Monday, October 28, 2013

Chennai Airport is a sham(e)!

Even before I was part of the exciting world of Airports (in 2006), I have always been a big fan of the commercial opportunities at transit points, be it the railway stations or bus terminals, let alone airports. It was always a craze to have a cup of coffee at the railway station when we would go over to pick up our loved ones arriving from long distances, especially if the visits were made once in a couple of years. It was yet another joy to consume within trains – from Rajdhanis to Shatabdis to the passenger trains that would have hawkers selling everything from peanuts to guavas to oranges to chips and snacks. The joy of consumption during travel would somehow take over the joy of travel itself.

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I have been using airports for just over 15 years now. My first flight was to Mumbai from Chennai to attend a job interview with a leading Retail Chain, with air tickets being sponsored by the company. That was the first time I was inside an Airport terminal, although I have been several times before that to drop off or receive guests from the Chennai Airport. The airport was and continues to be an important piece of the growth story of the state (of Tamilnadu) as well as served as a gateway to the rest of Southern India. In 2005, when the Government of India announced privatisation of Airports, the most protests were seen outside the Chennai Airport, the maximum being only second to the city of Kolkata. The staff of Airports Authority of India (AAI) and allied agencies protested that their livelihoods would be lost if the airport was privatised. The Government succumbed to pressure; Chennai’s loss was to the gain of Bangalore and Hyderabad. Both the cities claim to be the Gateway to South India and came up with world class private airports in the outskirts of the city in 2008, albeit the cities have been growing faster in their respective airport corridors over the past 8 years. Mumbai and Delhi somehow managed to keep the privatisation tab on. Delhi’s T3 Airport Terminal, which is managed by the GMR Group  was built in record time and is now ranked among the top 5 in the world, consecutively for the past 3 years. Mumbai Airport, managed by the GVK Group built two new terminals for Domestic and International passengers and is struggling the political onslaught for space within its precincts which has been occupied by the public at large. Kolkata and Chennai Airports were allowed to be redeveloped by AAI and the work completed early this year with a time overshoot of over 9 months and a cost escalation of several hundred crores.

According to a recent survey by passengers on sleepinginairports.com, Kolkata Airport has been ranked 2nd worst in the world, with Chennai following a close third. What an infamy for a state which is considered the Detroit of India housing majors such as Ford, Nissan, Hyundai, Royal Enfield, Ashok Leyland, Hindustan Motors, MRF Tyres, Saint Gobain, Nokia, Samsung and many more! Chennai Port handles one of the highest loads in the peninsula. Chennai’s knowledgeable crowd contributes significantly to the Indian economy with Chennaites occupying important positions in the Indian Government as well as in global positions worldwide. And we have such a dud of an airport!

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I feel quite disappointed, first as a citizen of the country and then as a resident of the city to pass through such an unglamorous airport every week, when I travel on work. The facilities are poorly planned. The Four Cs of airports, Comfort, Convenience, Cleanliness and Customer Service are shameful, to say the least. The only saving grace is the imposing façade which looks attractive for those passing by on the Grand Southern Trunk Road outside, but nothing more inside. There are no refreshments available outside the terminal, save for a sole counter which sells local cuisine at thrice the price of what’s sold downtown and a small kiosk of Café Coffee Day. The check-in hall has two ‘counters” where one needs to stand and eat snacks or sip coffee, just next to a dustbin which usually overflows, as though it’s a sort of a punishment. There is no bookshop or any other similar offering around; the only thing that solves passengers’ woes being the complimentary newspapers. The Departure areas are even worse. The layout of shops and other convenience is so bad that one would rather not step in than feeling disappointed thereafter. Cookieman and Frech Loaf are the only saving grace in the mess, although tehir products are meant to be take aways rather than consuming then and there. No Foodcourts or QSRs, just a restaurant located at the far end of the terminal. Services such as Taxi Operators and Forex are abysmally managed, with long queues for taxis in the peak hours in the evenings with unavailability of taxis for passengers. Airside services such as baggage handling are terrible. There are only four baggage belts and checked in luggage may arrive anywhere between 15-45 minutes after you land at the airport. There are only four aerobridges and the buses which provide ground transportation from the terminal to the aircrafts are poorly maintained. There is no complimentary Wi+Fi within the terminals. The airline staff and security staff from Central Industrial Security Force or CISF have a similar attitude as those who manage the airport – one that is indifferent and unfriendly. After all, it’s not just their fault since there is no one to oversee how good (or bad) their service towards passengers is.

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I still believe there is hope. There is a plan to privatize the terminals through an open tender and the decision is expected to be taken by the end of this year with work to begin early 2014. Senior Executives from the companies which plan to bid had visited the airport to conduct a survey two weeks back were apparently welcomed by protestors from AAI, shooing them back not wanting privatization. But this time around, the Government doesn’t seem to back out. Hopefully, good sense would prevail and the airport would be handed over to a competent agency to serve passengers better.

An Airport is the face of a city and must display pride of place. It is the first point where international visitors to the country alight at. It is indeed important to put up a great one and maintain it as well. Lets hope.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Luxury at a Discount!

It’s a misnomer that Luxury Brands do not discount. Of course, they do. Just that they don’t do it so loudly and obviously as other premium and streetwear brands. Except for brands such as Louis Vuitton, Rolex, Mont Blanc, to name a few, most other premium brands promote discount sales, albeit succinctly. In most cases, they are not at their own stores but at cozy 5 Star Hotels, where the Brands hire banquet halls and quietly carry on with their business. Even then, they need to communicate what’s on offer and choose smartly created advertisements and place them on national dailies. The purpose of hosting these so called “Exhibition cum Sales” is to ward off the junta crowd, most of them being on-lookers. The moment the venue is a Star Hotel, window shoppers would think twice to drop over. It doesn’t look nice, quite obviously to take a public transport to such a venue. Secondly, shoppers still feel intrigued to browse and shop in star hotels, traditionally where luxury products are being sold world over, with India not being an exception.

The other genuine reason is also that we do not have high quality luxury retail spaces in India except for the DLF Emporio Mall in Delhi, the Palladium in Mumbai and the UB City in Bangalore. While there is a small hub by the name Bergamo in Chennai (at Khader Nawaz Khan Road), the RPG Group is coming up with a luxury destination in Kolkata. Apart from these, there are hardly any retail spaces that fit in to the luxury brands’ portfolio. And that’s precisely the reason such Brands choose 5 Star Hotels as venues.

Sale

Over the weekend, one such event was hosted at The Westin, Chennai. Prada shoes for Rs. 25,000, Fendi belts for Rs. 15,000, Gucci Wallets for Rs. 18,000 and much more. Yes, these are apparently discounted prices. At 11.30am, on the only day  of sale (being a Sunday), the room was full of discerning customers. Though there were hardly a few pieces in each line, most of them were being bought by those who had dropped in. Many of these brands are not available at Retail Stores in Chennai and shoppers have to travel either to Delhi or Mumbai or probably outside of India to get one for themselves. The smart sales team were even wooing visitors with catalogues, taking orders thereby fulfilling sales orders. The display of items was not as what one would expect in a Retail Store for such products, but perhaps suited well for the “Exhibition” theme.

I tried on the Prada loafers, size 11, but felt it was too tight. As is always the case, the prices were not mentioned on the items, be it wallets or shoes and many people who are price conscious would rather not dare ask for prices, unless they were sure to buy!

India needs varied Retail spaces. What we have now are either too large malls that cater to the middle class or star hotels that house Luxury Brands. We do not have suitable spaces for luxury brands. Malls chains like Phoenix Market City are cordoning off certain areas within the mall for luxury brands. Express Avenue, the only Mall of over a million square feet in the hart of Chennai has created a nice mix of brands. Its so secluded that regular shoppers don’t even pass by that side.

In the meanwhile, keep looking for advertisements in newspapers like the one above. You may be able to get a good deal on your favourite luxury brand in town!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

No more EMIs for shopping

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has come very strongly against the ongoing practice of Retailers like Croma, The Mobile Store, Imagine, Univercell and many more in assosciation with product companies and Banks to offer interest free EMIs (Equated Monthly Instalments). Currently, Brands like Apple, Samsung and many others subsidise their products by passing on the margins to Banks in return for offerring interest free EMIs. Using a credit card, consumers can own their coveted piece of technology or household items by converting their purchases into convenient monthly payments instead of paying at one shot. Many people have bought their first iphone or other smartphones which offline and online retailers have been offering for quite a while. Believe me, it is indeed tempting. Instead of spending ₹45,000/- all together,  one could pay as low as ₹4,000 for 12 months without paying a penny as interest. Even though Consumers could have paid the full sum, they prefer to pay in instalments. The scheme has graduated many who were having feature phones and CRT Tvs to upgrade to a smartphone or an LCD/LED Tv respectively. 



So, where is the catch? Who bears the interest cost? 

Within the organized retail trade, debit/credit card penetration is quite low at about 15-35% at the max. Banks earn 1.25-2.50% commission on such transactions from Retailers. So, at a 12% interest rate on a transaction of ₹15,000, the bank could have earned ₹1,800 as interest. Instead, it gets only 2% on the transaction. The balance 10% is usually offset by the Brand which is promoting the scheme along with the Retailer. This is on top of the Retailer margin that the Brand pays the Retailer. Therefore, the real value of the product sold is much lower than what is perceived by the customer. The Brand usually doesn't disclose the discounted price of the product so as not to lose the value the customer would derive from the product. 

The scheme has been a massive hit especially among youngsters and first time income earners who are new into their jobs but would like to impress people around them with fine gadgets et al.

The Banks usually anticipate a credit roll over, which means the customer is unable to pay the EMI and therefore pays only the minimum due in a certain month and rolls over the EMI to the next month, on which the Bank earns 3% interest on the said amount. They make up the lost out interest here too. 



RBI is of the opinion that such schemes mislead customers about the impact of rolled over interests by Banks. The new Governor Mr. Raghuram Rajan probably also believes that these schemes promote unwarranted consumption thereby reducing monetary liquidity in the system. Among the slew of economic measures that have been taken since Sep. 13, this is a key one. Retailers are fuming. With the impending festivals eason coming in, Brands and Retailers expected a surge in sales. But this scheme has come as a dampener. Many middle class pople who aspired for their favourite consumer durable or furniture may have to put off their puchases or pay in full. 

NBFCs and private financiers have however been exempted. Bajaj Finserv which has an over 40% market share in Retail credit must be happy. But for availing the scheme provided by them, customers must furnish certain other details such as proof of income, proof of address, PAN Card, etc. So, there is still hope for Retailers and Customers. May the festival of lights bring hope to one and all and increase consumption. Consumption laeds to Growth. Retail prospers.