Contact

One Ring That Rules Them All

In this piece I’ll just focus on one aspect of technology – artificial intelligence or AI – that is likely to shape many aspects of the retail business and the consumer’s experience over the coming years.

To be able to see the scope of its potential all-pervasive impact we need to go beyond our expectations of humanoid robots. We also need to understand that artificial intelligence works on a cycle of several mutually supportive elements that enable learning and adaptation. The terms “big data” and “analytics” have been bandied about a lot, but have had limited impact so far in the retail business because it usually only touches the first two, at most three, of the necessary elements.

Elements in Operationalizing Big Data and AI

“Big data” models still depend on individuals in the business taking decisions and acting based on what is recommended or suggested by the analytics outputs, and these tend to be weak links which break the learning-adaptation chain. Of course, each of these elements can also have AI built in, for refinement over time.

Certainly retailers with a digital (web or mobile) presence are in a better position to use and benefit from AI, but that is no excuse for others to “roll over and die”. I’ll list just a few aspects of the business already being impacted and others that are likely to be in the future.

  1. Know the customer: The most obvious building block is the collection of customer data and teasing out patterns from it. This has been around so long that it is surprising what a small fraction of retailers have an effective customer database. While we live in a world that is increasingly drowning in information, most retailers continue to collect and look at very few data points, and are essentially institutionally “blind” about the customers they are serving.
    However, with digital transactions increasing, and compute and analytical capability steadily become less expensive and more flexible via the cloud, information streams from not only the retailers’ own transactions but multiple sources can be tied together to achieve an ever-better view of the customer’s behaviour.
  2. Prediction and Response: Not only do we expect “intelligence” to identify, categorise and analyse information streaming in from the world better, but to be able to anticipate what might happen and also to respond appropriately.
    Predictive analytics have been around in the retail world for more than a decade, but are still used by remarkably few retailers. At the most basic level, this can take the form of unidirectional reminders and prompts which help to drive sales. Remember the anecdote of Target (USA) sending maternity promotions based on analytics to a young lady whose family was unaware of her pregnancy?
    However, even automated service bots are becoming more common online, that can interact with customers who have queries or problems to address, and will get steadily more sophisticated with time. We are already having conversations with Siri, Google, Alexa and Cortana – why not with the retail store?
  3. Visual and descriptive recognition: We can describe to another human being a shirt or dress that we want or call for something to match an existing garment. Now imagine doing the same with a virtual sales assistant which, powered by image recognition and deep learning, brings forward the appropriate suggestions. Wouldn’t that reduce shopping time and the frustration that goes with the fruitless trawling through hundreds of items?
  4. Augmented and virtual reality: Retailers and brands are already taking tiny steps in this area which I described in another piece a year ago (“Retail Integrated”) so I won’t repeat myself. Augmented reality, supported by AI, can help retail retain its power as an immersive and experiential activity, rather than becoming purely transaction-driven.

On the consumer-side, AI can deliver a far higher degree of personalisation of the experience than has been feasible in the last few decades. While I’ve described different aspects, now see them as layers one built on the other, and imagine the shopping experience you might have as a consumer. If the scenario seems as if it might be from a sci-fi movie, just give it a few years. After all, moving staircases and remote viewing were also fantasy once.

On the business end it potentially offers both flexibility and efficiency, rather than one at the cost of the other. But we’ll have to tackle that area in a separate piece.

(Also published in the Business Standard.)

Grow Up To Find Growth

In 2016, brick-and-mortar modern retailers seemed to have begun recovering their confidence, and cautiously investing in expansion. However, currency shortage has significantly dampened demand at the end of the year. The hangover would continue into the first half of 2017, and consumers could be muted overall on discretionary purchases, including fashion, mobile upgrades and out-of-home dining.

On the other hand, while digital transactions introduce a note of caution (friction) in the consumer’s purchase decision, for e-tailers they do reduce complexity, cash-handling costs and potential returns which could provide significant unexpected wins.

I’ve written about this for years, and don’t tire of reiterating: the retail sector must recognise that shopping is a unified activity for the consumer; physical stores and non-store environments are alternative but complementary channels. Brands can and must use whatever channel mix works for them, and brick-and-mortar retailers need to invest in creating an integrated growth blueprint towards “unified commerce”.

On their part, while e-commerce companies are constrained by FDI policy, they will need to invest more in developing “old economy” strengths – strong product differentiation and distinguishable brands. Fashion, accessories, home decor and other lifestyle products are strong drivers of gross margin for all multi-product retailers, and e-commerce players struggling on the path to profit would focus on these even more, as well as on private labels. They also need to have management teams that are able to cast their minds 3-5 years into the future, while keeping close watch on immediate cash flows. Capital is available, but turning risk-averse. All businesses need to focus on up-skilling their teams, retaining good people, improving processes and adopting technology. In recent years, growth in the retail sector seems to have been driven by a “spray-and-pray” approach, not necessarily management sophistication. Spending like there’s no tomorrow is a sure way to no tomorrow.

In short, 2017 could be the year where the entire retail sector grows up – a lot. We hope.

(This piece was published in The Hindu – Businessline on 29 December 2016).

Heat Spots in the Cold Chain

The cold chain sector is expanding quickly due to increased investments from Indian and international organisations going towards both modernisation of the existing facilities and establishment of new ventures. Over the last few years cold-chain has gained a buzz, finding its way not only into industry presentations but also into budget speeches in Parliament. It is widely reported that India needs to build more cold chain capacity, especially to reduce the enormous amount of waste of food products in the chain from farm to consumer.

India is one of the largest producers of agro-products i.e. fresh fruits and vegetables, milk and related products, fishery products and meat. However, due to lack of the required facilities, spoilage of products is comparatively high.

In recent years, significantly incentivised both by business logic and by tax breaks, there has been a fair amount on investment in cold storages. However, the sector is still highly fragmented; there is inequitable distribution of cold storages, interlinkages between storages is also very poor and many facilities are also operating below capacity.

The National Centre for Cold Chain Development (NCCD) reported that as of December 2014, 70% capacity was utilised, where the total number of cold storages available in India was around 5300 and approximately 6000+ vehicles, providing about 30 Million Metric Tonnes capacity of storage. Most of these facilities are located in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Punjab, Maharashtra and West Bengal.

Storage and transportation capacity is only the very first step in strengthening cold chain capabilities but, unfortunately, that is where many entrepreneurs and investors in cold-chain are stopping their thought process. Many players in the industry have been using obsolete machinery, and storages are majorly for a single commodity. The result, predictably, is underutilisation of capacity or mishandling of food products leading to operational problems, cost escalations, spoilage and other losses. Just to mention a simple example that many seem to forget: even domestic refrigerators have at least 3-4 temperature-humidity zones: the freezer, the chill tray, the large cool area, and a vegetable tray. In comparison, many cold stores are built without adequate thought to the various influencing factors. It’s important to recognise that in developing a cold chain capability, the products to be handled, the environment in which the cold chain will operate, not only storage but intake, handling and transportation, all have a role to play.

With a fragmented operating environment, both in terms of production as well as distribution, often a single investor or company may not be able to create the business logic to set up a cold chain facility. Collaboration between multiple individuals and agencies may be a way out.

An example of successful use of integrated cold chain is the Tamil Nadu Bananas Growers Federation. Banana growers in the Tamil Nadu belt were diminishing due to lack of appropriate storage facilities, and farmers were forced to sell produce at throw away prices. With introduction of integrated cold chain solutions, the federation of farmers from Tamil Nadu has now managed to gain a hold of the banana market again. They have managed to increase their income manifold by growing better qualities and storing bananas for longer period of time in the integrated cold chains.

Cold chain logistics in the true sense begin with harvesting and post-harvest handling, going on to controlled atmosphere vehicles, cold storages, sorting and grading facilities, modern pack houses and controlled atmosphere retail stores. Most importantly, even operational know-how is something that is not made part of the investment plan, leading to unviable, unprofitable cold chain facilities.

The focus should be to integrate the cold chain, and also build capacities in all areas. As per NCCD (December 2014), India has approximately 6,000 reefer vehicles against a requirement of 60,000. Similarly the number of pack houses available is 250 and the projected requirement is for 70,000. Hence, the need for a more balanced investment in terms of modern pack-houses, refrigerated transport units and ripening chambers is evident and will bring far better results, both operationally and financially.

In addition, there has to be a significant improvement in developing the know-how and skills sets available to the sector. While the country is faced with large-scale unemployment annually, a well-thought out development of the cold chain sector including due investment in knowledge-based initiatives can create significant numbers of better paying jobs around the country, especially in rural areas from where the produce is sourced.

With development of the consumer and retail sector supporting its growth, integrated cold chain development should be at the top of the agenda for government as well as for private business.

Shopping Malls – Start-Off on the Right Foot

If you’re planning to develop a mall, here’s a short-list of key issues you must address:

Fail-proof the business plan by focussing on the customer: Focus on the development of retail brands and not solely on quick returns on investment. The primary responsibility should be that of catering to the consumer catchment and driving footfalls for the retail occupants. The other requirements follow from this simple premise. Also, a tenant-unfriendly revenue model that overloads the tenant with a high rent (whether fixed or as a percentage of sales) leads to a churn in tenants, and in combination with other factors, keeps the best tenants out of the mall making it unattractive to customer as well.

Do a thorough recce of the catchment: Ask questions like “can the catchment support the development in terms of consumer footfall and spending?”, “Is there a connect between the needs of the immediate catchment and the occupants of the mall?”, “Are there too many malls in the catchment area?”

Offer a good occupant mix: You cannot have mall occupants who have little relevance for the target consumer. Also, the retailers must complement each other in a healthy way rather than cannibalise customers and sales from each other.

Ensure good access: Accessibility and connectivity to get the traffic smoothly in and out of the mall is a must; ensure there is adequate parking space.

Avoid undersizing: A small-sized is a straight handicap because it will lack variety, and you run the risk of getting dwarfed by the next big mall that throws its hat into the ring. [However, the specific size can vary depending on the state of development of your own catchment.]

Focus on design: This involves making the mall brands ‘visible’, ensuring appropriate ‘zoning’ in terms of entertainment, multiplexes, kids’ areas, food courts etc. This will result in better customer flow management. Bad design and poor customer flow management within the mall leaves large parts of mall “invisible” to visiting consumers, or improper zoning that confuses customers and breaks up the traffic.

Finally, remember, it’s not so much about the “square feet”, as about the feet that will occupy it! Focus on the consumers that you want visiting the mall and why they should return again and again.

Global QSRs Dissecting the Indian fast food pie

Global quick-service restaurant brands are expanding their footprint in the quickly evolving Indian market. But some are also falling by the wayside.

Here are some perspectives from the industry (ET Now telecast video – about 6 minutes):

Click here

The Year That Could Be

The transition between calendar years offers a pause. We can use it to evaluate what passed in the previous year, chalk out our journey for the next one.

The first response of most people to the question “What happened in the Indian retail sector in 2011” would be probably something like this: lots happened, and then – at the end – nothing did!

That is because one theme ran through the entire year, month after month, fuelled by tremendous interest in the mainstream media as well. This was about the change expected, hoped for, in the policy governing foreign direct investment (FDI) into the retail sector. Hearing the debate go back and forth, on one side it seemed as if FDI was going to cure every ill of the Indian economy, and on the other it seemed as if the country was being sold out to neo-colonists.

It’s worth remembering that not too long ago foreigners could invest in retail businesses in India freely. Benetton ran some of the key locations in the network through its joint-venture which subsequently became a 100 per cent owned subsidiary. Littlewoods (UK) set up a 100 per cent owned operation in India during the 1990s before its home market business collapsed, and its Indian operation was bought by the Tata Group to form Westside. And well before all these, one of the early multi-nationals, Bata, had already built a humongous network of stores across the length, breadth and depth of India.

The motivation for the decision to exclude foreigners from this sector may have been political, economic or mixed – that is not as important as the timing.

By the mid-90s India had just started to attract interest as private consumption was just about picking up steam. Several international apparel, sportswear and quick service brands entered the market during this time. Many of these brands started setting up processes and systems that changed the way the supply chain worked. They gained market share, and more importantly mindshare, with young consumers. In this process some of the domestic brands did suffer, some of them irrecoverably. However, with foreign investment suddenly blocked-off, many brands that wanted direct ownership in the business in India turned away. In their opinion the opportunity just wasn’t big enough to take on the hassle of a partner. Some did enter, but with wholesale distribution structures rather than in retail.

During this last decade, the Indian retail landscape has changed dramatically. During the 2000s the economic boom happened and India became “hot” again. So did retail and real estate, as large corporate houses pumped in significant amounts of capital into setting up modern chains to tap into the fattening consumer wallets. Clearly, FDI was going to come up on the agenda again, but not quite at once. Indian companies needed some headroom to grow; and grow they did, partly with indigenous business models and brands, and partly as partners to international brands.

By 2011, there was more of a clear consensus among the Indian businesses that retail could be opened to FDI and must be. Internationally, too, political and economic heavy-weights from the significant western economies pitched for opening up the retail sector in India to foreign investment. Here’s the small public glimpse of the hectic activity that happened internationally and domestically:

  • January: UK pushes for FDI; Indian ministers say the decision would not be rushed but look forward to attracting $250 billion FDI between 2011 and 2015
  • February: some ministers say that the government is close to a decision but the timing is not yet right
  • March: a senior government official notes that FDI is not essential to bring down inflation, while the finance minister reiterates that there is no decision yet
  • May: another senior government official says that FDI is needed to tame inflation
  • July: the prime minister says that the government is working to build consensus; the Committee of Secretaries recommends relaxation in FDI norms
  • August-October: pronouncements progressively indicate a relaxation, but without a definite time-line
  • November: cabinet approves 100 per cent FDI in single brand retail and 51 per cent in multi-brand, but severe political backlash pushes government to reconsider
  • December: murmurs emerge about the delinking of decisions on single brand and multi-brand retail, so that some progress can be made

Such an anticlimax! For many, 2011 was the year that could have been a turning point. Could have been! If you had slept through the year and woken up on New Year’s Eve, would you have found nothing had really changed?

Ah, that’s the thing! I think most people observing the retail business actually slept through the year, because they were just focused on the FDI dream. Those actually engaged in the retail business know that many other things did change, some of which create the foundation for further growth.

The government did push on with the GST (goods and services tax) agenda. While stuck in politics at the moment, we look forward to incremental changes in harmonizing the taxes and tariffs regime, vital for truly unifying the country in the economic sense. On the downside, excise being levied on the retail price of clothing was a blow to retailers.

Growth continued. Indian’s retail giant, Future Group, grew to around 15 million square feet. The other giant, Reliance, announced renewed vigour and focus on the retail business with additions to the management team partnerships with international brands such as Kenneth Cole, Quiksilver and Roxy. Other new partnerships were announced, including significant American food service brands Starbucks (with the Tata Group) and Dunkin’ Donuts (with Jubilant). The British footwear brand Clark’s announced that it was aiming to make India its second-largest source country and among its top-5 markets within 5 years. Marks & Spencer pushed to expand its chain by more than 50 per cent, adding 10 stores to 19, while Walmart said its focus was on building scale rather than trying to squeeze profitability from its US$ 40 million investment so far. For fashion brands, the Rs 500 crores (US$ 100 million) sales threshold seemed more achievable as they used the accelerated pace of growth.

Many in the retail business talk about “the people problem”. Fortunately, some decided to demonstrate positive leadership, reflected in RAI’s announcement of an ambitious skill development plan for 5 million people in next 4-5 years, and industry veteran BS Nagesh announcing the launch of a non-profit venture, TRRAIN.

There was some bad news on the issue of shrinkage: a sponsored study placed India at the top of the list of countries suffering from theft. But the level was reported to be lower than the previous study, so there seemed to be hope on the horizon. The study didn’t say whether consumers and employees had become more honest, better security systems were preventing theft, or whether retailers themselves had become better at counting and managing merchandise over time.

A significant highlight was the e-commerce sector, which has found its way to grow within the existing restrictions and regulations, even as the online population is estimated to have grown to 100 million. Flipkart delighted customers with its service and racked up Rs. 50 crores (US$ 10 million) in sales. Deal sites proliferated and media channels celebrated the advertising budgets. Even offline businesses, notable among them pizza-major Domino’s, found their online mojo; Domino’s reported 10 per cent of its total revenues from online bookings within a year of launching the service.

In all of this the biggest story remains untold, which is why I call it an Invisible Revolution. This revolution is made up of the changes that are happening in the supply chain in the entire country, including investment by private companies in massive, large and small facilities to store, move and process products more efficiently. And in spite of the high costs of capital, suppliers are continuing to look at investing in upgrading their production facilities as well as their systems and processes. While the companies at the front-end will no doubt get a lot of the credit for modernizing India’s retail sector, it would be impossible without the support of the foundation that is being built by their suppliers and service providers.

2011 seems to have ended with a whimper. 2012’s beginning will be tainted by large piles of leftover inventory that needs to be cleared. Inflation seems tamer, but consumers have already tightened their belts, anticipating difficult times. The policy flip-flops and the political debates are sustaining the air of uncertainty. So what does 2012 hold?

Remember, the ancient Mayan calendar stops in December 2012, and no doubt there are many predicting doomsday! However, there are several others that see this as a possibility of rejuvenation, renewal.

Hope and fear are both fuel for taking action. Investment cycles are caused by an imbalance of one over the other.

In 2012, we’ll probably continue to see a mix of both. I recommend that we don’t take an overdose of any one of them. Even if you think 2011 was “the year that could have been”, I suggest still treating 2012 as “the year that could be”.

Here’s wishing you a successful New Year!

Is Retail Design Tone Deaf?

At the outset, let me say that this is the personal complaint of a consumer. However, I’m airing it here because I believe it is also important to the future profitability of our readers’ businesses.

Over the last few years I have felt increasingly uncomfortable with the noise in public and commercial spaces.

It may be that my sensitivity to this has increased with age, but it is a fact that noise levels have also increased dramatically in every urban public space around us. In fact, it has reached a point where I now feel that people involved in the architecture and design are either addicted to noise or, at the very least, completely immune to it.

I can’t think of any other reason why locations such as retail stores, malls, restaurants, large office receptions, and other public spaces are designed and built so badly from the point of view of handling sound.

Fundamentally Unsound

The retail soundscape, if I might call it that, is littered with noisy and uncomfortable spaces. Sound levels in busy restaurants and shopping malls can be as high as 70-110 decibels, which is the equivalent of a busy construction site. Sportswear stores play loud and fast-paced music throughout the day; are they trying to make you believe that you are in a nightclub at 11 a.m.? Internal equipment such as air-conditioning and fans add to noise levels. Restaurants and cafes are worse: noise sources include the kitchen, customers using the crockery and cutlery, chairs moving as people sit or leave, apart from the conversations going on.

For sustained exposure, 80 dB is judged to be the outside limit, and we are frequently exposed to sound levels that are higher than that, for long periods of time.

Unfortunately, it is also a vicious upward spiral of sound. Loudness feed loudness. We all raise our voices when we are competing with the surrounding sounds, and only end up adding to the noise further.

Developers spend millions on picking the right stone, fancy fixtures and creative layouts to make the place “look good”. I don’t remember ever coming across a retail space designer in India who says that the space should “sound good”. Even stores selling high-end audio equipment are badly designed and executed!

I remember sitting in a restaurant belonging to a popular Indian quick service chain after a “modern” redesign. No matter how much I tried, I could not understand a word of what my wife is saying (and that’s not just because we’ve been married for so long!). The reason my wife was inaudible was the high level of ambient noise, echoing from all the hard surfaces around us. What was worse was that I could very clearly hear a stranger who was sitting 5 tables away because the false ceiling had dome that perfectly captured his voice and bounced it across the room to me.

Toning it Down

The most basic thing to remember is this: noise has a negative impact. Not only are the customers uncomfortable, high noise levels actually interfere with the staff’s health and performance. Noise increases physical and mental stress.

What’s more, if conversations are not possible at a normal volume and tone, we have to put in more effort into hearing and understanding what the other person is saying. There comes a point when we just give up. Can you imagine what impact that has on a sale?

Studies have shown that noise can drive sales down by more than 80%. On the positive side, if sound is managed well, sales can rise by more than 1,000%! Isn’t that worth looking into?

A plea to architects and retail managers: do consider the fact that customers coming to the mall expect that space to be qualitatively different from an open market. Making a space noisy is not enough to recreate the feel of an open market – it only means that your space is noisy, and probably worse than an open market will be.

Materials selected for building and fitting out the retail outlet, the mall or the restaurant can have huge implications for how sound is handled in that space. A lot of “modern” design depends on hard, polished, reflective surfaces of stone, glass or metal. The floor, the ceiling and the walls, as well as the fixtures are all surfaces from which sound reflects back into the space, not just once but many times before it dies down. So not only do the sounds get amplified in such a space, the reflections also interfere with each other, adding to the problem.

Not Just the Sounds of Silence

Of course, just making every space a quiet “dead” space is not the answer. Sound and silence affect us positively as well as negatively.

The ancients believed that sound could transform the energy of human beings and their surroundings, and from various base sounds they created “simple” beej mantras to complex Vedic chants. Anyone who has chanted or sung hymns, or even an old peppy film soundtrack knows that sound has the power to affect our moods.

At one extreme, most people are uncomfortable in a heavy engineering factory, or for that matter, a modern shopping centre on a busy weekend, without realising why. At the other end, most people would also be uncomfortable in a recording studio, because it suppresses ambient sound as much as possible, leaving the space “empty”.

In some cases (e.g. a night club, or discount store), sounds need to be louder to ensure that the place “feels” lively, even when it is not full to capacity. In some places our enjoyment is enhanced by noise. Watching a cricket match in a stadium while wearing noise-cancelling headphones would hardly be as much fun. A school playground is “happy” when hundreds of children are running around screaming and shouting at the top of their voices, and “solemn” during a quiet morning assembly.

In some cultures and countries, normal social interaction is “louder” than would be acceptable in others. (For example, a British acquaintance mentioned to me how heavily she felt “the sounds of silence” when she moved back to England, after spending many years in Asia.)

So the key is to first define the ambience and the mood that you want to create in your space. What is the objective: who do you want to attract, who do you want to send away? (For example, operators of public transportation systems have successfully used classical music to drive away loiterers who were undesirable.)

Disney offers an inspiring example of how sound can be used. Over the years they have evolved systems combining sophisticated software and hardware in their amusement parks, such that you can walk through the whole park without the decibel-level changing too much. The music sets the appropriate mood for each specific zone. What’s more, the transitions are smooth as you move between zones.

Not everyone needs the sophistication of a Disney amusement park, but I believe it is worthwhile for most retailers to think about how sound is affecting people in their stores.

I would urge you, at the very least, to look at how it impacts conversations between customers, and between the customer and members of the serving staff, because that will definitely impact sales.

A leading cafe chain proclaims: “A lot can happen over coffee”. Yes, it can; but not if you make conversation impossible.

Try it. Tone it down. You’ll see an upswing in productivity, sales and customer satisfaction.

(Read “How Mr. Q Manufactured Emotion” in the Disney parks, on Dustin Curtis’ blog.)

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.

Smelling the Coffee

Last week, Starbucks unveiled its strategy for profitable global growth, having taken approximately US$ 600 million out of costs in since January 2008.

About 3 years ago in a leaked memo, chairman Howard Schultz had raised concern about how, in the race to scale and to become consistent, Starbucks was losing sight of all critical things that had made it successful in the first place. (“The Commoditization of the Starbucks Experience – Soul Searching by Howard Schultz“).

In January 2008, Schultz took on an active role as CEO in a bid to stem the rot (“Leadership Change at Starbucks – The Barista Returns“).

These two years have been eventful. Shortly after Schultz stepped in, Starbucks announced that it would close 600 under-performing stores in the US. That was well before the “financial tsunami”. In 2009, another 200 in the US and 100 globally were identified for closure, and the company also scaled back on its 2009 expansion plan for 200 new stores.

At its shareholders’ meeting last week, Starbucks presented a more confident face, and outlined a return to growth with plans to expand its presence and “accelerate profitable growth in both the U.S. retail business and in key international markets”. (This profitable growth mantra was also recited in last year’s shareholder meeting.)

However, while the business is looking better, it is far from fixed.

The environment is different. Globally, consumer wallets are leaner, competitors are meaner, and Starbucks may yet need to shrink further; the fat ain’t all in the latte.

Yet, there must be much good in the business if, for all its faults, it still gets imitated around the world.

According to Starbucks, it currently has less than 4 percent of the U.S. coffee market with its 6,800 own and 4,400 licensed stores, and less than 1 percent of the global coffee market even with 2,000+ company stores and 3,500 licensed stores. The company sees that as enough headroom to grow.

Schultz has promised to put the tough lessons learned in the last two years to good use. The company currently has approximately 200 fewer stores than it did at the beginning of 2009 even after new store openings during the year. (To put the current number of 16,700+ stores in perspective, the company had a total of “only” 2,600 stores in Q1-2000.)

But there’s something to think about. If the entrepreneur needs to step back in to fix things gone horribly corporate (bland) and wrong, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that there’s a logical limit to the size and scaling-up capability of personalized experience businesses.

Or, as a friend says, scale can be a logical outcome of excellence but excellence is never the logical outcome of scale.

It remains to be seen whether this round of growth will come from the company’s natural strengths or whether Starbucks will return to growth-by-steroids as Schultz eases on the controls.

The Help-Less Customer

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:

  • A modern retail chain has no stock of bread and basic cooking oil on the second afternoon of a 3-day long weekend. When asked, one of the sales associates says that they got no deliveries due to the holiday the previous day. When you walk across to the traditional kirana store, it is fully stocked-up with fresh merchandise, and apparently has had no delivery problems at all from the same brands either the previous day or that morning itself. Someone at the “organized” retailer seems to have forgotten that “lean” shouldn’t mean reduced footfall-conversion.
  • A telephone service provider receives a complaint for a faulty line. The provider promises to rectify the complaint within 6 hours. After 6 days the line is still down. The call centre executives on multiple follow-up calls sound helpless – one even says: “Maybe the complaint did not get across to the service engineer.” One of them – maybe it is only to push the responsibility off to another part of the organization – hints at the unavailability of enough field staff.
  • An elderly couple in a well-established large retail store is very clear that they only want to buy 100% cotton products. The enthusiastic sales associate pushes the store’s own heavily advertised brand of T-shirts, assuring the customer that it is cotton. After the first wear and wash the customer sends one of the T-shirts for ironing, only to have it returned with a large burn – the fabric, apparently of synthetic fibre rather than cotton, has not been able to withstand the ironing. Somewhere, someone has cut corners – it could have been the buying executive who wanted to meet a price point target, or it could have been the HR manager who thought that product training was a superfluous expense, or both.

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.