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The Oneness of Retail

Amazon Go; Source-Wikimedia (Brianc333a)

[Accompanying Image credit: Amazon Go; CC/Wikimedia Commons/Brianc333a)]

To many, retail seems to be having an identity crisis.

Closed storefronts on American and European streets and dead malls in India and China are blamed on the growth of online retail. At the same time, the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon, is opening physical stores and buying offline retail operations in the US and in India, while the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, is busy digesting India’s ecommerce market leader. Even India’s online fashion and lifestyle websites – among them Myntra, Firstcry, Yepme and Faballey – are acquiring offline brands or opening stores. Or both.

What in the world is going on?

The short answer: consumers want choice; and retailers have no choice.

For many, ecommerce still seems to have the “new car smell” after more than 20 years, the message pitched so desperately by the founders of and investors in ecommerce companies still echoing: that this “new kid” will make customers’ lives a quintillion times better and wipe out the competition. Two decades on, and hundreds of billions of dollars of investment later, online retail is estimated to be about 12% of the global market. Ecommerce is 10% of the US market, of which Amazon takes up about half. In India the figure is in the vicinity of 2%, with that share is virtually stitched up between Walmart-owned Flipkart Group and Amazon.

Clearly, consumers value offline retail stores, whether for convenience or as holistic brand ambassadors. You can’t take away the fact that retail for us is theatre, experience, social.

Over at physical retail businesses, managers have been terrified of “channel conflict”. Senior management have squeezed resources for online, even when return-on-capital was demonstrably better than a new store. Some have refused to publicise their own company’s website through in-store banners, fearing that the customers would get sucked away from the store. It has been strange to see this opportunity being passed up – if a customer is trusts you to walk into your physical store, why would you not want to connect with them at other points of time when they are not near your store?

As I’ve written earlier, retail is not and should not be divided between “old-world physical” and “upstart online”. Successful retailers and brands have always been able to integrate multiple channels and environments to reach their customers.

For instance, British fashion retailer Next has long used a combination of physical stores (of varying sizes) as well as mail order catalogue side-by-side, and then ecommerce as the digital medium grew. Another British retailer, Argos, took another angle and embedded a catalogue inside the physical store – first a paper catalogue, and then on-screen.

American designer Rebecca Minkoff has taken this unification further. Without the weight of legacy systems, the brand attempts to create a seamless experience for the customer, unifying the store, in-store digital interfaces such as smart dressing rooms, the website and the mobile.

No doubt, for older companies, integrating is tough; business systems and people are in disconnected silos, incentivised narrowly. Each channel needs different mindsets, capabilities, processes and systems, to ensure that the optimal customer experience appropriate for the interface, whether it is a store, mobile app, website or catalogue. But etailers opening physical stores have their own challenges, too, tackling the messy slowness of the physical world, where you can’t instantly switch the store layout after an A:B test. They now need to develop those very “old-world skills” and overheads that they thought they would never need.

Regardless of where they begin, retailers need to mould and blend their business models with proficiency across channels. In the evolving environment, any brand or retailer must aim to offer as seamless an experience to the customer as feasible, where the customer never feels disconnected from the brand.

Varying circumstances make customers choose different buying environments. At different times or on different days of the week, even the same person may choose to shop in entirely different ways. Successful retailers that outlast their competitors have used a variety of formats and channels to meet their customers, and will continue to do so.

To my mind, retailers have no choice but to see the retail business as one, even as it is fluid and evolving. A retailer’s only choice is to bend with the customer’s choice.

(Published in the Financial Express under the title “Uniting retail: Why online versus offline debate must end“)

Global QSRs Dissecting the Indian fast food pie

Global quick-service restaurant brands are expanding their footprint in the quickly evolving Indian market. But some are also falling by the wayside.

Here are some perspectives from the industry (ET Now telecast video – about 6 minutes):

Click here

Fan-tastic idea from Dyson

It’s curious how James Dyson consistently gets “more” (price) for “less” (components). First it was the bagless vaccum cleaner, now it is a bladeless fan. The retail price is currently pegged at £200, and the product is initially being targeted at the US and Japanese markets, which obviously have more people facing hotter temperatures for more weeks in the year than Dyson’s home country, the UK. Or perhaps a bigger market segment for the latest tech toys that perform well in addition to looking cool.

Branded the Dyson Air Multiplier, it is certainly a fan-tastic idea, and the uphill struggle should be significantly less than when he was trying to sell bagless vacuum cleaners. If anything there is now a “Dyson premium” available to him on the price.

However, in this case, the prices definitely need to be more accessible, or he’ll be facing clones within months. Fans are already a more acceptable reality in income poor countries, and the market significantly larger in those countries. At some lower price point the addressable market will be exponentially larger, and someone else will definitely tackle it. Patent or no patent.

Here’s a Youtube video of Dyson explaining how the fan works. Share your thoughts below, after you’ve watched the video.

Pack it yourself – refill when you buy

According to The Daily Telegraph, Asda has devised a system for customers to “buy fabric conditioner from a vending machine which pumps the liquid from a large vat in the stockroom directly into a pouch”. The project aims to cut packaging costs and help reduce prices for consumers. The scheme is partially funded by the UK government’s anti-landfill agency Wrap.

A lot of debate was generated on retailwire.com (“Do it yourself all over again”). A number of people who were underwhelmed by the whole concept and questioned the value, including labelling the initiative “anecdotal” and “one-off” with “limited appeal”.

I feel somewhat differently. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a step. A plastic-free landscape begins with a refill. I understand the cynicism expressed, but don’t want to give in to it.

Yes, changing habits is difficult. But, hard as it is to believe, there was a time when families didn’t have kilos of daily garbage. Consumer goods companies, retailers, marketers changed that. And they achieved the change through sustained and dedicated effort over a several decades, until waste became the “cheapest” and easiest choice.

I think it’s time to reverse the thrust on that flywheel.

(Click here to read the Telegraph article.)

Growing Plants, Children and Brands

Bernice Hurst, Contributing Editor, RetailWire mentioned the “Let Children Grow” campaign in the UK jointly promoted by The Independent on Sunday newspaper and the highly respected gardening charity, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). Launched in 2007, the RHS Campaign for School Gardening, sponsored by the food and grocery retailer Waitrose, is a nationwide scheme designed to encourage schools to create gardens and teach children the skills of growing plants.

It is described as “an ambitious initiative to encourage the nation’s children to grow their own fruit and vegetables”. The programme targets deprived areas, particularly those with combinations of poor health, low income and levels of aspiration. By working with young people, the idea is to improve their health while teaching them what to eat and where food comes from. RHS research suggests it can “help improve academic achievement, behavior and confidence among pupils”.

According to the Independent on Sunday, most of the children “are learning for the first time about gardening, and with it the enjoyment of fresh air, appreciation of the environment, healthy eating and in turn the prospect of a longer life.”

Bernice Hurst asks, “Can/should retailers encourage and sponsor such education programs to inspire consumer loyalty?”

As far as I can tell, if there is a country in love with its gardens, it is the UK, so this should be a hit with the parents and the teachers.

Pre-teens certainly don’t mind getting dirt under their fingernails, so it should appeal to them as well.

Whether this has any tangible impact on Waitrose’s image and business remains to be seen but, then, some things should simply be done because they are the right thing to do.

The RetailWire discussion is here:  Looking at Literal as Well as Figurative Growth, and the Independent article is here: Digging for victory: Schools back gardens plan.

Exuberance and Despair

In the last few months, I’ve interacted with retailers and their suppliers from a number of countries in North America, Europe and Asia and, except for a handful, the conversations have not been happy.

In November-December companies in France, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom were dealing with a season where there was as much red on the P&L statements as in the Christmas shop windows. In January 2009, the National Retail Federation’s annual convention in New York had participation that was somewhat thinner than in past years, but the gloom in the atmosphere was thick enough to slow everyone down.

On the other side, the factory of the world, China, had been battered by a Year of the Rat that brought increasing costs, erratic power supplies, slowdown in orders, safety concerns and product recalls. All of this culminated in reports of factory closures and migrant workers at railway stations on their way home for the Chinese New Year holiday carrying not just clothing, but all their possessions including fridges and TVs. The resultant unemployment figures expected currently range from 20 million to 40 million people.

The Indian retail sector, of course, has had its share of pain. In an idle conversation on a sunny December afternoon, a real estate broker in Ludhiana had a pithy description for one of the retail chains: “Unhone apne haath khade kar diye hain. Bakee logon ne abhi tak toh haath neeche rakhe huey hain – unke bhi upar ho jayenge.” (“They have thrown their hands up in despair. The rest still have their “hands down” – but they’ll also give up eventually.”)

On the one hand you have the gloom-seekers. In the eyes of some of these people, the retail boom is over. In the eyes of others, the retail boom was all hype anyway, a big bubble of artificial expectations.

On the other hand, you have other people asking some uncomfortable questions: here’s a country that apparently has the largest population of under-25s, where millions of new jobs have been created and incomes have been growing. How can retail businesses be showing a decline in their top-lines?

I don’t think anyone has all the answers, but I can offer at least one speculation, borrowing from the title of a book that came out some years ago, named “Irrational Exuberance”. Robert Shiller’s first edition was related to the dot-com stock bubble, and his 2005 edition added an analysis on housing bubble that was developing at the time. He had, in turn, borrowed the term from the US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan who in December 1996 had said in a speech: “…how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions…?”

We now seem to be in such an unexpected (but was it really unexpected?) and prolonged contraction. Of course, consumers are feeling more cautious about spending, even if their actual income has not been affected (just as it wasn’t affected when they were feeling suddenly wealthy 12-18 months ago). Obviously, stores that should not have been opened will now get closed, or excessively large stores will be reduced in size. Companies that are over-stretched may collapse completely.

But I would label the mood prevailing now “irrational despair” as far as a consumer market such as India is concerned. From a position of over-optimism, the pendulum seems to be swinging to the other extreme of utmost misery, dejection and complete pessimism, and I think that is a swing too far.

I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of the factors that make India a market for sustained consumer growth. The country looks likely to have a large under-25 profile well into the next several decades. These young people will grow older and get into jobs. They will get married and therefore expand the number of consuming households. If the policy-makers don’t really mess up, real incomes should go up. Infrastructure projects should largely remain on track, regardless of the political party or parties in power, facilitating industry, trade and wealth distribution.

So the time is right for business plans that have sound fundamental assumptions – or as the cement ad says: “andar sey solid” (solid from within).

I’d like to repeat issues that I have highlighted earlier as top priority for retailers and consumer products companies in India. These are as follows:

  1. Realistic demand estimation: Let’s work with realistic sales expectations, and not expect all consumption to multiply like cellphones have in the last few years.
  2. Productivity Analysis: As a retailer (especially in food and grocery), margins are thin. Except for marquee locations there is no excuse for continuous losses. Store productivity depends on merchandise availability, staff capabilities and store operations, customer traffic and a host of other factors, and you need to know what’s working and what isn’t.
  3. Moderated growth: Many retailers in India have had tremendous growth in scale without growth in sophistication in processes or people. Some have been driven by motivation to capture market share, others driven by their investors who want an exit, and a few might have been driven by ego. I’m not asking anyone to grow slower that they want to, or slower than they should. However, I would say: do look at Intel. A manufacturing company that makes its own products obsolete in an industry where rapid change has been the norm for the last 40 years. Intel alternates changes in its production and supply chain processes, and products – it doesn’t change everything at once.
  4. People: A leader of the industry pointed out a few months ago that there is no shortage of people in India. But the race to the top of the heap (or as it seems now, the bottom of the loss-making pile) has created artificial scarcity of talent. One benefit of the downturn is that artificially inflated compensations for people jumping on the “retail boom bandwagon” will disappear (at least for now). If we can use the experience of people who have been in modern retail trade in India for decades, and train others who are fresh but committed, it will provide a more solid and lasting impact for businesses.

A number of companies worldwide that we know as market leaders and businesses to be emulated found their feet in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s. That should give some hope to entrepreneurs and professionals.

However, does that mean that only bad companies or unprofessional managements will fail in the current downturn? Certainly not. Does it also mean that all good companies or competent entrepreneurs will succeed? Again, the answer is, no.

Some bad companies will manage to ride through this trough, while some really deserving people will run out of cash, ideas and opportunities. Life and “natural selection” processes are not fair.

But, by and large, if we can get our heads down and focus on getting the right people together, making money to get through and having something left over to invest in the future of the business, we would have more chances of succeeding than by over-stretching, or by swinging to the other extreme and being totally defensive.

I won’t even attempt to predict how long the current downturn will last. The Great Depression lasted a whole decade, was “walled” by the Second World War, and the first blooms of real recovery only appeared in the early-1950s, or about twenty years from the first downturn. Other recessions have been shorter. In 2000, after the dot-com bust car bumper stickers in the US quoted a political satirist, saying, “I want to be irrationally exuberant again.” Within a few short years, many people were showing those very signs.

We can be pretty sure that such a time will come again. But I’m also quite sure that durable companies are unlikely to be built on bursts of such exuberance.

Retailers vs Brands

In early-June Big Bazaar (part of Future Group) was reported to have broken off its relationship with Cadbury’s. About 2-3 weeks later the two were reportedly back together. The alleged differences and the apparent solutions have been reported widely, as also the feeling that some issues remain unresolved.

If that reads like something you would find in a celebrity tabloid, you’re probably right. The relationship between brands and large retailers is truly one of the “love-hate” kind. And this case is no different from many other such relationships in various markets around the world. In fact, the Future Group itself is reported to have had similar run-ins with PepsiCo’s FritoLay and GlaxoSmithKline in the past.

I won’t dwell on the various allegations and clarifications about commercial structures and differential pricing in this particular case, since the view from outside isn’t really clear. But it is certainly worth noting that this case is not unique, and thinking about what the future (no pun intended) might hold for brands in markets such as India.

There is no doubt that brands love the scale that large retailers provide them, with the quick access to a large footprint in the market, and the high visibility. On the other hand, as a vendor, they hate the negotiating edge that this scale gives the large retailer. Brand generally rule fragmented retail environments such as India. Large retailers, on the other hand, squeeze out more margins in the form of bulk discounts, placement fees and the like. There’s more: special promotions, differential merchandising and delivery needs…the list of demands seems endless.

On the other side, retailers love brands for the footfall they bring. The brand typically creates a “need to buy” on the consumer’s part, and invests in creating a distinctive proposition which is valuable in a cluttered market. In many cases the brand would have also advertised where it is available. This is all good stuff for the retailer, who then essentially has to make sure that the brand is available and visible in-store to the customer to convert the walk-ins into sales. However, what retailers don’t like is the fact that brands will generally charge a premium of 10-50% over a comparable generic product. In some cases the premium may be so high that the brand product’s price itself is multiples of a generic product’s price.

The retailer-brand partnership is a very powerful one, even from early days. Many consumer brands and branded companies have scaled up significantly with the growth of their retail customers. The US market due to its sheer size and its evolution offers numerous examples including companies such as Levi Strauss, Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and Proctor & Gamble that grew on the back of discounters such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart as well as retailers such as JC Penney, Macy’s and Sears. Similar examples appear from other countries where the modernisation and consolidation of retail have happened over decades along with economic development.

An established brand provides the new retailer credibility, even as the retailer provides the brand new shelf-space. Or the other way around: even a new brand provides value to an established retailer by identifying the market need, developing the product, managing sourcing & production, and establishing the consumer’s interest in the product, while it is the established retailer who provides the much-needed credibility and presence to the new brand.

For most, this remained a happy relationship for a long time even as the retail environment grew and evolved. Retailers focussed on creating shelf-space and managing it, while the brands focussed on creating products and desirability.

However, economic shocks various times and the rise of low-cost imports raised questions in retailers’ minds about the value added by the brand compared to the margin they supposedly made on the higher prices. At the same time, better communication and travel infrastructure as well as falling costs made it easier for retailers to consider approaching factories directly.

Enter private label, the “other” in the love-hate triangle.

Over the last couple of decades, department stores, hypermarkets, grocery stores and even discounters have worked seriously on private label.  The opening premise was that you could entice the customer with a lower price (sharing some of the margin earned by direct sourcing), and as long as you gave a comparable product the consumer was happy. Many Indian retailers followed a similar route when they began exploring private label.

The strategy has had a varied degree of success, much of it to do with how the private label has been handled (indifferently in most cases). Recognising this flaw, many retailers around the world have attempted to improve their handling of their private label product development and also presenting it also in a manner (including advertising) similar to a national or an international brand. Some of these retailers’ own labels are now serious brands in their own right even though they are restricted to only one retail chain.

The difference between a “label” and a “brand” is the inherent promise that a brand has built into the name, the repeated experience that the customer has had with the brand that reinforces this promise, and the relationship that develops between the consumer and the brand. All of this requires structuring, nurturing and careful management, and it costs time, effort and money. When the economy and individual incomes are growing, consumers are willing to shell out a little extra for a brand and all that it stands for.

However, brands get into trouble if income and spending perceptions turn downwards, and comparable products are available. The 10+ per cent premium between branded and generic begins to look like an important saving to the customer.  Or conversely, due to the growing market more suppliers for the same product appear that the retailer can use as a foil to the branded market leader. With falling import barriers, more diverse contract manufacturing becomes available for sourcing private label merchandise. The scenario becomes particularly grim if the relationship between the brand and the consumer is not old enough to have become lasting – in this case, replacement of the brand with an alternative or a retailer’s own label is truly feasible.

The Indian market, at this time, shows all of the above ingredients. Inflation is making consumers reconsider how and where they spend their money.  The growth of the market over the last few years has attracted several companies with alternative products and brands e.g. ITC as a challenger to biscuit-cookie major Britannia as well as to Pepsi’s potato chip brand Lays. Retailers such as the Future Group, Shopper’s Stop and Reliance have actively incorporated imports into their sourcing strategy. In many cases, the brands that most want to be on the modern retailer’s shelves are new to the market, and don’t yet have a strong imprint on the consumer’s mind.

However, at the same time, retailers themselves are still developing the systems and disciplines to manage their relatively new businesses. They are more than fully occupied with rising real estate costs, and managing the front end. If a brand can handle the product and supply side for a reasonable margin, they are more than happy to ride with the brand.

There is place for the branded suppliers in the market, and for them even to lead the market. Even as retailers grow, branded suppliers won’t lie down or die quietly. Many of them (such as Hindustan Unilever) are also actively engaging with smaller retailers, to help them improve their business processes and competitiveness. On the other hand, they are also reconciled to the inevitable growth of modern retailers, and are developing “key account management” functions, parallel distribution processes etc. to cater to the large retailers differently from the rest of the market.

So will brands survive, or will it be the retailer with the muscle of the storefront relegate them to a small portion of the market?

As long as the competitive pressures and economic cycles remain, the relationship between retailers and their branded suppliers will inherently be a tug-of-war for margin.

In either case, whether individual brands or retailers win or lose in the short term, the consumer will hopefully be a beneficiary in terms of better product, more variety and some sanity in terms of prices.

The Non-Globalization of Retail

In a blog-post a few days ago, I’d expressed my long-held view that retail is not an easily globalized business. (Retail models are not global, and global certainly not inevitable)

Local nuances have a big part to play in the success of a retail business – they could be related to the customer, products, packaging, pricing, customer service norms, government regulation, or anything else from the hundreds of local flavours that retail success hinges on.

An example that I often use is that of Asda in the UK.

When Wal-Mart bought Asda back in the late-1990s, there were cries of doom and gloom, calls for government protection, etc. etc.  However, the reality was that Tesco clearly emerged as the leader, other UK retailers remained strong, even though Asda gained in stature and market share. Wal-Mart’s takeover of Asda may have pushed its competitors to rethink their business strategies and become more competitive. In the UK market, it’s Tesco that is seen as the 800-lb gorilla, not Wal-Mart.  While Asda is a smart retailer (to the extent that possibly even the parent company, Wal-Mart, has learned from it), it does not have the same advantages that Wal-Mart enjoys in the US.

And now comes this news item in the UK newspaper – The Telegraph. Provocatively titled, “Could Asda be kicked out of Wal-Mart?”, it talks about how Wal-Mart considered a partial or complete exit from Asda.

Wal-Mart, like many other retailers who expand internationally, have found that what works at home doesn’t always work overseas – among Wal-Mart’s burdens are Germany (exited) and Japan (underperforming). It is probably too early to tell whether Wal-Mart will achieve its objectives in China, and the Indian business is still to open its doors.

At this time, neither Wal-Mart nor Asda will give credence to the report, for obvious reasons. But the fact is that, like all smart management teams, Wal-Mart’s management evaluates its markets on an ongoing basis, and it has not let historical reasons or sentiments keep it from exiting underperforming subsidiaries (e.g. Germany).

Differences not just in the customers and the market conditions, but even different management styles among countries can throw a retailer’s global ambitions off the planned trajectory.

And these differences keep many a retailer from venturing out of their home market at all. 

Its a “big, bad world out there”, and sometimes it’s good to be just home! 😉

The Politics of Organized Retail

Recently there was some discussion online about the so-called “politics of organized retailing” in India (on Retailwire).

I believe these are no different from the politics of anything else. There are interest-groups and pressure-groups with different objectives, who pull-and-push economic and regulatory policy with varying degrees of success. In that, India is no different from any other country, whether the US or China.

After China began opening up its economy in 1979, it took more than a decade for it to begin allowing foreign retailers to enter the market, and it was not before domestic retailers were given time to scale up.

Even in the US of current times, there are places where the community would be up in arms at the slightest whiff of a Wal-Mart store proposal.

Even in the UK, the Competition Commission is preparing a report on how retail consolidation is affecting the sector and the consumer.

So the answer to the question about “the politics of organized retail” is: yes, there is politics involved, and if you are an interested party then there is no option but to be part of the politics.

While on the issue about opportunities in the Indian market, I’m reminded of a couple of conversations, one with a client and another with an associate, who compared the Indian market to the US and the UK, respectively, in the 1970s.

My response to them, and to the question above, is: yes, there is tremendous opportunity in India now, as there was in those markets in the 1970s. Yes, in parts the market, the distribution structure etc. may remind you of the US and the UK in the 1970s. But to assume that it will play out the same way would be dangerous.

There are many other cultural, economic and social factors, apart from the infrastructure, to take into account.

My advice to international brands and retailers is as always: approach India as India in the 2008, don’t approach it as the US in the 1970s. Or as China, Brazil or Mexico.

Some pointers that may be interesting: “Slicing the Market” and other articles available elsewhere on the Third Eyesight website.

Retail models are not global, and global certainly not inevitable

Many pundits have passed judgement on the inevitability of ‘organised retail’. Yet, around the world, independents continue to thrive.

One may think that at least in difficult economic phases – such as the one facing economies around the world right now – large retailers are better equipped to survive. Yet, often it is the flexibility of the owner-driven small business that rides out the trough. Service levels and personalisation – that are increasingly critical in an impersonal world – are often far better delivered by a small retailer. [See “Playing with the Big Boys”]

And when it comes to business across borders, I can’t think of any retailer that is truly global. Most retailers that have successfully run international businesses in multiple countries (Carrefour, increasingly Tesco and others) have had to localise significantly – often sacrificing scale to achieve localisation.

A well-written article by Paul Chapman in Mint (February 18, 2007) raises some of these points using India as an illustration. Worth a read: The Rocky Route to Modern Retail.