, founder of Third Eyesight, a strategy consulting firm. “There is a buffer available for higher income growth and it will hit them later in any economic downturn. At present, it is felt in the lower-income segment.”

Over the past decade and a half, consumer companies expanded sales by pushing both pricier and affordable products. Companies still have budget-friendly options in their portfolio, but lower incomes, especially in rural areas, appear to have dented purchasing power at the budget end of the market. “The real pressure on the wallet is on the lower side, where we do see upgrades are not happening from country liquor to either the popular category or the lower end of prestige,” said Nagarajan at United Spirits.

(Published in Economic Times)

Brands rewrite their wedding story for the 2023 season

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December 12, 2023

Akshit Pushkarna, Afaqs

12 December 2023

The season for Indian weddings, usually spanning October to December, experienced an unusual twist due to Hindu calendar nuances this year, resulting in a shorter duration. The unexpected shift has upended the conventional decrease in marriage ceremonies, resulting in a condensed surge of weddings. 

A report by the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) anticipates Rs 4.74 lakh crore in business earnings from the 38 lakh marriages expected this wedding season, marking a historic high. In comparison, the corresponding period last year witnessed around 32 lakh weddings with total expenses amounting to Rs 3.75 lakh crore.

This presents brands involved in the wedding business with an ample opportunity to capitalise and drive forth their business revenues for the year to come. Three key brands associated with wedding business are steering their strategies to align with the evolving preferences of Indian consumers in the lucrative wedding market.

A more region-specific focus for Shaadi.com’s marketing communication

In a conversation with afaqs!, Adhish Zaveri, VP-marketing, Shaadi.com, a prominent online matrimonial and matchmaking service, speaks about how digital media is more relevant for brand building for wedding-oriented businesses now, eclipsing the relevance of traditional TV and out-of-home advertising. He sees mass media serving only reminders to prompt registrations, while the primary focus shifts towards digital platforms.

This change involves a robust regional focus within our marketing playbook, recognising the dynamic shifts in matrimonial behavior across diverse geographies

Adhish Zaveri, VP-marketing, Shaadi.com

“This season, we have incorporated a paradigm shift in our marketing strategy, driven not only by the upswing in weddings but also by observing how Indians approach finding life partners, with nuances varying across regions. This change involves a robust regional focus within our marketing playbook, recognising the dynamic shifts in matrimonial behaviour across diverse geographies,” he says.

The campaign is driven by the company’s commitment to assure individuals of finding a match within a specified timeframe. The pledge to successfully matchmake within 30 days, with a refund guarantee, serves as the crux of their messaging this season. “Tailoring our approach to each market, we’ve executed this promise uniquely.”

This approach sees the company partner with people of influence across markets to drive better visibility. For the Hindi market, they’ve forged a strategic partnership with Jasleen Royal, the acclaimed singer behind popular wedding songs like Din Shagna Da and Hiriye. Leveraging her association, Zaveri says they have orchestrated a robust social media engagement strategy.

“In the Tamil market, we’ve employed celebrities who recently tied the knot as our ‘matchmakers.’ Adapting a viral reel from this region, featuring the celebrity couple, became a cornerstone of our campaign. While regional focus has always been part of our strategy, this time we’ve approached it through a celebrity lens, creating bespoke strategies for each South Indian market. Although distinct, each strategy is unified by a celebrity-centric approach. From featuring Supriya and Sachin Pilgaonkar for Marathi audiences to enlisting Jasleen Royal for the North, and partnering with Ashok Selvan and Keerthi Pandian for the South – we’ve delved deeper into regional dynamics,” he adds.

Zaveri believes the success of the approach is evident, particularly in the South, where the company’s market presence has increased dramatically post-campaign, providing them an opportunity to further invest in the region. 

A focus on the Wedding planning business for Vikaas Gutgutia’s Ferns N Petals

In the backdrop of a season that signals prosperity, Vikaas Gutgutia, founder and managing director, Ferns N Petals (FnP),  reflects on the trajectory of its business, navigating through the challenges of a pandemic-induced wedding lull.

He says FnP strategically sustained its business in 2022, aligning with the resumption of the wedding business. With the focus shifting to a year poised for business takeoff, the company plans on exploring the wedding planning business with their new business line Shaadi Central. 

“With a legacy in the wedding industry, FnP has historically undertaken various wedding-related tasks, albeit not comprehensively under one roof or in an organised manner. This year marks a strategic shift as the company introduced ‘Shaadi Central,’ a luxury wedding company offering a one-stop solution for all wedding needs.”

“This holistic approach aims to streamline and elevate the wedding planning experience, allowing partners and their families to focus on the approaching wedding date with ease. The innovation and consolidation under ‘Shaadi Central’ have sparked notable interest and engagement in the new business venture. Having weathered a less-than-ideal summer season and traditionally subdued winter numbers, we anticipate a robust revenue surge, making the current season particularly promising,” he asserts.”

The business setup was sparked by Gutgutia’s assertion that, with the evolving landscape of wedding planning, which has made destination weddings and grandeur now necessary for some, the role of wedding planners has become significantly prominent. The launch’s alignment with the business boom anticipated with the wedding season of 2023, Gutgutia underscores the importance of timing in business.

The innovation and consolidation under ‘Shaadi Central’ have sparked notable interest and engagement in the new business venture.

Vikaas Gutgutia, founder and managing director, Ferns N Petals (FnP)

Delving into the marketing approach for this new business vertical, he explains, “The momentum generated by word of mouth for the growth of its wedding planning vertical. Each wedding becomes a nexus of potential customers, and social media plays a pivotal role in amplifying references. With clear and specific messaging in the realm of social media, we have successfully driven business, recognising the platform as the primary point of reference in shaping preferences.”

Looking ahead, FnP anticipates a substantial increase in business revenue across all its verticals. The wedding services vertical, in particular, is expected to bring in significant growth in revenue for the company. The belief stems from the observation that the wedding planning sector remains largely unorganised, and he believes that FnP stands out as a formidable player in terms of size and brand image. As the business charts its course forward, the wedding services vertical emerges as a key focus, poised for substantial expansion.

Senco Gold & Diamonds leveraging virtual try-ons for delivering business growth

Joita Sen, director- marketing and design, Senco Gold & Diamonds, says that the company, with a legacy of 80 years, is uniquely equipped to understand the evolving landscape of bridal desires.

Sen elaborates that the company started the year fresh after initiating their Rajwada Collection, a campaign with which the brand aims to weave together traditional designs infused with modern touches and patterns in their offerings. These offerings, thus, can resonate with the essence of the contemporary woman.

The move also sees the brand shifting its focus towards diverse designs, moving away from region-specific choices. Herein lies a unique selling proposition (USP) for the brand—fulfilling a diverse range of needs while ensuring accessibility across various price points. From high-end designs to more budget-friendly options, the brand aims to leave every customer content upon leaving the store.

“The evolution of groom preferences and competitive pricing have further shaped our approach. A significant aspect of our marketing strategy here revolves around social media, leveraging its targeted reach compared to traditional approaches like billboards and footfall. 50 percent of the marketing budget is allocated to digital channels, where advancements have allowed for more precise consumer outreach.”

50 percent of the marketing budget is allocated to digital channels, where advancements have allowed for more precise consumer outreach.

Joita Sen, director- marketing and design, Senco Gold & Diamonds

However, the digital realm poses a challenge in providing a comprehensive array of options compared to the immersive experience offered in showrooms. To address this, Sen acknowledges the importance of virtual try-ons.

“While currently available for select products,  we are actively working on expanding our offerings in virtual try-ons. This approach proves instrumental in effectively communicating the design, look, and feel of the jewellery to consumers, bridging the gap between the digital and physical shopping experiences.

Importance of strategic visibility and multi-modal presence for short-term success

According to Devangshu Dutta, CEO, Third Eyesight, the ongoing mega-season of weddings presents a favourable outlook for formalwear and traditional wear brands across various categories. This surge in weddings is not limited to the upper-income segment but extends across the income spectrum, reaching the middle class and towns of all sizes.

Thus, to effectively capitalise on the wedding season, brands must establish a strong position in customers’ minds well in advance, he believes.

“Products and brands associated with brides, grooms, and close family members, as well as those intended for gifting to the extended family, are inherently perceived as “premium” within their respective consumer segments. This holds true regardless of the targeted population segment. Success as a “wedding brand” requires a long-term perspective, with continuous investments in product development, service enhancement, and marketing expenditure to ensure that the brand stands out prominently amid competition,” he says.

”In the current market landscape, achieving visibility demands a multi-modal approach, encompassing both offline and traditional channels, along with tactical online advertising.”

Devangshu Dutta, CEO, Third Eyesight

In the short term, however, he opines that the visibility and availability of products just before the wedding season play a crucial role in influencing specific performance during that period.

”In the current market landscape, achieving visibility demands a multi-modal approach, encompassing both offline and traditional channels, along with tactical online advertising.”

(Published in Afaqs)

What Is Behind Reliance Retail’s Expansion Spree

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July 8, 2022

Akash Podishetty & Krishna Veera Vanamali, Business Standard

New Delhi, 8 July 2022

India’s $900 billion retail market has emerged as one of the most dynamic industries and is expected to reach anywhere between $1.3-$1.5 trillion by 2025. The organized retail is seen gaining 15% market share in the overall retail space, while food & grocery and apparel and lifestyle may account for 80% of India’s retail market by 2025.

Large market offers big opportunities. And it looks like Reliance Retail has seized it, with its massive omni-channel retail play of physical stores, B2B with kiranas and e-commerce.

The company went on an acquisition spree and partnerships in the last three years, adding to its portfolio some of the biggest names, including Hamleys, Dunzo, Zivame etc.

It has also partnered with famous global retail chain 7-Eleven. Catering to India’s affluent consumers, Reliance, meanwhile, houses some of the most iconic brands such as Versace, Armani Exchange, GAP, GAS, Jimmy Choo, Michael Kors among others. The premium segment has become one of the fastest growing categories.

Also firming up its inorganic play, the company is planning to acquire dozens of niche local consumer brands to build a formidable consumer goods business.

Arvind Singhal, Chairman and Managing Director, Technopak Advisors says, there’s focus on physical retail expansion. Reliance is looking to cater to both price conscious and brand conscious customers, while trying to capture as much of the private consumption market as possible, he says.

Reliance Retail’s competitors are nowhere close to even put up a fight. The company has over 15,000 offline stores across categories, compared with DMart’s 294 stores or Aditya Birla Fashion’s 3,468 outlets.

Reliance retail’s revenue has grown five times in the last five years and the core retail revenue of $18 billion is greater than competitors combined, according to a Bernstein report.

Speaking to Business Standard, Devangshu Dutta, CEO, Third Eyesight, says, Reliance wants a decent share of Indian consumers’ wallet. From that perspective, Reliance still has a long way to go, he says. As consumer preferences evolve, Reliance too should adapt.

An undisputed leader in the domestic market, the aim of Reliance, according to Mukesh Ambani, is to become one of the top 10 retailers globally. Part of this bet is based on the premise that incomes and consumption power of Indians will increase across the board in coming years. However, could the uneven recovery that different segments of the population have seen stop the pie from growing larger and prove to be a dampener for Ambani’s ambitions?

(Published in Business Standard)

Retail Wasn’t Born Yesterday

Devangshu Dutta

August 17, 2019

Retail is such a pervasive and dynamic a sector of the economy, that it is impossible to identify a single point at which modernisation began. I’ve met countless people who perhaps entered the retail sector during the last 15 years, and who mark the beginnings of modern retail around then. There is no doubt that there has been an explosion of investment in retail chains in the last 2 decades, but we need to acknowledge the foundation on which this development is built. The current titans of the sector are standing on the shoulders of previous giants who have created successes and failures from which we are still learning.

This piece is not an exhaustive history of the evolution of the retail business in India, nor a census of all the brands operating in this sector, but the aim is to capture the flavours of the phases of development. (PDF available here to download.)

Early Years

If we were to trace back the growth of “organised” retail (mind you, I dislike that word!) or modern retail to the first retail chains, we will have to cast our mind back more than a hundred years. While many businesses of that time have disappeared, a few pioneers continue to survive, straddling three eras: the British Raj, the Socialist Raj and the Liberalised Lion economy. The businesses that continue to stand, having been through multiple transformations, include:

  • Higginbotham’s (1844) – beginning from Madras (now Chennai), it spread to Bangalore, and then to other locations and is known around southern India.
  • Spencer’s (1863) – one of the earliest grocery retailers to grow into a chain across undivided India, it moved to Indian ownership in the 1960s and was acquired by the RPG Group in the late 1980s.
  • AH Wheeler (1877) – launched from Allahabad Railway Station, it has been operating from railway stations (along with Higginbotham’s in some locations) – while it lost its monopoly in 2004, it has certainly played a key role in the growth of paperbacks and magazines in the country, keeping passengers company across billions of kilometres of rail travel.
  • Nilgiri’s (1905) – started with a small shop in Tamil Nadu focussed on dairy products and other groceries, it expanded to a large store in Bangalore in 1936 led by the founder’s son, and then spread across the southern states with a well-established reputation in dairy, bakery and poultry products. In recent times it has been acquired by the Future Group.

Fifty Years of Independence

The 1950s and 1960s remained fertile times, post-Independence and before the heavy-handed Socialist Raj truly began squeezing the life out of Indian businesses. Leading textile companies such as DCM, Bombay Dyeing and Raymond, and footwear companies such as Bata and Carona established chains of retail stores including company-operated stores as well as authorised dealers operating under the companies’ banners.

The 1980s brought the Asian Games, colour television, and a new up-to-date car model to India, all marks of a new vibrancy. Over the 1980s, a new retail wave was led by indigenous ventures such as Intershoppe (launched by a fashion exporter), Little Kingdom and The Baby Shop (children’s products), Nirula’s (fast food) and Computer Point (home computers, PCs and accessories). Many of these were certainly ahead of their time: the critical mass of consumers had yet to develop, the business infrastructure was inadequate, and funding norms were unsuitable to the capital-hungry business of retail. Unlike the textile companies that had large manufacturing and trading businesses, these new retailers were like shooting stars, glorious but visible for only a short period of time. This period, unfortunately, also witnessed the degeneration and disappearance of some of the older stalwarts such as DCM and Carona that were beset by labour disputes, management issues and disconnection from the transforming market.

Numero Uno, an indigenous denim brand, was launched in 1987 soon after VF’s American denim brands were launched, and it took nearly a decade for Numero Uno to reach other geographies in India. Nirula’s, one of the oldest fast food restaurant chains based in North India, expanded across the Delhi NCR in the 1980s and 1990s, and also explored other cities, albeit with mixed success.

Future Group, which today has a large retail and consumer brand portfolio, launched trousers under the name Pantaloons in 1987, initially as a distributed brand, and then denimwear under the brand name Bare. Within a few years the company also launched exclusive stores by the same names, to provide focussed visibility to the brands. About a decade of growth later, the group launched its first large format store under the Pantaloons name, but by now covering a much wider range of products, which became its launch pad for achieving scale.

The RPG group that had acquired Spencer & Co. relaunched it in 1991 in a spanking, new format as Spencer’s in Bangalore, and a short few years later rebadged it again as Foodworld in a joint-venture with a foreign partner. It subsequently went on to launch other formats such as Musicworld and Health & Glow.

Also in 1991, the Rahejas converted an old cinema into a department store, Shoppers Stop, aiming to provide an international shopping experience, although initially focussed on menswear. The store added women’s and children’s sections in subsequent years and the second store was launched four years later after the first one. Subsequent large scale retail expansion only came about towards the end of 1990s.

Little Kingdom is a notable example that I would like to dwell on briefly (partly for the purely personal reason that it was my first retail job!). The business was launched in 1987, headed by alumni of the illustrious IIMs around the country, built on processes and IT systems that could have been the envy of many retailers even 25 years later. The company – Mothercare India Limited – was the first purely retail company to start up and launch a public issue in 1991. During the early 1990s, it was the largest retail chain present across the country, in its categories. In 1991, it also attempted to bring the first home computer, Spectrum, to forward-thinking parents through a mix of in-store sales and door-to-door direct-selling. It was admittedly one of the first to expand internationally, opening a franchise store in Dubai in 1992. During its short life, the team launched multiple brands and formats, including Little Kingdom, Ms (a womenswear brand), The Baby Shop, and became a partner to the international giant VF Corporation’s Healthtex children’s brand and Vanity Fair lingerie brand in India. But, by the mid-1990s – financially overstretched between multiple brands and formats, and backward integration into manufacturing – it was gone.

Physical retail was not the only avenue being explored for growth during these decades. An Indian company imagined replicating the success of western catalogue companies, and launched the Burlington’s mail order catalogue retail venture and even became a joint-venture partner of one of the world’s largest catalogue retailers, Otto Versand (Germany). Other models included direct sales business, such as the Eureka Forbes introducing vacuum cleaners through demonstration parties (which was emulated for the Spectrum home computers mentioned above). With the growth of private television channels, products also began being promoted during non-peak hours through infomercials, though serious TV shopping was still a few years away, coming up in the mid-2000s with dedicated teleshopping channels.

The Foreign Hand and Corporate Retailing

The 1980s and 1990s also saw the launch of international brands from global giants such as VF Corporation (Lee, Wrangler, Vanity Fair, Healthtex), Coats Viyella (Louis Phillippe, Van Heusen, Allen Solly), Benetton (UCB and 012), Levi Strauss, Lacoste, Reebok, adidas, Pepe and Nike, grocery retailers such as Nanz (a three-way German-US-Indian partnership) and Dairy Farm International (with RPG Group’s Spencer’s Retail) and Quick Service formats such as Domino’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Baskin Robbins and KFC.

India was reopening to business, global management consultants were writing glowing reports about the untapped potential of the (mythical) 200 million middle-class customers and global retailers wanted to own part of the action.

Due to the lack of large-format stores and suitable environments, international brands that entered the Indian market during this phase needed to create exclusive stores to ensure that the brand could be communicated holistically to the consumer, in an environment that was more in the brand’s control, and many of them were, in a sense, “forced” to become retailers in India.

However, around 1996, a very senior member of the cabinet is reported to have said, “Do we need foreigners to teach us how to run shops?” It was an unexpected condemnation, coming as it was from a person and a party otherwise seen as champions of an open economy. It slammed the doors shut to foreign investment and, to my mind, the sector is still yet to fully recover from that ban and the policy contortions that have come over the years to allow international brands and retailers to play a more active role in the market.

Internal weaknesses compounded the decline or exit of some of the businesses. Nanz folded due to various operational challenges and lack of adequate experience. British retailer Littlewoods’ wholly-owned subsidiary pulled out of the market due to problems back home, and in 1998 sold the sole store to the Tata Group, which eventually renamed it Westside.

Despite the early hiccups, India continued to attract international players on account of the high growth and changing social norms. Not only was there greater purchasing power available amongst more Indian consumers, there was a shift in consumer attitude from saving to spending. Several brands, including fashion, luxury and quick service formats, entered the market through licensing, franchising, and joint ventures.

During this period the domestic retail market also drew in more corporate houses, attracted by the apparently abundant market opportunity for them to mine alone or to act as a gateway for foreign companies interested in India. Most were significant diversifications from their existing businesses.

Tobacco, paperboards, agri-commodities and hospitality conglomerate ITC ventured into retailing through Wills Lifestyle and as well as its rural initiative e-Choupal in 2000, followed by John Players and Choupal Sagar respectively. Pantaloon Retail launched a partial hypermarket format Big Bazaar in 2001 and went on to Food Bazaar in 2002, Central in 2004, Home Town and Ezone in 2006. Reliance entered in 2006 with multiple stores of Reliance Fresh being opened simultaneously and over the next few years the company expanded through multiple formats such as Reliance Mart, Reliance Digital, Reliance Trendz, Reliance Footprint, Reliance Wellness, Reliance Jewels to name a few. Telecom major Bharti set up a joint-venture with Wal-Mart at the back end, while the Tata group tied the knot with Woolworths and Tesco in two separate businesses supplying its retail stores, even as it expanded its successful watches and jewellery businesses, as well as Westside.

Even a retail operation like Fabindia, born as an export surplus outlet of a handicraft product business found investors to back a rapid expansion spree, becoming more of a corporate retailer than a front-end for producer organisations and craftspeople.

Through the 1990s and beyond, the market remained in ferment. In 1997 Subhiksha, a small modern retail format for food and grocery was launched. Venture-funded Subhiksha expanded rapidly and over the next decade grew to 1,600 outlets. However, in 2009 the business closed down owing to a severe cash crunch, amidst accusations of criminal mismanagement and fraud.

New product areas emerged highlighting the pace of change of lifestyles, cafes prominent among them. Café Coffee Day opened its first store in 1998 in Bangalore and became the largest organised coffee chain in India by far, though it is now living under the shadow of the recent death of its founder. Barista was also launched in 1999 as India’s Starbucks-wannabe, found its footing, scaled up and lost its way, going on to be sold to Tata Coffee and the Sterling Group, who turned it over to the Italian coffee company Lavazza in 2007, who also exited seven years later. Its current owner, the Amtex Group, is itself going through financial troubles in some of its key businesses.

In the last two decades, while some retailers have gone out of business due to unrealistic business plans, mismanagement or lack of funds, most have taken opportunities to rationalise their operations by shutting down unviable or underperforming locations, aligning businesses to market needs, assessing their brand consistency across various touch points, improving organizational capabilities right down to front-line staff, and focusing on unit productivity.

It’s not just Indian retailers that have faced trouble. Foreign brands have had their own share of problems – some have overestimated the market, or their own relevance to the Indian consumer, while others have had misalignment with their Indian franchisees or joint-venture partners. A number of foreign brands and retailers have also churned partners, or exited the market outright, but most remain committed and invested in the market for the long-haul. The last few years have also seen the successful launch and humongous growth of global leaders such as Zara and H&M, even mass-market Chinese retailers like Miniso, as well as the largest investment commitment made by Ikea (about US$2 billion).

Showing on a Screen Near You

The late-1990s also witnessed a dotcom frenzy that led to a plethora of travel sites, and a few product sales businesses such as Fabmall, Rediff and Indiamart.

However, the online market lacked critical mass in the 1990s and early-2000s. Despite apparent advantages of the online business model, success depended on internet penetration (low!), the appearance of value-propositions that were meaningful to Indian consumers (questionable), investments in fulfilment infrastructure (lacking) and the development of payment infrastructure (regulation-bound). Malls and shopping centres – the new temples of retail – seemed to be sucking up all of the consumer traffic, in any case.

By the mid-2000s the business had reached just about Rs 8-9 billion (US$ 180-200 million), despite 25 million Indians being online. Dotcoms became labelled dot-cons, with an estimated 1,000 companies closing down. However, multiple changes took place in the mid-2000s, among them being the price disruption of the telecom market and explosion of mobile connectivity, as well as a renewed funding appetite among venture funds.

This laid the path for growing the second crop of ecommerce in India. Billions of dollars of investment was poured into creating India’s Amazon wannabes, the high streets ran red by ecommerce-fuelled discounts, aggressive advertising budgets (most promoting discounts) and mergers/acquisitions pushed through by venture investors.

After more than a decade of the second coming, India’s ecommerce business accounts for a market share of total retail in the low single digits. India’s Amazon – if one can call it that – is the Flipkart group, now owned by Walmart, bought at an eyepopping $21 billion valuation and still bleeding cash, and the runner-up is relentless Amazon that continues its aggressive push to own what could be one of the three largest markets in years to come. The Chinese internet giants Tencent and Alibaba are also trying to hack piece off the market, having fulfilled their aim of kicking out Western competitors from their home market.

However, the wild card has just been played by the Reliance Group – having moved from textiles to fibre to oil, the group has made its move into telecom and data (didn’t someone say, “data is the new oil”?). It has strategically pushed handsets and cheap data plans into the hands of the consumers and, according to the latest announcement on Jio Fiber, will soon offer High Definition or 4K LED television and a 4K set-top-box for free. The play is to grab as much of the customer’s share of spend on products and services (including entertainment) as possible.

Looking Ahead

Possibly the biggest driver of modern retail in the coming years will be the shift in the demographic structure of the country. The young consumers who are joining the workforce now are a distinctly different set from previous generations. This is a generation that has grown up in the liberalised economy and has been exposed to innumerable choices since their childhood. The most important factor is that these consumers are increasingly located outside the top 10 or 20 cities in the country, and are becoming more accessible as both physical and virtual access improves for them.

A large number of them may have only occasionally, or perhaps never, experienced modern retail first hand while they were growing up, but they have seen this upmarket environment emerge before them and are not shy of spending within it, even if it is only on select special occasions. Most of them are handling mobile phones (even if it is their parents’) while still in school and being socially active online even on the go. Certainly most of them have hardly ever visited tailors, growing from one set of ready-to-wear clothes to another. It is this set of young consumers whose outlook and habits will drive retailing very differently in terms of product categories and services in the future.

There is another significant set of consumers whose number is swelling annually: that of working women. As they add to the discretionary household income available to spend, they gain influence in purchase decisions, and with them the entire household’s lifestyle also undergoes a shift. There is a greater demand of time-saving solutions and convenience products to make their lives easier. Modern retail environments where their various needs can be taken care of under one roof, and convenience pre-packaged products are natural winners in this shift. Ready-to-wear products for women, grooming, beauty and personal care, women-oriented media products, processed foods and eating out get a boost. Another important shift is that, due to busier lifestyles, they are time-crunched and more likely to rely on branded products and services that they can trust. However, given the nascent stage of the market, these brands could just as well be retailers’ own labels, if they are managed well.

In terms of business, significantly greater efficiency needs to be achieved, both at the front-end and in head office and supply chain operations. Process and system-led planning and execution needs to become the norm. With India’s burgeoning population, people are treated as a cheap resource: on the contrary, each extra person can be expensive beyond just their salary cost to the organisation. Each extra person adds some friction to decision making, reducing the responsiveness of the business. Smart business will begin to realise this, and look closely at employee efficiency and effectiveness in the context of the overall business, rather than just in terms of individual costs.

Even as the retail business in India is far from saturation, and fragmented growth continues, the business will also undergo consolidation simultaneously, as large scale retail operations are enormously capital intensive. Mergers will be a strategy that will be explored to improve the viability of many businesses in this sector.

Should you be tempted to think that, squeezed between large corporates, international retailers and ecommerce giants, it’s “Game Over” for smaller domestic retailers and brands, let me say that the India retail story is not only not over yet, but continues to be written and rewritten. As the market grows and matures, retail businesses also need to differentiate themselves, investing more in product selection or even product development through private label growth to help them stand out in the market. A one-size-fits-all strategy doesn’t work in a country as diverse as India. For the size of the market, we have surprisingly few brands, many of them virtually indistinguishable from their competitors. Development on this front, of indigenous brands and product development capabilities, is an absolute must.

The good news is that already there is more talent available than ever before. Most importantly this management pool has experience of the retail sector not just in good times but during (many) downturns as well.

Eventually, what is needed is a mix that will be healthy for India’s ecosystem at large for a long time to come. This will not be delivered by a blind transplantation of international templates or a rapid-fire expansion across the country, nor by fearful protectionism or regional parochialism. It will only be achieved by the evolution of market-appropriate business models and a mature approach that can be make the Indian retailers robust enough to grow not just domestically, but possibly even globally over time.