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”.)
(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.
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:
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.
Creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem is absolutely critical to a healthy and vigorous society and economy.
Creating a “democratic” entrepreneurial ecosystem is even more critical to sustaining that health. A democratic entrepreneurial system is like all other democracies – inclusive and widespread – and vital to improving the baseline quality of life.
As we’ve pointed out elsewhere, retailing is not just a fundamentally entrepreneurial business, it also offers up a platform for the birth and growth of other entrepreneurial businesses.
Obviously, big retailers offer a change for companies to scale up faster, once they meet the performance criteria set by the retailers.
The interesting thing is that small retailers offer an even more interesting growth opportunity since, as their own business grows, they grow their supply partners as well.
Countless companies and brands have been launched on the back of the likes of Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, and in India retailers such as Pantaloon’s and Spencer’s (and even some of the early modern retailers in India that don’t exist anymore).
In view of this, it is wonderful to see 2-9 February 2008 being celebrated as Entrepreneurship Week (on the National Entrepreneurship Network’s website) and also its powerfully worded pledge.