Oil shocks, financial market crashes, localised wars and even medical emergencies like SARS pale when compared to the speed and the scale of the mayhem created by SARS-CoV-2. In recent decades the world has become far more interconnected through travel and trade, so the viral disease – medical and economic – now spreads faster than ever. Airlines carrying business and leisure-travellers have also quickly carried the virus. Businesses benefitting from lower costs and global scale are today infected deeply due to the concentration of manufacturing and trade.
A common defensive action worldwide is the lock-down of cities to slow community transmission (something that, ironically, the World Health Organization was denying as late as mid-January). The Indian government implemented a full-scale 3-week national lockdown from March 25. The suddenness of this decision took most businesses by surprise, but quick action to ensure physical distancing was critical.
Clearly consumer businesses are hit hard. If we stay home, many “needs” disappear; among them entertainment, eating out, and buying products related to socializing. Even grocery shopping drops; when you’re not strolling through the supermarket, the attention is focussed on “needs”, not “wants”. A travel ban means no sales at airport and railway kiosks, but also no commute to the airport and station which, in turn means that the businesses that support taxi drivers’ daily needs are hit.
Responses vary, but cash is king! US retailers have wrangled aid and tax breaks of potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, as part of a US$2 trillion stimulus. A British retailer is filing for administration to avoid threats of legal action, and has asked landlords for a 5-month retail holiday. Several western apparel retailers are cancelling orders, even with plaintive appeals from supplier countries such as Bangladesh and India. In India, large corporate retailers are negotiating rental waivers for the lockdown period or longer. Many retailers are bloated with excess inventory and, with lost weeks of sales, have started cancelling orders with their suppliers citing “force majeure”. Marketing spends have been hit. (As an aside, will “viral marketing” ever be the same?)
On the upside are interesting collaborations and shifts emerging. In the USA, Jo-Ann Stores is supplying fabric and materials to be made up into masks and hospital gowns at retailer Nieman Marcus’ alteration facilities. LVMH is converting its French cosmetics factories into hand sanitizer production units for hospitals, and American distilleries are giving away their alcohol-based solutions. In India, hospitality groups are providing quarantine facilities at their empty hotels. Zomato and Swiggy are partnering to deliver orders booked by both online and offline retailers, who are also partnering between themselves, in an unprecedented wave of coopetition. Ecommerce and home delivery models are getting a totally unexpected boost due to quarantine conditions.
Life-after-lockdown won’t go back to “normal”. People will remain concerned about physical exposure and are unlikely to want to spend long periods of time in crowds, so entertainment venues and restaurants will suffer for several weeks or months even after restrictions are lifted, as will malls and large-format stores where families can spend long periods of time.
The second major concern will be income-insecurity for a large portion of the consuming population. The frequency and value of discretionary purchases – offline and online – will remain subdued for months including entertainment, eating-out and ordering-in, fashion, home and lifestyle products, electronics and durables.
The saving grace is that for a large portion of India, the Dusshera-Deepavali season and weddings provide a huge boost, and that could still float some boats in the second half of this year. Health and wellness related products and services would also benefit, at least in the short term. So 2020 may not be a complete washout.
So, what now?
Retailers and suppliers both need to start seriously questioning whether they are valuable to their customer or a replaceable commodity, and crystallise the value proposition: what is it that the customer values, and why? Business expansion, rationalised in 2009-10, had also started going haywire recently. It is again time to focus on product line viability and store productivity, and be clear-minded about the units to be retained.
Someone once said, never let a good crisis be wasted.
This is a historical turning point. It should be a time of reflection, reinvention, rejuvenation. It would be a shame if we fail to use it to create new life-patterns, social constructs, business models and economic paradigms.
(This article was published in the Financial Express under the headline “As Consumer businesses take a hard hit, time for retailers to reflect and reinvent”.
This is a recording of a short, candid talk by Devangshu Dutta (chief executive, Third Eyesight) at the ASSOCHAM’s 8th Global Food Processing Summit in New Delhi, India.
He touched upon the inherent conflicts in the food supply chain we need to be aware of before formulating policies and practices, and strongly urged everyone to look at food security from the point of view of sustainability and risk-management. (Transcript below.)
I’ll just take just few minutes to share a few thoughts with you on the sector.
The session was titled “Make in India: Platform for investment opportunity in food processing sector and 100 percent FDI in food retail”.
As we all know, whoever’s been following the news, there’s all this buzz around FDI into retail being allowed, not only for physical retail but also for e-commerce companies, and there are two very strong sets of drivers. On the one hand is the likes of Walmart and Tesco and people who want to actually set up food retail. and you know food is the largest consumption in our basket of consumer products, so they obviously want to tap into that demand. The second side is Amazon and the likes of it where again you know there are no barriers in terms of location, you are buying on the net, tapping into a consumer who’s looking for convenience, and there you need to actually service that demand with food and grocery which is packaged, so there is obviously a very strong push a very strong lobby for that to happen. At the same time there’s a very strong lobby against that because there are domestic retailers who invested a lot of money over the last maybe 10-15 years in setting up a lot of retail stores. In the recent years there have been a few e-commerce companies that have come up as well with domestic and foreign capital. So there is this conflict.
In this whole ecosystem of food production and supply and retail there are some fundamental conflicts that we need to be aware of, before we get into any kind of thinking about what should be done with the sector.
First of all is foreign vs. Indian; this is a conflict which is there the world over, and I think we will see that increase in Europe, in the US, and in other places. You know, “local versus foreign” is a conflict which we will keep seeing. I think we have moved a little bit away from that within, not only this government’s regime but also the earlier government’s regime, where we started to welcome foreigners back into the country and said, “let’s do trade together”. I think it’s important to keep it in mind that local interests will always always be take predominance over foreign interests. If any government comes in and says, “I will give foreign interests precedence”, it’s going to not be there in power the next time, so that’s something which is to be kept in mind.
The second is this is a conflict between large and small…large retailers versus small retailers. A Reliance had to close shops in Uttar Pradesh, had to close shops in Kerala because they were impacting small retailers. So it’s not just about Walmart impacting small retailers, it’s also about the large Indian companies impacting smaller companies.
The third conflict is between traditional and modern, and this is happening again even in farming. Indian farmers tend to follow traditional practices, there are fragmented land holdings, and then you have modern entrepreneurial farmers, you have cooperatives which are adopting different techniques, and there is a conflict which happens at that level as well. At the local level it can get hugely political and then it starts raising barriers. So if you talk about the food supply chain, it’s not a simple thing to deal with.
Fourthly, the biggest biggest conflict – and that’s not really a conflict outright because these are people who are working together – but there are differences of interests and, therefore, there are conflicts…that is between retailer, supplier and the farmer, the interests are not aligned. A retailer wants lower prices, a supplier wants even lower prices, but the farmer wants higher yield and higher prices, so that conflict, just something on account of price and commercial terms and various other things, is bound to create friction in that supply chain.
Having understood that, I think we need to also acknowledge the fact that retailers are unlikely to invest in the supply chain and in farming. Amazon is not going to set up food processing. Amazon is not going to set up farms which are contract farming. Let’s face it, even Future Group hasn’t. Future Group has set up a food park. Future Group has taken over companies which are in food production companies but Future Group has has not set up, ground-up, contract farming. They’ve tried but it’s not their core competence, it’s not even their core interest. Reliance has done a little bit, ITC has done a few things but it’s not something which is fundamentally their business. They’re retailers, that’s what drives them, so what they can do is they can create an ecosystem.
Let’s take the example of McDonald’s or a Pizza Hut or say a Domino’s. These are foreign quick service restaurants which have come into the country. A McDonald’s had to actually build its supply chain from scratch to get the potato fries, to get the burgers done, to get the patties done and they created an ecosystem, in some cases they invested or co-invested with Indian partners, but in most cases they encouraged Indian partners to talk to their partners from Europe, US etc.
When we talk about people like Future Group, it has done a lot in being a platform for Indian companies to come on board and sometimes international companies as well. They’re a platform for them to launch and grow their business. So what the retailer can do is create the ecosystem, create the demand pipeline. Beyond that it is up to the food producer, it is up to the farmer, to take that opportunity and move on. It’s not for the retailer to handhold from scratch all the way to selling on the shelves.
In terms of the practices that we need to adopt I’d like to say this, that while we keep talking about international standards, food is a very local thing. We may be going into a world where 50 years down the line all of us will be having a white-gray powder which has no flavour and that’s what the future of food…I hope not!…The fact is the food is a very local thing because of tastes, because of cultures, because of the environment that you are in. And we are actually losing a lot. People who are here from farming, if you look back not, even very far – maybe 20-25 years – certainly, if you look back 50 years, what was being farmed we’ve lost probably 30-40 percent of that produce, because there is no demand, because it is difficult to grow, because it’s seasonal, because it is difficult to process, difficult to sell. If you go to the sabziwala today versus if we went to the sabziwala 10 years ago, you will find that the variety of produce has actually diminished. So while we are talking about food processing, what is happening is…and I’d like to mention this…You know, sometimes we come to conferences like this and we run our businesses, we run with a split personality. We do what is convenient for the business, we do what is good for the business in terms of cost, in terms of ease of processing, in terms of ease of selling etc. When it comes to us as consumers, we want fresh, we want variety, we want flavor, we want colour, we want all of it. Why do we have the split personality? Why can’t we actually combine the two and do what is right for us as consumers, our children as consumers, the environment, and the future as well?
Sustainability is should be a big driver and we forget that the kind of food processing which is going on right now, by and large the kind of plants which are being put up, are based on technology which was developed in North America and Europe between 1900 and say 1960-70. That’s been the most wasteful part of the last century in terms of energy, in terms of water, in terms of labour, in terms of anything. It’s resource intensive. Now imagine even if 20% of India – over 200 million people – started to live and depend on that kind of a lifestyle and that kind of an industrial structure! This country will be finished, certainly! The world would be finished! We cannot do that, so we’ve got to do stuff which is good for us as consumers, the environment as a whole, and good for the business. It can’t just be one. We cannot be uni-dimensional in our thinking.
Last point: I think diversity is a very, very important part of the food supply chain and diversity means that there are “many”. We tend to look at large companies as being the standard and, therefore, large being good. But the fact is that if you take food which is an integral part of our lives…You cannot live without air, you can live without food and water for a few days, you can’t survive. You can live without clothes for your entire life.
If let’s say the food supply chain and even the processing, the acquisition and everything else, if it gets consolidated beyond a certain point it becomes extremely vulnerable. Anybody who’s looked at financial services risk management or any any kind of risk assessment, you would know that it is good to have a diversified basket. From the point-of-view of farming, from the point-of-view of manufacturing, from the point-of-view of retail, consolidation beyond a certain point is actually detrimental to quality and to safety. So if you’re looking at food safety, if you’re looking at sustainability, we need to actually encourage many, many, many entrepreneurs, many small businesses.
For that…I don’t know if anybody is there from the government sitting in this audience…but Make in India will only happen if we make it easier. Today all of us who are in business know that India is one of the most hostile environments to do business of any sort. It does not matter whether you are in manufacturing, whether you’re a truck driver, whether you are running a consulting business. With all the regulations…we don’t lack regulation, there’s too much regulation…we don’t have an environment where it is easy to do business. If that can happen we will find that we will have an extremely diverse and vibrant ecosystem which will grow and we can actually be the standard, the international standard which can be followed by everybody else. I think what we should do is try and get the government to work in that direction. If we can do that, if that’s one outcome we can achieve out of this conference I’ll be really, really, really happy.
Thank you so much!
About six years ago, Kishore Biyani of the Future Group and I were discussing a presentation I had delivered at CII’s National Retail Summit, during which I had mentioned “Purushartha”. This millennia-old living philosophy takes a balanced view of life. Aspects related to consumption are two of its major components including Artha (wealth, commerce) and Kama (sensory pleasure). Dharma (righteousness in society and individual life) and Moksha (liberation) are the other two. My point was that most “traditionalists” and certainly policy-makers in the country have tended to view the retail sector negatively or dismissively.
Of course, at that time most businesses themselves hardly demonstrated any sense of balance, let alone any connection with the reality of India, whether in terms of the consumer’s needs, or in terms of the operating environment in the country. By and large the theme was: push explosive growth, margins be damned; promote “westernised” consumption aspirations, regardless of capability to fulfil those aspirations. Conversely, the four years after the global financial crisis in 2008 have been possibly the worst that the retail sector has faced in recent decades, whether in terms of total losses or the quantum of lost growth opportunity, and business sentiment has swung to the other extreme.
On its part the government has not done much to encourage the sector. After several policy flip-flops, approving investment proposals of some high-profile global brands is a positive signal to the outside world, but none of them so far have unlocked or grown the value of Indian retail businesses in any significant way. There is no doubt that foreign brands and retailers can and should be an integral part of India’s developing retail landscape, but they cannot be the prime drivers of the retail business in India or the saviours of its supply chain. That vision and energy needs to come from within, and the resultant growth will benefit all – Indian and international companies, consumers and the government.
From the ancient treatise Arthashastra, Professor Thomas Trautman quotes the concept of concept of “shad-bhaag” (the state having one-sixth share) as “entrepreneurial” because it has a sense of mutual interest, promoting production and the growth of everyone’s share. This spirit of co-ownership and entrepreneurial participation is largely missing in today’s governance. Direct and indirect taxation remains a complex net for all but the savviest evaders, not to mention all the other regulation and approvals that each business – large or small – needs to comply with.
Somehow the mandarins don’t seem to see that the retail business is a platform for the multi-fold growth of new enterprise, that it is a vehicle for urban renewal, and that it can help enormously in channelling the economy into visible taxable revenues. It also seems to escape them that the biggest drivers for this growth and change will typically be small entrepreneurial businesses, who themselves can only thrive in a simpler and non-adversarial regulatory environment.
The wishlist is not large, but needs some bold steps: enact policies that free up unproductive real estate to reduce costs, reduce regulatory hurdles, remove tax traps, reduce import duties. For instance, one estimate for illegal imports in watches is 75 per cent, where the beneficiaries are the smugglers and those who oil the wheels for them, not the consumer, not the brands or retailers, not the revenue department.
It is an important budget year politically due to impending elections but also economically due to the dismal GDP growth. The animal spirits that the Prime Minister has referred to in the recent past are more in the nature of a “bheegi billi” right now rather than a roaring tiger. The caged golden bird will not lay any golden eggs. Will the Finance Minister choose to crack the whip this year, or cut the chains? We watch with bated breath.
(An edited version of this piece was published as in Daily News & Analysis – DNA on 19 February 2012, under the title “Foreign brands can’t be prime drivers of retail”.)
(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.
(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:
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.
Prompted by an article in the New York Times, Bernice Hurst, Contributing Editor of RetailWire, brought up an interesting subject to discuss – the tradition of small, independent retailers on Manhattan’s Lower east side, their survival despite the recession, and their determination to thrive.
One of the retailers interviewed for the article said that the business was “so much fun”. In referring to the kind of products she was developing said, “there are no boundaries to these things”.
Imagination may have no boundaries, but markets always do. When you’re small fry the pond seems limitless. And if all is in harmony (no tuna to gobble you, all fry remaining small, enough algae to feed off, forever), then the market is a good and boundless place. If only.
Personally, I hope there will always be some ponds with room in them to let such small fry bubble up their innovations: they keep the fashion business alive.
They also serve to remind us that there are reasons for running business that are not based on the race-to-scale.
For someone who loves books and dislikes naming favourites, it’s tough to quickly make a list of only 10 must-read books. There are so many valuable books an entrepreneur can learn from that this list is only a starting point, rather than “the Top-10”. But, then, one of the most important things an entrepreneur can do is to overcome his or her own resistance at some of the most inconvenient times. So here goes!
The thing about lists is that even if you find one item on the list that makes a substantial difference to you, the list has been useful. Among the above, I believe you will find more than one that will create such an impact. Happy reading!
[Column written for The Economic Times, 13 November 2009]
Over the past few years, the Internet has been revolutionising the way we interact with each other, as individuals, as companies or corporate entities, providing a mass of information keeps growing with no end in sight. With cheap and direct access, we can quite simply move around with a few clicks, most of the time locate what we want, make an informed (and even comparison-based) decision, and exit. Surely, as many pundits forecast, the Internet should bring an end to intermediation of any sort. Well, yes. And no.
Yes, the Internet makes information more easily accessible to everyone. Every week there are literally thousands of websites, hundreds of portals and at least a few dozen exchanges that spring up. These get hit upon either directly, or via the many search engines that, in turn, are also constantly updating and fine-tuning their search algorithms, pushing to create sensible shortlists that are useful for the researcher. One is even named after the butler created by P. G. Wodehouse, with the implicit claim that it will anticipate your needs even before you know of them! However, these are only attempts at generating intelligence (at best), more often just information, quite a lot of which is unintelligible, and very far from the “knowledge” that we human beings seem to create in our minds quite automatically as we go about doing our tasks. Just a few days ago, I was searching for hotels in the US – what I downloaded was a morass of information, and I spent a whole day sorting through it. In this case I could have just as well requested a trusted travel agent to come up with a few appropriate options for me, from which I could have booked my choice.
Our minds are, yet, the best-known computer to man, in terms of versatility. Our minds can store enormous amounts of data – a surprising amount remains in long-term memory (despite the fact that often we can’t seem to remember the name of the person that we just met in the lift!). More importantly, we can connect and inter-relate seemingly unrelated items of information, for example, creating travel itineraries covering flights, hotels and various other details into a plan that is most effective and efficient keeping in mind the time constraints, costs and our objectives for travelling. We are still not fully-there from robot programmes which will automatically find you the best prices, and the most convenient locations or times, let alone do that for hotels AND flights AND trains and any other items that your itinerary contains. Travel is actually probably one of the simpler examples – you could still create parameters which, provided the base information about price, time or location is provided by the service providers, can be used in programmes that can analyse patterns of new and past data, and revert with some shortlisted options.
Let us think of a more complex example – the textile and apparel supply chain. It is one of the most fragmented industries, and possibly one of the most global in terms of trade flows. There are multiple layers of raw materials and intermediate products, most of which pass through some sort of intermediaries (such as commission agents, stockists, importers etc.). In such a form the industry is a prime candidate for opening out to the Internet, where suppliers can create their websites, or store their information through other platforms (such as “exchanges”) which can be accessed by buyers from around the world – easy to set up, independent of time zones and very very low cost. Get rid of the multiple layers that mostly add costs, book orders directly, get rid of stocks… sounds like a heaven-sent opportunity!
Well, that is how it is being seen by the 70-80 exchanges that have come up around the world, or are in various stages of being set up. Some of these have been set up by existing industry players, some by technology companies, and yet others by people who have set up exchanges in other sectors who believe that similar business principles can be applied to the textile and apparel supply chain as they have applied in the other sectors. This should dramatically raise the direct access between suppliers and customers – be the end of agents and other intermediaries – and basically make millions for the companies promoting the exchanges!
Yet, around the world, retailers and brands that buy finished products and raw material do not seem to be rushing to stake any significant proportion of their purchases to web-based sourcing. And there are multiple reasons for that.
Firstly, such a proliferation of exchanges seems to be only a reflection of the fragmentation, and there does not seem the likelihood that any clearly dominant player will emerge in the next few months. There is little or no differentiation between most of these exchanges – most of them offering a sophisticated yellow pages capability, while others offer possibly a few add-ons such as functionality that allows buyers to bid for stocks, or suppliers to quote for products.
Secondly, in certain areas, buyers or suppliers themselves have got involved in setting up exchanges. Some of these are private web-based initiatives (such as Wal-Mart or Littlewoods on the retail end, or LiFung.com or TheThread.com on the supply side), while others apparently are more public and collaborative, such as World-Wide Retail Exchange.
Closed web-based systems are excellent for the company that is initiating it, because it enables the company to streamline operational processes. However, it does create another platform for people to adapt to, though web-based systems are less painful certainly than EDI or other proprietary systems, which require specific investments. Also, occasionally it brings up the question of conflict of interest. For example, how comfortable would one supplier feel in sharing internal information with another supplier who has taken on an additional role?
Other initiatives, such as the WWRE, have got off to a good start, but here internal stumbling blocks are inevitable due to the composition of the groups. Consider the WWRE: 27 retailers currently, in four separate areas of operation (as diverse as food and clothing), with different geographical bases, which make the business imperatives very different for the various participants. Add to that the fact that people are loath to share knowledge that is considered proprietary by them, whether process knowledge or supplier contacts. It is a long-drawn process of consensus management in such a large initiative.
Thirdly, what kind of a service offer is the best? As of now, there is are options available from various B2B service providers, offering varying areas of benefit, from listing services to “software solutions” for various applications, to loose working relationships. Not only do the service offerings actually vary, there are varying degrees of claims and counterclaims that muddy the waters further.
The scenario is actually as confusing as it seems to be – players, whether exchanges, portals or any other kind of company, are dynamically evolving their business models, with changes seemingly almost every week, and new players emerging all the time. In such a scenario, buyers (who are early-adopters) will get into as many exchanges as possible to get the maximum choice, and to hedge their bets. On the other hand, the majority – which comprises of buyers who adopt new technologies later – will hold back to see which exchanges come up as the most widely accepted or most appropriate for them.
Finally, whether we like it or not, textile and apparel products are inherently emotional products. They are, of course, driven by specifications, and those specs can be defined fairly precisely. But what the specifications cannot ever completely convey is how a buyer feels instinctively about including a product in a range. Or, indeed, what the impact would be of making some minor adjustments that can be visualised, discussed and decided in an interactive session between a buyer and a supplier. Or, for that matter, what is the best way to reconfigure a supply chain, under pressure of a new order, or an unforeseen delay in the process. Intermediation is something that has become ingrained in the textile and apparel supply chain.
In such a scenario, it is unlikely that intermediaries will disappear immediately. What is certainly happening, however, that while previously buyers were willing (or forced) to pay for having access to information, pure information itself is being made a commodity. In this frame of reference, companies are seeking out “genuine value-for-money” before they will shell out a buying or selling commission. Process or domain knowledge is an absolute must – only this can enable web-based companies to create unique and genuine value-adding web-solutions. Simply putting up a ‘telephone directory on the web’ will fetch very little in return. Even though a telephone directory has hundreds thousands of entries, how much do you pay for it? Relationship-management and process-management capability will remain in demand, and many of the existing intermediaries certainly show a lot of that.
One of the most important developments that will certainly be an accelerated outcome of the internet, will be the vertical integration of the textile and apparel supply chain. While, in the past, the very diverse nature of the stages of the supply chain has created and maintained multiple layers, web-based technologies are now enabling companies to structure and manage the apparel supply chain from as early a stage as they wish to, be that fabric, yarn or even fibre. It is more feasible to exert control, without actually physically owning the different bits of the supply chain.
Breaking down size barriers
Another significant outcome is that the web breaks down “size” barriers. Large retailers typically bought from large suppliers, while small retailers typically did business with small suppliers. Any “criss-crossing” (i.e. small companies dealing with larger companies) needed middlemen – individuals or companies that broke bulk or consolidated orders, for small or large retailers, respectively. This had more to do with operating systems, management capabilities and the scale needed for relationship management than it did with actual barriers. Now, however, web-based systems can allow some parity between organisations of different size, because at a low cost the same level of functionality is available to companies of all sizes, This is significantly changing the balance of power, and the overall structure of the industry. Scale was never the only surrogate measure of capability in this industry, but the correlation between actual scale and perceived or actual capability is getting even more vague over the Internet.
The impact of the web on the textile and apparel industry is not going to be immediate – it will take a while to permeate the hundreds of thousands of companies that make up the supply chain – so there is some breathing space.
But surely, in the next five years, the textile and apparel supply chain that we shall be seeing, will be structured quite differently from the existing supply chain. There will certainly be some casualties. What is important is that you – whether you are a supplier or a retailer – should start taking cognisance of the changes to come, and begin changing your own business to avoid being one of the casualties.