Wild Cards


January 23, 2010

By Vishal Krishna

Businessworld, January 23, 2010

An upwardly mobile population makes Bangalore’s suburb Jaya-nagar a lip-smacking catchment area for organised retailers. The significance of this ‘must-have’ location was not lost on Indian retail’s biggies Reliance Retail, Big Bazaar, Aditya Birla Group and Spencer’s Retail. By 2007, all four had already set up 5,000-6,000 sq. ft supermarkets in the area. But the stores were still to break even when they had to deal with a new contender. Dubai-based Micky Jagtiani’s Landmark Group started its 70,000 sq. ft hypermarket in collaboration with Dutch retail chain Spar in the locality in 2007.

Just a year after Jagtiani built his first store in India, the aftershocks of the global meltdown hit the Indian retail industry. The tight money conditions saw even the big Indian retailers slow down their expansion plans. One would have assumed that Spar, being a newcomer, would find the going tough in this period as well. But in the midst of the slowdown, Spar has added one hypermarket and one supermarket in Bangalore. Another hypermarket is expected to come up in March. In fact, managing director Viney Singh is preparing a nation-wide plan to launch five more stores by the end of the year and at least 10 in the following four years.

MD: Viney Singh. Promoted by Micky Jagtiani
Stores: 3 (30,000-50,000 sq. ft hypermarkets)
Plans: 15 stores in five years; Present in Bangalore
The stores sell fresh food, FMCG products and private label food. The first retailer to own stores with large cold rooms and space to help logistics solutions

Landmark, which also owns Lifestyle, Home Centre and Max retail chains, is among a handful of retailers still expanding rapidly after an investment storm blew through India’s $350- billion retail industry, first giving rise to a huge tide, before the inevitable ebb. In the past 48 months, local entrepreneurs pumped in $10 billion (around Rs 46,200 crore at Rs 46 to a dollar) in a dozen formats to strengthen their presence in the market as the government pondered over opening up domestic retail to foreign companies. But lack of experience, poorly conceived strategies, over-ambitious plans and a slowdown triggered by the global recession has left them all bruised and battered. Weaker retailers such as Subhiksha who over-reached, had to bite the dust. Those left standing are taking a breather for the moment.

But as the haze clears, nearly a dozen new players beyond the Big Five – Kishore Biyani’s Pantaloon, K. Raheja group’s Shoppers Stop, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Retail, R.P. Goenka Group’s Spencer’s and Aditya Birla Retail’s More – are moving briskly to build up significant retail empires. Most of them are small, but they have survived the worst part of the slowdown. They are experimenting with models very different from the Big Five. They may still be tweaking their models but they are confident and competitive. And more than anything else, they are proving that you need pluck, not necessarily loads of money, to weather a storm.

But can they graduate to the next level and become serious rivals to the Big Five? Can they scale up their models without hitting the same roadblocks that the Big Five did in their quest for growth? Those are the big questions facing this pack of retail enthusiasts.

It is inevitable that as they open more stores and expand into more areas, at least some of the players featured in this story will stumble. Some will fade away. And some opportunistic ones have already started negotiating to sell out at a profit to a bigger player instead of trying to build a long-term business. But at least a few of them are showing the determination that market leader Kishore Biyani wore five years ago.

Their reasonable successes, despite varied interests and diverse strategies, infuse hope that India’s choppy retail industry may be settling down.

In a highly competitive market, smaller retail chains have
cracks in their business models
  • None of the retailers offer a customer loyalty program, except Spar, which has data for 200,000 customers
  • Only Namdhari Fresh, Spar and 6Ten, which are in the food segment, have strong supply chains in place
  • The model most follow is to attract customers with the convenience of buying fruits and vegetables. But what brings in the money is additional impulse buying
  • When inflation is high, their fresh produce prices are on par with the market, and footfalls reduce. This model depends heavily on other products for revenue. Namdhari Fresh, however, follows a model of delivering high-quality fruits and vegetables
  • Apparel has higher margins and the formula is in discounts, designs and having a strong private label portfolio

Behind The Scenes

Interestingly, hypermarket player Spar is an exception in this lot of new players because, first, it has a retailing pedigree, and second, because it is backed by a big group with deep pockets. Most of the others are product companies that have now got into the retail business. A few are backend specialists who have logically forward integrated to set up retail stores.

Take the case of Bangalore-based Uday Singh whose Rs 200-crore hybrid seeds company Namdhari Seeds got into retail sale of premium fruits and vegetables through Namdhari Fresh. Singh, who is the parent company’s managing director, says he was so busy building the seeds business that retail was just a natural extension and nothing more. Though food retailing can take more than five years to break even, Singh says the Rs 30 crore-Namdhari Fresh turned cash positive in 2009. Having tasted blood, he now plans to expand the 20-store chain in Bangalore to 100 in the next two years.

However, the past couple of years were tough for Namdhari Fresh, which had to shut eight stores in Delhi when the state government clamped down on use of non-commercial property for commercial purposes. “It was a big loss for us. But we are still growing by 30 per cent,” says Praveen Dwivedi, CEO of Namdhari Fresh.

On similar lines, Delhi-based REI Agro – a rice producer and exporter – hived off its retail entity REI 6Ten in 2007 and took it public. Leveraging its connect with farmers, the company launched 21 stores of 1,000 sq. ft each stocking private labels in rice, staples, spices and other items. “The concept behind 6Ten was to create not a monthly grocery store but rather a daily needs store,” says Danish Beg, REI Agro’s assistant finance controller, adding the retail business reported a net profit of Rs 22 crore in 2009. The company now has 300 stores across 10 cities such as Delhi, Nagpur and Kolkata.

Promoter: Sanjay and Sandip Jhunjhunwala
Revenue: Rs 800 crore
Stores: 300 in all (supermarkets and convenience stores of 700-1,100 sq. ft)
Present in 10 cities including Delhi and Mumbai
The listed entity is a fresh food and and FMCG retail chain

Similarly, in 2007, when denim and apparel manufacturer Arvind Mills restructured its loss-making apparel retail business into three kinds of stores – Megamart (150 stores), Flying Machine (60) and Arrow (70) – they seemed to have hit the sweet spot. The 1,500-sq. ft stores with distinct identities – Megamart for affordable, mass-market products from multiple brands, Flying Machine for trendy apparel and Arrow for the executives – was just the formula. The retail and brand business now generates Rs 550 crore, about 15 per cent of Arvind Mills’ revenues. Suresh J., CEO of Arvind Lifestyle Brands and Arvind Retail, says the retail business turned cash positive in 2009. “The business is growing by 40 per cent and we are planning to add over 100 stores by next year,” he adds.


CEO: Suresh J.
Revenue: Rs 330 crore
Stores: 280 (hyperand small-format)
Plans: 100 more stores in two years; Present in Bangalore; The apparel retailer houses 80 per cent private labels along with other brands

His main focus is on opening Megamart stores across India. “We have a symbiotic relationship with the larger retailers. We follow a market saturation strategy before moving to new geographies,” says Suresh. Analysts say Arvind’s strategy of targeting 30 tier-3 cities such as Nashik and Namakal, has been the key driver behind its retail business.

Going the same direction is Delhi-based apparel maker Koutons Retail, which chose the franchisee route to ramp up to 1,360 stores in 10 years, more than 400 in the past four years. It owns 100 of these 1,000 sq. ft-stores and plans to open another 100 company-owned stores in two years. “The franchisee route is yielding results. It has not only reduced costs, by minimising capex, rentals and employee costs but has also led to an increase in sales since franchisees make an extra effort for their sales incentives,” explains D.P.S. Kohli, chairman of Rs 1,000-crore Koutons Retail. The retail chain, however, is yet to break even operationally.

Chairman: D.P.S. Kohli
Revenue: Rs 1,000 crore
Stores: 100 (small format 1,000-1,500 sq. ft)
Plans: 100 more stores by 2011
Present in multiple cities; Manufacturer-turned-retailer of apparel

An exception from the food and apparel pack is the Bangalore-based Rs 400-crore mattress manufacturer Kurlon. For long, the company used its 5,000 franchisees to sell mattresses. However, in 2008, Kurlon ventured into organised retail for the first time in Bangalore and Mumbai with 17 Kurlon Nest stores, which sell everything from mattresses to bed linen. The idea is to have a one-stop shop for all home furnishing needs. “People have never slept more than they did last year during the recession,” quips Kurlon chairman T. Sudhakar Pai, referring to the job losses during the slowdown. Pai says the business grew 35 per cent in this phase. He now expects to open over 100 stores in three years and has targeted a break even in two years.  

Promoter: T. Sudhakar Pai
Stores: 17 (large format — above 5,000 sq. ft)
Plans: 100 more stores. Get funds for expansion through private equity or by listing by the end of 2010
Present in Bangalore; Sells furnishing, mattresses, linen and even custom-made furniture

Supermarket Warriors

Neighbourhood supermarkets is a business where the Big Five have mostly been humbled. They raced to set up hundreds of stores, but have had to write down several thousand crores from their balance sheets, freeze expansion and overhaul strategy. Among them, Reliance has shut 50 supermarkets, Aditya Birla Retail 70, Spencer’s 150 and Pantaloon Retail 10. The reasons for the closures have varied from government or political opposition, poor choice of location, bad logistics and other operational issues.

Analysts such as Third Eyesight’s Devangshu Dutta believe the Indian customer is disloyal to organised retail brands and, therefore, the supermarkets cannot compete with kirana stores, in the short term. Indian retail’s numero uno Kishore Biyani told BW he was sceptical about small 2,000 sq. ft stores and stopped expanding his small format Food Bazaar in 2008. But small may well be beautiful as far as many of the newcomers are concerned.

A case in point is the Delhi supermarket chain Big Apple promoted by Express Retail that belongs to Lalwani Holdings and Chaurasia Group, which have interests in tobacco and real estate. Starting out in 2005, Express Retail had set up 65 stores with an average size of 1,500 sq. ft and an initial investment of Rs 100 crore. High rentals forced it to shut 20-odd stores in the past two years, shaving off 10 per cent from its topline. However, Express Retail’s CEO, P. Anand Murthy, claims it has turned cash positive in 2009. “Skyrocketing rentals have always been a concern. If a location does not reap profit for us, why would we keep it open?” says Murthy. He adds that each closed location had its own strategic issues – no parking space, strong competition from kirana stores, among others.

Promoters: Lalwani Holdings and Chaurasia Group. P. Anand Murthy is the company’s CEO
Revenue: Rs 170 crore
Stores: 42 (convenience and mini-supermarkets of 1,500-3,000 sq. ft); Present in Delhi
The food and FMCG chain has direct tie-ups
with farmers for fresh supplies

Another company that jumped on to the supermarket bandwagon is the vegetables, fruits and FMCG retailer Spinach, a subsidiary of real estate major Wadhawan group. “We tried the farm-to-fork connect,” says Kapil Wadhawan, chairman of Mumbai-based Wadhawan Holdings, which started the Spinach chain in 2006.

The group planned an investment of Rs 300 crore to expand Spinach, which has close to 50 stores across India. They have targeted a three-year break even with their five brands in retail – Spinach, Sangam, Sabka Bazaar, Maratha Stores and Smart Retail. The Sangam and Maratha Stores cater to the specific needs of Maharashtrians. Smart Retail is not very different from Spinach, but is smaller in size with 1,000 sq. ft stores. Sabka Bazaar (bought for Rs 100 crore in 2007) again targets local catchment areas. The average size of the stores is 2,500-3,000 sq. ft and their private labels bring in 20 per cent of the business. The group is still trying to perfect its act, with some stores doing well while others showing patchy performance.

Promoter: Kapil Wadhawan of Wadhawan Holding
Stores: 220 including other brands average size is 2,500-3,000 sq. ft)
Present in Mumbai and Delhi
Sells fresh food and FMCG products.
Has 20 per cent private labels

One player who thinks the experimental phase is over and is willing to pull the throttle is Delhi-based Samir Modi’s venture 24×7. The chain’s USP is convenience stores that are open round-the-clock. Modi, son of Godfrey Phillips group’s chairman K.K. Modi, says he has experimented with the formula in his four outlets in Delhi. One of the stores has downed shutters but Modi remains unfazed and is planning to expand to 100 outlets in 18 months.


Promoter: Samir Modi of Modi Enterprises
Stores: 3 (1,000 sq. ft convenience stores)
Plans: Rs 100 crore additional investment and expanding to 100 more stores in two years. Plans to break even in three years; Present in Delhi; Is an FMCG-based convenience store

“Nothing like this has existed in the country. Such outlets are born out of a change in lifestyle,” says Samir Modi. 24×7 targets those who work till late in the night. The business was set up with an initial investment of Rs 4 crore but is going through a Rs 100 crore expansion. “There was a need for convenience stores for working Indians, based on the western model,” he says.

The Pitfalls Ahead

Before we understand why the new players are so upbeat, we need to understand why some retailers have floundered. Analysts say the food and apparel businesses are all about rotating inventory. But food is tougher because of its complex supply chain. If a retailer is sourcing directly from farmers, investing in a cold chain is imperative. Then, the logistics of sending the produce to the many smaller stores from a warehouse becomes a nightmare for quality management. “Fuel cost and pilferage is the problem,” says Ajay D’souza, head of Crisil Research in Mumbai. Combine this with high operational costs and the lack of cash to manage the working capital cycle, and you will understand why Subhiksha’s 1,600-store chain collapsed.

Other organised retail chains have also run into funding and cash flow problems once they reached a particular scale. Nilgiri’s is another such troubled supermarket chain. It has over 90 stores in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Recently, it faced management troubles with Actis, the UK-based private equity firm, and the promoter family of M. Chenniappan getting into a tussle over the sale of property worth Rs 90 crore and a rights issue of Rs 35 crore that could reduce the promoters’ stake by 2-3 per cent. Actis owns 65 per cent of Nilgiri’s, while the family owns 35 per cent.

CEO: Vikram Seth
Stores: 90 (supermarkets Of 3,000-5,000 sq. ft)
Plans: 200 more stores in two years
Present in Chennai and Bangalore; The fresh food and FMCG retail chain
operates mainly through franchisees

A member of the promoter family told BW that Actis had gone ahead with the rights issue without the family’s approval. But, sources close to Actis say that the family was kept informed and the rights issue was necessary to bring in fresh capital needed for expansion. Sources add that Actis aimed at turning around the retail chain in four years before planning its exit. The promoter family sold 65 per cent stake to Actis in 2006 for Rs 300 crore. Actis expanded the supermarket chain to over 90 stores through franchisees and plans to open 200 more stores in three years. While Actis declined to comment on the situation, the Chenniappan family says that it is losing control over the chain it had initiated. The family’s move to the company law board (CLB) to stop the rights issue was vacated. The CLB has asked the company’s management to provide details of the utilisation of the funds from the rights issue. A copy of the CLB order is with BW.

Searching For The Mantra

The ones who seem to have a better shot at moving to the next level of play have one thing in common – they are integrated players. Invariably, it is the strength derived from their integration that has saved them from collapsing in poor market conditions.

Namdhari, for instance, has been working with farmers for 25 years. The company had prior experience of managing the fruits and vegetables supply chain, and has ended up building the retail chain around that. The company owns 18 refrigerated trucks and uses the cold chain expertise to service new markets across India. “We have evolved into modern retail based on a strong backend,” says Dwivedi of Namdhari Fresh. He says why many have failed is because modern retailers tried to get into the retail business without any experience or understanding of backend operations, especially of how farm economics worked.

CEO: Praveen Dwivedi. Promoted by Uday Singh, MD of Namdhari Seeds
Revenue: Rs 30 crore; Stores: 20 (2,000-3,000 sq. ft mini-super markets)
Plans: 100 stores in two years; Present in Bangalore; Also supply to the UK

Similarly, Arvind Mills and Koutons already had established supply chains that they had mastered over several years. In apparel private labels, it is each individual store that sends its requirement to the manufacturer and the supply chain is managed seamlessly. It is not as complicated as the food segment where you need to maintain freshness of the products. REI Agro and Kurlon are two organisations that have built their retail chains around their core products of rice and mattresses but have expanded the offerings in the store to make it a worthwhile trip for the shopper. While REI’s stores stock spices, lentils and the entire range of FMCG and food products, Kurlon’s stores stock bed linen, mattresses and even custom-made furniture.

Some of those that did not start off controlling their supply chains have ended up doing so. For instance, Spar – which has a large selection of fish and meat to cater to expats in Bangalore – has seven cold rooms in each of its stores. It also has tie-ups with around 80 farmers (for vegetables and grains) in Hoskote, near Bangalore, and also with small poultry farms and meat suppliers. Delhi-centric Big Apple’s USP is its direct tie-ups with farmers in Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh for fresh supplies of items such as rice, pulses, fruits and vegetables. “Local connect is very important for retailers and that is where the business is – making brands affordable to an aspiring segment of the population,” says D’Souza of Crisil. Spinach has also integrated heavily. About 20 per cent of Spinach’s vegetables and fruits are sourced from farms, the rest come from mandis.

“It is all about pricing. Discounts should compensate with people buying other things to make the store profitable,” says Wadhawan. Spar also differentiated itself from other crowded supermarkets through its store design. It left more space between aisles, similar to Spencer’s. Spar’s 7-10 feet space between the racks is among the widest in the country.

Defining Moment

The question is: having come this far, will the newcomers get into the next round easily? The new retailers may have seen through the slowdown but they are not yet above water. Many, such as Koutons, are not even cash positive.  

As retail is a volume game, the smaller retailers cannot remain hidden in a geography or industry niche and hope to survive. Only when they scale up will they be fully exposed to the vagaries of the cutthroat retail business.

The biggest hurdle is financing. "Retailers still have a difficult time raising loans for new projects. It will remain a business driven by equity funding," says Pinakiranjan Mishra, national leader of retail and consumer practice, Ernst & Young. Pantaloon CEO Biyani says that it was only the liquidity squeeze that killed some retail entrepreneurs last year. "If money could have been raised on time, then retailers would not have been in trouble," he adds. REI’s 6Ten has had to curb its ambition too. Promoters Sanjay and Sandip Jhunjhunwala had planned to invest Rs 1,500 crore to open more than 1,000 stores. But they have stopped at 300 because cash to expand the retail business has become hard to come by.

The organised retail industry could only raise Rs 2,000 crore through initial public offerings (IPOs) and the total private equity investment in Indian retail was close to a dismal Rs 2,000 crore this decade, says Pankaj Jaju of Enam Securities. "Very few Indian retailers will become large because funding is not available for the long term," says Jaju. He adds that the biggest bottleneck to retail was that private equity investment from abroad was treated as foreign direct investment (FDI) by the Indian retail policy and this was turning out to be a bottleneck for the growth of the industry. Bankers stay away from the retail business because they have no collateral to fall back upon if the retailer goes out of business. In the case of Subhiksha, bankers and private equity players could not recover the money as the business had no real assets. The real estate was owned by landlords, and the only assets were furniture and fixtures, whose value cannot cover the defaults for the recovering bank.

Their other big challenge in going national will be managing the supply chain. While the new players have exercised a tighter control in smaller geographies, their skills in managing nation-wide logistics and supply chains are still untested. Whether a Big Apple or Spinach can manage their chains as efficiently if they grow manifold and start operating in distant parts of the country is still to be seen.

Analysts such as Mishra believe that 2010 will bring relief to retailers from exorbitant rentals (which account for as much as 20 per cent of costs for some retailers), which are projected to fall.

The defining trend in the year, however, will be consolidation. "There are many lesser known retailers who want to sell. There is good valuation for people who have created scale and their brands are only known in niche geographies," says Deepak Srinath, director of Bangalore-based Viedea Capital Advisors, which advises smaller business houses that set up retail chains. Srinath says the industry was looking to consolidate because entrepreneurs cannot scale up owing to scarce institutional funding for expansion and managing their working capital. Therefore, retailers who are running out of cash are merging with larger players to survive.

Some smaller chains are holding up better than the big
players in generating revenue

Spencer�s Retail: Rs 9,600 per sq. ft
Shoppers Stop: Rs 8,500 per sq. ft
Pantaloon: Rs 8,000 per sq. ft
Trent: Rs 7,500 per sq. ft


Arvind Retail: Rs 50,000 per sq. ft
6TEN: Rs 26,000 per sq. ft
Big Apple: Rs 22,000 per sq. ft
Namdhari Fresh: Rs 7,500 per sq. ft
Some smaller chains are holding up better than
the big players in generating revenue

"The organised retail space has very little differentiation. Most business models are similar. However, models are still evolving in the country and there is ample opportunity for new players," says Crisil’s D’souza. Faced with the real test of character, the new retailers will have to build scale this year. After all, the rules in this fiercely competitive industry are such that only those who can make that transition will be able to see the light of the in 2011.

[With inputs from Suneera Tandon]

(Copyright: Businessworld)