May 18, 2006

By Devangshu Dutta (Coulmn in The Financial Express on 18 May 2006)

When I am at the receiving end of expectations, business plans and such like, of companies that are looking to ride the current retail boom in India, one thing stands out, and scares me the most: the opening slides, paragraphs or pages that are devoted to the “opportunity presented by India’s booming middle class and its rising income”.

In the previous part to this column (“The Case of the Missing Millions”, 27 April 2006), we concluded that for most international companies looking at India, the potential target market was in the region of 18-19 million people, or over 3 million households. When international companies look at the “middle class” they may be looking at annual household incomes adjusted for PPP in the region of US$ 40,000 (Rs. 5 Lakhs, in absolute terms, not adjusted for PPP), and this population number is what appears on the radar.

Clearly, this less than a tenth of the figures around which many new businesses are being launched in the hottest retail market globally (as global comparative studies are stating). 200 million, 300 million – take your pick – they’re all in the mythical range!

So is it time to put out a missing persons alert for the hundreds of millions of so-called “middle class consumers”, on whose back the current retail boom is to be built?

Hang on – the trick is in changing the frame of reference. Let’s first define what the characteristics of the middle class should be.

In my opinion a good starting point is a simple one – look for a segment that is on the middle of the income scale.

Most marketers and their reference guides live in a high-income urban India paradigm (read, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore). Passing out of even a second-tier business school today, starting salaries can easily be over Rs. 20,000 a month. When you get into the middle-management segment, metropolitan salaries in the private sector can easily be Rs. 35,000 – 50,000 a month. This may not sound like much money when you live life from the Delhi-Mumbai-Bangalore paradigm, but trust me, it is still a very large sum of money as you go further down the list of cities and towns in India. In those towns and in semi-urban and rural India, the rupee goes a much longer way.

However, the income scale can be defined subjectively by different people.

So, to this evaluation I would add one other important attribute – this middle segment should be a substantial proportion of the total population. Clearly, a population that is only 2 to 3 per cent of the total is still very much at the narrow tip of the pyramid. We definitely need to move further down the income scale to find the real middle class.

The next annual household income range defined by NCAER is Rs. 2 Lakhs to Rs. 5 Lakhs. Now it starts to get interesting. In this income segment we are talking about approximately 9 million households or a little under 50 million people. An income of Rs. 2 Lakhs (US$ 4,500 in absolute terms) is equivalent to a little over US$ 16,000 by PPP, which is well below middle-class standards in developed economies. However, in India an income of Rs. 16,700 per month brings a number of aspirational and discretionary purchases within reach. This size of population is about the same, or larger, than many countries in Europe and will grow to 70-80 million by the end of the decade.

However, as far as my criterion of significant proportion is concerned, this still doesn’t cut it – we’re still only in the range of 6 per cent of the total population. We need to move further down the income scale, to the Rs. 90,000-200,000 annual household income range.


NCAER identifies this segment as having over 41 million households – that is over 225 million people – about 22 per cent of the total population. Large towns (population of over 500,000) have about 30 per cent of this population, while rural India has about half of this income group.

Earning between Rs. 7,500 a month to over Rs. 16,000 a month, this is the population that, in my opinion, is the real growth engine for the great Indian retail dream. This population has discretionary income, and yet it spends with discretion, if you will pardon the pun. It is a population that is only just beginning to be touched by cashless spending, a population that is beginning to appreciate the comforts and conveniences of modern retail, and its power as a driver of markets. It is possibly more firmly rooted in Indian traditions than aspiring to move to western standards. It is a population that is probably discovering the benefits of investing as much as it is the joys of spending thus reducing the free cash available.

Many brands are ending up planning for the 150-200 million real middle class population, while offering products and prices that are more appropriate for the ersatz “middle-class” of 15-20 million.

Consumer markets are structured around obsolescence, replacement and repeat purchases. If your product fits well within the price-value equation for repeat purchases, you have a winner. If you don’t, then what you get is a bunch of occasional purchases from most of your consumers, with long replacement cycles (or even, no repurchase).

The end result is the sales plateau that is the characteristic of so many brands in India.

If you want to volumes, prepare a product and price offer that makes sense to the real Indian middle class. The small shampoo packs make sense, the “chhota recharge” on the mobile phones makes sense. Does your product?

The missing millions aren’t really missing – they’re just invisible through our Delhi-Mumbai-Bangalore upper income blinkers. It’s time to take off the blinkers.

The author is chief executive of Third Eyesight. ( www.thirdeyesight.in )