Tesco in India: Will every little help?

Devangshu Dutta

January 24, 2014

[This article appeared in the February 2014 print issue of Retailer, under the headline “Implications of the Tata-Tesco JV“]

India is a civilisation that has borne fruit from thousands of year of international cultural exchange, commerce and investment flowing both inwards and out. It is also one that has suffered from military and as well as economic colonisation over the millennia.

For those reasons, foreign investment into the country is bound to have both vociferous opponents as well as staunch supporters, and this debate is possibly most polarised in the retail sector that touches every Indian’s life daily. Over the last few decades, foreign investment into the retail sector has seen flip-flops from successive governments and political parties across the spectrum, being allowed until the late 1990s, then blocked (by Congress-led UPA), then selectively allowed (by BJP-led NDA, and later by Congress-led UPA). And more recently, with pressures, protests and influences from all sides 2011, 2012 and 2013 have certainly been on/off years during the UPA’s second successive term.

In this time Zara’s joint-venture, set up in 2010, has turned out be one of the most successful and profitable in India. More recently, Ikea announced a €1.5 billion plan for the country, followed by H&M’s US$ 115 million proposal, while Marks & Spencer identified India as its second largest potential market outside the UK. However in October 2013, the world’s largest retailer Wal-Mart decided to call off its joint venture amid investigations of its executives having supported or indulged in corruption and accusations that it had violated foreign investment norms. It decided to acquire Bharti’s stake in the cash-and-carry JV and announced that it would not invest in Bharti’s retail business.

It was soon after, as if to compensate for Wal-Mart’s blow, that India’s Tata Group and British retailer Tesco announced that they would be creating a formal joint venture in India, with Tesco investing US$ 110 million. The Congress-led government went on to quickly approve the proposal, as if to visibly shake off accusations of “policy paralysis”.

Tesco’s investment doesn’t look like much for a country the size of India, especially in the context of Ikea’s ambitious proposal or H&M’s fashion retail business that is possibly less complex than Tesco’s multi-product multi-brand format. However, let’s keep in mind that Tesco is facing tough trading conditions in Europe, took a global write-down of US$3.5 billion last year including its exit from the US market, and merged its Chinese business with retail giant China Resources Enterprise to become a minority partner. In view of all that and the unpredictability of Indian politics, US$ 110 million looks like a reasonable if not disruptive commitment. It also does somewhat limit the downside risk for Tesco if the environment turns FDI-unfriendly after the general elections.

Whenever Tesco expanded into new markets, it has tried to adopt a localised or partner-led approach. In India, since 2007, Tesco has had an arrangement to provide support to Tata’s food and general merchandise retail business. The intent underlying the partnership was clearly to look at a joint retail business when allowed by regulations and not just at back-end operations. The existing structure has provided Tesco with an opportunity to learn about the Indian market and operating environment first-hand while working closely with Tata’s retail team. Tata, in turn, has drawn upon Tesco considerable expertise of operating retail businesses in both developed and emerging markets. At the very least, the FDI inflow from Tesco will deepen this arrangement further, benefiting both partners further.

But there are the inevitable twists in the tale. While the Tesco proposal was in the works, the new Aam Aadmi Party formed a government in surprise victory in Delhi state and announced that it would not allow foreign owned retail businesses in the state of Delhi. This strikes off one of the most lucrative metropolitan markets from the geographic target list at least in the short term. (The central government has pushed back saying that while retail is a state-subject, the decision to allow FDI by the previous Congress government cannot be reversed at will by the current AAP government, but the debate goes on.) BJP-led and BJP ally-led state governments have also indicated their unwillingness to allow foreign retailers into their markets.

So should we even attempt to forecast what Tesco and Tata could do in this environment? I would rather not pre-empt and second-guess the future plans of business executives who are trying to read the intent of politicians who are focussed on elections 4 months in the future! However, whatever the plans, the retailers must comply with the regulations such as they are now and utilise the opportunities that exist. So it is likely that the following scenario will play out.

Tata and Tesco have said that the proposed joint-venture looks at “building on the existing portfolio of Star Bazaar stores in Maharashtra and Karnataka”. These are both states where Trent has multiple locations, so a certain critical mass is available. Since current government policy requires the investment to be directed at creating fresh capacity, new stores would also be opened in these states, though the expansion plans look modest, with 3-5 new stores every financial year.

But with the 50 percent investment in back-end also being a regulatory requirement, new procurement, processing and logistics infrastructure which could service stores within these states as well as in other states are is likely to be built. Tesco’s wholesale subsidiary currently supplies merchandise to Star Bazaar stores across states – this relationship is likely to continue as some of Tata’s stores are in states that are not within the FDI ambit. The product mix proposed includes vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, dairy products, tea, coffee, liquor, textiles, footwear, furniture, electronics, jewellery and books.

The norms earlier required FDI proposals to ensure that 30 per cent of product sourcing would be domestic, from small-midsized enterprises. However, in August 2013, the government relaxed this requirement to be applied only at the beginning of the joint-venture operations, and that this requirement would not include fruits and vegetables, an area where Tesco has focussed significant energy. So the immediate focus would be on meeting the domestic sourcing requirements in other categories, and creating a viable business model and scale through an appropriate product mix.

The partners are likely to continue working on improving the performance of the existing Star Bazaar stores which are 40,000-80,000 sq ft in size. However, Tata has also launched a new convenience store format, Star Daily sized at about 2,000 sq ft focussed on fresh foods, groceries and essential items. Retailers with foreign investment are now also permitted to open stores in cities with populations under one million from which they had been prohibited previously, so the new small format can provide significant expansion opportunities and more volume for the back-end operations to reach critical mass quicker.

Would there be a change of name on the store fascia? Unlikely, since Tesco has been operating stores under other brands as well in markets outside the UK and a “Tesco” name appearing on the fascia may not significantly change the consumer’s perception of the store. Other than in lifestyle categories or overtly brand-driven products (such as fashion), most Indian consumers focus on utility, quality, local relevance and price as significantly more important purchase drivers than an international name. In fact, a trusted Indian name like Tata carries as much weight or more weight in many categories than an international brand would. So the stores may carry a joint by-line, but the focus is likely to remain on the existing brand names.

And what of several other retailers who are interested in the Indian market? Will they draw inspiration from Tesco and take their plunge into the market, urged on by the outgoing government eager to demonstrate results during its final months?

Wal-Mart, for one, seems to have returned to the table, having set up a new subsidiary, perhaps preparing the ground for a retail launch with another partner. A European retailer, remaining nameless for now, is being mentioned as being the next proposal in the FDI pipeline.

However, it is likely that most will remain in the wait-and-watch mode until the outcome of the national elections is clear. The real issue is not the regulations themselves as much as the unpredictability of the regulatory environment. Policies are being made, turned around, and twisted over in the name of politics, without a clear thought given to the real impact on the country, the economy and the industry of either the original policy formulation or its reversal.

Until that dust settles down, we should expect no dramatic changes in the near term, no sudden rushes into the market. But then, we could be wrong – policy and politics have taken unexpected twists earlier, and could do so again!

Wal-Mart brakes, Indian JV hits the wall

Devangshu Dutta

October 9, 2013

[This article appeared in Daily News & Analysis (DNA) on 10 October 2013, under the headline “Without Wal-Mart, can Bharti play it alone?”]

A year ago, Wal-Mart had called Bharti its natural retail partner in India. But today the companies have jointly and publicly changed their relationship statuses to “single”, calling off the 6-year old marriage. Bharti will buy out or retire Wal-Mart’s debentures in the 200+ store Easyday retail business, while Wal-Mart in turn will acquire Bharti’s stake in the 20-outlet Bestprice cash-and-carry business.

By some estimates, the split was imminent for perhaps a year or longer, as the pressure rose for the two companies due to multiple factors. Several regulatory changes governing foreign investment in the Indian retail sector made it difficult for Wal-Mart to acquire a stake in the existing retail business that the two partners had set up. Anti-corruption investigations in Wal-Mart’s India business (in addition to Mexico, China and Brazil), as well as questions around the legality of US$ 100 million worth of quasi-equity compulsorily convertible debentures issued to Wal-Mart at a time FDI was not allowed in multi-brand retail businesses brought down even more external scrutiny upon the joint business. And finally, pressure against foreign investment in multi-brand retail of basic goods such as food and grocery, continued to exist not just amongst opposition parties but also parties within the ruling coalition and individuals in the government.

The split means that Wal-Mart can now overtly take complete ownership of the Bestprice business, and drive it as it sees fit. The fragmented retail market and the myriad small businesses in India do potentially provide a large customer base for the cash-and-carry business if Wal-Mart chooses to be more aggressive. However, that may not happen immediately. The business has been coasting for over a year without new openings that were already planned and significant personnel changes have happened from the seniormost levels down. Wal-Mart’s investigations of corruption allegations continue and before committing more resources it will definitely want to strengthen systems so as to not be in violation of Indian and US laws.

On the other hand, if it wishes to now enter the retail business, Wal-Mart would also have to look for a new Indian partner to set up new retail stores in a separate company. Retail is capital-hungry so Wal-Mart would need a cash-rich partner who can accept a junior position in the venture in which Wal-Mart would clearly be the driver financially, strategically and operationally.

At this time Wal-Mart seems to have decided to take a step back and evaluate what the Indian market means to it right now and in the future, what sort of investment – both in financial and management terms – it demands, and what returns the investment will bring. It remains to be seen whether it will choose to grow aggressively, coast up incrementally or, in fact, take the next exit out of the market as it has done in some other countries earlier.

And what of Bharti? Will it be able sustain the retail play without Wal-Mart’s close operational guidance and financial participation, or will it choose sell the Easyday operation to another domestic investor? On its part Bharti has stated an ongoing commitment to the business, and has also hired the former CEO of the joint venture, Raj Jain, as a Group Advisor. A 200-plus store chain is sizeable and credible in India’s fragmented food and grocery market, and is seen by the group as “a strong platform to significantly grow the business”.

However, Bharti’s core telecom business is also capital-intensive and highly competitive, and it will be difficult at this time to sustain high-paced growth in another cash-hungry, thin-margin business such as grocery retail. For now the Group’s best bet would possibly be to consolidate operations, unearth more margin opportunities and take a call at a more opportune time whether to further invest in growth or to treat retail as a non-core business and exit it.

Creating a substantial, profitable retail business is a long-term play in any part of the world. In India, as retailers are discovering, it takes just that extra dose of patience.

FDI in Retail: More heat than light

Devangshu Dutta

November 25, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Less Could Be More

Devangshu Dutta

November 13, 2008

For all those who have admired the consistency and presentability of produce in western supermarkets, here’s proof that tough times really focus us on substance and force us to look beyond skin-deep beauty.

Even in fruits and vegetables.

British supermarket Sainsbury has challenged European Union guidelines that restrict the sales of fruits by certain physical standards. Sainsbury’s is questioning EU regulations that prevent selling “ugly” fruit and vegetables. Due to EU regulations such as size of cauliflower (minimum 11 cm diameter) and the shape of carrots (requirement that there should be a single root, not multiple), Sainsbury estimates that up to one-fifth of what is produced in British farms cannot be sold in the supermarket. According to Sainsbury’s estimate, not following these regulations can help to reduce prices by up to 40%, and reduce wastage by up to 20%. The retailer is also trying to drum up customer support by running an online poll (94% responses were in favour of Sainsbury’s move, at the time this column was being written).

So less beauty could mean more veggies in the supermarket, and more money in everyone’s pocket including, hopefully, the farmer.

And this may also vindicate anyone who has complained that the beautiful veggies and fruits in western supermarkets taste inferior to their “ugly” counterparts sold on Asian hand-carts. Give us more substance and less style, any day.

Let’s look at some other substantial issues that merchants should consider.

Remember “I can’t get no satisfaction”? That’s what Mick Jagger and his mates in the Rolling Stones hit the world in the face with in 1965, allegedly in response to the rampant commercialism they had seen in the US.

After 43 years – at least judging by the modern supermarket shelves – apparently we still ain’t getting no satisfaction. In fact, the array of choice tends towards “overload”.

A typical developed country supermarket is estimated to carry over 40,000 SKU’s. Can you think of 40,000 types of items (or even 10,000) that you would need from the supermarket for your home?

So here’s the result. During my travels, if I’m in a store that is unfamiliar I could spend over an hour wheeling a trolley around before reaching the checkout. The first 5-10 minutes are focussed on figuring out the aisles based on my list. The next 10 minutes are spent picking what is actually on my list. And the rest of the time before the checkout is usually spent browsing through the thousands of SKU’s and picking stuff that we never knew we needed when the family made the shopping list.

Now, the guys who run the supermarkets are generally a smart bunch – they’ve figured that the more options you put in front of consumers, the more they buy. My cash receipts are proof of that. But, as American professor and author Barry Schwartz (“The Paradox of Choice”) says, the point where the choice becomes counter-productive is already well-past in developed markets.

With such overwhelming choice, consumers get into analysis-paralysis. And even after they finally purchase something out of the enormous range, you get shades of post-purchase dissonance. Only, in this case the dissonance, the dissatisfaction is not related to a bad product, but: “What if there I had made another choice? What if there was a better product than this? What if there was something available for less?”

During these times, it is pertinent to also put this in the context of business costs. There is surely a cost of providing that humongous choice in supermarkets. Have we considered what the saving could be, if the variety was reduced, if the product range was consolidated?

Consider the time (and therefore cost) spent on product mix and pricing decisions – surely merchandising teams have to be larger if you have a larger product mix, since each person can only handle a finite workload. Consider the cost of logistics of handling a widely diversified range. Consider the efficiencies lost in diverse production mix. So, does the consumer really need, really even want all that choice?

Retailers like the German chain Aldi raise precisely those questions. Aldi sells about 1,100 SKUs compared to the usual 40,000. And it claims that the typical shopping basket in Aldi’s UK stores is 25% less than competing supermarkets.

Indian retailers, of course, are possibly yet to reach that pain threshold of choice. There are possibly some potentially useful choices that are still missing. But even here, it is well worth taking a hard look at the product offering. With availability levels that can dip as low as 50-60%, it is probably worth asking – what if we dropped XYZ product from our range? Would it really hurt our sales or even our image; or would it help us to focus better on the products that really matter?

If we took our attention away from building such false choices, could the business become more profitable and therefore more sustainable?

The US and European markets are often the source of many a management thought and business model related to consumer products and retail, and of “best practices”.

So, in closing, I should share this question someone asked me recently: “when do you think consumer spending will bounce back in the US?” My first response was, “If only I had a crystal ball”. But the next thought in my mind was what if US consumers actually came to a decision that they had “enough”? What if their excessive consumption was no longer the role model for consumers in emerging economies? What if, instead, the frugal consumers of India and China became the global role model?

What would your business model look like then? Would your corporate be more socially responsible? And would it have a better chance of lasting longer?

For those who are interested in taking this inquiry even further, I can recommend John Naish (“Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More”, 2008), John Lane, Satish Kumar, M. K. Gandhi, Alan Durning (“How Much is Enough?”), or any number of ancient Indian, Chinese, Greek or Roman schools of thought, many of them pigeonholed into “religious” or spiritual categories.

You might also like this video of a talk by Barry Schwartz on Ted.com (below).

Do please share the results of your inquiry with us, too.