Sunday, June 10, 2018

What’s in a name?


Is naming hotels after castes illegal, or will it amount to casteism? No, said the Madurai branch of the Madras high court, terming it ‘commercial speech and holding that there was nothing wrong in a Trichy hotel calling itself ‘Sri Krishna Iyyar Traditional Bramanal Café’.

About four and half years ago, several Periyar Dravida Kazhagam members tried to deface the hotel’s name board and were arrested and jailed for 22 days before being released on bail. 
Quashing the criminal cases against 112 people, Justice G R Swaminathan pointed out the ‘sheer hypocrisy’ of the petitioners as they had not showed defiance against similar entities elsewhere. “In Madurai, where this bench is situated, there are hotels named after castes and communities. ‘Konar Mess’ and ‘Mudaliyar Idly Kadai’ are well-known instances. Speaking for myself, I used to regularly go to ‘Reddiyar Mess’ at Pondicherry for lunch during my college days,” said Justice Swaminathan.


It is the constitutional right of the proprietor of a hotel to name it after a caste or community, he said, adding: “Unless untouchability is practised or only persons from that caste are allowed entry, nothing is illegal in it.”

Much has been discussed about the religious and caste identities of Retailers in India. I am told this segregation exists, even in developed countries between people of various religious identities. We still see people of certain religious identities in India not shopping at outlets run by those of other communities. In one instance, I learned that a Retailer had to shut the store in a town because the customers there felt uneasy while the jewellery they purchased were being delivered in their hands by those of a certain community, which they felt was offensive. This was in the year 2016.

The reason I am writing this article is because there is an unusual discomfort among the citizens of India, with mindless accusations drawn upon each other thanks to the hidden agenda of politicians. In many cases, the whole thing is vicious. Retailers take advantage of Politicians from their caste and they help the Politicians in turn to win subsequent elections. There are instances where people of various ideologies fight among each other and hence boycott certain Retailers. 


It is common to see those of non-Hindu community make flower garlands outside Temples for Hindu Gods and I have personally seen this till date in areas like Mylapore & Triplicane. Neither do Customers have a qualm about the same nor does God ever came in some devotee’s dream and told them to boycott those from other religions selling flowers that decorate HIM.

In my own journey of 21 years in Organised Retail, I have personally never segregated a customer based on their race or religion. In fact, I always say that it is from the money the Customer pays us for the products or services that we feed our own families. So, where is the question of religion coming here? This realisation is very important. Especially in the current situation. I guess Retailers (and people at large) must rise above the growing polarisation thrust upon us by fringe elements and a few politicians for our own good. For we cannot expect that this trend will take us anywhere forward. No way.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Travel is an Incredible Opportunity

I have been travelling regularly on work for over a decade now. As a kid, my travel (mostly by bus & train) for outstation trips was limited to 2-3 times a year. My first business travel was in 2002 when I was called for an Interview by Shoppers Stop in Mumbai for the role of a Supervisor for their Chennai Store. I negotiated hard with the HR guy to get me a flight ticket although it was out of bounds by their policy. I flew Air India – a noon flight onward and a 2am flight for return since that was the lowest fare. Then I started flying across South India to expand the business of Benetton in 2005 with monthly visits to Delhi to our HO. The first visa on my passport was in 2006 and well, it was for Switzerland where I went to learn Travel Retail which I was implementing at Bangalore International Airport (BIAL). I flew to Singapore First Class onward and Business Class return for the first time, to speak at a conference on Indian Aviation in 2008 with my tickets being sponsored by the Organisers.  Travelled to 10 countries across Asia and Europe during my stint at BIAL. My domestic travel peaked during my stints at Café Coffee Day in 2009 where I set-up 140 cafes pan-India and thereafter at Royal Enfield Motorcycles in 2012 where I set-up 160 Dealerships across India.


Those days, I literally used to live out of a suitcase, travelling 3-4 days a week, more than 40 weeks a year. It was a lot of fun although tiring. But a sense of accomplishment looking at my professional achievements down the years. I have met many people at Airports – from childhood classmates to celebrities to politicians to academicians to Industrialists and a long list of personalities. I even travelled with a person of the third gender from Hyderabad to Bangalore once and trust me, it was some experience I would say.

Since 2014 my travel reduced to almost 10-15 days a year when I chose to become an Entrepreneur and started my offline Retail venture Smiling Baby in Chennai. I restarted my travel since 2017 when I began focusing on my Consulting Assignments. Interestingly, I have travelled over 45 weeks during the past 52 weeks, mostly by train since I prefer taking an overnight journey for distances less than 500 kms.


I have always travelled in a/c coaches this past year and mostly in the 2nd A/c Coaches since the bills are paid by my clients. I have always wondered why & how some people manage to fly Business or First Class and have done a lot of searches on this topic online. Empirical data suggests that those who fly in higher classes are more productive upon arrival in their destination cities. They get to sit comfortably, sleep on a flat bed, read a lot, get less distracted while working due to fewer passengers and hence are refreshed by the time they arrive in the next station. Indian Prime Minister Mr. Modi is a classic example – we have seen him fresh as an Apple just the day upon arrival even after trans-Atlantic flights!


I travelled on 1st a/c last night from Chennai to Madurai and this was so comfortable. Even in 2nd A/c, sometimes I get side upper or lower berths and I have seen my productivity nose-dive the next day. But the 1st a/c coaches are so comfortable. The berth is wider, fewer people, lesser banter and more comfortable a/c with a bigger pillow and nicer rugs. Trust me, the day after such comfortable travel is not just a more productive day but also a happier day, which boosts morale and work efficiencies. I travelled in 3rd A/c a week back and had a upper berth onward and lower berth up on return and it was not even just uncomfortable but very frustrating. The next two days were a nightmare.


This is not to demean the millions of people who travel in non-a/c coaches or other means of public transport. Travelling comfortably works best for me to increase my productivity and I believe, to each his own. Her own. Whichever mode, travel is a great opportunity to learn new things, meet new people and understand life better during the journeys. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Does Loyalty still exist?


I was speaking on a Panel Discussion last week at a conference hosted by Asia Retail Congress at Mumbai with some fantastic speakers from the Indian Retail Ecosystem, where the topic for us was to discuss Customer Loyalty. While preparing the points to ponder, I was wondering whether Loyalty still exists in today’s context. Well, yes – it sounds crazy if I say there is no Loyalty in the consumer business today. Don’t believe me? Take a look.

The toothpaste and toothbrush – look how consumers get swayed by newer options and attractive advertisements? There was a joke that a dentist/compounder who would appear in such an ad for toothpaste was once seen wearing a stethoscope! The body wash/soap – the options we see at supermarkets. The clothes we wear – this one’s interesting. Let me ask you, is the dress you are wearing right now – was it the same brand that you purchased most recently? If yes, you are part of a small minority of consumers who are still brand loyal. The so-called disruption by new-age startups who thundered the e-commerce world a decade back and continue to bleed in billions – do consumers have any loyalty still left over? Again, consumers prefer to buy from trusted websites (is Trust=Loyalty? Later, on that) where they could probably have the option of returning faulty goods sold by unscrupulous vendors on whom the Amazons & the Flipkarts don’t have much command. A Big Billion Day or an interesting Sale period – and consumers swing their loyalty there.


Let’s look at a few touchy, personal products. Let me start with Gillette which I have personally been using for the past 2 decades. I started with a Presto plastic shaving razor worth Rs. 10 twenty years back. I am now using the “Mach 3 Advanced” which is some Rs. 350+ per razor! And while the Advertisement claims a 30-day use, it still warrants “Conditions Apply” such as the skin tone, number of times repeating the shave and hard water. For me, this is one classic case of Customer Loyalty where consumers have continued to stick on with the Brand and its extensions such as Shaving Gel, After Shave, Body Wash & so on. Let’s look at Sanitary Napkins. Women I know (and I don’t discuss this with many!) use a particular brand/model – purely because of operational comfort. Interestingly, Brands which come in with alternatives offer sample packs or ones with fewer pads, so consumers can perhaps try and decide. Still, the loyalty is extreme. Women continue to stick to their favourites.

Look at Café Coffee Day. With 1,500 cafes across India over 2 decades, the brand continues to drive at least one lakh consumers every day and sells over 50,000 cappuccinos daily! Cut to competition – the nearest café chain Starbucks has just over 100 cafes pan-India although the argument is that their daily turnover per café is 3x of CCD. Indeed, their food prices are 3x of that of what we get at CCD and their beverages, at least 2x. So, that explains.


Royal Enfield was an underdog seven years back, selling 1 lakh vehicles per annum. Now, they sell almost 1 lakh units per month. Today, RE sells more motorcycles worldwide than all other premium brands put together – some feat this.


So, does Loyalty exist? I have a hung verdict here t least for now. The house is definitely split over this issue. For certain products and categories, consumers show extreme loyalty while for some, there hardly exists any loyalty. Travel, Food, even Luxury – take your pick. Look through the lens and you’ll see how fragmented the so-called Customer Loyalty is. And Loyalty Cards – well, I shall write a follow-up column on this shortly.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Waiter, Please Wait.

You walk in to a restaurant and search for a place to get seated yourself. While you are still contemplating to wash your hands (yes, few of us still do) before eating, the Waiter or the Captain ask you for your Order (A Waiter manages usually 3 tables and a Captain manages 3 Waiters). The Waiter narrates the standard Menu, usually the top selling ones and at times the slowest selling ones as advised by the Kitchen King. You ask for the Menu and the Waiter sulks. You see that he Menu has atleast 200 items and start discussing with the Waiter asking for details about a few interesting names. The sulking and discomfort of the Waiter increases with an indifferent attitude as well and you decide to order something. If you are a bigger group, say 4 plus, things get a bit complicated.


Assuming you order a quick snack, even before you start digging on it, the Waiter again prods you for the next item order. And this repeats till you ask for the Bill. Worse still, the bill arrives even as you are about to start eating the last item you’ve ordered. The Waiter stands till you pay up and if it’s a plastic card you plan to pay, then he gets even more moody for the tip amount then is suspicious. Only till you have left a decent tip on the folder which usually looks dirtiest and appears to be a charity by some Bank, the Waiter leaves you in freedom to enjoy your meal. His sulking continues if he’s unhappy with the tip. And you feel miserable.

Does this sound familiar? Has it happened to you or someone you know?


This is the state of affairs at most restaurants in India, especially in South India where I spend most of my time. When the above scenario occurs, I tell the Waiters and Captains that that they are running a restaurant, especially a dine-in where patience is key. I try to explain one waiter at a time, one hotel at a time, the difference between fast-food and dine-in. Most fast-food joints in India have a pay-up/self-service model where the Guest first pays for the food and drink and then settles down at a table, standing or sitting. While in a dine-in restaurant, you expect someone to actually come to you and serve you. I take the effort to educate the Waiters the difference between the two and that the Guest has preferred their outlet over others. Some get the drift, some pass me on as a complaining customer.

The above has happened to me so many restaurants including some marquee names. Sadly, the fault is not of the Waiter, rather it is the of the Management, which hardly takes the effort and time to train the staff on etiquette and behavior. Most restaurants have this ego that he Guests are flocking to their outlets only for the food they provide. And believe the food taste, quality and price will compensate for any otherwise unacceptable behavior. There are a few at least in Chennai who provide special prices or “Combos” during popular hours and the Waiters believe they are doing charity for Guests who are short on budgets or cash.


In my last 21 years, I have said this every day to my staff – “Remember, our families are able to eat three meals a day because the Customers decided us over the others in the Market. Be grateful for that and treat them as Guests and not as paying machines”. Sadly, somewhere Business owners lack empathy and this drizzles down to the lowest guy in the rank. With his or her educational and cultural background, I do not expect the Waiters to pick up patience and empathy all by themselves. But how many company Chiefs actually walk the floor every day and see what the Guest is going through? At least, I have seen very few of them.