Thursday, July 9, 2020

Is Kirana Retail dead? David vs. Goliath

For the first half of my life, I grew up in Tamil Nadu Housing Board Quarters in Chennai which had odd 800 tenements. Lloyds Colony at Royapettah, close to the Marina Beach came up in the 1960s when Late Shri. Bhaktavatsalam was the Home Minister of former Chief Minister K. Kamaraj's cabinet who’s primary motive was to provide affordable rented houses for the EWS, LIG & MIG of the state. The houses were owned by the Government of Tamil Nadu and houses were allotted to users on a rotational basis. Within the entire housing complex, there was a one commercial complex, a school, a community center for weddings & events, a park, a milk vending booth, a library, two playgrounds and about 400 trees. Yes, you read that right – 1970s. And the complex had a few shops allotted for various vocations such as carpentry, automotive, Public Distribution Scheme centers (for Ration products) and most memorably a Kirana Shop (Provisions Shop). That the shop owner was our immediate neighbour and a family well wisher was an advantage for me as I used to visit the shop as a child quite often to pick up some thing or the other and the Uncle would give me a toffee or two once in a while.

I remember vividly collecting newspaper copies of “The Hindu” which had a full page Advertisement in the early 90s when Pepsi launched in town and one could get a sample 100ml RGB against the paper clipping and we exchanged several of these at this particular shop which functioned in the name and style of “Murugan Stores”. Guess, the seeds of Retail and Consumer Business was sowed in my heart in an early age, unknowlingly. Or by design. And hence my nemonic, "Retailer by Profession and Choice".


So, when Subhiksha Retail stores started expanding in the late 90s along with a bunch of new age airconditioned super markets in the “Mecca of Retail” that is Chennai including my alma mater and first job at RPG run Foodworld, conches were blown that this was the death knell for small and marginal kirana shops. Around the new Millenium, larger corporates such as Tatas, Birlas, Rahejas among others entered in to business of Organised Retail and we saw formats such as Supermarkets at Neighbourhoods, standalone Hypermarkets as well as those in basements of Malls and so on, Big Bazaar being the most popular such chain across India over the past 15 years and is India's largest Hypermarket chain. Once again, naysayers blew the conch that this would be the death knell for Kiranas. 

Then came the likes of Big Basket followed by small dotcom companies such as PepperTap, Grofers (including Oyethere.com founded by Your’s truly in 2015 and made strides) where the conch was blown yet again against the Kirans. 

Yet, amidst all this hullaboo, the Kiranas are standing rock solid with their determination, continued efforts to modernize & upgrade and of course, sustain their business with changing times by adapting to the new normal. 

Covid-19 is yet another opportunity for the Kiranas who form the backbone of India’s FMCG retail industry. With over 13 million Kirana shops across India, the Industry employs over 50 million people directly and indirectly including shop management, logistics such as first mile (from factory), middle mile (to Distributor points) and last mile (delivery of goods to Retailers / Consumers). Other than this, the Organised Retail Industry is estimated to employ a million or so staff members. The Share of Kiranas in Grocery & Household / FMCG Retail is approx. 90% which over the past 100+ days during Lockdown has increased to, perhaps say 98% since most Organised Retail stores were shut and E-Comm players remained non-operational or marginally. 


I have been saying this for over 15 years – in this battle, Kiranas are the Goliath. 

It’s almost impossible to get them off this equation – not because they outnumber organized retailers on a ratio of 9:1, rather because of the proximity that they enjoy with the end Consumers and the longstanding relationship they've meticulously built. 

According to a recent study by E&Y, over 40% of Kiranas have imbibed the Digital route including collecting online payments through Google Pay or PayTM as well as delivering through e-comm apps. Agility and Adaptability are the two main traits that these small business owners display, which is also the bane of larger companies and corporates who's employees work for a salary while the small entrepreneurs work for a living and especially to earn for the next meal. Makes a lot of difference in their approach, isn’t it.