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Retail Wasn’t Born Yesterday


Retail is such a pervasive and dynamic a sector of the economy, that it is impossible to identify a single point at which modernisation began. I’ve met countless people who perhaps entered the retail sector during the last 15 years, and who mark the beginnings of modern retail around then. There is no doubt that there has been an explosion of investment in retail chains in the last 2 decades, but we need to acknowledge the foundation on which this development is built. The current titans of the sector are standing on the shoulders of previous giants who have created successes and failures from which we are still learning.

This piece is not an exhaustive history of the evolution of the retail business in India, nor a census of all the brands operating in this sector, but the aim is to capture the flavours of the phases of development. (PDF available here to download.)

Early Years

If we were to trace back the growth of “organised” retail (mind you, I dislike that word!) or modern retail to the first retail chains, we will have to cast our mind back more than a hundred years. While many businesses of that time have disappeared, a few pioneers continue to survive, straddling three eras: the British Raj, the Socialist Raj and the Liberalised Lion economy. The businesses that continue to stand, having been through multiple transformations, include:

  • Higginbotham’s (1844) – beginning from Madras (now Chennai), it spread to Bangalore, and then to other locations and is known around southern India.
  • Spencer’s (1863) – one of the earliest grocery retailers to grow into a chain across undivided India, it moved to Indian ownership in the 1960s and was acquired by the RPG Group in the late 1980s.
  • AH Wheeler (1877) – launched from Allahabad Railway Station, it has been operating from railway stations (along with Higginbotham’s in some locations) – while it lost its monopoly in 2004, it has certainly played a key role in the growth of paperbacks and magazines in the country, keeping passengers company across billions of kilometres of rail travel.
  • Nilgiri’s (1905) – started with a small shop in Tamil Nadu focussed on dairy products and other groceries, it expanded to a large store in Bangalore in 1936 led by the founder’s son, and then spread across the southern states with a well-established reputation in dairy, bakery and poultry products. In recent times it has been acquired by the Future Group.

Fifty Years of Independence

The 1950s and 1960s remained fertile times, post-Independence and before the heavy-handed Socialist Raj truly began squeezing the life out of Indian businesses. Leading textile companies such as DCM, Bombay Dyeing and Raymond, and footwear companies such as Bata and Carona established chains of retail stores including company-operated stores as well as authorised dealers operating under the companies’ banners.

The 1980s brought the Asian Games, colour television, and a new up-to-date car model to India, all marks of a new vibrancy. Over the 1980s, a new retail wave was led by indigenous ventures such as Intershoppe (launched by a fashion exporter), Little Kingdom and The Baby Shop (children’s products), Nirula’s (fast food) and Computer Point (home computers, PCs and accessories). Many of these were certainly ahead of their time: the critical mass of consumers had yet to develop, the business infrastructure was inadequate, and funding norms were unsuitable to the capital-hungry business of retail. Unlike the textile companies that had large manufacturing and trading businesses, these new retailers were like shooting stars, glorious but visible for only a short period of time. This period, unfortunately, also witnessed the degeneration and disappearance of some of the older stalwarts such as DCM and Carona that were beset by labour disputes, management issues and disconnection from the transforming market.

Numero Uno, an indigenous denim brand, was launched in 1987 soon after VF’s American denim brands were launched, and it took nearly a decade for Numero Uno to reach other geographies in India. Nirula’s, one of the oldest fast food restaurant chains based in North India, expanded across the Delhi NCR in the 1980s and 1990s, and also explored other cities, albeit with mixed success.

Future Group, which today has a large retail and consumer brand portfolio, launched trousers under the name Pantaloons in 1987, initially as a distributed brand, and then denimwear under the brand name Bare. Within a few years the company also launched exclusive stores by the same names, to provide focussed visibility to the brands. About a decade of growth later, the group launched its first large format store under the Pantaloons name, but by now covering a much wider range of products, which became its launch pad for achieving scale.

The RPG group that had acquired Spencer & Co. relaunched it in 1991 in a spanking, new format as Spencer’s in Bangalore, and a short few years later rebadged it again as Foodworld in a joint-venture with a foreign partner. It subsequently went on to launch other formats such as Musicworld and Health & Glow.

Also in 1991, the Rahejas converted an old cinema into a department store, Shoppers Stop, aiming to provide an international shopping experience, although initially focussed on menswear. The store added women’s and children’s sections in subsequent years and the second store was launched four years later after the first one. Subsequent large scale retail expansion only came about towards the end of 1990s.

Little Kingdom is a notable example that I would like to dwell on briefly (partly for the purely personal reason that it was my first retail job!). The business was launched in 1987, headed by alumni of the illustrious IIMs around the country, built on processes and IT systems that could have been the envy of many retailers even 25 years later. The company – Mothercare India Limited – was the first purely retail company to start up and launch a public issue in 1991. During the early 1990s, it was the largest retail chain present across the country, in its categories. In 1991, it also attempted to bring the first home computer, Spectrum, to forward-thinking parents through a mix of in-store sales and door-to-door direct-selling. It was admittedly one of the first to expand internationally, opening a franchise store in Dubai in 1992. During its short life, the team launched multiple brands and formats, including Little Kingdom, Ms (a womenswear brand), The Baby Shop, and became a partner to the international giant VF Corporation’s Healthtex children’s brand and Vanity Fair lingerie brand in India. But, by the mid-1990s – financially overstretched between multiple brands and formats, and backward integration into manufacturing – it was gone.

Physical retail was not the only avenue being explored for growth during these decades. An Indian company imagined replicating the success of western catalogue companies, and launched the Burlington’s mail order catalogue retail venture and even became a joint-venture partner of one of the world’s largest catalogue retailers, Otto Versand (Germany). Other models included direct sales business, such as the Eureka Forbes introducing vacuum cleaners through demonstration parties (which was emulated for the Spectrum home computers mentioned above). With the growth of private television channels, products also began being promoted during non-peak hours through infomercials, though serious TV shopping was still a few years away, coming up in the mid-2000s with dedicated teleshopping channels.

The Foreign Hand and Corporate Retailing

The 1980s and 1990s also saw the launch of international brands from global giants such as VF Corporation (Lee, Wrangler, Vanity Fair, Healthtex), Coats Viyella (Louis Phillippe, Van Heusen, Allen Solly), Benetton (UCB and 012), Levi Strauss, Lacoste, Reebok, adidas, Pepe and Nike, grocery retailers such as Nanz (a three-way German-US-Indian partnership) and Dairy Farm International (with RPG Group’s Spencer’s Retail) and Quick Service formats such as Domino’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Baskin Robbins and KFC.

India was reopening to business, global management consultants were writing glowing reports about the untapped potential of the (mythical) 200 million middle-class customers and global retailers wanted to own part of the action.

Due to the lack of large-format stores and suitable environments, international brands that entered the Indian market during this phase needed to create exclusive stores to ensure that the brand could be communicated holistically to the consumer, in an environment that was more in the brand’s control, and many of them were, in a sense, “forced” to become retailers in India.

However, around 1996, a very senior member of the cabinet is reported to have said, “Do we need foreigners to teach us how to run shops?” It was an unexpected condemnation, coming as it was from a person and a party otherwise seen as champions of an open economy. It slammed the doors shut to foreign investment and, to my mind, the sector is still yet to fully recover from that ban and the policy contortions that have come over the years to allow international brands and retailers to play a more active role in the market.

Internal weaknesses compounded the decline or exit of some of the businesses. Nanz folded due to various operational challenges and lack of adequate experience. British retailer Littlewoods’ wholly-owned subsidiary pulled out of the market due to problems back home, and in 1998 sold the sole store to the Tata Group, which eventually renamed it Westside.

Despite the early hiccups, India continued to attract international players on account of the high growth and changing social norms. Not only was there greater purchasing power available amongst more Indian consumers, there was a shift in consumer attitude from saving to spending. Several brands, including fashion, luxury and quick service formats, entered the market through licensing, franchising, and joint ventures.

During this period the domestic retail market also drew in more corporate houses, attracted by the apparently abundant market opportunity for them to mine alone or to act as a gateway for foreign companies interested in India. Most were significant diversifications from their existing businesses.

Tobacco, paperboards, agri-commodities and hospitality conglomerate ITC ventured into retailing through Wills Lifestyle and as well as its rural initiative e-Choupal in 2000, followed by John Players and Choupal Sagar respectively. Pantaloon Retail launched a partial hypermarket format Big Bazaar in 2001 and went on to Food Bazaar in 2002, Central in 2004, Home Town and Ezone in 2006. Reliance entered in 2006 with multiple stores of Reliance Fresh being opened simultaneously and over the next few years the company expanded through multiple formats such as Reliance Mart, Reliance Digital, Reliance Trendz, Reliance Footprint, Reliance Wellness, Reliance Jewels to name a few. Telecom major Bharti set up a joint-venture with Wal-Mart at the back end, while the Tata group tied the knot with Woolworths and Tesco in two separate businesses supplying its retail stores, even as it expanded its successful watches and jewellery businesses, as well as Westside.

Even a retail operation like Fabindia, born as an export surplus outlet of a handicraft product business found investors to back a rapid expansion spree, becoming more of a corporate retailer than a front-end for producer organisations and craftspeople.

Through the 1990s and beyond, the market remained in ferment. In 1997 Subhiksha, a small modern retail format for food and grocery was launched. Venture-funded Subhiksha expanded rapidly and over the next decade grew to 1,600 outlets. However, in 2009 the business closed down owing to a severe cash crunch, amidst accusations of criminal mismanagement and fraud.

New product areas emerged highlighting the pace of change of lifestyles, cafes prominent among them. Café Coffee Day opened its first store in 1998 in Bangalore and became the largest organised coffee chain in India by far, though it is now living under the shadow of the recent death of its founder. Barista was also launched in 1999 as India’s Starbucks-wannabe, found its footing, scaled up and lost its way, going on to be sold to Tata Coffee and the Sterling Group, who turned it over to the Italian coffee company Lavazza in 2007, who also exited seven years later. Its current owner, the Amtex Group, is itself going through financial troubles in some of its key businesses.

In the last two decades, while some retailers have gone out of business due to unrealistic business plans, mismanagement or lack of funds, most have taken opportunities to rationalise their operations by shutting down unviable or underperforming locations, aligning businesses to market needs, assessing their brand consistency across various touch points, improving organizational capabilities right down to front-line staff, and focusing on unit productivity.

It’s not just Indian retailers that have faced trouble. Foreign brands have had their own share of problems – some have overestimated the market, or their own relevance to the Indian consumer, while others have had misalignment with their Indian franchisees or joint-venture partners. A number of foreign brands and retailers have also churned partners, or exited the market outright, but most remain committed and invested in the market for the long-haul. The last few years have also seen the successful launch and humongous growth of global leaders such as Zara and H&M, even mass-market Chinese retailers like Miniso, as well as the largest investment commitment made by Ikea (about US$2 billion).

Showing on a Screen Near You

The late-1990s also witnessed a dotcom frenzy that led to a plethora of travel sites, and a few product sales businesses such as Fabmall, Rediff and Indiamart.

However, the online market lacked critical mass in the 1990s and early-2000s. Despite apparent advantages of the online business model, success depended on internet penetration (low!), the appearance of value-propositions that were meaningful to Indian consumers (questionable), investments in fulfilment infrastructure (lacking) and the development of payment infrastructure (regulation-bound). Malls and shopping centres – the new temples of retail – seemed to be sucking up all of the consumer traffic, in any case.

By the mid-2000s the business had reached just about Rs 8-9 billion (US$ 180-200 million), despite 25 million Indians being online. Dotcoms became labelled dot-cons, with an estimated 1,000 companies closing down. However, multiple changes took place in the mid-2000s, among them being the price disruption of the telecom market and explosion of mobile connectivity, as well as a renewed funding appetite among venture funds.

This laid the path for growing the second crop of ecommerce in India. Billions of dollars of investment was poured into creating India’s Amazon wannabes, the high streets ran red by ecommerce-fuelled discounts, aggressive advertising budgets (most promoting discounts) and mergers/acquisitions pushed through by venture investors.

After more than a decade of the second coming, India’s ecommerce business accounts for a market share of total retail in the low single digits. India’s Amazon – if one can call it that – is the Flipkart group, now owned by Walmart, bought at an eyepopping $21 billion valuation and still bleeding cash, and the runner-up is relentless Amazon that continues its aggressive push to own what could be one of the three largest markets in years to come. The Chinese internet giants Tencent and Alibaba are also trying to hack piece off the market, having fulfilled their aim of kicking out Western competitors from their home market.

However, the wild card has just been played by the Reliance Group – having moved from textiles to fibre to oil, the group has made its move into telecom and data (didn’t someone say, “data is the new oil”?). It has strategically pushed handsets and cheap data plans into the hands of the consumers and, according to the latest announcement on Jio Fiber, will soon offer High Definition or 4K LED television and a 4K set-top-box for free. The play is to grab as much of the customer’s share of spend on products and services (including entertainment) as possible.

Looking Ahead

Possibly the biggest driver of modern retail in the coming years will be the shift in the demographic structure of the country. The young consumers who are joining the workforce now are a distinctly different set from previous generations. This is a generation that has grown up in the liberalised economy and has been exposed to innumerable choices since their childhood. The most important factor is that these consumers are increasingly located outside the top 10 or 20 cities in the country, and are becoming more accessible as both physical and virtual access improves for them.

A large number of them may have only occasionally, or perhaps never, experienced modern retail first hand while they were growing up, but they have seen this upmarket environment emerge before them and are not shy of spending within it, even if it is only on select special occasions. Most of them are handling mobile phones (even if it is their parents’) while still in school and being socially active online even on the go. Certainly most of them have hardly ever visited tailors, growing from one set of ready-to-wear clothes to another. It is this set of young consumers whose outlook and habits will drive retailing very differently in terms of product categories and services in the future.

There is another significant set of consumers whose number is swelling annually: that of working women. As they add to the discretionary household income available to spend, they gain influence in purchase decisions, and with them the entire household’s lifestyle also undergoes a shift. There is a greater demand of time-saving solutions and convenience products to make their lives easier. Modern retail environments where their various needs can be taken care of under one roof, and convenience pre-packaged products are natural winners in this shift. Ready-to-wear products for women, grooming, beauty and personal care, women-oriented media products, processed foods and eating out get a boost. Another important shift is that, due to busier lifestyles, they are time-crunched and more likely to rely on branded products and services that they can trust. However, given the nascent stage of the market, these brands could just as well be retailers’ own labels, if they are managed well.

In terms of business, significantly greater efficiency needs to be achieved, both at the front-end and in head office and supply chain operations. Process and system-led planning and execution needs to become the norm. With India’s burgeoning population, people are treated as a cheap resource: on the contrary, each extra person can be expensive beyond just their salary cost to the organisation. Each extra person adds some friction to decision making, reducing the responsiveness of the business. Smart business will begin to realise this, and look closely at employee efficiency and effectiveness in the context of the overall business, rather than just in terms of individual costs.

Even as the retail business in India is far from saturation, and fragmented growth continues, the business will also undergo consolidation simultaneously, as large scale retail operations are enormously capital intensive. Mergers will be a strategy that will be explored to improve the viability of many businesses in this sector.

Should you be tempted to think that, squeezed between large corporates, international retailers and ecommerce giants, it’s “Game Over” for smaller domestic retailers and brands, let me say that the India retail story is not only not over yet, but continues to be written and rewritten. As the market grows and matures, retail businesses also need to differentiate themselves, investing more in product selection or even product development through private label growth to help them stand out in the market. A one-size-fits-all strategy doesn’t work in a country as diverse as India. For the size of the market, we have surprisingly few brands, many of them virtually indistinguishable from their competitors. Development on this front, of indigenous brands and product development capabilities, is an absolute must.

The good news is that already there is more talent available than ever before. Most importantly this management pool has experience of the retail sector not just in good times but during (many) downturns as well.

Eventually, what is needed is a mix that will be healthy for India’s ecosystem at large for a long time to come. This will not be delivered by a blind transplantation of international templates or a rapid-fire expansion across the country, nor by fearful protectionism or regional parochialism. It will only be achieved by the evolution of market-appropriate business models and a mature approach that can be make the Indian retailers robust enough to grow not just domestically, but possibly even globally over time.

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.

Retail’s Elves

(Published in “BusinessWorld SME Handbook 2012-13”, released on Oct. 29, 2012 in New Delhi, and “Indian Management”, the journal of the All India Management Association in January 2013, published by Business Standard.)

There are parallels between Christmas and the growth of modern retail. At Christmas much of the attention is fixed on Santa Claus, while the elves labouring away behind the scenes barely get any air-time. So also in the retail business, the focus very much is on the retailer; the bigger the better.

The Indian retail sector’s sales are estimated at about Rs. 26 lakh crores. Of this, more than 80% of the product requirements are estimated to be met by small or mid-sized businesses. We don’t usually think about these myriad manufacturing and trading companies that make up the retailer’s supply chain. Large branded suppliers – multinational or domestic corporate groups – are still able to make their presence known, but most others remain largely invisible. Many of these fall not just into the small-medium enterprise (SME) classification, but in micro-enterprises, even cottage-scale. Not only do the large retailers source from SMEs directly, those small suppliers in turn work with other upstream SME manufacturers.

Chicken or Egg?

Most of us are inclined to view the growth of modern retail as a precursor to the growth of the SME sector. Actually the reverse is equally true, perhaps even more so. Without a robust base of suppliers having taken the initial risk of setting up better-organised manufacturing facilities and supply chains, modern retailers would not be able to set up their businesses in the first place. We may view modern retailers as the catalyst for this development; however, they are first beneficiaries of SMEs, and only after they achieve critical mass can they catalyse further SME growth.

For instance, through the 1950s and 1960s, as the American and western European economies grew with the baby boom, it was the growth of manufacturing entities and brands – most of them SMEs – that led the charge. As these SMEs consolidated their growth, modern retail chains actually rode upon this. Subsequently, of course, retail chains have put most of their suppliers in the shade in terms of overall size and profitability. Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, Taiwan and Korea during the 1970s and 1980s, and China during the 1990s and 2000s also saw similar manufacturing-led prosperity and consumption, although their growth was driven initially by exports to the west.

In India, too, the tremendous social and economic changes in the last two decades have encouraged a resurgence of the entrepreneurial spirit. The consumer sector is specifically attractive to entrepreneurs as something that is tangible, provides visibility of the business fairly quickly and can be communicated and positioned well within the entrepreneur’s family and social circle, an important driver.

The Rationale for Supporting SMEs

We tend to ignore the fact that India has a workforce estimated at over 750 million, and which is growing annually by 9-10 million. Most of these people will not be employed by the government, or in large organisations or in the much-feted service sector. Allowing for a declining active employment in agriculture, it is manufacturing, trading and retail by small businesses that is needed to keep the economic engine running.

It is also important to remember that growth of SMEs raises prosperity rather more equitably than other sectors. Widespread growing incomes lead to growth in consumption, supporting retail growth, which in turn can feed back into further growth of SMEs. There are enough significant examples of such economic growth worldwide, whether we look at economies such as Western Europe and Japan recovering from the ravages of war, or at the Asian tigers, China and others emerging countries who’s GDPs are not overly dependent on extractive natural resources.

Innovation is another reason to nurture SMEs. Consumer needs are changing more rapidly than ever before in India’s history, with rising incomes, and evolution of life styles and social structures. Small companies are better at foreseeing or at least reacting to rapid changes. Large companies compete on the basis of their sheer scale and aim to maximise returns from every investment made, but small businesses have no choice but to be innovative in some way simply to enter the market or to stay in business. Experimentation with products, business models, service level and commercial practices is what SMEs thrive on. Differentiation is what makes small suppliers attractive to retailers. With the technology and tools available today, we should expect ever increasing amount of innovation to emerge from small rather than large companies in the consumer sector.

Small suppliers also provide diversification of supply risk for individual retailers, as well as for the market overall. Concentrating on a few large sources has, time and again, proven to be a risky approach, whether it is due to the balance of power tilting unduly towards a specific supplier, or simply the risk of product not being available in case the dominant large supplier’s business is affected. A mix of small suppliers is more like a supporting cushion – a bean bag, if you like – which can be adapted and moulded more easily to changing customer needs.

The Role of Modern Retail

There are three areas in which modern retail can be a significantly more important partner for SMEs than traditional channels.

Firstly, modern retail stores are possibly the most effective route to launch new products, or even entirely new categories. As a platform they offer a more consolidated and effective way to reach a new product to consumers, and to gain visibility and acceptability quicker.

As a follow-on to this, due to their innate need to scale-up successful initiatives, a product and or a service proven in one store or region would typically get included in buying plans for the retailer’s stores across the country. This provides a quicker and more efficient scaling up opportunity than the small brand or supplier trying to reach myriad stores across the country on its own.

Third, whether it is quintessentially Indian brands such as Fabindia, or Indian products through international brands and retailers such as Monsoon, Gap, Mothercare, Ikea, Marks & Spencer, these are but a few examples of the access route for small Indian companies to major world markets. In fact, B. Narayanaswamy suggested in an article titled “Opportunity Lost is Gone for Good” (July 2012), that the Indian government should negotiate hard with retailers interested in investing in India to open supply opportunities to the retailers’ businesses globally, rather than putting minimum sourcing requirements for the small Indian business alone which only act more as a constraint than an enabler. The government has, in the past, used such opportunities to allow investment in the consumer sector while enlarging the playing field for Indian businesses – Pepsi is a case in point.

For some companies, modern retail is in fact a launch pad for wider ambitions, as they evolve into building brands themselves. Mrs. Bector’s has grown from a contract supplier to the likes of McDonald’s to launching its branded products not only in India but also in international markets targeting Indian expatriates. Genesis Colors went from being a Satya Paul licensee for ties to being the owner of the brand, and then further to being a partner for many internationally established premium and luxury brands who want to be part of the India growth story. Others become growth vehicles for larger businesses after being acquired by them, such as ColorPlus by Raymond, Fun Foods by Dr. Oetker (Germany) or Anchor by Panasonic (Japan).

Making Business Easier

India is one of the few countries to have a Ministry dedicated to SMEs. However, India’s SME sector is very far from competing effectively with SMEs in other countries.

The German Mittelstand employs more than 70% of Germany’s workforce and is acknowledged to be at the leading edge of technology and efficient business management. Other western European countries such as the UK and Italy also have vibrant SME sectors. All these countries have not only been competitive globally as exporters, but have also co-opted into the growth of industries elsewhere including the BRICs.

Three enormous obstacles stand in the way of the growth of India’s SMEs, as a huge amount of entrepreneurial energy is wasted tackling these areas. The government certainly has a large role to play in all, but one of these is also the responsibility of large corporate groups.

The lack of adequate infrastructure is arguably the most recognised obstacle, followed by compliances that can hold SME operations hostage under outdated laws, many of which have not been reviewed since India had an Empress! Entrepreneurs and businesses lose millions of manhours annually managing these two areas.

However, the one area in which not just the government but large retailers can play a role is in ensuring that SMEs are funded adequately. Bank sources in the form of term loans and working capital limits is only the start. The rest comprises of actual cash flow, much of which are limited by the long credit period demanded by retailers. Payment can stretch as far as 6-8 months, and include sale-or-return terms which squarely place the burden of funding the retailer’s business on the SME supplier. Unless we can mandate better payment practices, the boom of retail giants will be created using millions of dead or barely alive SMEs as building blocks. And what we don’t realise is that the retailers’ own health is also at stake, because lazy payment terms create a maze of poor practices, from product planning at head office all the way to the retail store. For instance, products that will not sell get stocked for short-term margin through placement fees, and block shelf-space and cash flow that affects other suppliers. Promptness of payment to SMEs must become a metric to measure the health of retail companies – after all, what gets measured gets tackled. And for the proponents of “Corporate Social Responsibility” – what better way to promote CSR and wide-ranging economic well-being than by ensuring the the smaller businesses in the ecosystem are not starved of the funds that are rightfully theirs!

SMEs are not just the foundation, but also the beams and pillars on which the glass and steel cathedrals of modern retail are built, and a vital indicator of the economy’s overall health. The sector needs to be tended to proactively and holistically, both by government and by large businesses, as an investment in India’s economic future. Perhaps we will even create some world-beating companies along the way.

Talking about a revolution

(This piece appeared in ‘The Strategist’ supplement of the Business Standard newspaper, on 2 July 2012.)

Modern retail is equated with a more structured and systematised organisation, hence the term “organised retail”. This term is weighted with expectations of greater capability, better competitiveness and greater benefits for industry and society. However, if we take organised to mean better for the consumer then, often, our age-old corner shop and the local cloth-merchant-turned-fashion-retailer appear more organised and better at delivering more relevant products to us at lower prices with superior services than most of the new corporate chains.

Over the last two decades or so, there has been a steady transformation of the retail landscape and the consumer’s shopping attitudes. There are many more people with much more money in hand to spend at their discretion today than ever before. This has encouraged the growth of brands, Indian and international, as well as the emergence of modern retail chains and malls. The transformation is most visible in our largest cities, with some locations already having built a surplus of mall space. A generation is growing up in these cities that takes malls for granted, and that completely avoids the more traditional retail spaces.

There has certainly been a gold-rush, among companies, investors, real estate developers, even professionals looking to put the “next big thing” on their resumes. The true impact, however, is still very limited, very shallow for the country overall. In fact, in locations with high concentration of modern retail, the impact has even been negative in terms of poorly developed space, rising costs, and stressed infrastructure to the detriment of the local inhabitant.

The impact of this growth is little understood, much less guided or planned for the long term. There are loud voices both for and against corporatised modern retail, but there is very little balanced discussion. There are several laws binding or restricting retail activity, but very little policy enabling it, whether we look at modern retail or traditional, corporate or individual owner-driven stores.

Here are some major issues that we need to tackle, at the policy level and within retail businesses:

  • Regulatory frameworks: For the most part, our laws are obstructive rather than productive or directional. The multiplicity of authorities that a retail business must deal with doesn’t help either including various central ministries, state-level ministries, and myriad municipal departments, local utilities and other authorities.
  • Space and Infrastructure: Retail is mostly an afterthought, either as a small fraction of poorly developed space within an urban development, or as massive glitzy shopping malls that have no correlation to their surroundings. Either there is not enough good space, or too much without adequate support services. A retail centre needs to be a positive part of the local ecosystem in every way, rather than an unwanted cancerous growth.
  • Integration with the local economy: We all intuitively know that shopping is an intensely local and personal activity. Yet, in the race to gain efficiencies of scale, modern retail managers take national or international template-based approach. Decisions are made centrally, products shipped by distant suppliers and the labour force is also often drawn from outside. There is little local relevance left and hardly any contribution to generating healthy economic activity in the store’s vicinity.
  • Diversity of choice and competition: We need to think through how the economic balance of power is handled between retailers and their suppliers, to maintain healthy diversity for the sake of the consumer. The evolution of modern retail business models can shrink rather than increasing the consumer’s choice. Strategic sourcing, partnering and collaboration are buzzwords that drive increasingly narrow supply-development, and retail-side consolidation means fewer channels to the consumer. For wider impact across the economy a diverse and vibrant design, development and manufacturing base is needed that can effectively compete within itself and externally.

We need to drastically rethink the role of retail in our society if we want India’s urban centres to be healthier, dynamic and sustainable in every possible way. Retail is the one economic activity that touches the daily life of virtually everyone – modernising it is an imperative. Modern retail should not mean space more expensive than that in rich economies, for a handful of companies selling brands to an elite fraction of India’s population. We shouldn’t treat it as the exclusive party to which only large companies are invited, whether Indian or foreign. For a true movement from “unorganised” to “organised retail” we need to have brands and product offerings that meet the needs and budgets of the real Indian middle class and below, delivered in an affordable and inclusive way, in cities that thrive with retail at their heart as part of the social and economic infrastructure.

Perhaps we even need a National Mission to holistically think through how we can improve the quality of the entire retail ecosystem! This may is the only way to create a true retail revolution in India and use it as an engine for wider economic and social growth.

FDI in Retail: More heat than light

(This piece appeared in the Financial Express on November 26, 2011.)

The debate on allowing more foreign investment in retail reminds me of an incandescent bulb: producing more heat than light. With a variety of agendas at play, the heat has been generated by both sides, for and against foreign investment in retail. Conflicting views have emerged not just outside but from within the government and the civil services as well.

Much time has been spent, multiple studies and consultations carried out, even as behind-the-scenes negotiations have gone on.

We can now all let out our collective breaths. The Indian Cabinet has, with some caveats, approved foreign investment up to 100% in single-brand retail operations and up to 51% in multi-brand businesses.

However, the Cabinet “yes” to 51% foreign investment in multibrand retail and 100% in single brand retail doesn’t quite mean an all-clear to accelerated development of modern retail in the country. The debate is not really over—how can it be when it remains still alive and kicking in some of the most consolidated markets in the West? The states retain the power to allow or disallow foreign-owned retail businesses from operating within their boundaries, and local and regional political parties would certainly have an impact on retailers’ expansion strategies. It also remains to be seen whether this will only affect new stores, or affect investment into existing businesses, too.

Opposition to the expansion of Big Retail is not unique to India. There are enough places within the US where the American giant Walmart has faced opposition, not just in small towns but including large cities such as Boston. Similarly, Tesco has been opposed in several locations within the UK. In fact, there was a huge uproar in the UK in the late-1990s when Walmart entered the country with its acquisition of Asda. The details of such opposition vary from location to location, but the canvas of fears is similar: predatory pricing by large retailers, depressed wages, net loss of jobs in the medium to long term with closure of local businesses, as well as low sensitivity to local social issues when operational and financial decisions are driven from distant headquarters.

Though India is labelled a slow-coach when compared to China, it is worth remembering that China took over 12 years to liberalise its FDI regime, and in stages with reversals as well. It first allowed foreign direct investment in retail in 1992 at 26%, took another 10 years to raise the limit to 49%, and allowed full foreign ownership in 2004, but only in certain cities. It even revoked some previously granted approvals, to reduce the foreign retailers’ footprint.

Anyway, the “policy flywheel” in India has finally moved and is now rolling. Certainly there will be winners and losers in its path.

The losers will include simple intermediaries and low-value wholesalers who have a diminishing role in a better-connected economy. Large suppliers, including multinationals, will gradually find power slipping from their hands. However, the fact is that most of them would anyway be losing in absolute or relative terms to the large Indian retailers over the course of the next few years; it would be naive, even dishonest, to suggest otherwise. And I suspect also that landlords who may be rejoicing the FDI decision could be tearing their hair out when they sit down to negotiate rents with the big boys.

In the other corner, the beneficiaries obviously include the foreign retailers themselves. With a direct relationship to the consumer, retail operations are the most economically valuable link in a supply chain. Foreign retailers can now have access to this with a controlling stake in one of the fastest growing markets.

The second set of winners is the large Indian retailers. In a capital-hungry business, large Indian retailers can use foreign equity and cheaper foreign debt to reduce high-interest domestic debt, and infuse more funds into growing the store footprint. For some, this also allows a potential exit from the business, whether immediate (for instance from the current 51:49 single-brand ventures) or in the future.

There would be winners among suppliers as well, including packaged and processed foods for which modern retail is a great platform to reach the “income-rich, time-poor” urban consumers, technology companies and service providers including the larger logistics companies, as well as foreign suppliers who would benefit from the trust that they enjoy with the international retailers in other markets.

The government can certainly benefit in terms of indirect and direct tax collection, from these more structured, “on-the-books” businesses.

And the consumer would be at the receiving end of a much better product choice and better shopping environments.

Where India as a whole can potentially derive the biggest benefit from foreign retailers is in developing agricultural practices and supply chains that comply with global requirements. If channelled well, this can create tremendous export possibilities (‘agricultural produce outsourcing’), and help to propel rural incomes upwards, creating a wider economic impact.

However, I think the critical things that have been debated most hotly will also be the slowest to be impacted: foreign retailers contributing to bringing prices down, and on the other hand, potentially damaging local competitors.

If the efficiency is simply a matter of scale, and if building up scale is simply a function of having deeper pockets from which to invest, it is obvious that the largest global retailers will squeeze their smaller Indian counterparts out of business, one way or the other. However, retail is not a global business or even a ‘national’ business: it is an intensely local business. Sheer financial muscle can be used to bulldoze competitors, but the consumer chooses to shop at a particular retailer for several reasons, many of which are not influenced by the size of the retailer’s balance sheet. So, local retailers have more than a fighting chance. Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco are the only three foreign retailers in China’s top-10, although two of them have been there for more than 15 years.

The growth of modern retail is an outcome of the development of the economy and a better supply chain, and a working population that is seeking food in more convenient and safe forms; it doesn’t necessarily drive supply chain improvements itself. Indeed, in India, during the last decade, modern retailers have deployed money and management more on opening stores in a drive to capture market share, than actually in supply chain improvements and operational efficiencies.

However, without investments in the supply chain, neither can the quality of products be significantly improved nor their cost significantly reduced. The new FDI policy partly addresses this issue, as it requires a minimum investment of $50 million in the ‘back-end, which cannot include land, rentals or front-end storage. While the final notification should be clearer on the exact implications, for now one can assume that this investment is envisioned in the storage, processing and transportation infrastructure. However, the impact this can have on a $450 billion retail market will be too small to be immediately meaningful.

Clearly, FDI in retail is not a panacea for growth and efficiency. There is much the government itself still needs to do.

The modernisation of retail doesn’t just lead to consolidation of sales turnover, but also enormous concentration of economic power. Therefore, a tilt towards modern retail must be accompanied by the government taking on the active role of a competition oversight body that can maintain an environment of fair competition. So far, the government has played this role mainly in consolidated industries; retail will require it to play this role in a fragmented market as well, and between buyers and suppliers also rather than only between direct competitors.

We also cannot run 21st century supply chains on dirt roads, with unpowered storage and a poorly educated workforce. The benefits of FDI in retail will remain largely unrealised for the nation overall if there is no simultaneous investment by the government in three key areas: transport infrastructure, electricity and education. The Indian government must be a ‘co-investor’ and active partner in developing and maintaining these aspects much more aggressively.

Lastly, several other regulatory changes are needed to unfetter domestic businesses, too. These include, among others, land and real estate reforms so that we are not constantly living with a mindset of scarcity and ridiculous real estate prices, rationalisation of tax structures, and simplifying the certifications and approvals needed to run business on a day-to-day basis.

Unless these aspects of governance are managed actively and consciously, Indian businesses — small or large — will not be completely free to grow and to complete effectively, and FDI could well turn out to be a Faustian bargain for India.

The Indian Retail Market

(Written in September 2008)

Over the last few years India has had one of the highest GDP growth rates, across the world, and consistently. In the last two years GDP growth is estimated to have been 9.6 per cent (2006-07) and 9 per cent (2007-08).

A combination of private and public investments in recent years, as well as steady liberalisation of regulations, has created a situation that is unique in India’s history as an independent country, where business growth has lead to individual prosperity which is, in turn, leading to explosive growth of further business opportunities. Although India’s per capita income still places it in the list of “developing countries”, a significant population has emerged that is truly middle-class.

Rising incomes have created visible shifts in consumption patterns. Certainly, more Indians regularly consume cereal flakes, processed cheese and fruit-based drinks for breakfast than did ten years ago. A generation has grown to adulthood wrapped in ready-to-wear clothing (with visits to the tailor mainly for wedding trousseaux). And, yes, Indian consumers are increasingly welcoming modern retail environments over the traditional

These economic developments have attracted the attention of both domestic and international consumer-goods companies and retailers, and several of these companies have seen annual growth rates 20-50 per cent in the current decade. Many of the new entrants into the retail sector are large business groups that have set up modern retail chains whose share, although still small, is growing year-upon-year.

This growth of modern retailing is also having an impact on the processes and the infrastructure deployed for the retail sector. These businesses are run as true chains which require processes and systems similar to any chain-store business anywhere else in the world including merchandising, sourcing, human resource management, logistics and store operations. These modern retail stores demand Grade-A buildings for shopping centres, with associated infrastructure and services within them.

Therefore this, in turn, has created a growing opportunity for companies that are manufacturers or vendors of consumer products, suppliers of other goods that are used within a retail business or companies providing services to the retail sector.

In the rush to grow, while challenges have been acknowledged, none of them have appeared seriously debilitating in the long term, until possibly now.

During the years 2003 through 2007, news headlines mainly focussed on joint-ventures or strategic alliances, new store openings, new format launches, and mega-investment plans. If human resources were mentioned, it was about the apparent domestic shortage, about the expatriate talent being pulled in, and about incredible salaries. If shopping centres and retail space was studied, it was the phenomenal growth in square footage and the increasing scale of the new malls that was the focus.

Suddenly, however, the tide in the press seems to have turned. There’s mention of “slow” growth plans of major retail joint ventures. There’s whisperings and denials about lay-offs, accompanied by some high-visibility exits.

It would be tempting to read the signs as evidence that the previous growth was based on hype, which has run out of steam. It would be tempting, and it would also be too simplistic.

The fact is that macroeconomic factors are also acting as dampeners in 2008, and the year may be marked in the recent history of India’s modern retail sector for the dawn of realism. Just as the growth of the retail sector was reaching into the not so profitable geographies and beginning to ride on not very efficient structures, economic growth has begun to slow down dramatically. From a 9 per cent-plus growth rate in previous years, a variety of agencies expect GDP to grow between 7.5 and 7.9 per cent in 2008-09. Further, the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council forecasts a GDP growth rate of 6.8 per cent in 2009-10.

What’s more, 2006 and 2007 have brought about phenomenal increases in two critical cost heads: real estate and human resource.

So on the one hand, retailers are facing dramatically higher operating costs, and on the other hand demand seems to be weaker than they have expected. For businesses that have been launched in the last 5-7 years, such a situation is completely new.

Estimating the Demand – Still an Art?

Since the early years in the decade, most retail chains have grown quickly by identifying new sites and replicating existing successful business models and formats. Typically, the growth was limited in its geographic spread, and the underlying consumption pattern differences between the existing markets and the new locations were not stark enough to be immediately visible. Much of the growth, in fact, came from new stores in the larger cities, including the metros, mini-metros and the next tier markets.

This high replicability has allowed the businesses to rapidly scale up into becoming truly national chains, and the presence of modern retail formats has become visible among the larger cities and towns.

As the companies have begun to feel “saturated” in the larger cities, they have gradually moved towards the smaller towns, with their existing product-price-format offer tweaked slightly.

However, the ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity of India’s 28 states and 7 Union Territories makes it less like any other single nation-state and more like a collection of countries such as the European Union. The result is sharp differences in income, tastes, habits, and culture, all of which present a challenge for consumer products and retail companies in terms of product and pricing mix.

Most European brands do not approach different markets within the EU with identical strategies. So why should we believe that the business formula that works in one part of India will work in exactly the same way in other parts?

A bigger issue is the realistic estimation of the target population. There are cases where the demand has been grossly overestimated, and the business infrastructure and investment plans are over-weighted by these expectations.

Estimates of 200-300 million middle class (50-60 million households) sound very attractive, but by what measure of income and spending standards?

Going by the pricing of many of the brands in the market today, it would be logical to use developed market income standards. If we use global income standards the middle class numbers are much smaller. The number of households earning truly middle class annual household incomes (not adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity), is less than 5 million.

Of course, the upside is that the growth rate in this income class is estimated to have been over 20% a year during the current decade and this group is forecast to comprise of over 3.7 million households or about 20 million individuals by the end of the decade. There are few other markets in the world where the target population displays a growth of over 20% a year! Moreover, the annual growth rate of the incomes earned among this population is also the highest in the country. Further, a large proportion of this population is concentrated among the metropolises, as mentioned earlier.

So it is a nice market to be in, if the business plan is sized appropriately. You can expect some homogeneity based on the socio-economic classification, and the geographical reach is also limited, allowing for organic growth.

A specific challenge for companies wishing to enter with a “western” business model or product mix is that, even through its most controlled years, India has been a market economy (unlike China’s decades of a completely centrally controlled economy). Therefore, in most consumer products there are several domestic brands and Indian avatars of foreign brands available, even if the choice is narrower than on the shelves of western supermarkets. Competing offers are available, whether from Indian companies or Indian subsidiaries of global consumer products companies. In that sense, India is not a virgin market. There is already some (or significant) amount of marketing noise and clutter, created by the existing competition.

It is vital, therefore, for any company to identify the true overlap between its offering and the most appropriate consumer segment(s) in India to assess the real short-term and mid-term potential for its retail business.

The Urban Retail Opportunity and Challenge

While we are on the subject of the cities, it is very pertinent to look at the spread of the urban population.

 As India’s population moves increasingly into cities, it is the larger cities (Class 1, with a population of over 100,000) that are growing the most. From 308 Class 1 towns, the number of Class 1 towns and cities in India had grown to 643 in the 2001 census, and are estimated to hold about three-quarters of the urban population.

These cities are also economic magnets. No matter how attractive the new boomtowns may sound, the larger cities still pull in huge numbers of immigrants from the smaller cities, towns and villages, keeping the ecosystem vibrant.

Graphic on Distribution of Urban Population

Table with Estimated Growth of Major Metropolitan Centres (1991-2005)

 

Within these, in terms of economic potential for retail businesses, it is the Tier 1 cities (metros and mini-metros) that are the still unmatched. In 2001, the top-8 cities were estimated to have 40 per cent of the urban disposable income, and despite rising costs and rising competition these remain the most attractive market for a company looking to establish a new retail business. In socio-economic terms there is more homogeneity available to a brand wishing to tap into a critical mass of customers, discretionary incomes are higher (in absolute not just percentage terms), and the infrastructure available to service the consumer is better.

Of course, the side effects of the population overloading are now visible, ever more, on the cities’ infrastructure and governance. And some of the overloading is contributed by the development of shopping centre space.

The growth of modern retail has brought with it a rapid expansion in shopping centre space. This is both an opportunity and a challenge.

While the extraordinary growth of shopping centres has provided more space for brands and modern retailers to grow their business, much of the growth has been concentrated in the metropolises.

Almost half the shopping centre space by the end of 2007 is estimated to have come up in the conurbations of Mumbai and Delhi. This “over-shopping” could potentially lead to the failure of a significant number of these malls. The failure may not result in outright closure – the better sites may change ownership, while others might get repurposed as office blocks or other commercial projects – but it will be painful, nevertheless.

Paradoxically, despite the proliferation of malls, for retailers and brands high real estate rental costs are the possibly the biggest headache. In many instances, brands have signed-on high-rent shops with the aim of balancing their portfolio over time, and fully expect these shops not to make money in the foreseeable future.

Further, the intensive development of malls, without adequate zoning and planning of support infrastructure such as roads and public transportation is now stressing not just the city, but the malls themselves. Even if there is adequate parking space within the mall (as compared to a few years ago), what good is it if a two kilometre stretch of road before the mall is choked with traffic moving at 2-3 kilometres an hour? The convenience of shopping under one roof is totally outweighed by the inconvenience of spending thrice the amount of time on the road, and is a critical deterrent to a serious shopper who is being targeted by the tenants of the shopping mall.

Tier 2 and 3 Cities – A Work in Progress

A recent study by NCAER and Future Capital Research compared 20 cities, and classified them into the Megacities (metros and mini-metros), Boomtowns and Niche Cities. The naming of these groups is quite telling.

Megacities on this list include Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Pune, and have approximately 50% of their income as surplus after household expenses (other than Kolkata and Pune which show surpluses in the 30s). They have large populations, and combined with the surpluses, this up to a massive economic opportunity.

However, the smaller cities have been developing into economic hubs in their own right. If population is a key factor, then Surat would be classified as a metro. It has a high average household income, as well as a high surplus. Similarly, Nagpur, with its logistically important location is also developing into an important market. Along with Lucknow and Jaipur, households in these cities have seen double-digit booms in terms of income growth since 2005, a trend also seen in the Megacities.

This trend of income growth, infrastructure development, trickling of business hubs into the 2nd and 3rd tier cities, will continue to broaden the base of modern retail and distribution further outside of the major cities. On the other hand, while households in cities such as Chandigarh and Ludhiana have high surplus incomes comparable to the Megacities, the much smaller base of population would force marketers to treat them as niche markets until a critical mass develops over the next few years.

Thus, while much has been made about the boom in the smaller cities and towns, the formulaic approach of rolling out the same business model will certainly not work.

The signs of overestimation of demand in Tier-3 and Tier-4 cities is visible in instances of downsizing of store-space by prominent retailers, as well as relocation or closure of some of the new stores which have not performed to expectation.

The Tug of War to Modernise Retail 

In my opinion retail is fundamentally an organic business.

Countries that have displayed inorganic growth of modern retail through large-scale corporatisation tend to be economies that have developed rapidly in the last 20-25 years. Among these are the East Asian economies and the former communist Eastern European countries. Three critical factors that have enabled the disproportionate and rapid growth of corporate retail in these countries are: financial muscle, a bank of real estate and strong political linkages. In other countries the high share of modern retail has grown over many more decades.

In other countries such as those in western Europe and North America, retail consolidation has happened over many more decades, boosted occasionally by phases of economic boom (such as the 1920s, the 1950s and 1960s, and then the 1980s).

Many observers have imagined that India’s retail growth would follow the East Asian and Eastern European countries’ pattern, and have projected that India will reach a state of significant consolidation through corporate retail businesses by 2015.

If that were to happen it would be a rather sad “monoculturisation” of the business. Fortunately, I believe, that it is not likely to happen easily.

Firstly, the modernisation of retail trade has typically moved in step with broader economic and infrastructural development. If we use per capita retail sales as a surrogate measure for the overall economic development of a country in conventional terms, the share of modern retail is closely correlated with that (see the accompanying table). Viewed through that lens, the Indian retail sector is still very far down on the list, and is likely to remain fairly fragmented for some time to come.

Secondly, India has a strong entrepreneurial and organic retail ecosystem (not just retailers, but also suppliers and support organisations). Given the diversity of the market, and the sustained fragmentation of consumer needs, I believe the growth of India’s retail sector will not be driven by large companies alone, although they are helping to accelerate the process of sophistication – indigenous, non-corporate retailers and their suppliers have a strong role to play in the ongoing development.

I believe the Indian retail sector will evolve along a path that may be a hybrid, and in fact, may be closer to the European and American model, with a significant amount of entrepreneurial competition dominating the landscape.

Therefore, it is important for the executives in corporate retail organisations to think innovatively, as an entrepreneur would – think truly like a “dukaandaar” (shopkeeper).

Would a dukaandaar open a store in a place where he has no hopes ever of making money? Would he consistently follow this strategy for years? Would he believe that he is building brand equity and goodwill by doing so, that will sustain him in the future? The honest answer to all those questions would be an unqualified “no”.

Any long-term strategy can only be built on the premise that the business will be sustained into that term. If the short-term cashflows are not available to keep the business alive, no amount of long-term thinking will help, as some retailers have recently acknowledged while shutting stores or entire businesses.

It is also important for the corporate dukaandaars to continue to evolve relationships with the fragmented supply base, and support the growth of indigenous national-scale suppliers.

 

Table on the correlation between Consolidation of Retail and Per Capita Retail Sales

 

Models for Inclusion

Inclusive growth has become a buzzword in recent years. However, I believe India is one of the few major economies where it is more than just a buzzword.

In 2006, at the National Retail Summit organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry I expressed the concern that we were getting too preoccupied with the western model of urban economic development and consumption and we were ignoring the gap that was creating in India (the text based on that presentation is available on Third Eyesight’s website). To my surprise, I had no fewer than 60 conversations during the day about the subject, many of them with senior managers in large consumer goods and retail companies.

Clearly, the thought of sharing the growth and prosperity more widely does strike a chord with many more Indian urbanites than one would realise. What’s more, quite a few companies are actually taking a direct approach into bridging the gap.

There is no one single model that is applicable to creating these bridges.

Some – large companies such as ITC and Mahindra or smaller ventures such as Drishtee – have created retail businesses that also act as local exchanges of services and goods in the villages. Many of them include villagers as co-entrepreneurs through franchise structures, thus helping to generate and retain wealth within the locality.

Others – such as Fabindia among the visible, or Khamir and Dastkaar – are channels for rural artisans to participate in the economic growth as suppliers to the burgeoning urban demand.

Food retailers have started co-opting farmers into supplying to them directly, where possible. The attempt is to bypass middlemen who act as aggregators, thus making more margins available to both retailer and farmer. Many farmers are indeed happy to put in some extra investment in minor equipment and some effort, to help grade, sort and clean the produce, so as to get a still better price.

Yet, certainly, more could be done. For instance, how about if the largest modern retailers in the country created a permanent display for regional crafts in all their stores, and took these along as they grow their chains in the coming years?

And how about retailers growing businesses through demand generated by economic growth in the much smaller towns? By encouraging regional suppliers and local buying (as opposed to the central purchase mindset), not only would retail chains be better merchandised for local needs, but also be plugged more into the local economy.

Let us not ignore the possibility of local retailers who are right now “flying under the radar” to become important factors in the growth of these smaller towns.

Demand generation in Tier III towns and semi-urban areas will accelerate as the logistical connectivity improves and shipping costs decline through multi-modal transport. There is significant investment happening in both road and rail connectivity, and the newly well-connected dots on India’s map are visibly more prosperous than earlier.

As these developments continue, we should fully expect strong retail chains to begin building up, first locally and then regionally.

When we speculate about who India’s Wal-Mart might be, we shouldn’t forget that the world’s largest company emerged from sleepy, semi-rural locations in the US, and similar developments might happen in India as well.

Facing the Challenges

The Indian retail sector also has some distinct environmental challenges that are bigger than the specific economic blip it is facing right now.

For instance, to my mind retail is an integral part of urban infrastructure, but in most cities retail is a sideshow for urban planners. Either the space provided is too little, or laid out in such a manner that no sensible retailer can expect to have a sustainable and profitable store in that location. Or, if a large space is provided for the private development of shopping centres, the public transportation connections are next to nil, while the car-carrying capacity of the connecting roads is usually poor.

Some of the other challenges are related to the Indian government regulations controlling the sector. As an example, in the area of fresh produce, some states still have regulations that restrict the wholesale trading of the commodities to the mandis, or controlled market yards. This means that the consolidation and processing of farm produce is more difficult and expensive.

Real estate costs are an ongoing challenge for retailers, especially those that wish to develop mall-based businesses. Some mall owners have begun evolving from being “builders” to mall managers with a long-term view on creating a business of shopping centre management, and have begun linking their rentals to the revenues actually generated by their retail tenants. However, in several cases, the real estate costs are still in the double digits.

Reacting to the high real estate costs, brands have begun looking at the possibility of generating higher gross margins to compensate. In most cases, this has meant that selling prices are pushed up, rather than sourcing costs being reduced. While the consumer has been largely transparent to these increases in the last couple of years, I don’t believe this to be a sustainable margin strategy. The cracks are already showing, in the steadily increasing volumes sold under discounts, and the emergence of discount retailers who sell off-season and surplus branded merchandise. The message, clearly, is: the real, sustainable, price is at least 25-40% lower than the MRP. The market looks ripe for the emergence of every-day-low-price business models.

If I were to list out my top priorities for retailers in India, these would be:

1. Realistic demand estimation 

Many chains are grappling with too much square footage in a certain geography in the form of very large stores or too many stores. While allowing for the fact that the market is significantly different from what it was 10-20 years ago, let us not expect entire populations to have increased their consumption multi-fold. Sales expectations need to be realistic.

2. Store productivity

For an entrepreneurial business, each store needs to produce results. Sure, there will always be some superstar stores and other locations that are a drag on the bottom-line. The performance needs to be analysed on an ongoing basis, and fairly dispassionately. Store productivity is a function of merchandise availability, store operations, advertising to build customer traffic and a host of other factors. However, unless the store is a marquee location (which very few are), there is no excuse for sustained losses. Fortunately, Indian management teams are today less scared of damage to their reputations, and more business-like when it comes to taking hard decisions on resizing, relocating or simply shutting doors.

3. Pace your growth

Think of a teenager who gets into a growth spurt, and suddenly adds length to his legs. The gait becomes ungainly and he doesn’t really know what to do with the extra inches. Many Indian retailers have gone through a similar disproportionate growth spurt. While stores have grown, the sophistication of the business has not. Let’s remember, the race for retail market leadership is a marathon, not a sprint. The appropriate rate of growth should be determined by organisational capabilities, rather than what others are doing in the market.

4. People

There is no shortage of people in India, as one of the leaders of the industry pointed out a few months ago. Let’s stop creating an artificial scarcity. There are people around who have been in modern retail trade in India for decades and are committed to it – they have the experience. There are others who have only recently entered but need direction and training. The investment in these two sets of people will possibly provide longer lasting returns than artificially inflated compensations for round-robin resumes.

A major “macro” risk to my mind is that retail is seen through narrow lens both by itself as well by as the government and its various arms.

In most cases, the governments various departments continue to treat retail as an incidental trading activity, or as a milking cow through indirect and direct taxes. The outlook towards retailing needs to change beyond the few government luminaries who can be identified as the retail sector’s friends. Whether it is provided “industry status” or not, the fact is that retailing is an industry in India, and needs to be treated with more respect. Even the local kiranawala adds significantly to the community and even the fragmented the market association keeps a vital part of the local ecosystem alive and ticking.

The other side of the story, the retail sector’s perspective of itself also needs to change. Retailers need to look beyond promoting short term consumption. As they grow larger, they are beginning to have a disproportionate impact on society, lifestyles, income distribution and the broader economic fabric of the country. In most developed markets retailers realise how much change they can drive, and many are using this power to benefit themselves and their societies at large. As Indian retailers grow in scale, I think it would be wise to build the “corporate social responsibility” gene into the DNA at this very early stage.

Looking to the Future

Given recent developments, some people may feel that the retail boom is over and it may already be too late to enter the Indian market. I beg to differ: I believe there is still a lot of steam, a lot of energy in the Indian market.

In fact, it would be most appropriate to quote Shah Rukh Khan from Om Shanti Om, “Picture abhi baaki hai, mere dost!” (“The movie isn’t over yet, my friend!”)

The road to modernising the retail sector in India is long, and we have only taken the first few steps yet. Economically difficult times are wonderful opportunities for shedding flab, challenging existing business models and assumptions, and also provide great frameworks for building efficient and lasting companies.

In closing, I would like to borrow a theme from the two great growth sectors in Indian retail: food, and fashion. Both thrive on change. Both thrive on freshness. And that could be the winning theme across the Indian retail sector.

Here’s to a fresh start in 2009!

(C) Devangshu Dutta, Third Eyesight, 2008
This article was used as the opening chapter for the India Retail Report 2009.

Are Your Deals Still in the Fridge?

If you’re like me, then at any given point of time you have a vague idea about what is in your refrigerator, but not quite. That must why we end up buying stuff that duplicates what is already in the fridge.

Here’s an example of what that translates into for me:

  • A second bottle of chilly sauce, when the first one is only half-way through
  • Three semi-consumed jars of jams and preserves, none of which look anywhere near finishing for the next couple of months
  • Three packs of juice because one came “free” with two others (and all open because the family does not coordinate its consumption of flavours!)

At other times, it is the semi-consumed half-loaf of bread that gets trashed half-way through its fossilization process. Or the new flavour of cheese spread, where the price offer may have been tastier than the spread itself.

I sure there will be at least some among you who would have similar stories. (I would be shattered if I’m told that I am the only one with these tales of inadvertent consumption!)

In the normal course, we would not call ourselves excessive consumers. For the most part, we believe we display rational shopping behaviour. We make our lists before leaving for the market and we generally know which shop or shops we want to stop in at. So, why do we end up doubling or trebling our purchases, when we aren’t actively “consuming” double or triple the amount of food?

Well, the lords of marketing spin have mapped their way into our minds. In a strategy that has been proven over centuries, we are offered things ‘free’ or at a significant discount. The very thought of getting something for free, or for less than what it is worth, is so seductive and irresistible.

(As an aside, just look at what has happened during the last few years in the real estate market and the stock market – everyone thought that they were getting a good deal because the stuff was “worth actually more” than the amount they were paying. Not!)

We believe we are being rational in buying the three packs of juice at the price of two – never mind the fact that juice wasn’t on the shopping list in the first place. The danglers and end-caps jump out and ambush us, as we walk through the aisles. The samplers entice in their small voices: “try me”.

You might say that the really traditional kiranawala is the customer’s greatest friend and also a barrier against uncontrolled consumption.

By keeping the merchandise behind the counter or in the back-room, he maintains a healthy distance between the addiction source and all us potential shopaholics. In fact, he goes beyond the call of duty, and even prevents us from stepping anywhere near the merchandise by delivering to our homes.

The enticing deals and offers that you can’t see won’t hurt you. You won’t call to get that new, exciting BOGO (buy one-get one) offer, because you don’t know that it’s there in the store.

Unless, of course, the sneaky brand with its accomplice – the advertising agency – sidesteps him, and puts out the temptation in your morning newspaper.

By now, surely, you’re wondering whose side I am on.

Well, as a consumer and a customer, I am only on one side – mine!

As someone who is intensively involved with the retail sector, I’m also on the side of the brands and the retailers.

And believe me, we are all actually sitting on the same side of the table.

The years in this decade, after the recovery from the minor blip of dot-com busts, have been like one mega party and most people have forgotten that parties seldom last forever. And the morning after the wild party can start with quite a headache.

Retailers and brands have recently acted as if there is no end to multiplier annual growth rates, and consumers have been only to happy to prove them right. Until now.

Currently, we are passing through a fairly serious global economic correction which started in 2007. But it has only really hit hard in the last couple of months, as the headlines have increasingly started talking about recessions and depressions. Naturally, there are some people who have really lost money, others may be looking at the possibility of lower income. But even those people who sustain their current incomes are “feeling poor”, just as they were “feeling wealthy” when the markets were booming.

Of course, superfluous or discretionary expenditure such as movies in multiplexes, eating out etc. are the first to get hit. But should grocery retailers rest easy – after all, people still have to eat, right?

And how about deals, and multi-buy discounts – isn’t this the scenario where “more for less” will be the strategy which will work?

Well, I don’t believe it is quite so cut-and-dried, or quite so simple. The grocery shopping lists will not only become tighter, but will also be more tightly adhered to. Anything that looks like it may be a wasteful expense will be unlikely.

Remember the deals in the fridge? What you are throwing away now starts looking like money being put into the trash.

Pardon the seemingly sexist remark, but men: your wives will not let you get away with driving your trolleys irresponsibly into aisles where you are not supposed to be!

So how should retailers and brands respond?

Well, a good starting point would be to understand what the real market is. Let us not infinitely extrapolate growth figures on a excel spreadsheet on the basis of the early-years of new businesses. Let us not extrapolate national demand numbers from the consumption patterns of select suburbs of Delhi and Mumbai.

When we have the numbers right, let’s look at the business fundamentals at those basic levels of consumption. Is there a viable business model?

Is the business full of productive resources, or are we overstaffed with “cheap Indian labour”?

Is your modern retail business or your food / FMCG brand really providing value to the Indian consumer? For instance, two very senior people from large retail companies were very vocal this last weekend in stating that the value provided by local business to the value-conscious consumer was grossly underestimated by the industry.

I believe that best filter for business plans is the filter of business sustainability. How sustainable is the business over the next few years? What is the real demand? What are the true cost structures, and can these be supported on an inflationary basis year-on-year, or will you be squeezing the vendors for more margin at every stage until the relationship goes into a death spiral?

Let’s look at macro-economics. Are you actively looking at generating and spreading wealth and income around, or is your focus only on stuffing that third pack of juice into the fridge for it to go stale? If your strategy is the latter one then, to my mind, that is neither a sustainable economic model nor a sustainable business.

There’s more about the current and developing economic scenario, “realistic retailing” and other such issues, elsewhere on the Third Eyesight website and blog, including a presentation made at the CII National Retail Summit in November 2006 (download or read as a PDF). (The article based on that presentation is here.)

I really look forward to your thoughts and would welcome a dialogue on how you believe retailers and brands should work through the next few years as we unravel the excesses of the recent past.

Shopping Centres – Boon or Bane

Many people I know treat shopping centres or malls as a new phenomenon, a progressive development of recent times or a modern blot on the traditional cityscape (depending on your point of view).

However, Grand Bazaar (Istanbul, Turkey) is the earliest known mall, with the original structures built in 1464, with additions and embellishments later.

In India, if one were to include open arcades, Chandni Chowk in Delhi is reported to have opened around 1650, with its speciality shopping streets. (Of course, more traditional bazaars have been around many thousands of years around the world.)

But even if one were to get more “traditional” about the definition of a mall, possibly India’s first mall was founded in the hottest city in the country then, Kolkata (New Market) in 1874.

In more recent history, Delhi’s municipal pride, the air-conditioned underground Palika Bazar was a novelty in the mid-1980s, while Bangalore’s Brigade Road saw several early pioneers with their shopping arcades in the late 1980s.

Then came the mall-mania beginning with Ansal Plaza in Delhi and Crossroads in Mumbai. Everyone started looking at malls as the new goldmine, being pushed ahead by a “retail boom”.

The early stage of any such gold rush usually has several experiments missing their mark, which is what has happened with the hundreds of mall-experiments that have been launched in the last 7-8 years.

Some of the significant and common issues are starting to be addressed, but many others remain.

Catchment-Based Planning is Needed

The top-most issue in my mind is “oversupply”. While this may sound absurd to many people, given the low figures quoted for modern retail, I am referring to the over-concentration of malls in a small geography. If 8-10 malls open 4-5 million sq. ft. of shopping in a catchment that can only support 1 million sq. ft., everyone knows that some of the malls will fail. But everyone also believes that their mall will succeed (otherwise, they would obviously not have invested in the mall).

What happens to the malls that fail? Depending on the design of the building, many of them can be repurposed into office space – another area where a lot of investment is still needed. So in the end, actually, most people win, one way or the other. Yet, there will be some losers. Does anyone “plan” on being one?

The second key issue in my mind has been that mall developers have been thinking as “property developers” rather than retail space managers. The successful shopping centre operators worldwide (now also in India), are actually as concerned about what and who is occupying that space as a retailer would be. They are concerned about the composition of the catchment, the shopping patterns, the volume of sales, the shopping experience. Therefore, the tenant mixes as well as adjacencies are factored into the earliest stages of planning the shopping centres.

In fact, if I were to identify the most critical operational problem for many of the malls, it is the lack of relevance to catchment and, therefore, the low conversion of footfall into sales for the tenants other than the food-courts. Customer flow planning within the mall is another factor that can make a tremendous impact on the success and failure of the tenant stores.

Once you start looking at these factors during the planning of a mall, another obvious aspect that jumps out is “differentiation”. Currently, there is little to choose from between malls (other than possibly the anchor store). However, with more clarity in terms of the target audience, the potential strategies for differentiation also become clearer. The visitors also become segmented accordingly, and there is a natural benefit to the tenants occupying the mall.

If, as a mall operator, you want to be in business for long, and also develop other properties in the future, the success of your tenants is probably the most critical driving factor for your business.

Integration into the Urbanscape

When we gauge malls from the perspective of integrating within the urban landscape, there are obviously some glaring errors being made. Instead of aesthetic design that reflects the heritage and culture of the location and its surroundings, or some other inspirational source for the architect, most malls that have come up are concrete and glass boxes.

Beyond the looks, some of the malls are a victim of their own success. They attract more crowds during the peak than they have planned for. Not only does the parking prove to be inadequate, there is no holding capacity for cars entering or exiting the mall. The result is a traffic nightmare – not just for general public, but even for the visitors to the mall. Someone who has spent 45 minutes stuck in a jam waiting to get into the parking of a mall will certainly not be in the best frame of mind to buy merchandise at the stores occupying the mall.

Some of the problems lie outside the mall-developer’s control – for instance land costs are a major driver of the cost of the project (and, therefore, the lease costs to the tenants), and land is a commodity which is independent. Real estate is available within the cities as brown-field sites (former industrial locations), but the regulations are convoluted and the strings are in the hands of too many different departments of the government (city, state and central). This needs joint creative thinking on the part of developers, the government and the public, if our cities are to develop in a more sane fashion than they have in the past.

Similarly, land deals are still not clean enough for foreign investors to be comfortable participating in many developments. This obviously is holding back a tremendous source of capital and domain expertise that could contribute to the growth of this sector.

Many other operational issues exist – manpower, systems, health & safety – some of them can be managed or controlled by the mall developers, and it is a question of time (and of their gaining experience). Other issues are more in the domain of the government, and need a visionary push to make “urban renewal” a true mission.

New Life for the Cities

In my opinion, one of the most interesting areas which would be in the joint interest of almost all parties (that I can think of) is the possibility of revitalizing the high streets and community markets, and reinventing them as the true centres of shopping.

Many of our markets are rotting (a strong word, but let me say it anyway). The individual stores are owned by individual owners who are not all equally capable of maintaining the same look and feel throughout. The infrastructure in and around the markets are owned or managed by several different agencies. To make matters worse, there is often no cohesiveness and no synergy in the interests of most of the members of the market association. None of these individually have the power or the mandate to recreate the shopping centre. But what if they could get together and take the help of a re-developer?

If an example is needed, New Delhi’s Connaught Place provides the example of one stage of redevelopment. Connaught Place had lost its pre-eminent position as a shopping centre, due to the spread of Delhi’s population and the new local markets that had come up. Further disruption was caused by the construction by Delhi Metro. But DMRC has reconstructed an “improved” centre, and the Metro connectivity has made the customers come back into CP, as it is affectionately known in Delhi.

There are clearly many such opportunities around India’s cities. These need to be looked at as a commercial opportunity for all concerned (revenue for the redeveloper, better sales for the store owners / tenants, more tax revenue for the government from additional sales and consumption). But it is also a broader social opportunity to breathe a new life into our cities, and to make them proud beacons of a growing India.

It would be a mission that would truly prove the worth of shopping centre developers, urban planners, regulators and the retailers themselves.
Any takers?