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The Season of Opportunism

(The Hindu Businessline – cat.a.lyst got marketing experts from diverse industries to analyse consumer behaviour during the last one month and pick out valuable nuggets on how this could impact marketing and brands in the years to come. This piece was a contribution to this Deepavali special supplement.)

Two trends that stand out in my mind, having examined over two-and-a-half decades in the Indian consumer market, are the stretching or flattening out of the demand curve, or the emergence of multiple demand peaks during the year, and discount-led buying.

Secular demand

Once, sales of some products in 3-6 weeks of the year could exceed the demand for the rest of the year. However, as the number of higher income consumers has grown since the 1990s, consumers have started buying more round the year. While wardrobes may have been refreshed once a year around a significant festival earlier, now the consumer buys new clothing any time he or she feels the specific need for an upcoming social or professional occasion. Eating out or ordering in has a far greater share of meals than ever before. Gadgets are being launched and lapped up throughout the year. Alongside, expanding retail businesses are creating demand at off-peak times, whether it is by inventing new shopping occasions such as Republic Day and Independence Day sales, or by creating promotions linked to entertainment events such as movie launches.

While demand is being created more “secularly” through the year, over the last few years intensified competition has also led to discounting emerging as a primary competitive strategy. The Indian consumer is understood by marketers to be a “value seeker”, and the lazy ones translate this into a strategy to deliver the “lowest price”. This has been stretched to the extent that, for some brands, merchandise sold under discount one way or the other can account for as much as 70-80 per cent of their annual sales.

Hyper-opportunity

This Diwali has brought the fusion of these two trends. Traditional retailers on one side, venture-steroid funded e-tailers on the other, brands looking at maximising the sales opportunity in an otherwise slow market, and in the centre stands created the new consumer who is driven by hyper-opportunism rather than by need or by festive spirit. A consumer who is learning that there is always a better deal available, whether you need to negotiate or simply wait awhile.

This Diwali, this hyper-opportunistic customer did not just walk into the neighbourhood durables store to haggle and buy the flat-screen TV, but compared costs with the online marketplaces that were splashing zillions worth of advertising everywhere. And then bought the TV from the “lowest bidder”. Or didn’t – and is still waiting for a better offer. The hyper-opportunistic customer was not shy in negotiating discounts with the retailer when buying fashion – so what if the store had “fixed” prices displayed!

This Diwali’s hyper-opportunism may well have scarred the Indian consumer market now for the near future. A discount-driven race to the bottom in which there is no winner, eventually not even the consumer. It is driven only by one factor – who has the most money to sacrifice on discounts. It is destroys choice – true choice – that should be based on product and service attributes that offer a variety of customers an even larger variety of benefits. It remains to be seen whether there will be marketers who can take the less trodden, less opportunistic path. I hope there will be marketers who will dare to look beyond discounts, and help to create a truly vibrant marketplace that is not defined by opportunistic deals alone.

Will the Indian Apparel Sector Change its Fashion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Indian apparel industry certainly needs a transformation.

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

Fan-tastic idea from Dyson

It’s curious how James Dyson consistently gets “more” (price) for “less” (components). First it was the bagless vaccum cleaner, now it is a bladeless fan. The retail price is currently pegged at £200, and the product is initially being targeted at the US and Japanese markets, which obviously have more people facing hotter temperatures for more weeks in the year than Dyson’s home country, the UK. Or perhaps a bigger market segment for the latest tech toys that perform well in addition to looking cool.

Branded the Dyson Air Multiplier, it is certainly a fan-tastic idea, and the uphill struggle should be significantly less than when he was trying to sell bagless vacuum cleaners. If anything there is now a “Dyson premium” available to him on the price.

However, in this case, the prices definitely need to be more accessible, or he’ll be facing clones within months. Fans are already a more acceptable reality in income poor countries, and the market significantly larger in those countries. At some lower price point the addressable market will be exponentially larger, and someone else will definitely tackle it. Patent or no patent.

Here’s a Youtube video of Dyson explaining how the fan works. Share your thoughts below, after you’ve watched the video.

Taming the CEO’s Nightmare

REVIEW: BEATING THE COMMODITY TRAP: Richard D’Aveni (Harvard Business Press)

In his latest book, Professor Richard A. D’Aveni focusses on a topic that most businesses should be acutely concerned with: the problem of commoditization. In interviews he has accurately described commoditization as “the black plague on modern corporations” and “a deadly disease that’s spreading like crazy”.

Certainly, if one had to pick the ultimate nightmares to keep CEOs awake at night, commoditization would definitely be among the top of the list. Specifically, given the economic uncertainties around the world in the last couple of years, business leaders who are not concerned about their products or services being turned into commodities are either supremely equipped to maintain their differentiation, or immensely deluded as to their capabilities to fight market forces. Prof. D’Aveni suggests that maintaining differentiation alone is not enough to sustain business.

A product or service becomes a commodity when it is not distinguishable from competing offerings and therefore not valued above the competition. Prof. D’Aveni views commoditization along two key attributes: the benefits or features that are being offered and the price (margin) that is available to the business. Based on his model, he has identified three types of competitive stress that a business could face:

  • Deterioration: In a deteriorating market, competitors present low-cost and low-benefit offerings that appeal to the mass market. This is possibly commoditization in its “purest” sense, where the customer ends up valuing the lowest price over and above any other benefit or feature. In this scenario a business can either get stuck in the commodity trap, fighting an ever downward spiral of price and cost minimisation, or could marginalize itself to a niche where it can protect its margins.
  • Proliferation:  According to Professor D’Aveni, a proliferating market constantly sees the emergence of new combinations of benefits and price that serve specific segments. This is not about the business offering turning into a true commodity, but extreme differentiation and proliferation of choice do make it difficult for businesses to create a clear value statement that can be priced above competition. Professor D’Aveni describes this as “being squeezed in the middle of a pack of piranhas” which are snapping away pieces of the market.
  • Escalation: This form of commoditization is possibly the most prevalent in industries that are prone to disruptive changes (such as technology, consumer electronics and communications). Simply put, extreme competition here results in more for less, as each competitor goes one-up in terms of offering more benefits for the same price, the same benefits for a lower price, or at its most extreme, higher benefits for a lower price. Prof. D’Aveni suggests that companies try and control this downward momentum.

The book suggests competitive strategies that a business could take to avoid getting caught in the commodity trap.  These strategies can be boiled down to the biological choice: fight or flight (escape). Professor D’Aveni echoes the basic warfare strategy laid out by many military and business strategists through the ages. He suggests that businesses need to gauge the opponents, choose their battles, and pick opponents against whom they can win. He also calls for pre-emptive action: where companies can, they should either change the business environment to avoid commodity battles entirely, or initiate the battle of commoditization and control its direction and momentum.

In fact, anticipation and pre-emption is the key to avoiding the commodity trap. To help with this, Prof. D’Aveni offers a relatively simple framework to analyse a current market situation in terms of a price-benefit matrix, and to identify the advance corrective actions to be taken.

The book is short and straight-forward enough to pick through a domestic flight, or to read in the back-seat during a long commute between office and home. The easy to understand framework gets the messages across quickly. In analysing the variations of commoditization, both in consumer and business oriented industries, the Professor also offers up something for everyone.

However, the book’s strengths also turn out to be among its biggest weaknesses. The book would have benefited from more depth to each of the concepts. Skipping quickly from one area to the other, in some places the book risks losing coherence of thought.

Some short books are like downhill hairpin bends on a mountain road; Prof. D’Aveni’s book is one of those. Much as you might be tempted to go fast, it’s advisable to go slow. If you speed through it, you might miss a nugget that actually makes sense to your business.

One of the other grouses I had was with the examples quoted. The predominantly US market examples reduce the book’s relevance for a global audience – the Professor presumes the reader will know the company and its context well enough to understand the lessons being discussed. In some cases the examples are incomplete and possibly even incorrect: one such is the example of Zara. The broad-brush attributes Zara’s business success to turning fashion into commodity, and ignores the fact that fashionability and desirability are a cornerstone of Zara’s offer, not the cheapest price. Others would possibly be far more accurate examples of commoditization in the context of price.

However, if you are sufficiently concerned about the possibility of being commoditized out of profitability, or being marginalised out of market share, I would suggest that you could easily overlook these flaws. The fundamental premise of the book is far too important to ignore. [Beating the Commodity Trap on Amazon]

(This review was written for Businessworld.)

More Luxury Customers at Outlet Malls

The recession is taking a toll on the business models of premium and luxury retailers.

According to the Los Angeles Times, faced with sales declines at their full-price stores, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom are lavishing more dollars and devotion on their outlets which are performing better than their traditional stores.

According to Robert Wallstrom, president of Off 5th, Saks Inc.’s outlet division, “These days, customers are saying they want a brand, customer service and a deal.”

Outlets may just be the lifeboat needed by some of the brands to get through the current downturn, with the mix of the “real steal” deals to get the footfalls and the “just a little off the top” to get the margin. The current outlet stores are good enough to avoid severe damage to the brand.

However, a critical question does remain unanswered: once the consumer becomes used to shopping at a certain price level, might some brands struggle to move back up the curve?

Private label price warriors

‘Refrigerated and Frozen Food Retailer’ magazine wrote about price wars in food and grocery retail, between retailers, or between retailers’ private labels and national brands.  

The comments about the difference between retailers’ own brands and national supplier brands are particularly interesting. The question, whether retailers’ own brands necessarily need to be cheaper and whether they can catch up later, is also very acute.

To me, the price difference here is really reflected by the difference between whether you are creating a brand (albeit one that is available only in one chain of stores) or a lower-priced private label. 

A brand needs distinctiveness, a private label is mostly a me-too. A brand needs to build its own relationships and desirability beyond the store it is available in, while private label sells because there is an existing customer for something else that it is knocking-off. (Of course there are private labels that are not me-too and that are distinctive, but they are the exceptions proving the rule, so I would much rather go with the simplified view of the world for now.)

Finally, migrating up the price curve is difficult in the best of times. Believing that it can be done quickly after an introductory low price, in the current economic scenario, would be highly optimistic. 

Price-optimization solution providers believe that retailers can increase private label prices:

DemandTec’s Derek Smith is seeing smaller price gaps between national brands and private label, with private label also adding more tiers. This allows one tier to fulfill the opening price point in a category, with the other tier playing roughly on par with the national brand or even priced above it…

“You also have to understand what price gap is necessary to get the consumer to trade up or down,” depending on your strategy, he adds. For example, you might want to incent shoppers to trade down to your private label, so you get more margin. So… do you raise the price on the national brand, lower the price on the private label, or do a bit of both? Once again, it will depend on your customer set and their purchasing history…

Lyle Walker, VP of marketing, KSS Retail, has seen some of the retailers he has worked with raise prices on their private label without losing sales – thus significantly increasing category profits. “We build demand models with two years’ worth of POS history, and then dynamically adjust elasticity values based on weekly updates of POS data,” said Mr. Walker. 

Of course, Mr. Walker also qualifies the argument by saying that the increment may be “pennies here and pennies there,” implying that the discount for private label may still remain large enough for the customer not to notice the “pennies” being added on gradually.

Which sort of negates the whole question about whether retailers’ private label can really compete by pricing on par with national supplier brands, doesn’t it? 

(The original RFF article is available here.)

The Dis-Economy of Scale

We touched upon food price inflation last month and – no surprises – it is still hogging the headlines. It is, after all, an emotive topic. We are terribly concerned not just as food and grocery professionals, but also as consumers and general public. After all, food and grocery are typically half of our monthly spend, give or take a few percentage points.

Inflation often brings with it swift (sometimes knee-jerkingly quick) reactions – price controls, export controls, subsidies to farmers and food producers, and various others. Some of these measures work but only in the short term, while others may have no immediate visible impact on the market at all but may be truly insidious because of that.

However, a significant set of questions has not really been touched yet: how the food supply chain is structured, how it is driving consumption, what impact that might have on food prices and several broader cost implications.

Thousands of years ago, when hunter-gatherer human beings stumbled upon agriculture, it was a breakthrough similar to the discovery of controlled fire. Hunter-gatherers were dependent on the natural availability of food, while agriculture created the opportunity to have some control over food supplies and reduce the natural feast-famine cycle. Thereafter, farming, processing and storage techniques kept evolving incrementally to ensure that more food could be produced for each unit of land and effort, and stored for longer – all moving towards ensuring “food security”. This led to the age of empire-building, where monarchs grew their wealth (essentially food territory) with the help of military-imperial complexes, and the greater wealth in turn supported the military-imperial complex.

This remained the trend for a few thousand years, until the age of industrialisation and the age of petroleum. Through the industrialisation and the world wars, the military-imperial complex gave way to a military-industrial complex, which essentially became the military-industrial-petroleum-agricultural complex. Suddenly, there were not just machines to plant, reap, thresh, sort, clean and process, but also petroleum-based substances to dramatically increase output and to keep the produce fresher for longer.

As US farms and then European farms industrialised, the parameters that began to be applied were the same as in any factory – how to produce more while spending less – and every year the target was to grow more for less. Underlying this was the principle of “efficiency from larger scale”. The same philosophy played out further down in the supply chain – from processing to extend the shelf-life of the product as it was (such as chilling, cleaning, sorting) to processing and packing in order to change the nature of the product itself and gain additional value (such as tomatoes to paste or potatoes to chips).

Standardisation became a vital link in industrialisation – if you can standardise produce, you can cut down human handling – while you may lose product variety (including flavour and colour) you gain in terms of driving down the cost of production. By reducing unpredictability you can also concentrate on building the scale of business, because it becomes more repetitive.

The interesting side-effect of this is that, gradually, we are converting ourselves (and people in many industrialised economies already have) into petroleum-burning machines rather than those running on solar energy, because increasingly the agricultural supply chain is dependent on non-renewable petroleum and its products, rather than by the natural energy of the sun being converted into food by the plants.

And the important thing to keep in mind is that, in this switch-over, the energy efficiency is actually going down rather than up – we are using more calories of fuel source to produce each calorie of food energy.

The issue is more acute now than ever before, because now the growth markets of choice for industrial agriculture companies are China and India. If these two countries move through the exactly same path as have the western economies in terms of agriculture and food processing, given the population base itself, clearly the impact will be 5-7 times (or more) on the demand for petroleum as well as the fall-out on the ecosystem.

You may ask, why should retailers worry about this?

Firstly, pure cost considerations – clearly, the costs of petroleum are not coming down, and explosive demand through industrialised agriculture will only serve to push them up. How far can you push the food bill every month, before people start buying less? What impact would that have on large retail supply chains and farmers whose processes are increasingly built around products of industrial agriculture?

Secondly, what consumers are already beginning to express in western markets will possibly happen in India in the next few years as well: concern about where and how the product has been produced, what has been the fall-out on the environment and on the overall health of people involved with that supply chain as well as the health of consumers.

Carbon footprint, food miles & locavores (people who only consume food that is produced within 100 miles of where they live) are terms that retailers are increasingly hearing.

And an alternative set of questions is also being raised. Is it ok to burn non-sustainable fossil fuel if you get “carbon credits” by planting trees somewhere else – have all the carbon costs been accounted for from the start to the finish of the production process? Is it better to reduce the food miles and have food produced locally in a high-cost economy’s industrial agricultural model, or to have naturally grown foods from a more primitive farm in Africa or Asia where the environmental impact is only the “carbon debit” of the air-freight. And, even if the produce is carbon-friendly, what about the nitrogen footprint (from the fixation of nitrogen into fertilisers) and the methane footprint (from large scale animal farming)?

This one page is surely not enough to present any in-depth analysis, but I hope it will serve to kick-start the process of questioning how India (and China) should take the lead in creating an alternative and more sustainable model for food security for large populations. There is a lot of research being done, and much yet to be done, to quantify the true cost of blindly pushing for scale in the food chain. Truly “progressive grocers” need to take an active role in supporting this.

Could Lower Prices Cost More?

April has opened eventfully around the world, when it comes to food prices.

A leading Indian business daily opened the first week of April 2008 with a story saying that chain-stores may be as much as 15-40% cheaper than street vendors for staple vegetables and fruits. When we put this against the backdrop of concerns at skyrocketing global prices of rice and fuel, as consumers we may have a reason to thank the chains for helping to balance our monthly budgets.

But is this really a victory for proponents of organized retail, or a blow against retail chains?

The same article went on to state that chain stores were offsetting the hit they were taking on food by selling other products that offered them more margin, “an option not available to hawkers”, and also quoted leading Indian retailers.

The very same day, media in Hong Kong were covering a survey that stated that supermarket prices in the city were on average 12% higher than independent grocers, with some branded products being sold for as much as 20% higher. The Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, which carried out the survey, cautioned consumers that they should not be misled by supermarket ads for big discounts and advised them to compare prices frequently between chains and independent retailers.

(The study did not compare price differences now to what they might have been 20-25 years ago, when the market was not so consolidated. Such a study may provide some other interesting insights.)

During the same week, the government of Ivory Coast in Africa also responded to protests by women and youth in Abidjan against rising living costs with an emergency meeting and lower import duties on key food items.

Obviously inflation, especially in food prices, is a global concern right now, so this simultaneous appearance of news across countries is hardly a coincidence.

They, however, do raise concerns about how the chain of food supply and retail is structured, and also some important questions about competitive strategy.

Let’s deal with competitive strategy first. Obviously, the terms “loss leader” or “key value item” have been coined in the last few decades, but the strategy itself has been well-known and widely used since the time humans started trading thousands of years ago. 

The foundation of the strategy is built on items that are a staple, usually widely compared by consumers or used as a benchmark when comparing different merchants.  A merchant may place a very low margin on such a product, or sell it at cost (or even at a loss).

The concept is simple: attract a customer into the store with an irresistible offer, but make sure that consumer also buys other products that provide enough profit to the retailer. 

As a consumer you may feel outraged that someone is “cheating” you, but in our “sensible” and rationally-aware moments we as customers know that this happens frequently, and know how to avoid it. However, we are not always rational – if shopping were purely a rational exercise then automated comparative software would be fulfilling all our shopping needs by now.

Stepping beyond the retailer-consumer relationship, there is also question whether this can be classified as free or fair competition when cash-rich organizations with a wide basket of goods, take the strategy to the doorstep of the small individual trader whose product offering is much narrower and usually concentrated on the staple goods that are being discounted.

There is no really easy or quick answer to this question. 

On the one hand, large retailers such as Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Tesco, Metro and others, have been widely credited for achieving cost-efficiencies from scale, and then passing on these efficiencies to the consumer in the form of lower prices (and, apparently, higher standards of living).  That is a good thing and definitely of benefit to the population at large, especially in inflationary times such as these. Rather than keeping prices high due to inefficient sourcing, wasteful and expensive handling, and non-value-adding costs in the supply chain, it is surely a good to push for lower costs.

On the other hand, there is no simple way to draw a line when competitive benefit to the consumer becomes predatory pricing within the trade. 

If a retailer took price reduction as a “strategic investment” to grow a market (as happens in markets and product categories around the world), when do you start calling it “unfair”? And should you even attempt to label it unfair? What is the cost to the market, when it could eventually concentrate and consolidate market share in few hands? Is the cost to society more in supporting small inefficient retailers, or more if these retailers lose their independence and become employees? (If you’re looking to me for the answers…sorry, I don’t have them yet!)

Value judgements are almost always subjective rather than objective. ‘Large versus small’ conflicts are frequently emotive rather than rational. And even though there are no easy answers, I believe we should think about these questions, as businesspeople, as consumers and as social individuals.

There are some rather interesting (and by no means conclusive) studies, opinion papers and books that have looked at the structure and economics of the food supply chain, but constraints of space force me to postpone that aspect to another column. The questions and competitive strategy will not be disappearing quickly, so I’m sure these will still be relevant then. 

Meanwhile, I’m sure we have enough food for thought!

A Discount By Any Other Name

A discount outlet store sells merchandise that is off-season (such as summer merchandise in winter or vice versa) or out-of-fashion (hence possibly two-three seasons old) or comprising of manufacturing over-runs.

However, in India discounts are prolific even in the high street market. In clothing as an example, a large chunk (estimates vary from 40% to 70%) of ready-to-wear stock is sold under discount. Some of it is sold in factory outlets, but a significantly larger proportion is sold throughout the year in regular high street stores under offers that run throughout the year.

There are also discount streets within the city (such as Fashion Street in Mumbai or Sarojini Nagar in Delhi) operating the year round. This reduces the benefit that a discount outlet specifically provides to the consumer.

Second, discount stores typically are based “off-locations” away from regular customer traffic. In markets such as the US and the UK, an “outlet village” may be located 50-100 km from the nearest suburban or urban centre but quite close in terms of drive time. In India currently, due to poor road conditions, the stores have to be in higher cost locations.

Most critically, a sustainable and sizeable discount outlet also needs a base of many brands that have built up high profile and that operate consistent price premium at full-price levels. The brands must have enough scale so a discounting outlet cannot damage its brand image. This enables not just standalone discount outlets, but entire “outlet villages” to be set up. These clusters can generate a much bigger and sustainable customer footfall, much like a shopping mall. That ecosystem of brands has been weak in the past in India but has recently accelerated, and we are likely to see critical mass emerging in future, which may allow the discount business to grow.

In the coming years, expect more action, with clustering of stores and brands, specialist discount malls, and possibly even innovative and India-specific models to come up. How about air-conditioned haats with proprietary bus connectivity to town centres?

Let the good, discounted, times roll.

Deal Ya No Deal

We love sales! Big Bazaar just proved it on Republic Day this year, when it couldn’t handle the crowds on its “Sabse Sasta Din” (Cheapest Day). And the designers ousted from the recently demolished shopping malls are privately thanking their stars for the sale-struck consumers who have flocked to the hotel in south Delhi, for the “(insert a designer’s name) at never-before-prices and never again”.

The psychology behind the discount sale is that we think we’ve got a great deal, having paid less than what the product is worth. There is a hint of the illicit, a feeling of having “got away” with something faintly irregular.

Let’s not even begin to dissect how many discounts are actually just padded-up prices being “slashed”, or how much “promotional merchandise” is bought cheap by the store especially for the sale. Such faux-discounts are not peculiar to India, nor are they a problem for retailers or brands providing, as they do, an event around which to build excitement and customer traffic.

The bigger issue is the nightmare the Indian market is proving to be for brands in terms of genuine discounts. Many brands end up achieving as much as 40-70% of the total annual sales turnover in one or two discount sales—clearly not a recipe for long-term business success. The problem is not restricted to a few brands. We seem to be caught in a vicious cycle of low sales in season and mad traffic during end-of-season discount events.

To me there are two main aspects to this problem—unrealistic expectations of volume and the “full-ticket price” that the products carry.

Unrealistic marketing projections may actually be the lesser of the two evils. Each brand manager believes that “customers will definitely choose my brand over other brands in the market”. Some just end up believing their own hype too much, over-rating the demand or under-rating the competition.

Some managers end up being driven by that international image more than the saleability of the brand. The end result is a marketing plan that is based on the premise that if you make enough product, create enough retail points in the market and spend enough money on advertising, the brand will deliver up to the hype.

Yes, a rising tide lifts all boats and a growing market lifts all brands. The problem arises when your boat, or brand, is leaky and results in lot of left-over product being thrown overboard at the end of the season, at discounts of 25-70%.

The bigger question is what’s the right price? Arrogant brand managers may think that there is a customer (read: sucker) at every price point and the trick is to find enough suckers…oops!…customers. Unfortunately for them, customers are fairly sharp—and reject overpriced merchandise if they can get comparable value elsewhere at lower prices.

Let me take one comparison with a market that is economically at a stage similar to India. In Bangkok, you can buy a pair of reasonably well-made polyester-viscose trousers for the equivalent of Rs 225-275 from a Thai hypermarket. Retail prices at a normal high street store in Delhi or Mumbai for a comparable product may range from Rs 400-600 or even higher. Differences of similar magnitude are visible in personal electronics and electrical items, as well as a range of other products.

If the Indian retail price points were in line with, say, the Thai retail price points, surely a lot more merchandise would move off the shelf.

Clearly, cost of goods has a large part to play in this difference. Manufacturing costs can be much higher in India due to lack of process-driven efficiencies. Also, most Indian manufacturing capacity targeted at the domestic market is sub-scale and even qualitatively sub-par.

Retail costs — including high real estate costs and store overheads — add to the problem. Most retail locations in India are priced at levels where the only store that could make money consistently would be a luxury store where low price is the last thing on the customer’s mind! Higher unit costs lead to higher prices and lower volumes, while low market off-take prevents larger scale and better manufacturing — a vicious cycle.

One way out is to take a holistic approach to the product and the supply chain. The strategy needed is “Aim low, engineer low”. Once the threshold target price at which large volumes will be sold is known, one can engineer the entire organisation, supply chain and retail location to make sure that the price point can be delivered.

As Prof C K Prahlad proposes, there is a fortune to be made at the bottom of the pyramid. At the right price, the Indian consumer is always ready to confirm, “Deal!”

(Column from The Financial Express – 9 March 2006)