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.
It has been around 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin, and about 150 years since the publication of his and Alfred Wallace’s thoughts on evolution by natural selection. In their honour, let us remind ourselves of the basic theory that all of us learn at school. (So I’m a few months late acknowledging it – please bear with me!)
On Evolution: Change Happens
(1) Species differ from each other, but individuals within a species also differ from each other quite a bit.
(2) These differences are due to changes to the basic genetic framework of the organism (mutations) which can get passed on to following generations.
(3) The environment keeps changing physically, climatically and biologically.
(4) In the new (changed) environment some of the mutations survive better than others (“natural selection”).
(5) The effect of these changes over several generation results in the evolution of species, and the rise of new species.
The primary reason I am highlighting this theory is because, to my mind, businesses are like living beings. Businesses are conceived, given birth to, they grow, and most of them die after a few years or a few decades. During their life some businesses get married (merged or acquired), and sometimes they give birth to other businesses.
About 2-3 years ago, the business climate seemed predictable and only looking upwards – the biggest challenges in the food and grocery sector seemed to be whether your ambition was bigger than your competitor’s. Many predictions were made about how the large – more “organised” – businesses would quickly kill the small.
However, with much turmoil in the business environment in the last year or so, it is evident now that it is not just the small companies that are vulnerable. The change in the environment is also giving new growth opportunities to the smaller or younger, previously vulnerable, businesses. While some of the larger businesses have died or are in the process of dying, some of the smaller businesses are mutating even more to survive better in the changed surroundings.
Although small businesses are always looking for growth, the new environment can bring such a surplus of opportunities that, in the helter-skelter growth the learnings are quickly lost and the business may actually go off the tracks.
On Process: Passing On the Genes
The challenge for the smaller businesses now is to pass on their genes down the generations; for the management to ensure that the newer stores and the newer recruits gain from the learning and the adaptations already in the organisation.
At an entrepreneurial stage, the core team handles critical activities and is on call to guide others. The team is knit quite tightly, and located geographically close together. The stores are few and in locations with a similar environment. “Knowledge” is inherent in the way you do things, guided rather than taught.
You may recall my stressing culture and organisational personality, the “people” end, in a previous article. At the early stage of the business, very often, that is all there is. But growth needs replication and predictability.
Biology again gives us a great lesson in how to replicate learnings and functionality: genes (DNA) provide the template for cell functions, and are reproduced almost faithfully from previous generations.
In a business, such replication comes from well-designed processes incorporating the intent, the activities and the desired outcomes. For growth, processes are a must; they are the genetic code of the business. Processes provide the design for how a customer would interact with the store, how the store would interact within itself and with other points in the organisation, and how the organisation would interact with external agencies.
You may ask, “How much process should we depend on, and how prescriptive or restrictive should we make them?” You may also point out that processes start off with very good intention, but with time – and often distance from head office – the processes decay.
And you would be right.
On Decay: Bad or Good
Even in bureaucratic organisations, adjustments are made to fit people or situations, and that causes the process to mutate. Sometimes the change is temporary, at other times the process may change completely and permanently. If changes happen passively and are not channelled the existing process will decay.
I use the word “decay” carefully. While the process change itself may be good at a point (e.g. responding to a customer need), the organisation as a whole may not learn much from it, or the change may affect one part of the organisation and not others. If that happens, the organisation and its systems will become dysfunctional at some point.
For instance, it could be the little leeway that the merchandising head provided to some managers that erupts into an uncontrolled working capital epidemic across the chain. Or a margin adjustment with a vendor at a certain point in time becomes a deadly norm.
So, back to evolution: mutations are a fact of life. Adaptations are happening because of the changes in the environment. Managers need to critically question: does this change meet a current ongoing need or provide an ongoing advantage, and can it apply to the rest of the business? If the answer is no, ask people to read the rule-book (the process manual).
If the answer is yes to both, change the rules, and make sure the new process is implemented quickly and smoothly across the organisation. Then it will be “adaptation” rather than “decay”.
After all, the conclusion that Darwin, Wallace and many others have given us is this: it is not the strongest, the biggest, the fastest, but the most adaptive who survive.
It often seems like “Scaling Up = Dumbing Down.”
As an organisation starts to scale up, the challenge is getting everyone to work the same way as earlier. And Process with a capital “P” takes over.
In the absence of inspiring and totally involved leadership, it often is just a hop and a skip from Bureaucracy.
If a lot of people feel the same way, there may yet be hope for small businesses and the more personalized touch.