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Retail in Critical Care – The Impact of COVID-2019

Oil shocks, financial market crashes, localised wars and even medical emergencies like SARS pale when compared to the speed and the scale of the mayhem created by SARS-CoV-2. In recent decades the world has become far more interconnected through travel and trade, so the viral disease – medical and economic – now spreads faster than ever. Airlines carrying business and leisure-travellers have also quickly carried the virus. Businesses benefitting from lower costs and global scale are today infected deeply due to the concentration of manufacturing and trade.

A common defensive action worldwide is the lock-down of cities to slow community transmission (something that, ironically, the World Health Organization was denying as late as mid-January). The Indian government implemented a full-scale 3-week national lockdown from March 25. The suddenness of this decision took most businesses by surprise, but quick action to ensure physical distancing was critical.

Clearly consumer businesses are hit hard. If we stay home, many “needs” disappear; among them entertainment, eating out, and buying products related to socializing. Even grocery shopping drops; when you’re not strolling through the supermarket, the attention is focussed on “needs”, not “wants”. A travel ban means no sales at airport and railway kiosks, but also no commute to the airport and station which, in turn means that the businesses that support taxi drivers’ daily needs are hit.

Responses vary, but cash is king! US retailers have wrangled aid and tax breaks of potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, as part of a US$2 trillion stimulus. A British retailer is filing for administration to avoid threats of legal action, and has asked landlords for a 5-month retail holiday. Several western apparel retailers are cancelling orders, even with plaintive appeals from supplier countries such as Bangladesh and India. In India, large corporate retailers are negotiating rental waivers for the lockdown period or longer. Many retailers are bloated with excess inventory and, with lost weeks of sales, have started cancelling orders with their suppliers citing “force majeure”. Marketing spends have been hit. (As an aside, will “viral marketing” ever be the same?)

On the upside are interesting collaborations and shifts emerging. In the USA, Jo-Ann Stores is supplying fabric and materials to be made up into masks and hospital gowns at retailer Nieman Marcus’ alteration facilities. LVMH is converting its French cosmetics factories into hand sanitizer production units for hospitals, and American distilleries are giving away their alcohol-based solutions. In India, hospitality groups are providing quarantine facilities at their empty hotels. Zomato and Swiggy are partnering to deliver orders booked by both online and offline retailers, who are also partnering between themselves, in an unprecedented wave of coopetition. Ecommerce and home delivery models are getting a totally unexpected boost due to quarantine conditions.

Life-after-lockdown won’t go back to “normal”. People will remain concerned about physical exposure and are unlikely to want to spend long periods of time in crowds, so entertainment venues and restaurants will suffer for several weeks or months even after restrictions are lifted, as will malls and large-format stores where families can spend long periods of time.

The second major concern will be income-insecurity for a large portion of the consuming population. The frequency and value of discretionary purchases – offline and online – will remain subdued for months including entertainment, eating-out and ordering-in, fashion, home and lifestyle products, electronics and durables.

The saving grace is that for a large portion of India, the Dusshera-Deepavali season and weddings provide a huge boost, and that could still float some boats in the second half of this year. Health and wellness related products and services would also benefit, at least in the short term. So 2020 may not be a complete washout.

So, what now?

Retailers and suppliers both need to start seriously questioning whether they are valuable to their customer or a replaceable commodity, and crystallise the value proposition: what is it that the customer values, and why? Business expansion, rationalised in 2009-10, had also started going haywire recently. It is again time to focus on product line viability and store productivity, and be clear-minded about the units to be retained.

Someone once said, never let a good crisis be wasted.

This is a historical turning point. It should be a time of reflection, reinvention, rejuvenation. It would be a shame if we fail to use it to create new life-patterns, social constructs, business models and economic paradigms.

(This article was published in the Financial Express under the headline “As Consumer businesses take a hard hit, time for retailers to reflect and reinvent”

Hyperlocals, Aggregators: Developing the Ecosystem

Aggregator models and hyperlocal delivery, in theory, have some significant advantages over existing business models.

Unlike an inventory-based model, aggregation is asset-light, allowing rapid building of critical mass. A start-up can tap into existing infrastructure, as a bridge between existing retailers and the consumer. By tapping into fleeting consumption opportunities, the aggregator can actually drive new demand to the retailer in the short term.

A hyperlocal delivery business can concentrate on understanding the nuances of a customer group in a small geographic area and spend its management and financial resources to develop a viable presence more intensively.

However, both business models are typically constrained for margins, especially in categories such as food and grocery. As volume builds up, it’s feasible for the aggregator to transition at least part if not the entire business to an inventory-based model for improved fulfilment and better margins. By doing so the aggregator would, therefore, transition itself to being the retailer.

Customer acquisition has become very expensive over the last couple of years, with marketplaces and online retailers having driven up advertising costs – on top of that, customer stickiness is very low, which means that the platform has to spend similar amounts of money to re-acquire a large chunk of customers for each transaction.

The aggregator model also needs intensive recruitment of supply-side relationships. A key metric for an aggregator’s success is the number of local merchants it can mobilise quickly. After the initial intensive recruitment the merchants need to be equipped to use the platform optimally and also need to be able to handle the demand generated.

Most importantly, the acquisitions on both sides – merchants and customers – need to move in step as they are mutually-reinforcing. If done well, this can provide a higher stickiness with the consumer, which is a significant success outcome.

For all the attention paid to the entry and expansion of multinational retailers and nationwide ecommerce growth, retail remains predominantly a local activity. The differences among customers based on where they live or are located currently and the immediacy of their needs continue to drive diversity of shopping habits and the unpredictability of demand. Services and information based products may be delivered remotely, but with physical products local retailers do still have a better chance of servicing the consumer.

What has been missing on the part of local vendors is the ability to use web technologies to provide access to their customers at a time and in a way that is convenient for the customers. Also, importantly, their visibility and the ability to attract customer footfall has been negatively affected by ecommerce in the last 2 years. With penetration of mobile internet across a variety of income segments, conditions are today far more conducive for highly localised and aggregation-oriented services. So a hyperlocal platform that focusses on creating better visibility for small businesses, and connecting them with customers who have a need for their products and services, is an opportunity that is begging to be addressed.

It is likely that each locality will end up having two strong players: a market leader and a follower. For a hyperlocal to fit into either role, it is critical to rapidly create viability in each location it targets, and – in order to build overall scale and continued attractiveness for investors – quickly move on to replicate the model in another location, and then another. They can become potential acquisition targets for larger ecommerce companies, which could acquire to not only take out potential competition but also to imbibe the learnings and capabilities needed to deal with demand microcosms.

High stake bets are being placed on this table – and some being lost with business closures – but the game is far from being played out yet.

Talking about a revolution

(This piece appeared in ‘The Strategist’ supplement of the Business Standard newspaper, on 2 July 2012.)

Modern retail is equated with a more structured and systematised organisation, hence the term “organised retail”. This term is weighted with expectations of greater capability, better competitiveness and greater benefits for industry and society. However, if we take organised to mean better for the consumer then, often, our age-old corner shop and the local cloth-merchant-turned-fashion-retailer appear more organised and better at delivering more relevant products to us at lower prices with superior services than most of the new corporate chains.

Over the last two decades or so, there has been a steady transformation of the retail landscape and the consumer’s shopping attitudes. There are many more people with much more money in hand to spend at their discretion today than ever before. This has encouraged the growth of brands, Indian and international, as well as the emergence of modern retail chains and malls. The transformation is most visible in our largest cities, with some locations already having built a surplus of mall space. A generation is growing up in these cities that takes malls for granted, and that completely avoids the more traditional retail spaces.

There has certainly been a gold-rush, among companies, investors, real estate developers, even professionals looking to put the “next big thing” on their resumes. The true impact, however, is still very limited, very shallow for the country overall. In fact, in locations with high concentration of modern retail, the impact has even been negative in terms of poorly developed space, rising costs, and stressed infrastructure to the detriment of the local inhabitant.

The impact of this growth is little understood, much less guided or planned for the long term. There are loud voices both for and against corporatised modern retail, but there is very little balanced discussion. There are several laws binding or restricting retail activity, but very little policy enabling it, whether we look at modern retail or traditional, corporate or individual owner-driven stores.

Here are some major issues that we need to tackle, at the policy level and within retail businesses:

  • Regulatory frameworks: For the most part, our laws are obstructive rather than productive or directional. The multiplicity of authorities that a retail business must deal with doesn’t help either including various central ministries, state-level ministries, and myriad municipal departments, local utilities and other authorities.
  • Space and Infrastructure: Retail is mostly an afterthought, either as a small fraction of poorly developed space within an urban development, or as massive glitzy shopping malls that have no correlation to their surroundings. Either there is not enough good space, or too much without adequate support services. A retail centre needs to be a positive part of the local ecosystem in every way, rather than an unwanted cancerous growth.
  • Integration with the local economy: We all intuitively know that shopping is an intensely local and personal activity. Yet, in the race to gain efficiencies of scale, modern retail managers take national or international template-based approach. Decisions are made centrally, products shipped by distant suppliers and the labour force is also often drawn from outside. There is little local relevance left and hardly any contribution to generating healthy economic activity in the store’s vicinity.
  • Diversity of choice and competition: We need to think through how the economic balance of power is handled between retailers and their suppliers, to maintain healthy diversity for the sake of the consumer. The evolution of modern retail business models can shrink rather than increasing the consumer’s choice. Strategic sourcing, partnering and collaboration are buzzwords that drive increasingly narrow supply-development, and retail-side consolidation means fewer channels to the consumer. For wider impact across the economy a diverse and vibrant design, development and manufacturing base is needed that can effectively compete within itself and externally.

We need to drastically rethink the role of retail in our society if we want India’s urban centres to be healthier, dynamic and sustainable in every possible way. Retail is the one economic activity that touches the daily life of virtually everyone – modernising it is an imperative. Modern retail should not mean space more expensive than that in rich economies, for a handful of companies selling brands to an elite fraction of India’s population. We shouldn’t treat it as the exclusive party to which only large companies are invited, whether Indian or foreign. For a true movement from “unorganised” to “organised retail” we need to have brands and product offerings that meet the needs and budgets of the real Indian middle class and below, delivered in an affordable and inclusive way, in cities that thrive with retail at their heart as part of the social and economic infrastructure.

Perhaps we even need a National Mission to holistically think through how we can improve the quality of the entire retail ecosystem! This may is the only way to create a true retail revolution in India and use it as an engine for wider economic and social growth.

FDI in Retail: More heat than light

(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.

Are Your Deals Still in the Fridge?

If you’re like me, then at any given point of time you have a vague idea about what is in your refrigerator, but not quite. That must why we end up buying stuff that duplicates what is already in the fridge.

Here’s an example of what that translates into for me:

  • A second bottle of chilly sauce, when the first one is only half-way through
  • Three semi-consumed jars of jams and preserves, none of which look anywhere near finishing for the next couple of months
  • Three packs of juice because one came “free” with two others (and all open because the family does not coordinate its consumption of flavours!)

At other times, it is the semi-consumed half-loaf of bread that gets trashed half-way through its fossilization process. Or the new flavour of cheese spread, where the price offer may have been tastier than the spread itself.

I sure there will be at least some among you who would have similar stories. (I would be shattered if I’m told that I am the only one with these tales of inadvertent consumption!)

In the normal course, we would not call ourselves excessive consumers. For the most part, we believe we display rational shopping behaviour. We make our lists before leaving for the market and we generally know which shop or shops we want to stop in at. So, why do we end up doubling or trebling our purchases, when we aren’t actively “consuming” double or triple the amount of food?

Well, the lords of marketing spin have mapped their way into our minds. In a strategy that has been proven over centuries, we are offered things ‘free’ or at a significant discount. The very thought of getting something for free, or for less than what it is worth, is so seductive and irresistible.

(As an aside, just look at what has happened during the last few years in the real estate market and the stock market – everyone thought that they were getting a good deal because the stuff was “worth actually more” than the amount they were paying. Not!)

We believe we are being rational in buying the three packs of juice at the price of two – never mind the fact that juice wasn’t on the shopping list in the first place. The danglers and end-caps jump out and ambush us, as we walk through the aisles. The samplers entice in their small voices: “try me”.

You might say that the really traditional kiranawala is the customer’s greatest friend and also a barrier against uncontrolled consumption.

By keeping the merchandise behind the counter or in the back-room, he maintains a healthy distance between the addiction source and all us potential shopaholics. In fact, he goes beyond the call of duty, and even prevents us from stepping anywhere near the merchandise by delivering to our homes.

The enticing deals and offers that you can’t see won’t hurt you. You won’t call to get that new, exciting BOGO (buy one-get one) offer, because you don’t know that it’s there in the store.

Unless, of course, the sneaky brand with its accomplice – the advertising agency – sidesteps him, and puts out the temptation in your morning newspaper.

By now, surely, you’re wondering whose side I am on.

Well, as a consumer and a customer, I am only on one side – mine!

As someone who is intensively involved with the retail sector, I’m also on the side of the brands and the retailers.

And believe me, we are all actually sitting on the same side of the table.

The years in this decade, after the recovery from the minor blip of dot-com busts, have been like one mega party and most people have forgotten that parties seldom last forever. And the morning after the wild party can start with quite a headache.

Retailers and brands have recently acted as if there is no end to multiplier annual growth rates, and consumers have been only to happy to prove them right. Until now.

Currently, we are passing through a fairly serious global economic correction which started in 2007. But it has only really hit hard in the last couple of months, as the headlines have increasingly started talking about recessions and depressions. Naturally, there are some people who have really lost money, others may be looking at the possibility of lower income. But even those people who sustain their current incomes are “feeling poor”, just as they were “feeling wealthy” when the markets were booming.

Of course, superfluous or discretionary expenditure such as movies in multiplexes, eating out etc. are the first to get hit. But should grocery retailers rest easy – after all, people still have to eat, right?

And how about deals, and multi-buy discounts – isn’t this the scenario where “more for less” will be the strategy which will work?

Well, I don’t believe it is quite so cut-and-dried, or quite so simple. The grocery shopping lists will not only become tighter, but will also be more tightly adhered to. Anything that looks like it may be a wasteful expense will be unlikely.

Remember the deals in the fridge? What you are throwing away now starts looking like money being put into the trash.

Pardon the seemingly sexist remark, but men: your wives will not let you get away with driving your trolleys irresponsibly into aisles where you are not supposed to be!

So how should retailers and brands respond?

Well, a good starting point would be to understand what the real market is. Let us not infinitely extrapolate growth figures on a excel spreadsheet on the basis of the early-years of new businesses. Let us not extrapolate national demand numbers from the consumption patterns of select suburbs of Delhi and Mumbai.

When we have the numbers right, let’s look at the business fundamentals at those basic levels of consumption. Is there a viable business model?

Is the business full of productive resources, or are we overstaffed with “cheap Indian labour”?

Is your modern retail business or your food / FMCG brand really providing value to the Indian consumer? For instance, two very senior people from large retail companies were very vocal this last weekend in stating that the value provided by local business to the value-conscious consumer was grossly underestimated by the industry.

I believe that best filter for business plans is the filter of business sustainability. How sustainable is the business over the next few years? What is the real demand? What are the true cost structures, and can these be supported on an inflationary basis year-on-year, or will you be squeezing the vendors for more margin at every stage until the relationship goes into a death spiral?

Let’s look at macro-economics. Are you actively looking at generating and spreading wealth and income around, or is your focus only on stuffing that third pack of juice into the fridge for it to go stale? If your strategy is the latter one then, to my mind, that is neither a sustainable economic model nor a sustainable business.

There’s more about the current and developing economic scenario, “realistic retailing” and other such issues, elsewhere on the Third Eyesight website and blog, including a presentation made at the CII National Retail Summit in November 2006 (download or read as a PDF). (The article based on that presentation is here.)

I really look forward to your thoughts and would welcome a dialogue on how you believe retailers and brands should work through the next few years as we unravel the excesses of the recent past.

Freedom of Ownership

August is the month when India celebrates gaining its independence in 1947.

So it is quite apt to think about the implications the word “independent” has in the world of grocery retailing as well.

India’s food and grocery retail sector (as most of the other product sectors) is full of traditional “mom-and-pop” operations. Estimates of their share of the market vary from 97% to 99.5% of the total food and grocery sales – but it is given that “independent” retailers rule the roost, and the estimates vary only in the degree of predominance.

The word “independent” in this context differentiates an entrepreneur-run stand-alone operation from a chain store, and encompasses all the kiranawalas and corner shops – traditional, modernizing, as well as the best-of-breed. The business owner-manager of these operations is solely responsible for merchandising, buying, staffing & HR, finance and the rest of it. If he works well, he makes a decent living and helps others to make a living as well. If he doesn’t work well, others may still make a living but he will most likely just scrape by.

In many ways, of course, the word “independent” is related to “freedom”. The phrase “independent retailer” also conjures up a picture of overall economic freedom, of self-ownership of one’s business and economic destiny.

There is freedom from an externally imposed operating framework, freedom in selection of products, freedom in pricing, freedom to service local customers for the store in the most appropriate and locally-relevant way, freedom to manage the cash-flows as the owner-manager wishes to, and so on.

This picture obviously is based on the premise that the independence that is assumed is actually available, as it would be if the market remains hugely fragmented and the supply base also becomes fragmented with many suppliers and brands fighting out for their share of the pie.

Clearly, to anyone who is actually involved in the retail sector that is a huge assumption.

Yes, the supply base is certainly becoming more diverse than earlier as new brands get launched in the market and battle for shelf-space. These brands include not just start-ups or mid-sized companies, but also large companies who are well-equipped to deal with the large incumbents on their own terms. This is surely a good thing for the independent retailer, as it provides him more choice and makes his shelf-space more valuable.

However, there is a quantum difference in the sophistication in organisation, information availability and financial capability between a single-location independent retailer, and even a mid-sized branded supplier, and the balance of power is actually more fragile than it seems. As a supplier grows, it builds up a differentiated position and a distinctive branding and becomes less easily replaceable, while each independent retailer becomes more and more generic, and therefore replaceable. The major differentiating or sustaining factor for most such retailers is their physical location, whose desirability and marketability is not as much within their own control.

When you add large modern retailers into the mix, the economic freedom of the independent looks even more fragile.

Some observers would have us believe that in India modern retailers have little or no impact on the long-term health of independent retailers. This is quite contrary to the ample evidence available from the modernization of retail over several decades in other markets around the world. (Should we chant the old hymn, “But India is different”?)

The fact is that modern retailers don’t suddenly lead to a boom in consumption of food and FMCG products. While there may be some increment due to greater supply and better retail techniques, a new store will invariably take business from existing retail channels. After all, given a choice of a wider variety, a better shopping environment, similar or better products, and similar or better pricing, why would consumers not shift some or all of their spending to a modern retail store?

This, then, brings us to the (sensitive) question – what would happen to the independent retailers in such a circumstance?

Of course, we can take heart from the fact that independent retailers continue to exist even in highly-consolidated and more “developed” markets, and imagine that such a thing will happen in India as well.

Let’s not forget that in some developed and consolidated markets, independents may be supported by local laws and regulations (such as urban planning constraints), while in other places they are supported by the community which may not just show their support by shopping at the mom-and-pop store but also by actively blocking the entry of large retailers and chain stores.

In India the picture is a bit more complex and nuanced.

One the one hand, the consumer is apparently quite happy to enjoy better shopping environments, the convenience of all-under-one-roof. And, while estimates of “wastage” in the food supply chain vary widely, it is widely acknowledged that modern retailers can have a significant positive impact on product quality, value addition, and logistical infrastructure. That is surely a good thing for the country when it is vital to explore every bit of efficiency in food production and its delivery to the population.

On the other hand, regulatory or activist blocks have started to appear already, very early in the growth cycle of modern food and grocery retailing. A few state governments have even taken to banning or at least restricting the growth of corporate-promoted retail chains. Traders’ associations in many markets are quite clear in their perception of the threat from modern retailers to the independent’s normal existence. They express the wish to retain a livelihood threatened by corporate-backed retail operations that are perceived to be competing unfairly with their deeper pockets.

One of the core issues here is the sense of ownership, of being one’s own boss, the dignity offered by being an entrepreneur. Think about what we said earlier about the sense of freedom. Is there a way to retain, or even improve upon that?

The answer may lie in franchising. This may be the bridge between the two sides, and the vehicle for a “co-opted” growth of both.

In a fragmented market like India, it will certainly be a while before corporate retailers can understand and service diverse localities as well as the independents can, or have operations that are as efficient as a kirana-store. As long as independents evolve their own business to offer consumers better service, keep their operating expenses low, manage their inventory closely and retain the energy to run their family business, they will thrive. Imagine if that management capability, sense of ownership and drive became available to a corporate retailer.

At the same time, surely the sourcing scale and marketing muscle that are available to retail chains could be useful to an independent retailer, and help him build more business.

The fundamental successful structure for franchising is identical the world over. The franchiser is an entrepreneur or a company with a product or service that has a market beyond what he can immediately service. The franchisee is an entrepreneur who wants to have the pleasure and privilege of being a business owner, but would also like to benefit from being part of an organisation.

For a win-win, both franchiser and franchisee have to bring something to the table, they both have obligations and responsibilities and both have rights. The framework of the franchise relationship has to be clear in defining these, and yet allow operational flexibility. The partners must also be able to break-away if things don’t shape up the way they have planned, without being too restrictive of each other after the break-up.

The Indian market is not new to franchising. Lifestyle products such as apparel, footwear and others have franchise networks that date back to the 1960s. However, food retail has only seen sporadic attempts at franchising (many of them unsuccessful).

Some of the problems can be tackled by improving the operational and system rigour, while others (such as how do you manage fresh produce consistently at franchise outlets) may be insurmountable in the short term and will require some constraints to be built into the business model.

I believe food and grocery retailers need to explore the option of franchising for faster and possibly more efficient growth, and for encouraging a spirit of partnership in the development of the grocery retail sector. Inclusive growth is a trite phrase, but very true in this context.

India has been and will remain a land of entrepreneurs, and companies would be wise to co-opt that energy.

Who knows – you may even be giving birth to a retail giant. After all, Sam Walton also began his business as a franchisee of another company.

Shopping Centres – Boon or Bane

Many people I know treat shopping centres or malls as a new phenomenon, a progressive development of recent times or a modern blot on the traditional cityscape (depending on your point of view).

However, Grand Bazaar (Istanbul, Turkey) is the earliest known mall, with the original structures built in 1464, with additions and embellishments later.

In India, if one were to include open arcades, Chandni Chowk in Delhi is reported to have opened around 1650, with its speciality shopping streets. (Of course, more traditional bazaars have been around many thousands of years around the world.)

But even if one were to get more “traditional” about the definition of a mall, possibly India’s first mall was founded in the hottest city in the country then, Kolkata (New Market) in 1874.

In more recent history, Delhi’s municipal pride, the air-conditioned underground Palika Bazar was a novelty in the mid-1980s, while Bangalore’s Brigade Road saw several early pioneers with their shopping arcades in the late 1980s.

Then came the mall-mania beginning with Ansal Plaza in Delhi and Crossroads in Mumbai. Everyone started looking at malls as the new goldmine, being pushed ahead by a “retail boom”.

The early stage of any such gold rush usually has several experiments missing their mark, which is what has happened with the hundreds of mall-experiments that have been launched in the last 7-8 years.

Some of the significant and common issues are starting to be addressed, but many others remain.

Catchment-Based Planning is Needed

The top-most issue in my mind is “oversupply”. While this may sound absurd to many people, given the low figures quoted for modern retail, I am referring to the over-concentration of malls in a small geography. If 8-10 malls open 4-5 million sq. ft. of shopping in a catchment that can only support 1 million sq. ft., everyone knows that some of the malls will fail. But everyone also believes that their mall will succeed (otherwise, they would obviously not have invested in the mall).

What happens to the malls that fail? Depending on the design of the building, many of them can be repurposed into office space – another area where a lot of investment is still needed. So in the end, actually, most people win, one way or the other. Yet, there will be some losers. Does anyone “plan” on being one?

The second key issue in my mind has been that mall developers have been thinking as “property developers” rather than retail space managers. The successful shopping centre operators worldwide (now also in India), are actually as concerned about what and who is occupying that space as a retailer would be. They are concerned about the composition of the catchment, the shopping patterns, the volume of sales, the shopping experience. Therefore, the tenant mixes as well as adjacencies are factored into the earliest stages of planning the shopping centres.

In fact, if I were to identify the most critical operational problem for many of the malls, it is the lack of relevance to catchment and, therefore, the low conversion of footfall into sales for the tenants other than the food-courts. Customer flow planning within the mall is another factor that can make a tremendous impact on the success and failure of the tenant stores.

Once you start looking at these factors during the planning of a mall, another obvious aspect that jumps out is “differentiation”. Currently, there is little to choose from between malls (other than possibly the anchor store). However, with more clarity in terms of the target audience, the potential strategies for differentiation also become clearer. The visitors also become segmented accordingly, and there is a natural benefit to the tenants occupying the mall.

If, as a mall operator, you want to be in business for long, and also develop other properties in the future, the success of your tenants is probably the most critical driving factor for your business.

Integration into the Urbanscape

When we gauge malls from the perspective of integrating within the urban landscape, there are obviously some glaring errors being made. Instead of aesthetic design that reflects the heritage and culture of the location and its surroundings, or some other inspirational source for the architect, most malls that have come up are concrete and glass boxes.

Beyond the looks, some of the malls are a victim of their own success. They attract more crowds during the peak than they have planned for. Not only does the parking prove to be inadequate, there is no holding capacity for cars entering or exiting the mall. The result is a traffic nightmare – not just for general public, but even for the visitors to the mall. Someone who has spent 45 minutes stuck in a jam waiting to get into the parking of a mall will certainly not be in the best frame of mind to buy merchandise at the stores occupying the mall.

Some of the problems lie outside the mall-developer’s control – for instance land costs are a major driver of the cost of the project (and, therefore, the lease costs to the tenants), and land is a commodity which is independent. Real estate is available within the cities as brown-field sites (former industrial locations), but the regulations are convoluted and the strings are in the hands of too many different departments of the government (city, state and central). This needs joint creative thinking on the part of developers, the government and the public, if our cities are to develop in a more sane fashion than they have in the past.

Similarly, land deals are still not clean enough for foreign investors to be comfortable participating in many developments. This obviously is holding back a tremendous source of capital and domain expertise that could contribute to the growth of this sector.

Many other operational issues exist – manpower, systems, health & safety – some of them can be managed or controlled by the mall developers, and it is a question of time (and of their gaining experience). Other issues are more in the domain of the government, and need a visionary push to make “urban renewal” a true mission.

New Life for the Cities

In my opinion, one of the most interesting areas which would be in the joint interest of almost all parties (that I can think of) is the possibility of revitalizing the high streets and community markets, and reinventing them as the true centres of shopping.

Many of our markets are rotting (a strong word, but let me say it anyway). The individual stores are owned by individual owners who are not all equally capable of maintaining the same look and feel throughout. The infrastructure in and around the markets are owned or managed by several different agencies. To make matters worse, there is often no cohesiveness and no synergy in the interests of most of the members of the market association. None of these individually have the power or the mandate to recreate the shopping centre. But what if they could get together and take the help of a re-developer?

If an example is needed, New Delhi’s Connaught Place provides the example of one stage of redevelopment. Connaught Place had lost its pre-eminent position as a shopping centre, due to the spread of Delhi’s population and the new local markets that had come up. Further disruption was caused by the construction by Delhi Metro. But DMRC has reconstructed an “improved” centre, and the Metro connectivity has made the customers come back into CP, as it is affectionately known in Delhi.

There are clearly many such opportunities around India’s cities. These need to be looked at as a commercial opportunity for all concerned (revenue for the redeveloper, better sales for the store owners / tenants, more tax revenue for the government from additional sales and consumption). But it is also a broader social opportunity to breathe a new life into our cities, and to make them proud beacons of a growing India.

It would be a mission that would truly prove the worth of shopping centre developers, urban planners, regulators and the retailers themselves.
Any takers?

Life for a Small Retailer

Management consultants, the media, financial analysts have had one phrase tripping off their tongues the last few years … “organized retail”. … The growth of “…”, the inevitability of “…”, the power of “…”

Some highly visible people have even made statements that essentially mean – “if you want to play at the table of retailing, bring big money with you, because stakes have now risen, entry barriers have now gone up”.

In our opinion, nothing could be further from the truth – retail is fundamentally an entrepreneurial business, and even today, you can start with one shop, or even a corner in a shop.

We did write about it in May 2005 (read here : “Playing with the Big Boys“), prompted by some of the profound observations people were making on the inevitable demise of the small retailer.

Typically the only people who seem to talk about small retailers amongst these loud voices are the market associations when an ‘organized’ retailer opens a store in or near their market, and those activists who despise anything that has a whiff of corporate.

In that context, it is interesting to read the BusinessWorld article by Vishal Krishna, M. Allirajan and Manashwi Banarjee titled “Squaring Up To Survive”. It mentions companies that are enabling smaller retailers to streamline their operations, and describes what individual store owners are doing to compete with Big Business.

Yes, things are tough for small business people, but don’t write them off just yet. Almost every business that is big today was once very small.

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