Friday, July 17, 2009

Coins and Consumption!

There is something very close to coins and consumption – the ubiquitous small round ones that could buy many things in this country. “Annas” moved away from the system before I was born, but I still remember seeing and using the aluminum 5 paise and 10 paise coins – have actually bought toffees outside my National English School in the erstwhile Madras! And then there were the 10, 25, 50 paise and Re. 1 coins. A lot could happen with this One Rupee Coin those days, and probably even now. In the ‘90s, telecom companies used this opportunity very well – to urge people to make calls from the PCOs – Re.1 for a three minute call... One could see the colorful “weighing machines” in public places – for a coin, a one rupee coin, you could check your weight and the weighing slip would have a nice message on its reverse! And then the Confectionary companies used them so well too – chocolates, toffees and bubble gums and more for just Re. 1. A lesser known South Indian company launched “Halo” Shampoo sachets, for just Re. 1. And then the world biggies in India followed suit. Rest is history, that sachets were part of mainline production for most Indian and International FMCG companies in India. A Rupee was almost the bare minimum, whether it was given to someone seeking alms or to the Almighty inside places of worship.

By the late ‘90s, this was slowly being replaced by the Two Rupee coins. Not for too long, as they were soon replaced with the new Rs. 5 coins in the new millennium. The economy was growing well, people were earning more than in the previous decade and there was basically more money in the system – more coins under circulation. Product manufacturers started to market their products around this price. The most memorable one was the famous Bollywood Khan endorsing a Cola and emphasizing on “Paanch” meaning, Five in Hindi. Needless to say, competition and complementary products followed suit. From confectionary to tooth paste sachets, from magazines to chips. NestlĂ©’s MAGGI, the most popular ready to cook noodle brand in India has been selling its smallest SKU for just Rs. 5, for many years now; only the quantity inside has been steadily reducing. Tea and Coffee at Fast food joints, including a plate of Idly or Vada Pav were following suit and so were telecom companies – this time around, placing ISD call rates at Rs.5 per minute!

Today, a five rupee coin is almost the same as a one rupee coin was 15 years ago! Almost everyone carries this around. While getting air filled for car tyres, people were shy of asking for return change and would thereby give a five rupees coin! I used to wonder, if this small boy who was filling air at the fuel stations was servicing 100 cars a day, that’s a lot of money!! To save and spend, of course.

Am sure many of you would have heard that there is a new Rs. 10 coin under circulation for some time now. I saw one today. Looks nice. Couldn’t dissect in detail; neither am I a metallurgist nor a numismatic. But was just wondering what the new Rs. 10 coin could do. Where would this lead to, say, five years from now. I would like to call this basic denomination as “easy currency” – something that doesn’t pinch while you spend, easy to carry and gets good value for the money spent. Let’s see what all this coin could do to Retailers – with the same examples as above.

Chocolates, could well go up the ladder in pricing, to the new “easy currency”. Keep more of the Dairy Milk and Kit-Kat near the cash tills and see them flying off the shelves. Chips and Wafers, that are already priced at this level, would see more throughput, especially nears schools and colleges – kids and adolescents would probably pick them up more than before. A host of other easy to consume products, from ice cream to jams, from tooth brushes to soaps, could be priced at this point. Easy Currency reigns.

The most famous and freshest natural beverage found in India, the Tender Coconut, will fit very well at this price point. Higher sales for this hawker; he gets to sell more than before and his family earns more than before. Milk, that’s currently priced between Rs. 6.50 and Rs. 8.00 per 500 ml would sooner than later move into this price point. And so would be the smallest SKUs of Cola companies. Ready to eat curd and tetra pack juices would see higher sales as people would see one coin per person. Intra-city transport companies (Buses and Metros) would have their fares in multiples of Five, thereby Rs. 10 being the average for city travel. Examples abound.

If making people consume more than before was so easy by introducing a new denomination, that too as a coin, then why didn’t the Government contemplate this much earlier – after all, the currency note in the same denominations has been there for years! My guess is as much as yours. Its common mentality, that the thicker one’s purse is, the more secure they feel. It’s quite common to see that most people around us change their wallets only when it starts to wear off – I mean, currencies start to spill out or coins fall off. Given the case, people carry small change always handy, and that’s where the “easy currency” plays the most important role. And most often, people hate carrying them, yet they must carry. And love to get rid of them as soon as possible. Only to carry some more. And the cycle continues.

The latest ‘easy currency” could get much more than what its predecessor could get and at a greater value for money. This is sure to succeed for some time to come now. Atleast in the Metros and larger cities. That the Re. 1 and Rs. 2 coins are still valuable in the rural and upcoming places is so true. They would take some more time, but will surely come to this pedestal soon. This blog came up when I saw the new coin this afternoon at office. Just seeing, was so tempting to use it as much. After all, coins increase consumption. And am looking forward to more of this; with me and those around. And see them spending. As always that I believe, consumprtion leads to growth.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Blame it on the Bell Boy!

It’s quite interesting for me to discuss two cases in the Service Business who are almost on the verge of going off the radar – one in a real sense and the other, almost gone. I am referring to Air India and Subhiksha – the former, India’s oldest airline and the other, India’s first Retailer to say so. Both were built by individuals and then handed over to the best brains in the country. Both were known for the inherent value that was promised, and to some extent offered to their customers. And something interesting and common to note in both the cases – Customer Service! Or probably the lack of it! If only the front-end staff took good care of their customers, would this situation have arisen? Especially the housekeeping boys – popularly known as the Bell boys – as in hotels. I guess they are the main reason for the collapse of these companies, which were also Institutions in some sense. The staff didn’t perform their jobs well and thereby the business collapsed. A common saying to be remembered: If you don’t take care of your customers, someone else will.

So, now that customers have shunned these companies and have gone to other alternatives, the bell boys and the front end staff must take the hit. Some must be sacked, some must forego salaries; and many others must agree to delayed payments. Good. Atleast now, they must realize how important customer service is in our business.

Well, having said that, should it really stop there? If a student fails in the exam, the school delays his promotion to the next class, and does not punish the teacher. Coz, the Teachers did their job so well, that they are not to be held responsible for the result of students. Sounds logical and is usual too, atleast in our country. I wonder how many in this society would accept the same with the student’s parents – they would be held responsible for the student’s failure. And if the student succeeds too, then they are praised. That too sounds logical. Naah. Both can’t be.

In the above business cases, all of us agree that Customer Service went for a toss. Projecting an imaginary “Maharaja” and promising a royal service and advertising worldwide was just not enough. And projecting a “Homemaker” and promising savings was also not enough. The promises must be kept up. And the promises must be kept up by those who made such promises - The Management and Investors who kept promising despite knowing that they wouldn’t come close to achieving it.

The need of the hour seems to be pulling up the business to reality, into action. And this can be won only by superior Customer Service. You would see that customers are not really missing these businesses – probably because they don’t remember them anymore. I have been a big fan of many authors and writers who propagate Customer Service. But I have my take on it. It’s not just enough to convert your customers as raving fans and the brand’s ambassadors. It is important to create a “love affair” between your Customer and your Business. Just the way customers love their spouse, their family, friends and pets. Customers must yearn to be associated with the Brand – to experience the service and to visit the store so often – probably because the staff is friendly and warm-hearted (no matter how old they are – pun intended).

Coming back to punishing – is it fair to punish those who just did what they were asked to do? Many in these two companies know inside stories and my blog is not a “chat-pata” filled Page 1 story ala the country’s largest gaspaper, err… newspaper. Is it correct to delay salaries of hundreds of innocent staff who acted upon the orders of the superiors? Some who were lackadaisical at work and handling passengers and some who did not order the right merchandise due to poor cash flow management. What about the decision makers? Foregoing a month’s salary or still being on LinkedIn with the previous company’s name in their headline is just not enough. Those who erred in these cases must be brought out in public. Hasty decisions that were taken in intoxicated mood must be revealed and tabled. And these persons must apologize publicly – to its shareholders, staff and most importantly, to its Customers.

Blame it on the Bell Boy was a classic comedy of Jerry Lewis – one of the best comedy artists the world has seen. Sounds nice for a movie, but not in real life. If the business succeeds, it’s because of the Team, its employees and mainly due to its Customers and if it fails, it’s because of a few individuals – those decision makers.

Long Live the Decision Makers. Let’s wish they take the right decisions. And for sure, not to blame anyone, but to apologize.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Welcome aboard…

Welcome aboard, dear children, Ladies and Gentlemen. This is your Railway Minister speaking. Firstly, we thank you for choosing to travel through Indian Railways, the largest rail network in the world. You have contributed to the growth of our country in a way today, as Indian Railways is the single largest employer in this country – yes, over 1 million people are directly and indirectly employed with us. The new Shatabdi Express that you are about to travel today has been modified a lot than its earlier avtars. This train will cover a distance of 380 km between x and y cities in a little less than three hours. For your comfort, this new Shatabdi coach has centralized air conditioning, unlimited free wifi, music and video for every seat, a delicious food menu from the best chefs across the country and a team of smiling staff at your service. Apart from this, there is a multi-cuisine Restaurant and Bar with live bands, a Pizza and Ice-Cream joint, abundant shopping options and recreation areas at various locations within this train. Feel free to ask for any other assistance and our crew would be happy to look into them. I have instructed my crew to take care of you as you would be if you were a guest in my home. I am sure you would enjoy the new Shatabdi experience. Should you have any suggestions or feedback, please send me an email to railwayminister@indianrailwayministry.rail and your query would be answered within 7 working days. You have a choice of various other modes of transport, but we appreciate your decision to travel with us today and look forward to welcoming you once again to experience our fascinating offerring. Thank you again and have a nice evening.

This is not a paragraph I have written during deep slumber nor it is a copy-paste from the luxury trains that are already running across various Indian states; just a wish which occurred to me while I was travelling on a Shatabdi train a few days ago. The most important part is the possibility of Dining and Shopping within the train. When Titanic could have it, A380 could boast, then why can’t our super long trains, that carry over 500 pax at any given time! Of course, it could. The consumption story is sure to continue and what better than within the Railway system that carries millions of people everyday from one part of the country to another!

All the above wishes will come true, even if we make a start today. WE includes us, all of us. Quality is best achieved when it is demanded the most. We see that in every Industry today, from automobiles to hotels, electronics to household. For example, in the Aviation industry – Airlines and Airports are not people-carriers and places of transit anymore. They are examples of impeccable service and modern architecture providing various facilities on air and on ground. This, has largely been achieved not just because of the efforts of the staff in these sectors, organizations and work groups. It’s because their customers wanted nothing less – for what they pay, they better be treated like The King’s best friend, if not like The King himself. Today’s “best in quality businesses” are mainly because of their customers who have made them achieve.

We need more of such “customers” ala “rail passengers”. Time has come that we demand quality. While there is hue and cry for the airport taxes that are collected in hundreds of dollars worldwide, look at the way the Airports are well-maintained. There may be some exceptions – places that have over 100,000 people passing and using the services everyday. Debatable. But still, they try their best. Money spent is atleast put to use. Good use. Using the various commercial opportunities, Airports earn non-aero revenues and then try to subsidise the cost of operations to the airlines, who in turn pass on the savings to their fliers. And they increase the base and bring more pax. who pay a small price for the upkeep of the place. And spend loads of tonnes of money on shopping and dining at airports. BTW, the estimated size of the Travel Retail Industry worldwide is over USD 37 Billion.

And look at what we do at the Railway stations. The entry fee is Three Rupees. You don’t get a good 100 ml Tea for that price in most places in this country anymore. And for the three rupees, the visitor who comes to see-off or receive passengers wants to use a host of services, including high quality dining and MRP shopping. We must be kidding. Or over-expecting. The infrastructure crunch is so much so in our railway stations today, that many of us prefer to kiss and hug at the entrance itself, rather than wait till the train chugs. We complain of the stink coming from the tracks, but no one respects the fact not to use the loo when the train is stationery (nor when it is not – someone MUST fix it the way it is done mid-air!). People dodge paying that rupee while using the public toilets and even after, complain the odour and mis-management of these places.

You must be thinking that this guy is telling us not to complain and grin. Naah. I am saying we must complain. And demand. And be prepared to pay for it. (Remember, some one said “No Free Lunch” - In life, I guess it applies to almost everything). And one of the easiest ways to raise money is by commercializing these places. It’s high time that the Railway station management is handed over to the private guys – let the Railways Dept. focus on their core competence, managing the tracks. My Grandfathers (paternal and maternal) used to work for the Indian Railways between 1930-70. They would be shocked with my thoughts if they were alive today. But times have changed.

While Airports world over could work that way, why cannot Indian Railways? You may already know that Singapore and Hong Kong Metro are not only privately managed but are also public-listed companies! The money raised from such commercial activites should be put to use, good use. To manage the facilities at the Rail stations. Whilst most of us complain that the educated urban Indian public abhores using public transport, it’s because they are so difficult to use. We need multi-modal transport hubs all around, inter- and intra-city. And during the “Dwell Time”, use it for commercial activities. Pay and park your Car safely. Have a meal, get your clothes ironed or dry-cleaned, shop for your daily needs, grocery, vegetables and all that stuff. Meet your friends. Have a Coffee, crack a business deal, Celebrate with some champagne or even with tender coconut water. Whatever.

Let’s get the basics right Didi. It’s all nice to say that the Railways will work for public benefit rather than commercial gains, but public sympathy cannot buy a single tea, let alone voting again. The way the food is cooked and transported into trains is best avoided to be seen. Because, if you see it, you would never eat it. Sorry for exaggerating, but see the picture below. This was 15 minutes before the train commenced its journey. If this is how food is transported in front of your eyes, then imagine the other logistics patterns. Sad. Apart from some magazines and novels, there is nothing much to shop. And that’s the next wave of Travel Retail waiting to flow. Just a matter of time. We have been promised of “adarsh” or “model” stations, (a few in Bangalore to watch out too). They must include these facilities.


While my eyes are closing and am yawning for the 46th time over the last 30 minutes, I am off to sleep now. But my dream would continue. To hear the voice-over.
“Welcome aboard, dear children, Ladies and Gentlemen. This is your Railway Minister speaking…”

Friday, July 3, 2009

Best Friend, Worst Enemy!

Brand Equity (supplement to The Economic Times newspaper) dated 17 June 2009, listed India’s MTB – Most Trusted Brands. While the most trusted one at the top is Nokia, the Finnish mobile handset maker, followed by Colgate, Lux, Lifebuoy, Dettol, Horlicks, TATA Salt, Pepsodent, Brittania and Reliance Mobile. The list largely includes “Brands” - while some are also Stock Keeping Units at the consumer level such as Lifebuoy and Dettol, others such as Tata and Reliance are literally household names. Its little wonder that there is not a single Retailer that features among the Top 10. Not yet. The first on the list is Bata at No. 35 and Big Bazaar at No. 97. Does that mean consumers don’t trust any of the Retailers so much that no one else figures on the Top 100? Well, the MTB is based on a survey that is conducted by Nielsen (which claimes to be the largest of its kind) with a sample size of 8,160 consumers. Yes, you read it right, Eight Thousand One hundred and Sixty Consumers only. At some level, this sample looks a bit small (within the relevant universe), although the mix is apparently quite good with the way the survey is undertaken.

That Bata and Big Bazaar are among the Top 100 goes to show the importance consumers are placing on Organized Retailers. Bata, among India’s oldest Retailers has been popular over the years for their core strength – Footwear. There was a time in the 80s and early 90s when school shoes were from Bata, mostly from Bata and only from Bata (many of you who went to school during those years can relate well). Sales surged by 30-40% during the months of June & July when schools would begin and once again in Dec. and Jan. when the monsoons are over. Bata slowly increased their range to include many other products that would complement, such as socks, shoe polish cream, school bags, etc. And then came one of their branded shoes “Power”. The positioning was such that the white canvas and leather shoes were to be worn everyday where as the new brand was meant for sports and other leisure activities. As sales grew, so was popularity and over a period of time, other branded shoes were launched within the store. And the Brand was so big that at some point in time, it was a big effort to even stand inside the stores. Customer Service sufferred as buyers received lesser attention than they expected. This was the beginning of the end. And in just 10 years, urban consumers had shifted loyalties – to lesser known Indian brands and more popular international ones. At some stage, Bata was almost invisible in India until 2004-05 when they made a comeback. A great case study in Indian Retail to decipher for years to come.

BIG Bazaar, a relatively new Retail chain that’s celebrating its 8th anniverisary now is already among the top 100 list. Not surprising, given the way the company has grown. I used to work for this chain (owned by The Future Group) five years ago and it was a famous saying then, which I am sure is the same today too – every working day in the Group is equivalent to two working days elsewhere. That’s the pace at which the Company operates. Needless to say, they are the largest Retail Group in the country today and International Retailers are somewhat adapting their India strategy taking lessons from the way this group operates.

So, do consumers buy these trusted brands or do they prefer buying them at certain Retail stores? We don’t have a survey done on this, but surely that wouldn’t be the case atleast at the moment. Household shopping is divided largely into Monthly Baskets and Weekly top-ups. One may drive a bit far for the former, but for the latter purchases, it’s always the nearest Retail store. Time, is of essence here and proximity and availability are the two most important factors. And most Retail chains lose out on the second point for various reasons. It could be due to financial reasons or simply, bad merchandise planning. Whichever way, if the stock is not on the shelf more than thrice as consumers visit, its likely that they wouldn’t return the fourth time.

The way to win Trust is to offer what consumers want – something that very few Retailers practice, as in most other cases, its “take it or leave it”. And Customer Service – the way the front-end manages the store and its users will make all that difference. There are umpteen global examples where shoppers visit faraway located outlets mainly because they enjoy the place. That’s Trust. One must remember that Consumers could be either your Best Friends or Worst Enemies. Yes, enemies, because they propel the retailer’s downfall. By not visiting. And that odd boards at the end of the store which reas “Thank You, visit again” becomes redundant.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Being Thrifty and still tempting to Consume - a paradox!

While I was browsing some other article today, I stumbled upon this one on Thrift – a new way of life for Americans who were once-upon-a-time avid shoppers but not any more. The author of this Book and Blog advocates Americans to spend less – rather ask themselves “Should I spend on this or that and why?”. And the subsequent tab on my IE was about the latest Fuel Price Hike in India. I was among the millions of (grumbling) Indians who filled fuel last evening as the price of Petrol was being hiked from last midnight, although I wasn’t fortunate to get my regular supply and had to feel good with the premium fuel that I was offerred. “No more right or left, Sir, it’s only one way now” – proclaimed the proud owner/franchisee of the Fuel Station where I filled full-tank last night. He was referring to the stable Central Government that we have been blessed (or rather we have chosen, sould I say). All major newspapers and news websites today have this topic on their Headlines – on how Fuel price has been hiked and its after effects.

For sometime, may I urge your to think for a few seconds (an electronic calculator would help) the cash flows that the OMCs – the Oil Marketing Companies would have made within six hours last evening. The numbers are mind boggling. Suppose if One million vehicles filled on an average 30 liters of fuel – and were paying approx. Rs. 2 more (since the lower variant was unavailable) and were filling their tanks (Salary Day, so more cash on hand coupled with the fear of the impending price increase), we are talking of 30 million litres filled and INR 60 million raked in additionally, in just a few hours. This, is just an example, if not exaggerated. At one, the Government lost a lot of public sympathy with this rude price hike (of 10%) on petrol. Another, was that it was on Salary Day, a day that most Indian families await for 29 days (no matter how many digits their salaries are) in the month. While the general belief was disbelief – that the hike was real, people were finding it difficult to cope with this hike. Just three days ago, India’s largest bank SBI decreased Home Loan lending rate of Interest by a substantial percentage – indicating that owning homes got a bit easier for middle class people. Everyone who is anyone who understands Economics has a opinion these days on what to expect from the Budget to be presented shortly.

Given this scenario, the increase in the price of Petrol & Diesel was a paradox, if not a shock. On one side, Retailers are trying to woo consumers to consume more – not as much as their American counterparts overconsumed sometime ago, but certainly to consume more than what they are already doing. And on the other hand, the Government does its bit by increasing the most basic ingredient that decides the prices of most other products sold in this country. It is really noteworthy to decode the background – fuel hike would first affect the price of vegetables, something we consume everyday. And then, fruits and other food products including Grocery. While Unorganized Retailers and hawkers would be the most affected, Organized Retailers would face similar challenges sooner than later. Cost of Operations would go up which would shrink the outflow planned by Retailers, including special offers and promotions.

The Festival seasons starts from mid July onwards and the general tendency to shop would increase around this time. But with a 10% hike in self- and public transportation costs, the monthly household income (that didn't grow much this year due to the economic slowdown and the recession effect) would shrink to that extent and this will surely decrease consumption. The GDP of every country is largely based on the outcome of a few key industries such as Agriculture, Manufacturing, Services including Aviation and Telecom, and importantly, Retail. It would be sad to see how people would wish to consume less due to this sudden and steep Fuel price hike, which could play spoil sport over the festive period. The Automobile Industry has been on a roll for the past five months and the growth story is back, albeit in single digits. This would also be affected a bit now.

It’s confusing to see the government’s stance on this issue – of increasing consumption. Experts believe that the GDP would grow only when people consume more, which would be directly impacted by Retail. However, it remains a BIG question of how we would achieve this. One one side, it’s being thrifty about spending and on the other, trying to woo consumers – it’s a paradox, awaiting to be unravelled.