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…