Thursday, December 13, 2018

Staff Empathy - Wake up India!

Like many of you, I too saw the viral video of the Zomato delivery guy consuming the food meant for Guests on his scooter. As a benefit of doubt, I initially thought he was eating the food he had ordered for himself or his family. I never shared the video and the ensuing Memes even to my close family or friends. Something stopped me from doing it. It takes me back to 1997 when I joined my first job as a part-time employee in erstwhile Madras. Being a humid city and blessed with four seasons of Summer through 12 months, the city was eponymous to a hot weather all through the year and about 20 days of winter. So Ice-Cream as a product category was a 12-month business opportunity and no wonder, “Baskin Robbins” set-up their second store in India here after debuting in Mumbai. I would study Computing at NIIT from 7am - 9pm and pursued B. Com from 4pm - 8pm at RKM Vivekananda College. A chance glance on the local tabloid and I saw there was a job opportunity at this shop and I headed. 

I got selected but the Franchisee wanted me to work all day which I couldn’t since I had classes in the morning and evening. So, I suggested I can work part time from 11am - 3pm which he agreed to for a monthly remuneration of Rs. 300. We were a crew of 6 and had to run all errands - from receiving stocks to cleaning tables to serving scoops. Around the same time, local brand “Arun” would sell their stick Ice-Cream for Rs. 5 while a scoop of Baskin would cost Rs. 33. We had to not just convince Customers to try and buy our offering but also justify why they should pay so much for the product.
The Franchisee was a shrewd businessman in his 30s and had an idea which took us all by surprise. He suggested that each of us can take any one scoop of ice-cream daily. There was a register we maintained and we tried as many flavours. Over a few days, we requested if we could take them home instead and make the family happy which he obliged. Over the weeks, we got tired of eating daily and said we wouldn’t do it anymore. The Franchisee had hit two mangoes with this move - he ensured we never pilfered the food; he ensured the staff knew what we were suggesting to Customers and so could sell them easily.
This was my first lesson in Retail, my first job as well. Frontend Retail Staff in India, most of them find it difficult to make ends meet. Salaries of CXOs have grown multi-fold in decades, but not that of these guys. So there is always a sense of remorse (at least for some of them) that they are unable to afford the products or services. I am not taking this as an excuse for living poor, after all that’s a choice too but they do really cannot afford even basic needs at times. I feel really bad for this Zomato delivery guy for all the negative publicity the society gave him. Imagine the humiliation his Mother, Wife and Children would face from their neighbourhood? Will anyone employ him again? With our excessive media trials, we have killed a family's reputation Sigh.
We have failed as a society, yet again thanks to our "one-upmanship" and self-styled righteousness in the garb of exposing someone who was at fault. Oh, btw that guys doesn't need our sympathy. The world needs more of our empathy. Am sure you agree. 


The Retail Staff (including the delivery staff) deserve better. Better Salary, better empathy and better social acceptance. When we give them something beyond what they deserve, they will not only display integrity but also build a better society that we live in. Remember, no one was born a thief. We just become one, thanks to circumstances.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Coming soon - 60,000 Retail Centres in India…

The Central Government announced on Sunday that it is planning to issue application forms for 60,000 Fuel stations across the Country to be operated through Dealers using the trade name of the Three Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum. There are already 62,000 (and counting) fuel stations across India which retail Petrol, Diesel and allied products while a bunch of them also retail CNG for commercial vehicles. About 10% of these stations are operated by private players such as Shell, Essar, etc. It is a remarkable feat that the world’s highest fuel retail station is in India at the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir in the Himalayas which is a favourite among auto-enthusiasts. 



As in the past, prospective applicants need to apply online and pay an Ernest deposit to the OMCs which would be followed by a lucky draw. And those who win would be awarded the contracts and assistance provided by the respective agencies in setting up the outlets while those who didn’t qualify would be refunded their deposits. While this generous move by the BJP Government is seen as a positive measure since no such new contracts have been issued in the past four years, critics have dubbed this as a meaningless move with spiralling fuel costs and dwindling vehicle sales over the past two quarters this financial year and a mere public-pleasing stunt ahead of the upcoming National Elections in May 2019. So, the verdict is split. 

It costs a whopping Rs. 1.5 – Rs. 2 Crore to set up a Fuel Station spread over 5,000 sq. ft in the name and style of the OMCs while the cost is more than double for private players like Shell who have stricter norms towards the setting up of the outlets. The biggest challenge for setting up a Fuel Station has been land acquisition, especially on National & State Highways which have seen a 10-fold increase in vehicle traffic over the past decade, thanks to better roads, lower cost of acquiring personal vehicles and a generally heightened mood for vacations and road trips. 


Being an avid traveller and a terrific lover of road trips myself, starting with my beloved Hyundai Santro in 2005 till the new age Mahindra XUV500 (I upgraded to an Automatic from the previous Manual this March), I have personally seen how the entire ecosystem has evolved over the past 15 years or so. In fact, I plan my trips now, whether short or long depending on the wayside amenities that I could use, from rest rooms to coffee shops, meals to speciality snacks and of course the need for service centres, local vehicle mechanics and Authorised Service Centres, etc. The need for such pitstops vary when I travel solo or with family and of course based on the number of hours we travel at a stretch. 

My pet peeve on highway travel has been the lack of good quality toilets (well, good is a relative term, so!) and clean and hygienic food outlets which have somewhat been fulfilled at least across Tamil Nadu Highways which I frequent the most by road. While only a handful International and National Retailers such as Café Coffee Day, KFC, Mc Donalds and A2B have scratched the surface of the opportunity of Highway Travel Retail, there seems to be an enormous opportunity that lays ahead of us. I see these upcoming 60,000 new Fuel stations (many say only 1/3rd of all locations proposed actually turn up in reality) as nothing other than Retail Centres, where apart from filling Fuel, one can have various other retail offering from food outlets like cafes to speciality restaurants, shops selling snacks, fruits and condiments for the journey ahead and of course, wayside motels for a quick overnight stay for tired drivers and their families. 


Reliance Retail with their Fuel stations did come up with some of these models way back in 2006-07 but the whole effort slowly dwindled due to decentralisation of Fuel prices and today, they remain large parcels of land ready for an explosive growth. These fuel stations (and Retail Centres) could be beneficial not only for travellers but also for the nearby towns and villages, generating sustainable employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. 
I am writing this sitting in the back seat of a Bolero travelling on work and just stopped at a highway shack where I had a glass of Coffee. I see a new Retail Centre coming up closely (when I close my eyes).

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

My i Vs. Mi Experiences

I purchased my Mobile SIM card for the first time in the year 2002 in Chennai from Aircel and that number is still active. My my first handset was an Ericsson followed by Samsung R220, the first mobile phone launched in India with a multi-colour display. This was followed by a few Nokia models over a decade and a Sony Ericsson P1i before I finally moved to Blackberry. A few models and 4 years later, I moved on to the Apple Ecosystem with iPhone 4S in 2011. I upgraded to 5S, 6 and 7 over the years as well as including other i-Devices such as 3 generations of iPod, 2 variants of iPads, a MacBook, Apple Tv and finally an iWatch. With a paid plan for Apple Music and a huge storage on iCloud, I don’t have to worry about my stuff on the hard disk anymore, for its all safe and secure, “Up in the Air”. Hopefully. With a seamless integration within the iOS, it is almost impossible for me to move out of the Apple Ecosystem anymore and I guess I will remain clued in here. however, when the announcements for new models of iPhone XS & XS Max were announced last month, I had less interest than last year for the iPhone 8 & X. Somehow I felt that Apple has stopped making mobile phones for common users and is perhaps focusing on a niche segment who can use most of their offering.


Notwithstanding my self-prejudice for a coveted Brand and its products that I love so much, I decided to visit a Retail Store to physically touch and see the new launches. On a sunny Chennai afternoon last weekend, visited an upmarket Mall in the City, which for some strange reason has four retail stores next to & opposite to each other who sell multi-brands of Mobile phones and accessories apart from an Apple Premium Reseller (APR) and a Mi Experience Store. Even before I could visit the APR I happened to see the new iPhones at one of Tamil Nadu’s leading multi-brand Retail Store. The Staff were as uninterested as I were and they hardly explained why the new damn thing costs a lakh and fifty thousand bucks, with which one can but at least three new laptops or 15 mediocre mobile phones or perhaps even 5 top-end new mobile phone models. I didn’t bother to even ask queries and quickly moved on to the next chore with the family. Was having a sad grin on my face that the same “me” had waited at the same Mall five years back in a queue for four hours on a sunny November afternoon along with my better half to buy my Apple iPhone 5S on the launch day. How things change, huh!

My wife has been asking me to buy her a wearable device to measure footsteps, which we have been exploring for the past few days. Surprisingly, Croma and Reliance didn’t have a wide range while the Mi Experience Store at Express Avenue Mall didn’t have the widely popular Mi Watch 2. The staff at the Mi Store was unapologetic that it wasn’t available at their flagship store in South Chennai and instead advised us to visit a few days later when it would arrive at the Store. Really? Do Brand staff think Customers will Queue up anymore for their once coveted products? We ended up buying at another store whose Sales staff surprised us and matched the same price as the Mi Experience store where the device’s price is Rs. 200 lower than outside. At the Mi Experience store, I saw a wide range of products including LED TVs but another flagship Mi A5 model of Mobile Phone wasn’t available, once again. 


Recently, I was reading how Best Buy has embraced omni-channel in the US by ensuring a wide variety of models across Brands were made available at the Store and the Retailer also offered multiple models of delivery such as in-store, same day delivery, Day +1 delivery, at home delivery, etc. This was the only way they could counter the intense competition from Amazon in the US. Back in India, things remain unchanged. Croma has a namesake omni-channel model but the staff are disinterested in taking the effort. The bigger surprise was Mi Experience Store, where the staff could have immediately engaged with us, potential buyers of a Watch to browse the range on a device kept right at the store where one could browse and buy with a deliver in a day or two, Lost opportunity. 


This is just my personal experience and am damn sure there are millions of such experiences across the world where Customers are walking away without purchasing, thanks to disinterested staff and their respective Managements. A report in the Economic Times suggests that of the 1 lakh units kept ready for the opening weekend in India, not more than 50% were sold, thanks to low interest of Customers for various reasons, from new innovations to pricing. This is a first for Apple, what with already sagging Sales and the same trend could continue if they keep making iPhones which people stop buying for snob-value. And a younger brand like Mi which boasts of giving a run for money with its devices could do better with Merchandise Planning some Staff training. hope that’s not asking for too much from a Brand which has apparently carved a niche for itself.  

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Would Pricing alone entice Customers?

This is my 21st year in Retail and I am still not amused that the Indian consumer’s love for discounted prices has never waned. Back in the late 90s when I first encountered a modern Retail outlet at Mandaveli at South Madras where my mother sent me to check out the new Store since the Sugar that was sold there was cheaper and of better quality than at the Ration Shop we would buy regularly, I was quite amazed at the whole set-up. It was a nice shop on RK Mutt Road with a bold red signage and white font which read “Subiksha” meaning prosperity in Sanskrit language. That the Indian Consumer has been price-conscious is known, but what’s interesting that almost all products in the country is today is sold at MRP – of course there are exceptions.  In categories like Electronics, the concept of Maximum Retail Price is just for Statutory Prices – to satisfy the Tax authorities. It’s been more than a decade since Electronic items were sold on MRP, barring new releases of Mobile Phones – Apple retains MRP for quite a long time since launching new product ranges while most other Brands cannot and do not retain MRP for more than 2 weeks since launch. 

In Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG), MRP has always existed and will remain so, thanks to the MRP Act which governs pricing of consumer products. However, most Retailers of all sizes – S, M, L or XL or XXL (pun intended) offer or atleast promise to offer products below MRP. Subiksha’s initial success was due to a Brand promise that “Every product was priced below MRP” including Medicines which was an instant hit. The Retailer carefully priced products a rupee or more below – but at least One rupee lower than MRP which was a rarity those days. Even Kiranas wouldn’t reduce so much from the price of products, however would offer credit to consumers which was the first example of ensuring “Customer stickiness” a buzzword today. Over the years, most other Retailers have played on the Price and used it to their advantage. India’s first organized Grocery Retailer Foodworld had exciting price-offs on special days and this would draw crowds to the stores. Foodworld also launched Private Label products – “different cover, same product” which was cheaper by 10-20% across Spices, Ketchups and so on. A few years later, Food Bazaar came up with the premise of EDLP, a term coined originally by Sears in the 1960s USA which was popularised by Wal-Mart later on. 

Every Day Lower Price by Food Bazaar meant that there was no need for the consumer to worry about price change gimmicks; prices were low every day on a whole lot of items which kept / and keeps driving footfalls to the stores till date. On 26 Jan. 2006, Big Bazaar celebrated “Maha Bachhat Day” or “Big Savings Day” which was sort of similar to Black Friday and Thanksgiving weekend shopping in the West. The result was overwhelming and the Retailer has steadily increased it to 3-4 days now culminating with a weekend. In 2012, Flipkart ran “Big Billion Day” which was a runaway hit while also upset thousands of customers because they couldn’t get their hands on many products which were sold out in seconds and the delivery of products took more time than usual. Proof, that Indian consumers are extremely price-sensitive and will embrace price offers all the time. While this article is mainly focussed on Grocery, the competitive / discounted pricing works for every other product that’s sold in retail – from Agarbathis to Audi Cars, Furniture to Apartments (sans GST, as they advertise!).


I happened to visit D-Mart at Salem in Tamil Nadu, India this week. I have visited one of their outlets in Mumbai 8 years before while exploring setting up CCD within their premises. I was awed by their offering. Almost every product was on discount – below MRP to be precise. No crazy promos, no confusing promotions, buy this and get that and so on. Simple, straightforward discounts as we Consumers like it. In no time, I was carrying a basket and when I went to the Billing counter, I was informed by the girl I was to pay Rs. 901. Unbelievable that I picked so many things. But frankly, there was more to do than pricing which stuck me – the store was spic and span. For a grocery cum Hypermarket in a Tier 2 town with a population of less than 20 lakh population, that was surprising. The girl, when I asked said the store was seven months old and is filled up to the brim on the weekends with Customers shopping till late in to the night after the city is shut. Says something about us.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Can Malls resurrect?

I went to a once-upon-a-time popular Mall in Chennai a week back – to watch a movie at Inox. I went 10 mins before the show began; during the intermission, I bought a Samosa and Tea for Rs. 200 and left the venue just after the film ended. There was nothing for me in the mall to hang around. No coffee shops, interesting retail concepts, a poorly scattered food court and absolutely uninteresting Mall Management. The toilet was a saving grace, neat and clean as always. 


Chennai Citi Centre was one of the earliest new-age Malls in Chennai which opened almost a decade back. Compared to the previously popular and hugely successful Spencer’s Plaza, Citi Centre managed by the ETA Group preferred to lease retail spaces as against selling them like Spencer’s. The initial euphoria was huge – located on RK Salai leading to the world-famous Marina Beach and the road being used by two former Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu viz., Dr. Karunanidhi and Dr. J Jayalalitha for their daily commute. The road was in its best form all these years with Traffic Police stationed all day and night as well as reasonably safe. The Mall opened with Chenai’s iconic Landmark Store, Lifestyle and Inox as anchors followed by Foodworld, Mc Donalds & KFC in the food court and roof top; a slew of national and international brands followed. The “Marina” food court had some interesting concepts offering a range of food and beverage options. Café Coffee Day was conspicuously missing inside. Instead, CCD opened a café right opposite the Mall which continues to be a crowd puller. The Atrium would be used for interesting events and activities.

A few years in to it’s bull run, Express Avenue Mall opened 3 kms away, followed by Phoenix Market City two years back. With a spread of no more than 2 lakh sq.ft for Retail and F&B, Inox Cinemas spread over 30,000 sft, private Office spaces spread over 20,00 sft. and two levels of basement Car Parking, the Mall had little to offer in terms of retail space. As always, Small is Beautiful. Plus, it had a great locational advantage. But the Mall Management let the mall die a slow death for reasons best known to them. Almost all the original Retailers have vacated but for Basics Life and Giordano apart from Lifestyle and Inox. I approached the Mall Management two years back and suggested we could do wonders with what we have on hand and give a run for money due to its locational advantage and easy access to South Madras. They refused to oblige and have remained adamant on letting the opportunity pass by. Even now, the mall is sitting on a gold mine, if only one could take a serious look at what could be done to make it great, once again. 


Citi Centre is not an isolated case. During the Mall boom in India between 2006 – 2012, about 800 Malls of all shapes and sizes were operational at its peak across India’s Top 50 cities & towns. Thanks to a slowing economy since 2013 onwards, uncertain consumer sentiment and tough business conditions, more than half of them have shut down or have morphed in to Office spaces. A recent research report suggested that the Mall vacancies have improved off late and over 80 Malls are expected to open in the next 24 months across India. As we speak about this, VR Chennai opened its doors to the city just a month ago, spread over a million sft. 

So what happens to these Malls which do not get the desired traffic (of customers) anymore? Many people compare this situation to the Ghost Malls in the US, which I believe is not fair. The Indian Economy continues to show strong signs but for some shortfalls here and there. Older Malls can be resurrected, if only the Mall Owners prefer to do so. In our country where most of the Malls are owned by Real Estate companies, their only focus is generating a certain “revenue” per sft. Taking an extra mile to get consumers walking in regularly and keeping them hooked – this is no rocket science. Can be done pretty easily at much lower costs with very minimal efforts. Add to this, inefficient Management Teams in many cases who have never worked earlier in Malls or have a deeper understanding of Retail dynamics. Just that the Mall Owners must come out of their slumber and their fixation for a certain “fixed” revenue model and consider Professional Management. Malls are community centers and Mall owners must connect with the consumers and not just their bank a/cs.
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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Year 5 of Entrepreneurship

Very frankly, I am an Entrepreneur by accident. Having been part of India’s Retail revolution with 21 years’ behind me; having worked across various Retail verticals such as Food & Grocery, Malls, Airport Retail, QSR and Automotive Retail; Rated among Top 50 Retail Professionals in India; Young Achiever Awardee and so on, I never endeared to become an Entrepreneur. My entry to Entrepreneurship was more circumstantial than a planned one, which is very unlikely of me. Having spent a large part of my professional career in Business Strategy, I continue to remain methodical in most of my approaches. But this journey was different.


I decided to take a break from my professional career on this day, 1 Aug. 2014 and set foot in to this unknown, uncertain and unapologetic world of Entrepreneurship. With loads of aspirations in my mind, a continued fondness for Retailing and a special focus on the “Baby Care” format, I set-up Smiling Baby, a retail store that sells products needed for new born babies up to 6 years and Maternity products for Pregnant women and new Mothers. I created a catalogue spanning over 3,000 SKUs almost singlehandedly, right from finding suppliers to POS providers, staffing to architects, almost everything. Ran the venture for a year after having invested close to Rs. 1 Crore of personal savings that my wife and I made over a decade. Within no time, the bank account came to mere 4 digits although we didn’t achieve expected sales. Various factors, including failing miserably to expect potential Investors on my name than on the business, massive impact on offline Retail thanks to online companies selling Diapers and more below cost price; and lastly Investors refusing to put their money on a purely offline model swelled with Capex of over Rs. 40 lakhs per store. 


On the first anniversary of the store, the shop was not operational. Call it bad timing, miserable luck or simply underestimating the vagaries of Entrepreneurship. We moved to a smaller location close by but again, the misery continued; Chennai witnessed massive rains and floods in November 2015 and the store had recreated a mini Niagra within. Lost almost all of the stocks, computers, interiors, et al. The Insurance guys didn’t support stating that the “flooding” clause was not covered in the Policy. Bizarre  Continued to operate for a while until we decided to call it a day, once and for all. The business was shut, lock seal and barrel. Everything was lost, but for my persistence and perseverance. Decided to join hands with a fellow-Retailer and co-create a workable model, which again much to my chagrin, failed. All attempts were through and I didn’t have the courage to invest another penny more into this sinking ship. 


Went to the Himalayas and cooled my heels for a few weeks; introspected at Lake Gurudongmar at 18,000 feet, wandered around Lachen for a few days in freezing winter. Came back resurrected and found new ways to survive. While I was already pursuing Retail Consulting on and off, I decided to focus full time on Consulting and started to reach out to clients. Got a few wins, gathered steam and today have more work coming my way than I can actually handle, that I have to decline a few assignments. Life’s Good. Meanwhile, explored and worked on a Franchise model for Smiling Baby and today we already have a few stores up and running and business is picking steam. Hope to raise an Investment soon and scale up Smiling Baby across the 32 Districts of Tamil Nadu, the southern state of India.


My biggest achievement has been my “perseverance” and my “never give up” attitude. That’s one thing I wasn’t wired as a child by my parents and later by many whom I have admired and continue to do so. However, there is as much guilt that shows up often – my parents and wife continue to support me day and night in my adventures and endeavours, which is atrocious sometimes. I have peeled their skin more than they deserve and this haunts me a lot. But for my wife who’s stood rock steady the last four years – I am not an easy guy to; She’s handled our marriage of 12 years, my emotional tantrums and most importantly, the financials of the household. She has taken care of my Late Aunt who had Stage 3 Advanced Cancer in her Uterus & Vagina, my Kids education and their wellbeing and of course my parents – all singlehandedly. She's my Angel, she's my Investor and so she's my Angel Investor! And she continues to put the same smile on her face every morning while waking up and puts more effort than the previous day at workplace till date. 


Entrepreneurship is not easy. It is not for everyone. We don’t just need a strong financial backing and good luck – more than that, we need a supporting family and loved ones. A lot of people will come and encourage us midway, some may even discourage us but what matters is our undying spirit to keep moving on. My journey has just begun, Miles to Go…

Friday, July 20, 2018

Multiplex & Movies - Convenience or Complex?

It’s been a week since the Maharashtra Government passed a mandate that Cinema goers can bring their own snacks / food items and that the Multiplex owners cannot stop them from consuming the same. The response to this from various sections of the ecosystem has been mixed. While a section of film viewers is excited that they can carry their preferred snacks inside the theatres, another set of patrons are quite upset, so much so that there has been much disdain about this on social media. Some have compared the expected outcome to that of train journeys where passengers would bring parathas and Idlis and how the whole cabin would smell (or stink) of various Indian spices, especially.

On the other hand, Multiplex owners are clearly unhappy. They would be losing a majority of their revenues, estimated at approximately 30% of their Turnover. This would hurt their business economics and may even make a few screens unviable, especially inside Malls where the real estate costs are significantly higher. To give a background, there were about 12,000 standalone screens and less than 50 multiplex screens a decade back. As I write this article, there are an estimated 2,000 multiplex screens (Screens inside a multiplex & not just the number of Multiplexes) while over 4,000 standalone theatres have shut down, unable to cope with the latest improvements in technology, leading to lower patronage of users, and subsequently inability to maintain the screens. Due to heavy investments, Indian entertainment companies are adding no more than 150 screens pa while International players like Cineapolis couldn’t cope with the spiralling costs, which are never offset with premium services such as push back seats, exclusive box areas and so on. In comparison, the US has 40,000 screens and China, about 24,000. In the same tune, the Box Office Market in the US is about $10 billion pa, $5 billion pa in China and about $3.5 Billion in India. The average ticket price in the US is about $8, $5.5 in China while India is at a distant $2.


India makes about 2,000 films pa, 60% of which are from rest of India while 40% is in just one language - Hindi, which has a national appeal. From Amitabh to Shah Rukh, Rekha to Deepika, Hindi film stars have always been able to captivate the imagination of a majority of Indians, undoubtedly. Then there are regional stalwarts in almost every State of India who command record salaries as well as have magnificent BO openings when their films release. Despite all of this, the average time for a new movie to have a pirated version available online is under 12 hours. The July 9 release Kaala feat. Superstar Rajinikanth had its pirated version available by 8 am, even as the film only released in Singapore and Malaysia the previous night. Online activists are quick to bring down the ratings of a film with Video reviews published on YouTube which further minimises the potential of the film even during the first weekend. Interestingly, many films which had lukewarm opening have been able to boost theatre viewership through similar online reviews, positive ones of course, sometimes even rigged/paid. 

The Multiplex culture started expanding when a standalone theatre by the name Priya Cinema in Vasant Vihar area of Delhi set up multiple screens at Malls with its international partner Village Roadshow, which subsequently became to be known as PVR Cinemas. Today, it’s a public limited company having over Rs. 800 Crores in Turnover and has a number of innovations to its credit and is the most preferred Multiplex chain in India with a presence spanning Chandigarh to Chennai, Baroda to Calcutta. An estimated 800 malls of various sizes ranging from 1.5 lakh sft to 1 million sft came up during the peak period of India’s Retail explosion between 2006 - 2014. Therefore, almost every Mall had to have a Multiplex with a minimum of 3 screens up to 12 screens in some cases. Due to high operating costs (mostly rental & maintenance), Multiplexes pegged their ticket prices higher thank standalone theatres. In some states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the Government had a cap on ticket prices which added further strain on their viability. Therefore, most Multiplexes took to enhancing the experience with culinary delights with flavoured pop-corn, designer ice-cream varieties, gourmet food and so on. Therefore, a Samosa could cost between Rs. 40 – 80 per piece (Rs. 20-25 in the city) depending on which city/Mall one was consuming. A portion of Pop Corn came at 100 with higher prices for exotic flavours. There were times when consumers preferred to visit cinema halls just for dining & recreation than watching films. And Multiplex owners weren’t complaining one bit.


Until recently, perhaps 2 years ago when ardent film goers and the public at large felt that the food and beverage costs were so high, that for a family of 3 or 4, the cost of dining was 2 to 3 times the cost of tickets per person, putting heavy pressure especially on middle class families. This led to a lot of offline discussions and online debates, arguments with theatre staff and fist fights at public spaces, making the entire process of watching films at cinema theatres an expensive and an uninviting affair. With the economy slowing since 2016, Demonitisation impact, GST on Cinema Tickets and overall uncertainties galore, (The BJP Government thinks otherwise, though) piracy at unprecedented levels with nothing being done by the Government or Producers or the Film fraternity, the footfalls to Multiplexes started decreasing steadily. So much so, that as recent as Jan-Mar 2018, the average occupancy at Multiplexes has been less than 40% on weekdays and close to 75% on weekends. Except for a few mega hits (across languages), the overall Box Office earnings haven’t been one bit rosy. 

This has created a huge pressure on Multiplex chains with their dependence on F&B much more today than before. I have been organising full shows for the first weekend of every Rajinikanth movie for the past 11 years. I book an entire screen (approx. 220 seats) and distribute the tickets at face value to friends and friends of friends. Over the years, it’s almost been a custom now and many people look forward to the entire experience. I would usually organise one show on a Saturday morning of the opening weekend but due to unprecedented Marketing efforts and expectations galore, I organised 3 shows for the 2017 blockbuster Kabali feat. Superstar Rajinikanth. Similarly, I approached the Multiplex chain (am withholding the name for personal reasons) for the 2018 release Kaala but I was in for a shock this time. The ticket price had already been officially hiked by the Tamil Nadu Government and capped at Rs. 205 (in Chennai); add to this, a compulsory F&B Combo of Pop Corn & Coke for another Rs. 195, taking a single ticket cost to Rs. 400! Forget convincing 200 people, I was not ready to pay such a figure for my own family of six. So, I preferred to watch in standalone theatres, although I watched the film thrice within the first 10 days of its release. The film bombed at the BO and there has been much disappointment among Producers, Distributors & Exhibitors. Sanju, feat. Ranbir Kapoor, a film which was the official biopic of Actor Sanjay Dutt has apparently grossed Rs. 500 Crores at the BO in India and abroad, which is a saving grace to the Industry. Amitabh Bachhan starrer “102 not out” was off the screens in less than 2 weeks and is already available on Amazon Prime. 


Talking of OTTs, there has been an aggressive push by Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar and others with buying exclusive rights from the Producers even before theatrical rights are sold. With lowering data costs (for handheld devices) by the day, multiple options to view content such as Connected Tvs, Smart Phones, Tablets, etc. and the growing popularity of this medium, even pirated film watching has come down significantly as per Industry estimates. I reckon that the Multiplex owners are facing one of the darkest times right now, with lower patronage to the screens coupled with external factors galore. 

By allowing film goers to bring their own food to the theatres, would occupancy levels increase? This move looks more positive for a few reasons – 1) it brings down the cost of watching family entertainers by more than half, thereby making the entire effort less expensive for families than before 2) it could drive a completely new set of the aspiring middle class audience, one that is looking forward to a world class (hic!) experience watching cinemas at Multiplexes but with the ability to offset food costs 3) This move would most importantly make the Multiplex Owners more conscious about how they price their products. I have said this before and I repeat – instead of selling 1,000 samosas a day at Rs. 50 a piece, they could sell 2,000 samosas at Rs. 25 a piece. This is just one example. And with lower food prices, volumes will certainly improve – this is the main reason theatre occupancy is much higher even today at standalone cinemas than at Multiplexes. While one has to put up with spicy masala odour at Cinemas, it is of great cheer and joy to watch a film with a full house audience. And with the core Indian mentality of “sharing & caring” we could see unknown families in neighbouring seats share food & sweets. A novel way to build Communal harmony, perhaps. Much needed right now in India. 

I plan to carry specially flavoured Idlis for the next outing. Anyone wishes to share some?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

We are Chennai…

It was long pending but took a drive all the way up to the latest entrant in Chennai, the newly opened (partially though) VR Chennai, a Retail Centre spanning over 6 lakh square feet (in the first phase) adjoining the outer ring road, just outside the acceptable (hic!) city limits.  Planned and executed by Virtuous Retail, a Mall Management Company which has its Mall's presence at Surat, Bangalore and Punjab, the Centre is almost an oasis, what with a fantastic spread of Retail, F&B and Entertainment Opportunities in the anvil. 



The Mall is located north of Koyambedu, west of Anna Nagar and just after the Arumbakkam flyover. That this place existed for a huge strcture such as a Mall to come up came us a surprise to many in the city including a lot of Retail Professionals. 

So why does Chennai need yet another Mall while the existing ones are not providing double digit returns to Retailers? Why yet another Multiplex while the number of cinema goes has been steadily decreasing over the years, thanks to alternate entertainment options such as OTT Apps? Why should Brands invest heavily in yet another Retail  experiment (of sorts) while the existing Retail spaces are yet to be fully sweat?


Frankly, I have no answers on behalf of the whole of the Retail Fraternity. But here are my observations.

Chennai has historically been a high-street market, despite the so-called evolution and revolution of Malls and Shopping Centres in India since 2006. One of India’s first shopping centres came up at Chennai in the late 1990s – the iconic Spencers Plaza. It was a welcome break for shoppers who would otherwise throng the likes of T. Nagar, Purasawalkam fraught with heat and humidity while Spencers (as it was nicknamed) was the first a/c mall in India (Crossroads was just coming up in Mumbai but had entry restrictions while Ansal Plaza in Delhi was non A/c). Spencers was a super hit from day one with the second and third phases coming up in bursts but that’s when the High street Market continued to dominate and thanks to a property-ownership model at Spencers, leasing larger spaces was a challenge. And the mall slowly lost its sheen.

For a city of its size, there are just three malls of a reasonable size & scale -  Express Avenue, Phoenix Market City and Forum Vijaya Mall which together have about 20 lakh soft of actual Retail (minus the Cinemas). Interestingly, these three Malls form a nice Triangle while seen on a Map. The earliest entrant City Centre (Mylapore) failed due its own inefficiencies while the Ampa Mall (Arumbakkam) did quite well in its early years and slowly added fatigue & monotony; A suburban Grand Mall (at Velachery) sitting on a gold mine lost due to internal challenges of choosing the right sort of Clients. Then there is a Marina Mall on OMR which is yet to take off fully while the Spectrum Mall at Padi is a non-starter. MARG, the construction to research conglomerate lost out on a fantastic opportunity with it’s Mall structure half complete and lying idle for more than 5 years. 



So why a new Mall now?

I personally think that this Mall is a breather for Shoppers to avoid the congested bylanes of Anna Nagar and its periphery and head to this wonderful premises instead where they get an equal share of shopping, dining & entertainment.  For Retailers, this is a boon come true of sorts. Reason: The city had expanded in the deep south on OMR a decade back; it expanded towards Tambaram five years back. However, the western suburbs have been neglected for long. With so many thousands of people heading to work all the way up to Sriperumbudur daily, there is a huge chunk of middle class settlement happening in this part of the city. Also, there are very few options where a discerning Shopper gets satisfied with variety which VR Chennai is sure to offer.



I hope PVR Cinemas open soon, with a slew of films slated to release starting with Kamal Hassan’s Viswaroopam in August all the way up to November when Superstar Rajnikanth’s 2.0 will release after the recent Kaala. Now the question is will they be able to fill the cinemas, especially with newer challenges every day.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Food E-Commerce – Disruption or Disaster?

Food E-Commerce – Disruption or Disaster?
There has always been a dichotomy – does Technology make us better (more productive) or lazier? The jury is still out. 

Ever since Uber Eats launched in Chennai a year back, I have been a big fan of this ordering service. While food delivery has been around for many years now, it was with the advent of funded Start-ups in Bangalore half a decade back that this mode of reaching customers became more mainstream. Restaurants of all sizes started tapping on these small companies run by 20 somethings usually which would pick up food and deliver to the doorsteps of customers. During my decade long stay in Bangalore, almost every second weekend, we would visit a restaurant and atleast once a month would be a house-party at a friend or friends’ friend place. Invariably, the food wouldn’t reach on time and it would be served in basic plastic containers (and sometimes in aluminium foils) – mostly cold. The Microwave (another retail revolution) at every Bangalorean’s home (almost) was just a saving grace. Cut to 2014, start-ups were delivering food packets all day and night and through the midnight in some cases, what with same households making multiple orders in a span of 3 hours, perhaps for starters, main course and even deserts and ice-cream. Business was good, everyone thought.


Until restaurants started feeling the pinch. Companies like Swiggy and Foodpanda who were charging low single digit commission from eateries slowly increased their rates which was hurting the restaurants. Over time, the eateries had no option but to increase their Menu prices, exclusively for online purchases. Customers, as always are smarter than we think. So, they started making their choices wisely. Which saw a slump in orders for the Startups as well as Restaurants. Valuations dipped, so did re-Investments. This was a vicious cycle. Many restaurants (a lot of them start-ups too) went out of business because of this rigged phenomenon. However, thanks to a slowing economy and poor offtake of the over all economy, amongst other things impacing our day today lives such as Demonitisation, GST, hike in Cinema Ticket Prices, Mall Parking Charges and so on, consumer visits to retail centres reduced and there was an indirect positive impact in food e-commerce. Things are back now to some extent, with many restaurants reporting as much as over 25% of their business coming through the digital platforms, of course with higher prices (to consumers). 

Cut to 2017, Uber launched Uber Eats, a digital ordering platform akin to their cab hailing service. Just like how Uber Cabs were charging below their cost of operations, Food delivery was unbelievably cheaper. To increase “stickiness” – a word abused by E-Commerce companies for a decade, Uber started with Zero delivery charges for the first few weeks, so consumers experienced their world class (sic) delivery service. No doubt, App downloads swelled and today perhaps has more active users than other platforms, thanks to their EDLP akin to Wal-Mart & Sears: Everyday Low Prices on Food items. Quite literally. In fact, for ardent users of Uber Eats, the App is actually a discovery App. Every time they open the App, there is a new addition of a restaurant and wonderful prices, mostly predatory. And of course, some of the previous names (of restaurants) would be missing for obvious reasons.


When I experienced one such surprise last month, a flask of Tea and 3 Samosas were offered at half the price by Uber Eats with a Rs. 10 delivery fee. Today when I ordered, it was offered at 33% discount. I still ordered because it was absolute VFM. I guess in a few days, they would straighten up the prices but the Delivery Fee would remain low, thereby retaining the customers. I only wonder how long this party would last. Needless, there is abundance PE Money lying out there. But is this whole food e-commerce really helping the ecosystem? Are restaurants only to focus on their delivery business and if yes, why run restaurants at all? Perhaps, dark kitchens would do. And for Start-Ups, well Uber is not one, how long would Entrepreneurs keep the engine going with deep discounts? A number of eateries who aren’t offering the food online are already impacted. What happens next? Very soon, I plan to order on Uber Eats sitting in the lobby of a Mall, so I get the food at a lower price! Would be interesting to see how this works. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

SS EOSS 2018 is a full house

After a long time, I went shopping. Once again, of course during EOSS popularly known as End of Season Sale which usually occurs twice a year after each season is over (SS – Spring Summer & AW - Autumn Winter). I recall, during my days at Benetton in 2004, there were not more than 3-4 weeks of EOSS, which would begin right after Valentine’s Day (late-Feb) & just before Ganesh Chathurthi (July). There would be a frenzy among Customers to get the best merchandise at lower prices during this time and the EOSS was a great crowd puller. A number of first time customers would turn up at the stores, those who’ve otherwise not been the Brand’s patrons earlier. They would engage with the Brand, the Staff, take Trials and purchase. If they liked what they wore, they would come back and buy again, even at full prices. Therefore, EOSS was a great tool to induce first time buyers (of a Brand).

Things started changing slowly, especially between 2006-2012 during the Retail explosion pan-India with over 300 Malls opening simultaneously across the country. What was supposed to work “for” the Retailers and Brands worked “against” them. Let me give a perspective;

Let’s say, Brand A had 3 -5 stores per Metro (around 2006) and a small presence in 1-2 Department stores. Circa 2012, the same Brand had a dozen or more stores plus larger counters at various Department stores in the city. Add to this, so many International, Domestic & Regional Brands started exploding the retail scenario in the country with total shopping space quadrupling every two years. 


All of a sudden, customers had too much choice, and at better price points. If a (Male) Customer had 4 brands to choose for Formalwear earlier, there were atleast 20+ brands in the same space now. Similarly, for casualwear & sportswear while new categories like fitness & lounge wear were created.

Meanwhile, the Bansals were building E-Commerce websites which offered clothes and accessories at half the price (like books!) and they called it disruption. It was indeed, that Customers could shop from their desks or sofas – just that a few Brand Managers got it all wrong. While pushing unsold merchandise to e-commerce (at discounts), thanks to a general slowdown in Retail Sales, even fresh Merchandise were being sold at lower prices than at stores. Mall Owners were gasping, feeling high and dry with footfalls barely hitting the precincts during the weekdays and largely window shopping over the weekends. Everyone was talking E-Commerce. So many Brands built their own websites while most of them who wanted an online presence aligned with E-commerce Marketplaces like Myntra & Jabong, as well as horizontal players like Flipkart & Amazon. 

As an ecosystem, we (Retailers) pampered Customers to shop online, return if they didn’t like what they bought, get a 100% refund if they deemed fit and encouraged them with a variety of discounts. This became a daily habit and more Brand Managers were getting intrigued with this incredible opportunity. All along, many Retailers missed meeting Customer Expectations at the Retail Outlets. Customer Engagement was negligible, Customer Service levels were dropping and the Staff were getting impatient not being able to earn more, thanks to a fall in their Incentives which was directly linked to lower Sales, thanks to fewer footfalls. The cookie crumbled. Many Brands shrunk their operations, some exited less important markets and a few downed their shutters. 


It’s been reasonably slow the last 4 seasons for most Retailers. However, I saw something incredible last weekend at one of India’s largest Department Stores. Customers were patiently waiting in a long queue to bill their products which took an average 20 mins during peak hours. Add to this, they have already spent quite some time trying out their outfits at the mobile trial rooms set-up. I was convinced, Customers haven’t shunned Offline Retail. They will come back to the stores when they see “value” for what they buy coupled with fantastic / personalised service. Ofcourse they are here for discounts right now, but then, the same discount is available on their Mobile Apps. So why did they come? Think.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Is Consumer Loyalty Dead?

Commencing this weekend (23 June), almost all Fashion Brands in India will go on EOSS – End of Season Sale, a biennial activity that has been witnessing a higher share of annual sales. When I used to work for Benetton as Area Manager in 2004, things were different. There used to be EOSS Twice a year followed by the “seasons” as they are called, viz., “Spring Summer (SS)” and “Autumn Winter (AW)”. EOSS would usually start after Valentine’s Day in the hope that shoppers would still shop at full price for the big day to impress their dear ones. And the next EOSS would occur after Schools and Colleges have reopened, just ahead of the Festival season that usually begins from August onwards. Slowly, things started changing, rather realigning to Global trends. Many international brands had to match their Global Fashion Calendar and the year-end Christmas Sales, so the EOSS was pushed to December & January and accordingly the next EOSS moved earlier to end-June. And that’s the current trend now.


From Apparel Department Stores to Mono Brands, almost all Brands try to exhaust their Stocks during the EOSS. Interestingly, 15 years back, EOSS was restricted to a little less than 3-4 weeks. However, now it has moved to 6-8 weeks. There are many reasons that could be attributed to this;

  • There is limited seasonality these days, in a sense Customers shop all through the year compared to “Occasion-based Shopping” such as for festivals, wedding season, special occasions etc. So, while the lean periods through the year have more or less flattened, the demand spread has also evened out
  • Ever since the 2008 Economic Crash worldwide, Customers have become wary of spending high on products which would eventually be available at a lower price in a few weeks (sic). While India saw a boom in Mall culture between 2009-2014, the sheer number of Brands and their availability all through the year have been a cake for the Customers with easier accessibility 365 days
  • While I am not a big fan of “E-Commerce killed Offline” theory, it is a fact that there has been a reasonable impact for fashion brands, especially. This is mainly because the unsold Inventory were pushed to their digital vertical by Brands to liquidate the stocks and over time, the likes of Jabong and Myntra have become more of “Factory Outlets” where discounted Merchandise are available, always. It is no wonder that the share of products which are on Full Price on such Ecommerce Marketplaces is relatively low compared to those on Discounts. Actually, this is applicable for all categories
  • Department Stores offer a larger “Discount Pie” compared to the Mono Brands, given that most of them operate on a “Buy and Sell” model with no stock returns to the Brands. Therefore, in an effort to reduce the impact of their exposure to unsold Inventory, Department Stores offer aggressive discounts & promotions to ensure they clear old stocks as much as possible. 
So, with all the above factors taken in to account, I wonder at times, is there “Brand Loyalty” left anymore especially for the Fashion Brands?


When was the last time, You – the Reader of this Article, bought the same Brand of Apparel or Footwear or Watch or Sunglasses? Are you wearing now the same Brand that you wore yesterday? If two Brands are offering similar discounts during EOSS (or even at full price), would you buy a particular Brand? If so, then why?

So, the responses could be very subjective and suits each one of our needs. 

Honestly, I do not see Consumers clinging on to any particular Brand and I attribute it to two reasons – variety offered by over Top 500 Indian and International Brands (and Labels) across products categories from Perfumes to Casual wear, formal shoes, running shoes and beyond. 

Are you rewarding your Loyal Customers just with just Loyalty Points, Sale Previews and price-offs? Is this going to be sustainable at all in the long term? 

How would you retain them for longer – LTV as they say, Life Time Value (sic)?