The dark clouds of recession and rain seem to be lifting just a little bit. Governments have been energetically throwing seeds of stimulus and economists are eagerly spotting “green shoots”. The festive season is around the corner, with anticipation of higher sales.
So perhaps it is time to cheer. Or perhaps not.
In the recessionary environment during the last year or so, ‘cutting back’ rather than ‘building’ has been the philosophy for most businesses.
The implications of these cut-backs are not always visible in the place you have originally made the cuts. But, unfortunately, they inevitably impact the area which should be the last to be touched: customer experience!
The problem arises not so much from the cut-back. Obviously if the business prospects are looking negative or less positive, the management needs to adjust its expectations and also its expense and investment framework.
No, the problem lies in the fact that most such initiatives are internally focussed. Whether it is supply chain (“lean inventory”), operating strength (“fewer people”), merchandise rationalisation (“narrower range and fewer brands”), the implications and benefits that are identified are mostly internal to the business. The driving philosophy is that “a penny saved is a penny earned”.
During the navel-gazing we forget the fundamental principle that the purpose of a business is to deliver a set of goods or services to meet the customer’s needs and expectations; if those needs are not served, the business interest is not served either.
Here are a few examples from the recent past:
These are all companies that have spent millions on store-fronts, real estate, IT systems, brand logos and hip advertising. After all, those are the visible vehicles for the brand and the brand promise.
Unfortunately, because of the internal disconnect between the strategic intent and the operational reality, these millions are now dripping down the drain, one customer relationship at a time.
Which brings me to one significant area of concern – the people who interface with the customer.
In western economies, due to the high cost of manpower, consumer-facing businesses are run on the basis of highly system-driven processes, lean staffing and a self-help orientation, whether the customer is interfacing with a call-centre or with a physical retail store. There are also significant cultural and infrastructure differences that make these models work in those economies.
In modernising countries such as those in Asia, it is quite understandable that the new consumer-facing companies are trying to emulate western “best-practice” models. However, often they falter on two accounts.
Firstly in these relatively hierarchical societies, customers don’t want to feel “help-less”. They may not exactly enjoy an intrusive sales associate, but they enjoy even less the feeling that there is no one around who can help when they want it. A number of retailers have failed this “quantity” test in the last few months.
Secondly, it is not just a “warm body” that is needed to ask a polite question and smile brightly, but someone who is empowered and feels accountable to solve the customer’s specific issue. That is a “quality” issue. Part of it is related to the huge gap between the personal context of most consumer-facing staff and their customers’. The other, significant, issue is the culture of accountability – that the salesperson or the service executive makes the effort to understand and solve the customer’s problem, rather than only focussing on following the law laid down in the operating manual. These needs can only be addressed through training – lots of it, and repeated liberally – and creating a culture that, top to bottom, is focussed on the customer.
Analysts have said that recessions are a great time for the good companies to separate themselves from the rest. That is true to an extent.
However, I believe that in recessions many companies, bad or good, suffer due to circumstances beyond their control – it is in the recovery after the recession that is a much tougher filter.
When the customer’s mood is beginning to move up, so are his or her expectations. Companies that have not cut muscle along with the fat, companies that have not only focussed on themselves in the downturn but have remembered the customer at all times, are the ones which will manage to retain their customer relationships. And will grow faster.
RetailWire’s Al McLain has asked, “What changes in consumer spending habits do you see as providing retailers and manufacturers with the most opportunity? Which habits do you think will stick around once the economy improves, and which won’t?”
Well, “the only thing certain (and permanent) in life is death…”
Economic changes – including recessions – are not permanent (unless the society itself collapses), so the market mood will shift towards spending again.
Consumer sentiment may not lead the recovery but is likely to follow it. Given that, value-consciousness will stick, even after the market turns upwards. So my reading is that private label will continue to grow, people will continue to think harder about spending on big-ticket items, deals & coupons will continue to work.
Carol Spieckerman, a RetailWire panelist, made a comment about consumer spending not returning to where it was. To that I would add this thought and question: even in these recessionary days, the average American and European household consumes more (and is more wasteful) than even the wealthier households in the so-called developing or less developed economies. What if the average American consumer begins to find out that s/he can cut back even more than s/he already has? What would that do to the traditional business and economic model?
And once that consumer role model is demolished, what would that mean for the world at large and the developing economies that have been following the “consumption-led growth model”?
Obviously, this is not a foregone conclusion, but it’s a scenario worth pondering and preparing for. And some might say, perhaps a scenario even worth encouraging.
(Here are more thoughts and commentary from the RetailWire Braintrust and others readers on Lessons from the IRI Retail-CPG Summit.)
In the last few months, I’ve interacted with retailers and their suppliers from a number of countries in North America, Europe and Asia and, except for a handful, the conversations have not been happy.
In November-December companies in France, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom were dealing with a season where there was as much red on the P&L statements as in the Christmas shop windows. In January 2009, the National Retail Federation’s annual convention in New York had participation that was somewhat thinner than in past years, but the gloom in the atmosphere was thick enough to slow everyone down.
On the other side, the factory of the world, China, had been battered by a Year of the Rat that brought increasing costs, erratic power supplies, slowdown in orders, safety concerns and product recalls. All of this culminated in reports of factory closures and migrant workers at railway stations on their way home for the Chinese New Year holiday carrying not just clothing, but all their possessions including fridges and TVs. The resultant unemployment figures expected currently range from 20 million to 40 million people.
The Indian retail sector, of course, has had its share of pain. In an idle conversation on a sunny December afternoon, a real estate broker in Ludhiana had a pithy description for one of the retail chains: “Unhone apne haath khade kar diye hain. Bakee logon ne abhi tak toh haath neeche rakhe huey hain – unke bhi upar ho jayenge.” (“They have thrown their hands up in despair. The rest still have their “hands down” – but they’ll also give up eventually.”)
On the one hand you have the gloom-seekers. In the eyes of some of these people, the retail boom is over. In the eyes of others, the retail boom was all hype anyway, a big bubble of artificial expectations.
On the other hand, you have other people asking some uncomfortable questions: here’s a country that apparently has the largest population of under-25s, where millions of new jobs have been created and incomes have been growing. How can retail businesses be showing a decline in their top-lines?
I don’t think anyone has all the answers, but I can offer at least one speculation, borrowing from the title of a book that came out some years ago, named “Irrational Exuberance”. Robert Shiller’s first edition was related to the dot-com stock bubble, and his 2005 edition added an analysis on housing bubble that was developing at the time. He had, in turn, borrowed the term from the US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan who in December 1996 had said in a speech: “…how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions…?”
We now seem to be in such an unexpected (but was it really unexpected?) and prolonged contraction. Of course, consumers are feeling more cautious about spending, even if their actual income has not been affected (just as it wasn’t affected when they were feeling suddenly wealthy 12-18 months ago). Obviously, stores that should not have been opened will now get closed, or excessively large stores will be reduced in size. Companies that are over-stretched may collapse completely.
But I would label the mood prevailing now “irrational despair” as far as a consumer market such as India is concerned. From a position of over-optimism, the pendulum seems to be swinging to the other extreme of utmost misery, dejection and complete pessimism, and I think that is a swing too far.
I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of the factors that make India a market for sustained consumer growth. The country looks likely to have a large under-25 profile well into the next several decades. These young people will grow older and get into jobs. They will get married and therefore expand the number of consuming households. If the policy-makers don’t really mess up, real incomes should go up. Infrastructure projects should largely remain on track, regardless of the political party or parties in power, facilitating industry, trade and wealth distribution.
So the time is right for business plans that have sound fundamental assumptions – or as the cement ad says: “andar sey solid” (solid from within).
I’d like to repeat issues that I have highlighted earlier as top priority for retailers and consumer products companies in India. These are as follows:
A number of companies worldwide that we know as market leaders and businesses to be emulated found their feet in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s. That should give some hope to entrepreneurs and professionals.
However, does that mean that only bad companies or unprofessional managements will fail in the current downturn? Certainly not. Does it also mean that all good companies or competent entrepreneurs will succeed? Again, the answer is, no.
Some bad companies will manage to ride through this trough, while some really deserving people will run out of cash, ideas and opportunities. Life and “natural selection” processes are not fair.
But, by and large, if we can get our heads down and focus on getting the right people together, making money to get through and having something left over to invest in the future of the business, we would have more chances of succeeding than by over-stretching, or by swinging to the other extreme and being totally defensive.
I won’t even attempt to predict how long the current downturn will last. The Great Depression lasted a whole decade, was “walled” by the Second World War, and the first blooms of real recovery only appeared in the early-1950s, or about twenty years from the first downturn. Other recessions have been shorter. In 2000, after the dot-com bust car bumper stickers in the US quoted a political satirist, saying, “I want to be irrationally exuberant again.” Within a few short years, many people were showing those very signs.
We can be pretty sure that such a time will come again. But I’m also quite sure that durable companies are unlikely to be built on bursts of such exuberance.