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Retail Wasn’t Born Yesterday


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

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

Early Years

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

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

Fifty Years of Independence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Foreign Hand and Corporate Retailing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Showing on a Screen Near You

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retail’s Elves

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

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

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

Chicken or Egg?

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

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

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

The Rationale for Supporting SMEs

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

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

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

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

The Role of Modern Retail

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

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

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

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

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

Making Business Easier

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supply Base Consolidation: A Step Too Far?

For many decades from the early 1900s onwards, retailers followed a ‘trader’ or ‘merchant’ model, largely buying from those suppliers who could provide the best prices. Of course other parameters were considered as well, such as desirability of the product, but price was the major driver. It was also rare for retailers to go out to look for suppliers – suppliers normally turned up at the merchant’s doors to sell their wares.

There was little, if any, strategy to selecting the ‘supply base’. Retailers were much too busy building their presence in the market, opening new stores, acquiring new markets, growing their product offer; in short, concentrating on the business of selling to consumers. International trade existed, as it has since the dawn of history, but was led by traders. Retailers, by and large, followed the domestic sourcing route.

The retailer goes abroad

The 1950s were driven by the need to rebuild war-shattered economies through trade and economic cooperation. Bi-lateral, and later multi-lateral, trade agreements were brought into force. An awareness of other countries around the world was also brought into sharp focus through two successive world wars, particularly the second. Retailers began to explore supply bases outside their home countries, and from the 1960s to the 1990s this international trade grew by leaps and bounds. Naturally, as the pioneers went overseas, so did their competitors – it is very hard to compete profitably, when your rivals are buying comparable merchandise at much cheaper prices.

As a result, by the early 90s the supply base of any large retailer in the major consuming markets would take in more than 30-35 countries from which products might be sourced. And as the number of supply countries grew, so too did the number of suppliers. It would not be unusual for 500-1000 suppliers to be dealing with a single retailer.

Consolidation, conservation and conservatism

Retailers such as Wal-Mart in the USA, M&S in the UK, Carrefour in France and many others have had preferred suppliers who grew along with them. These suppliers were typically based in the home country of the retailer, and set up production units or sourcing organisations overseas from where they could supply goods to their customer at a competitive price. In some cases, their sourcing strategies were driven by their own analyses; in others the retailer led the way (such as M&S or Wal-Mart identifying the next preferred supply country).

In the 1990s a scientific sourcing principle began to be applied. It was good to cut down supplier numbers, since this reduced the management effort on the part of the buyer to constantly look for new suppliers and maintain current relationships. Terms such as ‘key’, ‘preferred’ or ‘strategic’ supplier came into vogue.

As an example, witness the dramatic supply base reduction undertaken by most large retailers in the UK. Some organisations even looked to supermarkets to understand and apply their supply base management principles, where product categories were dominated by, or completely split up between, less than four suppliers. In a few cases, it reached such extremes that one supplier virtually controlled a retailer’s entire product lines.

Some organisations even quantified the cost of moving into new supply countries in an attempt to understand whether it was worthwhile and how best to shape their sourcing strategy.

At the end of the 90s and into 2000, however, there seem to be rumblings among retailers about the need for some more diversity in their supply bases. Statements such as “we are uncomfortable with our overexposure to country X”, or “I wish I could manage to meet some more suppliers to get a feel for what is happening out there in the marketplace – otherwise our range ends up looking like everyone else’s”, or even, “sometimes we feel we miss out on innovative factories because we are so deeply bound with our existing supply base”, reflect the general consensus.

So, the question is, has supply base consolidation been taken too far?

Time for a new deal

The first step should be to acknowledge that the business of retailing needs a healthy balance between predictability and innovation. Predictability, as much as is possible in sourcing, could be represented by relationships with known and trusted suppliers. It would take a very strong individual, and a very large safety net, to work every season with large numbers of unknown, new suppliers. It would also require a lot of management time and effort to keep educating new suppliers about the business and its needs.

However, equally, it must be acknowledged that the fashion business is not like automobile or aircraft businesses where practically the entire market and supply base is known.

Nor is it as expensive to develop new products or product components. In the automotive industry new models cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop – and with such high stakes, buyers tend to select their suppliers carefully and, once the relationship is established, stick to the relationship for a fairly long period of time, with both parties investing resources in it for mutual long-term gain.

In the fashion industry, on the other hand, most product development investment does not exceed a few thousand dollars. This is well within the capability of not only the largest preferred suppliers of the large retailers, but most of the supply base around the world. Whether design-led or technology-led, new products and new looks are constantly being created. Similarly, innovative business practices that generate more responsive factories, improve quality or reduce costs, are not the sole domain of large, old and established companies.

The two critical areas that need to be addressed by any retailer are:

  1. A focus on cost/margin/profitability management: how can we make the management of sourcing more efficient in terms of effort and cost?
  2. An eye towards innovation and risk-management: how can we tap into new suppliers without expending too much effort in development only to find that the relationship does not work out?

There are many answers to these questions. One of them, which provides a structure or framework in which to work, is the link between product-type and sourcing strategy.

In this, as a first step, a buyer must make a mental division between ‘largely predictable’ products and ‘fashion’ products. Largely predictable products include not only basic or staple items, such as the three-pack of underwear or a $150 suit, but also seasonal items (such as swimwear) for which sales vary dramatically from summer to winter but follow a rhythmic pattern, with some variation, over the same season from year-to-year. For one company such predictable products might be 80 per cent of the business, while for another it might be no more than 20-40 per cent of the entire range.

For such products, supply base hopping is almost certainly the wrong strategy to follow. The sensible strategy would be to concentrate energy on developing relationships with certain key supply bases and suppliers who provide a long-term sustainability or constant improvement in terms of cost, quality and other performance parameters.

On the other hand, there are other products that follow the dictates of changing fashion moods more closely. For these products, putting a long-term commitment on any significant proportion of this segment to specific suppliers can be counter-productive. It can create a sense of security in the supplier, or even the buyer, possibly reduce the drive towards product and service innovation, and maybe even make the overall sourcing-supply relationship relatively inefficient over a period of time.

There is a sense of ‘supply dependence’ associated with supply consolidation, in comparison to the sense of ‘interdependence’ that comes from a flexible (even though not fully open) network of buyer and supplier relationships. A cosy ‘strategic’ relationship that assumes a two-way exclusivity also creates a relatively narrow channel of ideas and developments, and becomes largely process-driven at the cost of creativity. This is fine if you are selling the same product year-in, year-out; but certain suicide (or slow poison, at best) if you are in any part of the fashion market.

This is not to imply that strategic relationships can’t work in the ‘fashion’ arena. But make sure that in such a relationship the suppliers who are worried, nay paranoid, about their own survival. In the best organisations, uncertainty brings about creativity – pick a strategic supplier like that, and you’ve picked a winner!

Achieving the golden mean

Of course, a perfect balance between long-term strategic suppliers and new relationships is as elusive as the perfect business strategy. If one set of rules governed sourcing in the apparel and textile industries, the sector would have been consolidated around this many decades ago.

Previous experience is certainly a worthwhile guide to selecting suppliers and supply countries. But the competitiveness of supply bases is changing all the time, and suppliers are constantly developing new capabilities around the world. As someone once said, in business relying only on past experience is like driving a rally sports car blindfolded, while the navigator guides you looking through the rear windshield!

By using the tools to discover, build and maintain new relationships efficiently, most buyers should keep their doors open for new suppliers to walk in and display their capability. Closed doors mean closing the possibly to innovative products, significant margin improvement, and even new methods of doing business that might bring about tremendous improvements in ‘sourcing profitability’.

In a different context, a presentation at the National Retail Federation (NRF) seminar in the USA in 1999 by consultant Kurt Salmon Associates mentioned the potential need to move away from the ‘super-specialised’ and ‘super-analytical’ role of today’s retail buyer to bring in shades of the ‘merchant’ of the past.

The truth is that successful retailers have never really abandoned the merchant principle. This degree of freedom is essential to maintaining the healthy influx of new ideas that keep a retailer’s brand alive with the customer and keep it moving ahead in the market. During the selection process, smart buyers even look at the customer list of their suppliers with a conscious effort to imbibe product trends, technical knowledge and best practices from other companies in their own or other markets.

Managing diversification

The key factor that needs to be managed is the effort on the buyer’s part. If a buyer could manage more relationships with the same amount of time and effort, he would probably make more effective use of his own and his supplier’s capabilities to create a more dynamic product and service offer.

Two primary tools come to mind for creating and managing a more diversified supply base: collaboration and technology.

In ‘collaborating’ with the supplier, the idea is to see both buyer and supplier as part of the same demand-supply chain. In fact, take it right back to the supplier’s supplier. Understand that the processes run across organisations, rather than residing in any one – the buyer has as much responsibility and accountability in the sourcing process as the supplier. Information must be shared more transparently, and the overall sourcing process must be managed together, beginning from the product conceptualisation to final delivery. Brainstorming helps, ‘blame-storming’ doesn’t. This approach is as equally valid with a new supplier as with an old, trusted supplier. Good buyers already follow this approach, and it shows in their company’s market performance and financial results. And it does not even add lead-time; in fact, in many cases, it cuts down time.

Secondly, make use of emerging technologies. Don’t just depend on a company’s database or EDI systems. There are a number of tools available today which are relatively inexpensive and easy to use – from the basic supplier profiles available on the numerous marketplaces and exchanges around the world, to more advanced technologies that enable collaborative management of product development and sourcing process management.

There are even well developed systems that can act like virtual assistants, helping buyers and suppliers to keep track of order-specific tasks, and updating each other automatically of the status of these tasks. If you did not have to spend effort on fighting the fire caused by the task that you forgot yesterday, would you have a little more time available to speak to that new supplier whose profile you liked but just could not make the time to meet?

There is no quick fix, and each situation will be different. But I believe that for many buyers, the choices are becoming rather stark. Innovative or staid product? Market leadership, or complete loss of the pole position? Survival or decline? The choices that you make today have a habit of showing up in the profit and loss statements of tomorrow.

The Brave New (Old) World

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.

Vertical integration

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.