One Ring That Rules Them All

Devangshu Dutta

January 10, 2017

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

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

Elements in Operationalizing Big Data and AI

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

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

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

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

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

(Also published in the Business Standard.)

The Franchise “Space Programme”

Devangshu Dutta

December 5, 2013

(Published in ETRetail.com on 6 December 2013)

Franchising isn’t rocket science, but advanced space programmes offer at least one parallel which we can learn from – the staging of objectives and planning accordingly.

A franchise development programme can be staged like a space launch, each successive stage being designed and defined for a specific function or role, and sequentially building the needed velocity and direction to successfully create a franchise operation. The stages may be equated to Launch, Booster, Orbiter and Landing stages, and cover the following aspects:

  1. Launch: assessment of the franchiser’s own readiness to launch and manage a franchise network in the target geography
  2. Booster: having the franchise pack ready to target the appropriate geographies and franchisee profile
  3. Orbiter: franchisee recruitment
  4. Landing: operationalising the franchise location

Stage 1: Launch

The first and perhaps the most important stage in launching a franchise programme is to check whether the organisation is really ready to create a franchise network. Sure, inept franchisees can cause damage to the brand, but it is important to first look at the responsibilities that a brand has to making the franchise network a success. Too many brands see franchising as a quick-fix for expansion, as a low-cost source for capital and manpower at the expense of franchisee-investors. It is vital for the franchiser to demonstrate that it has a successful and profitable business model, as well as the ability to provide support to a network of multiple operating locations in diverse geographies. For this, it has to have put in place management resources (people with the appropriate skills, business processes, financial and information systems) as well as budgets to provide the support the franchisee needs to succeed. The failure of many franchise concepts, in fact, lies in weakness within the franchiser’s organisation rather than outside.

Stage 2: Booster

Once the organisation and the brand are assessed to be “franchise-ready”, there is still work to be put into two sets of documents: one related to the brand and the second related to the operations processes and systems. A comprehensive marketing reference manual needs to be in place to be able to convey the “pulling” power that the brand will provide to the franchisee, clearly articulate the tangible and intangible aspects that comprise the brand, and also specify the guidelines for usage of brand materials in various marketing environments. The operations manual aims to document standard operating procedures that provide consistency across the franchise network and are aimed at reducing variability in customer experience and performance. It must be noted that both sets of documents must be seen as evolving with growth of the business and with changes in the external environment – the Marketing Manual is likely to be more stable, while the Operations Manual necessary needs to be as dynamic as the internal and external environment.

Stage 3: Orbiter

Now the brand is ready to reach out to potential franchisees. How wide a brand reaches, across how many potential franchisees, with what sort of terms, all depend on the vision of the brand, its business plan and the practices prevalent in the market. However, in all cases, it is essential to adopt a “parent” framework that defines the essential and desirable characteristics that a franchisee should possess, the relationship structure that needs to be consistent across markets (if that is the case), and any commercial terms about which the franchiser wishes to be rigid. This would allow clearer direction and focussed efforts on the part of the franchiser, and filter out proposals that do not fit the franchiser’s requirements. Franchisees can be connected through a variety of means: some will find you through other franchisees, or through your website or other marketing materials; others you might reach out to yourselves through marketing outreach programmes, trade shows, or through business partners. During all of this it is useful, perhaps essential, to create a single point of responsibility at a senior level in the organisation to be able to maintain both consistency and flexibility during the franchise recruitment and negotiation process, through to the stage where a franchisee is signed-on.

Stage 4: Landing

Congratulations – the destination is in sight. The search might have been hard, the negotiations harder still, but you now – officially – have a partner who has agreed to put in their money and their efforts behind launching YOUR brand in THEIR market, and to even pay you for the period that they would be running the business under your name. That’s a big commitment on the franchisee’s part. The commitment with which the franchiser handles this stage is important, because this is where the foundation will be laid for the success – or failure – of the franchisee’s business. Other than a general orientation that you need to start you franchisee off with, the Marketing Manual and the Operational Manual are essential tools during the training process for the franchisee’s team. Depending on the complexity of the business and the infrastructure available with the franchiser, the franchisee’s team may be first trained at the franchiser’s location, followed by pre-launch training at the franchisee’s own location, and that may be augmented by active operational support for a certain period provided by the franchiser’s staff at the franchisee’s site. The duration and the amount of support are best determined by the nature of the business and the relative maturity of both parties in the relationship. For instance, someone picking up a food service franchise without any prior experience in the industry is certainly likely to need more training and support than a franchisee who is already successfully running other food service locations.

Will going through these steps guarantee that the franchise location or the franchise network succeeds? Perhaps not. But at the very least the framework will provide much more direction and clarity to your business, and will improve the chances of its success. And it’s a whole lot better than flapping around unpredictably during the heat of negotiations with high-energy franchisees in high-potential markets.

Is Retail Design Tone Deaf?

Devangshu Dutta

October 21, 2011

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

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

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

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

Fundamentally Unsound

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

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

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

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

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

Toning it Down

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

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

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

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

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

Not Just the Sounds of Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off the Shelf

Devangshu Dutta

September 14, 2008

You’ve walked into your neighbourhood supermarket with your shopping list. The particular detergent that your spouse had put on the list isn’t on the shelf and the sales associate is not sure whether they have any in stock (maybe you get the standard line: “whatever we have in stock is already on the shelf”).

You’ve forgotten your mobile at home so you can’t call to check whether a substitute brand or different pack size will suffice, so you walk out with the item still on your list.

And into the local kirana store. The brand and pack size that you were looking for isn’t there either, but the shop-owner says that he will have it in stock sometime during the next 3-4 hours, and can send it over to your home. Or, he suggests, you could also buy an alternative brand (or pack size). At the end of that conversation you would have very likely bought the alternative offered, or would have agreed to home-delivery of the item you were seeking. (A study by the Institute of Grocery Distribution in the UK in 2006 discovered that, in case of non-availability, 40% of the customers end up buying the same product somewhere else.)

Some people would be cheering, “Yea, more power to the underdog small retailer”. But the point of this example is not the victory of the local, independent kirana over the chain-store. The point I am illustrating is that the difference in the business models and formats of these two competitors, and the impact of on-shelf availability.

Modern convenience stores and supermarkets, and the format that is being largely adopted by the chain-stores in India, is the western model of self-service. Compared to the kirana-model of “being served”, modern retailers depend on product being available and visible on the shelf. Very clearly, visibility and availability drive sales.

And in the current environment, retailers are or should be looking at squeezing more sales out of their existing stores (see the earlier column – “Priority #1: Same Store Growth”).

On-Shelf Availability is driven by a number of factors – some are within the retailer’s control, while others are not.

On the vendor side, availability is driven by a number of factors. In India, vendors themselves can be small to mid-sized companies, with distribution systems that are poor in terms of information linkages. The supply chain may comprise of several levels of stockists, distributors, and wholesalers, with an inherent and in-built delay in information exchange. In this situation there is always a phase difference between demand (non-availability) and supply.

Other than the phase-difference, the order-fill rates at the vendor’s end can also be poor due to supply constraints. The quantity available in stock for a certain product at a regional or state level can frequently be lower than the requirement, and in such cases the manager, or the distributor, can end up allocating the available stocks.

These causes can lead to availability that is as low as 60-65% on average, even among the popular products. “Good” vendors can have supply rates of 85-90%, but even in these there is a high variance.

However, the interesting thing is that a very high proportion of stock-outs (around 75% according to the 2006 IGD study) can be attributed to problems within the individual store. These include poor in-store disciplines, lack of awareness of the impact of low availability, too much work for the sales associates or the lack of motivation.

(For instance, 35% of sales executives in British study did not plan to pursue retail selling as a long-term career. In a study carried out by Third Eyesight a few months ago, with retail was being seen as a “growth industry”, that figure in India was about 55% and was closely correlated with the frontline attrition rates being witnessed by Indian retailers.)

One of the critical factors in how on-shelf availability is handled is the very different perception various people have of its importance. The store manager or a sales executive may directly correlate lack of availability with lost sales (and lost incentives), while a category merchant may not find it as critical since he or she may be able to balance the margins through the mix of product and the aggregation of sales across stores. The first critical element to be fixed is to have a common view on the importance of availability communicated across the retail organisation.

The second important element is highlighting the visibility of stock within the store – isn’t it surprising that despite the small size of back-office space, how stock that is showing “on the system” can be so invisible?! The product may be stacked in inaccessible boxes, or may have just been kept in the wrong location.

On busy days and during busy hours, merchandise can arrive at the store and simply “disappear” off the radar for a few hours, since the staff may not have had the time to take the stock into the store’s inventory. It sits in the shipping boxes waiting for stock intake, which may well happen after the peak selling hours have passed.

Sometimes the availability issue comes up because the product is very popular, and it becomes virtually impossible to maintain a high availability during the critical selling windows – a typical example may be health and beauty products or popular snacks, where the aggregate availability may be high during the week, but abysmally low during the peaks. A key feature of these categories is also the large number of SKUs, which can be cause for substitutions in the supply chain, and therefore poor availability of a particular SKU.
On the other hand, fresh produce and dairy may show poor availability if daily reports are configured for end-of-day rather than beginning-of-day stock-checks, since fresh vegetables, fruit, fish and dairy may actually be taken into the store during the early hours in the morning.

Many people believe that the best way to tackle these issues is through information technology.

However, IT is only a tool that can enable a business if the processes are robust and people are attuned to a common objective.

The correct sequence, as for many other aspects of business, is to tackle the people issue first. Awareness and common understand can only happen through consistent communication and widespread training. (The 2007 study by IGD (UK) on this issue highlighted the fact that 61% of the sales associates had not received any formal training, while 23% had no communication about on-shelf availability.)

This communication needs to be not just within the organisation, but across the retailer and vendor relationship. This process is, unfortunately, not enabled by the very tactical and adversarial nature of the buyer-supplier relationship. Retail buyers don’t easily share point-of-sale information with vendors due to a variety of real and perceived barriers – confidentiality, power-issues, competitive pressures.

Fortunately, although it is still early days, chain-stores and vendors in India are already beginning to work together. Very often the exercise is actually being led by the larger, multi-national vendors who have been exposed to the concepts of Efficient Consumer Response (ECR) and Collaborative Planning, Forecasting & Replenishment (CPFR) – concepts that have been around for about 15 years.

However, these frameworks require a significant amount of joint business planning as well as point-of-sale visibility being provided to the vendor, and both of those aspects are still weak in the Indian modern retail ecosystem. Such degree of high transparency will only come in with further maturation of the retail businesses and the vendor relationships. Some of the modern retailers are already able to see consistent availability of over 90% through these efforts, and as word spreads, hopefully so will the practice.

Creating a culture of transparency and communicating the desired levels of availability is the foundation on which robust processes can be built for checking and reporting availability, which then can be enabled through technology. The correct sequence, therefore, is People-Process-Technology, and not the other way round.

In closing, let me show the other side of the coin (after all, this column is titled “Devil’s Advocate”!). The additional sales from better availability are very seductive, and can be very profitable, but up to a point. After a certain level, the law of diminishing returns takes over as the cost of maintaining high availability exceeds the additional margin. Particularly in perishables the possibility of product expiry and spoilage is quite high. Of course, during festive occasions there may be no option but to ensure high availability of perishables such as gift packs of snacks and packaged foods, even at the risk of spoilage or expiry.

Having said that, on the whole, modern retailers in India and their vendors do need to focus on on-shelf availability as a key area for increasing the productivity of the existing stores. For many stores, there is significant room an increase in sales. With real estate and operating overheads remaining high, every extra rupee of sales squeezed out of the current square footage will contribute directly to the bottom-line, a fact that Indian retailers cannot ignore today.

Priority #1 – Store Productivity, Same-Store Growth

Devangshu Dutta

January 31, 2008

Dominos India
It’s quite amazing that “store productivity” doesn’t grab the attention of most people in the retail trade in India, despite the fact that real estate costs are riding an all-time high. It’s become quite typical for rentals to range 20-25% of sales, and in many cases even higher than that. (In those instances, a retailer could only hope to make money out of illegitimate activity or illegal merchandise, which is not part of the business plan of anyone I know!)

Many brands will (and possibly can) justify paying absurdly high rentals with the rationale that in the store portfolio, some locations will never make money, but are needed as marquee locations for “must-have” visibility. This can work if you do have a balanced store portfolio. The question is whether the low-rent locations actually have the capability to generate enough margin to support the unprofitable locations.

While some of the rentals are comparable to expensive real estate in the developed markets, gross margins in India are typically thinner than in Europe, USA etc., reducing the spread a retailer has for its operational expenses. Add to the mix over-estimation of consumer demand, and the scenario looks even gloomier.

In this context, to my mind, each store needs to be made as productive as it can be. There needs to be fairly sharp focus on store performance and category performance data.

However, in the last 18-months or so, conversations with Indian and international brands and retailers operating in the Indian market, showed that topline (sales) growth and new store openings were the focus for most retailers (even till a few weeks ago).  Most branded suppliers have also shown unprecedented sales growth on the back of new store openings – their own exclusive stores, as well as new sites being added by department store chains carrying their brand.

For instance, in March 2007, one (new) brand said that their business plan called for 50 stores by the end of 2007, and 100 by the end of 2008.

When sales growth can be achieved just by opening more new boxes (stores), productivity and efficiency don’t appear to be important.

I believe 2008 will see a change in management priorities. I don’t think the unnamed brand above will open its 100 stores. It is very likely that they will want their already opened stores to work harder.

Productivity is obviously linked to store operations (people, process, technology) – when the merchandise and the customer are both in the store, you need to make sure the two are matched quickly and effectively, and that there is a focus on conversion, average transaction values and efficient inventory management. But that is only one part of the story.

Support functions, such as marketing, supply chain, buying and merchandising have a huge role to play as well.

Category management, efficient and responsive supply chains, optimising store-footprint and catchment to ensure maximum walk-ins … these are some of the issues I believe top management needs to look at carefully in the coming 24 months.

If you are in a senior management position in a retail business, what are your priorities this year?