Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Retailers and Jet Airways – Cross Learnings

I had just started flying frequently from Bangalore to Delhi for monthly meetings and the preferred choice those days was Jet Airways (9W). Their on-board service was perhaps the best in class (the only comparison was the erstwhile Indian Airlines) and a few years later, maybe Kingfisher. Even with the popularity of the red-dress stewards with mini-skirts that attracted millions of flyers (forget not those plastic Kingfisher branded earphones), the Corporate Traveller still preferred 9W. There were many reasons for this choice, despite their pricing being 7-9% higher than Kingfisher and almost 1.5 times of Indigo and Spicejet in the later years. 


The Jet Airways – Citibank co-branded Credit Card was a must have on our wallets in the later part of the Millennium. The card provided several intrinsic benefits – including Lounge access at Airports as well as shopping and dining benefits across the country. The 5 Tier membership on Jet Privilege, among India’s largest Loyalty Program was similar to the Snakes & Ladder game, that travellers had to cautiously fly a designated number of flights in a quarter to retain their Membership Tiers. And how can I forget the uncountable “upgrades” I have enjoyed on 9W from Economy to Business to even First Class! 

Move over Kingfisher, which many Corporate Travellers thought were more hype and publicity than 9W which had a very genuine care for travellers. Be it the highly curated gourmet food menu even on Economy Class, Coat hangers for Business Travellers and an overall, relaxed travel experience for toddlers to Senior Citizens, these were a few things that attracted passengers until a few years ago. Around a decade back, 9W acquired Sahara Airlines only to burn out too soon, even as the low-cost airlines were matching or lowering air fares what Sahara offered. And after the merger completed, 9W continued to be a premier airline, some even calling it elitist. It was common to see celebrities, cricketers, reputed Business Leaders and many more socially popular people on board 9W. Even without the selfie melees those days, it was nice interacting with such personalities often on board or at the 9W Lounges. 


As I write this piece, I just finished reading that SBI which is managing the debt ridden airline’s takeover has further tightened the norms for a possible suitor even as travel agent-turned India’s most respected Aviator and business tycoon Mr. Naresh Goyal resigned from the Board recently. I am able to already see similar comparisons between 9W (and to some extent Kingfisher as well) and Modern Retailers, for they both cater to similar consumer segments. I have hardly seen traditional Kirana stores go out of business, save for financial mismanagement or not keeping in tune with changing times. In some cases, the next-gen of these Kiranas despise to take over the business calling them traditional, boring and uninteresting. 

But we have seen the meteoric rise and abysmal fall of so many Retailers, Shopping Centres and Malls. If we see what’s in common with those who downed shutters or ones that don’t have the grease to keep them up – it’s all about financial prudence, business stability and focussing on the core. For example, 9W lowered its fare over time to compete with the likes of cost-efficient airlines like Go Air. Being an International Airline and also having a Government norm to fly to far off destinations including Tier 2 towns, the airline was making losses for every nautical mile it flew in some cases. Sounds similar to many of our Retailers selling at cost or lower, a few or more SKUs which they call “Loss Leaders” and what is expected to drive footfalls who will eventually end up buying high-margin products. How I wish this dream was fulfilled. 


Most recently, 9W removed complimentary meals on board for the first time in it’s illustrious history which made even the most hopeless 9W Fan and Corporate Traveller to start whining, writing a fitting Obit for the airline on social media. Instead of upping its value proposition, the airline took to removing services, akin to how Retailers cut down support staff or reduce/switch off air-conditioning in the Retail Stores and Malls to reduce operating costs. In-flight Retail, which is a proven big-billion business worldwide remains largely untapped as well.  All is not over for 9W, yet. I am quite confident that the airline will find a new suitor who will continue and also improve the brand’s legacy with passenger growth touching double digits the last few years. Also, the Government wouldn’t let another airline fail, for it impacts the image of the country at large. However, Retailers may not be that lucky. A private Retail Company is not of national importance, yet – the way Americans eulogised Walmart & Starbucks. We see store openings and closures commonly these days. Ask me about E-Commerce players losing money for every transaction – from selling mobile phones to a portion of Roti or Dosa – well, they all hope that consumers will get used to convenience. Well.