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Retail 2020

Remember the year 2000? After Y2K passed safely, that year some optimistic analysts predicted that India’s modern retail chains would reach 20 per cent market share by 2015. Two years after that supposed watershed, another firm declared that modern retail will be at around that level in 2020 – but wait! – only in the top 9 cities in the country. Don’t hold your breath: India surprises; constantly. As many have noted, “predictions are tough, especially about the future!” What we can do is reflect on some of this year’s developments that could play out over the coming year.

In many minds 2019 may be the Year of the Recession, plagued by discounting, but that demand slowdown has brewing for some time now. However, there’s another under-appreciated factor that has been playing out: while small, independent retailers can flex their business investments with variations in demand, modern retail chains need to spread the business throughout the year in order to meet fixed expenses and to manage margins more consistently.

To reduce dependence on festive demand, retailers like Big Bazaar and Reliance have been inventing shopping events like Sabse Sasta Din (Cheapest Day), Sabse Sachi Sale (Most Authentic Sale), Republic Day / 3-Day sale, Independence Day shopping and more for the last few years. In ecommerce, there’s the Amazon’s Freedom Sale, Prime Day, and Great India Festival, and Flipkart’s Big Billion Day Sale. This year retailers and brands went overboard with Black Friday sale, a shopping-event concept from the 1950s in the USA linked to a harvest celebration marked by European colonisers of North America. (The fact that Black Friday has a totally different connotation in India since the terrorist bombings in Bombay in 1993 seems to have completely escaped the attention of brands, retailers and advertising agencies.) Be that as it may, we can only expect more such invented and imported events to pepper the retail calendar, to drive footfall and sales. The consumer has been successfully converted to a value-seeking man-eater fed on a diet of deals and discounts. With no big-bang economic stimuli domestically and a sputtering global economy, we should just get used to the idea of not fireworks but slow-burning oil lamps and sprinklings of flowers and colour through the year. Retailers will just have to work that much harder to keep the lamps from sputtering.

Ecommerce companies have been in operating for 20 years now, but the Indian consumer still mostly prefers a hands-on experience. The lack of trust is a huge factor, built on the back of inconsistency of products and services. The one segment that has been receiving a lot of love, attention and money this year (and will grow in 2020) is food and grocery, since it is the largest chunk of the consumption basket. Beyond the incumbents – Grofers, Big Basket, MilkBasket and the likes – now Walmart-Flipkart and Amazon are going hard at it, and Reliance has also jumped in. Remember, though, that selling groceries online is as old as the first dot-com boom in India. E-grocers still struggle to create a habit among their customers that would give them regular and remunerative transactions, and they also need to tackle supply-side challenges. Average transactions remain small, demand remains fragmented, and supply chain issues continue to be troublesome. Most e-grocers are ending up depending on a relatively narrow band of consumers in a handful of cities.  The generation that is comfortable with an ever-present screen is not yet large enough to tilt the scales towards non-store shopping and convenience isn’t the biggest driver for the rest, so, for a while it’ll remain a bumpy, painful, unprofitable road.

Where we will see rapid pick-up is social commerce, both in terms of referral networks as well as using social networks to create niche entrepreneurial businesses – 2020 should be a good year for social commerce, including a mix of online platforms, social media apps as well as offline community markets. However, western or East Asia models won’t be replicated as the Indian market is significantly lower in average incomes, and way more fragmented.

As a closing thought, I’ll mention a sector that I’ve been involved with (for far too long): fashion. In the last 8-10 decades, globally fashion has become an industry living off artificially-generated expiry dates. A challenge that I have extended to many in the industry, and this year publicly at a conference: if consumption falls to half in the next five years, and you still have to run a profitable business (obviously!), how would you do it? Plenty of clues lie in India – we epitomise the future consumers; frugal, value-seeking, wanting the latest and the best but not fearful about missing out the newest design, because it will just be there a few weeks later at a discount. If you can crack that customer base and turn a profit, you would be well set for the next decade or so.

(Published as a year-end perspective in the Financial Express.)

A Thousand Miles

The last three years have been a roller coaster ride for food & grocery modern retail in India.

Progressive Grocer’s India edition was launched in September 2007, during what was an excellent series of years for the modern retail trade in the country.

It was a year after the launch of Reliance Fresh, and a few months after the acquisition of Trinethra’s chain of 170 stores by the traditionally conservative Aditya Birla Group. Spencer’s announced its plans to raise capital for expansion, while Food Bazaar together with its value-format non-food twin Big Bazaar already accounted for more than half the Future Group’s sales.

Other than the established corporate groups, new entrants such as Wadhawan were also well into growth through mergers and acquisitions, including their purchase of Sangam, Hindustan Unilever’s experiment at retailing directly to consumers, Sabka Bazaar and The Home Store.

The four largest foreign retailers were also making their presence felt through Walmart’s announcement of a joint-venture with Bharti in August, Tesco’s and Carrefour’s intensive investigations of the market and negotiations with potential partners, and Metro’s announcement of its planned growth to 100 outlets.

The modern retail engine seemed to be chugging along strongly. But there were also spots of trouble in paradise.

Protests against the opening of corporate chain stores were seen in a few states. In some cases state administrations even formally stepped in to ask for closure of corporate chains to avoid civic trouble, and it looked as if the lights were going out even before the party had really started!

Along with the battle between modern and traditional, both sides of the debate on foreign direct investment (FDI) into the Indian retail sector were also ramping up their arguments. There was vocal opposition from emerging large Indian retailers, as well as the small traders group, while investors and some of the prominent retailers championed the cause of foreign investment.

In both debates, international examples of the damage wrought by large or foreign retailers to local economies were quoted by those opposed to corporate retailers. And in both, the developmental aspects of modern retail were quoted by proponents of modern retail and FDI.

At Third Eyesight, in early 2007 we had carried out a study (“From Ripples to Waves”) on the increasing impact of modern retail on the supply chain. Amongst the study’s respondents, both retailers and suppliers had favourable things to say about the growth of modern retail and its impact on the supply chains for various products. There was not just talk of efficiency with fewer layers of transactions and lower costs, but also of effectiveness, with suppliers reporting 10-25% higher per square foot sales in modern retail stores as compared to their displays in traditional independent stores.

After years of resisting the impending changes to their ordering and servicing structures, major Indian FMCG and food brands became busy setting up or strengthening teams focussed on the modern trade or ‘organised’ corporate customers.

The market was rich with format experimentation for food and general merchandise retail, typically between 1,000 sq ft and 10,000 sq ft, but also with a gradual growing emphasis on 20,000-80,000 sq ft supermarkets and hypermarkets.

Literally hundreds of food brands from other countries actively sought to tap into the growing Indian market, and modern retailers offered them a familiar environment and a well-managed platform for launch.

At the same time, plenty of respondents also said that they had not made any significant changes to their business. Either inertia or fear of channel conflict was preventing them from pushing ahead with newer business models.

In short, there was no dearth of action and contradiction, no matter where you looked.

However, towards the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008, we had a sense of foreboding. With the rush to expand the store network to get first to some yet-invisible finish line, both property acquisition and human resource costs were driven up by a feeling of a shortage in both. I recall writing a column around that time, urging retailers to look at store productivity as their first priority (See: Priority #1: Store Productivity, Same Store Growth).

By the middle of 2008 the crisis was evident. There was a lot of square footage, much of it in the wrong places. There were issues with the supply chain for managing fresh and perishables, those very products that drive frequent footfall into a food store. More importantly, the global financial storm had started gathering strength, reducing liquidity in the market and making investors and lenders look more closely at existing business models.

The spectacular meltdown of Subhiksha in 2008, and the more gradual but equally deep impact on other businesses was visible. And worrying. Players as disparate as Reliance, with its ambitious plans to grow into a Rs. 300 billion retail juggernaut, and the Shopper’s Stop premium format Hypercity seem to take a break to rethink.

2008 and 2009 were years that I am sure many retailers would like to forget, but they were also very valuable. Some people have compared these years to the churning of the ocean (manthan) by the devas and the asuras in Indian mythology, with the deadly poison halahal coming to the surface before the divine nectar amrit could be reached.

In these two years, we have seen stores closed, formats changed, and organisations made slimmer. Store staff have discovered how to live with small changes like higher ambient air-conditioning temperatures, and are learning the more important science of higher transaction values, even with leaner inventories. Management teams are becoming more accustomed to looking at retail metrics other than only sales growth that could be achieved from new square footage. Vendors are finding newer ways to make their brands more relevant to consumers and to the retailers.

More importantly, these years have also underlined the importance of India as a growth market to non-Indian companies.

2010 so far seems a far happier year. Income and GDP growth figures look much healthier. Real estate inventories in malls that were not released in 2007-2009 are coming on the market, many at terms that are more favourable than earlier. Retailers’ financial results look healthier.

There could always be the temptation to rush headlong into growth again. But I don’t think food retailers or their vendors should drop their guard yet.

The coming months and years need significant sharpening up of customer insight, merchandise and inventory planning capabilities and supply chains. Operational assessments, analytics, organisational capability building, are all tools which will need to be looked at closely.

We are at the cusp of the next growth curve, as the population grows and matures, and the market become more sophisticated.

Though the large-small, local-foreign debate isn’t closed yet, the much-awaited approval from the government to allow foreign investment into multi-brand retail businesses may be around the corner.

Even if FDI doesn’t happen immediately, the majors are already in or preparing to enter and ride the consumption growth that will logically happen. In addition to its support to Bharti’s Easyday chain, Walmart has launched its cash and carry operation, Bestprice. Carrefour reportedly is looking to open its first Indian (wholesale) outlet by November in New Delhi on its own, even as rumours of a partnership with the Future Group fly thick and fast. And Tesco is steadily steaming ahead with the Tata group.

And practically every month we are seeing new products and even new brands being launched by Indian and non-Indian companies.

An old saying goes: the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

From the tumultuous events of the last three years, it seems that the Indian food retail sector must have travelled at least a few hundred miles already. In one sense it has. Many of the developments that we’ve seen in three years would have taken at least a couple of decades in the more mature markets.

However, in another sense, the food and grocery modern retail sector in India has only taken the first few steps, with much to be accomplished still. The sector remains fragmented, and wide swathes of the market are yet to be penetrated – not just by modern trade, but even by brands that already supply traditional retail. The blend of players and business models, not to forget the spicy regional mix of different market segments, promises valuable lessons not only for those in India but potentially for other markets in the world.

There are very big questions seeking answers. How to improve agricultural productivity so that food security is ensured. How to save the abundant harvests rather than letting them rot in unprotected storage dumps. How to ensure adequate calories and nutrition get delivered not just to the wealthy and the middle class, but also to the poorest in the country.

On the retail side, the Indian versions of Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco are possibly still in the making, and may yet surprise us with their origins and growth stories. And e-commerce is a work-in-progress that may be the dark horse, or forever the black sheep.

I think the big stories are yet to unfold, and the unfolding will be exciting, whether we are just watching or actively participating in the modernisation of the Indian food retail business.

Is Marketing 101 Dead?

When we began studying the basic fundamentals of marketing, our professor introduced us to the 4-P framework covering Product, Price, Place and Promotion created by “the Great P” of Marketing, Philip Kotler, whose textbooks are classics among marketing management studies.

In time, others modified it to 5-P, 6-P and 7-P, but the basic framework stands best on the original four legs defined by Kotler.

The principle is that to design an effective marketing strategy you need to:

  • clearly define the product or service (covering the core as well as augmented product) to sell to the target customer
  • identify the price (point or range)
  • define where it will be sold and
  • define what will be communicated, and how the product offer will be promoted.

If you are truly disciplined, you may then extend any of these into spider-webs of clearer attribute definition. For instance, when you get involved with defining the product it can start from “breakfast” and then be further defined by attributes such as taste (e.g. sweetened or unsweetened), texture (e.g. crunchy or wet), fullness (e.g. light or filling), and go further into the benefits (e.g. helpful in losing weight, or in gaining body mass) etc.

Given that the basic framework is straight-forward and simple to apply, when we ask the question “what is your marketing strategy”, it is surprising to get the answer: “advertising”. It gets somewhat more distressing when we interrogate further, when we examine what the advertising is focussed on: “cheaper prices than competition”.

Okay, let’s grant a couple of reality checks here. One is that most retailers and consumer goods companies in the current stage of the market’s growth want to grab the maximum possible market share in the minimum possible time. Two, if you want to get the attention of a lot of customers very quickly, shouting out a great price offer is one of the easiest ways to do it.

Which brings us to the basic issue: in the current market scenario, if you are a retailer or if you have a brand that you want to scale up fast, advertising extensively about the “great value” is highly likely to quickly give you the footfall and conversions you need.

But the question is, when does it stop being a good tactic and just becomes lazy marketing? And once it’s in that territory, when does it become dangerously weak even as a sustained tactic?

Imagine a scenario with me: the CEO strides into a marketing strategy meeting and says, “I want you to stop advertising the way you do. In fact, I want you to stop advertising, period. But I don’t want sales to drop and I don’t want our brand image to suffer.”

Shock, horror, dismay at the thought of “where is this company going”? Resignations, even, on the CEO’s table?

But just stay with that thought for a minute, and then look at Kotler’s framework again.

Let’s look at “product” holistically because, in the noise of high-decibel advertising about low prices, typically the definition of the “product” is the first to slip from attention. How the customer relates to the store, what her experience is as she walks through from the entrance to the check-out and beyond is part and parcel of the “product”. What does she think the store is about? Does her perception of the store’s “product” (the entire experience of shopping) match with the retailer’s own perception? Does the retailer even have a clear perception of his product?

Secondly, “place”. Sure, in-store product placement is frequently governed by the marketing function. But how many retailers have marketing involved in selecting the store location? A great store location is the best live, “walk-in advertisement” that a retailer can have. If a fashion brand like Zara can eschew advertising (founder Amancio Ortega has been quoted as saying that “advertising” is a distraction), and instead focus on its stores to create the traffic and the awareness about the brands, surely the store location should receive some attention from the marketing heads of food and grocery companies.

Let’s also reconsider how much connection there is between the marketing strategy and the store layout itself (in many cases it is not enough). Whether the customer likes wide aisles and a “clean” experience or prefers a chaotic environment, the store must make a statement that is in sync with the overall business strategy and the target customer.  Good retailers understand this intuitively, but it is important also to express it overtly within the organisation and get the marketing team involved in the planning and execution. Further, once the customer is actually in the store, clear price ticketing, intuitive adjacencies and clean signage can make a tremendous difference in converting walk-ins to purchases.

Let’s leave price alone for this inquiry because, whether high or low, it gets a lot of attention anyway, and let’s move to promotion.

If we define marketing’s role as getting customers into the store and getting them to buy, then the surely promotion is the driver of the marketing engine. But does promotion necessarily have to mean advertising?

We’ve discussed Zara’s example of using the stores as the medium of promotion. Another thing that works for Zara is word of mouth publicity, as well as the humongous amount of publicity the company gets due to its business model. (Other interesting companies, such as Pantaloon, Reliance, Wal-Mart, The Body Shop etc. also enjoy promotion through publicity.)

Pizza companies use cost-effective menu flyers dropped at the customer’s door and “box toppers” to drive the next purchase (yes, of course, they also advertise hugely, but during their lean years when they have had to reduce advertising, it is the flyers and box-toppers that have kept them going.) Direct selling companies can also offer some learnings about creating and sustaining interest, as do entrepreneurial start-ups. As a matter of fact, think of the last time you saw an advertisement of the most popular “unbranded” take-away in your area. Ever?

It may be time for us to dust off the notes from the Marketing 101 class, and re-examine what we do.