Sunday, August 4, 2019

Eulogising Friendship, one cup at a time!

Like so many other western concepts, Indians have been celebrating Friendship Day on the first Sunday of August for over 2 decades or more now, quite actively. It was in the late 90s when films eulogising Friendship grew and carved a niche for their attention-grabbing scenes, dialogues and songs. 


So much so that the song “Yeh bandhan to, pyar ka bandhan hai” from the film “Karan Arjun” feat. Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan went on to become a super-duper hit for the then generation which probably wouldn’t have been privy to the iconic “Yeh Dosti” song from the Hindi film Sholay. Similarly, films of all languages had their own friendship songs and AR Rahman’s “Mustafa Mustafa” was perhaps the most hummed friendship song in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu, thanks to the immense popularity of the 1999 film “Kadal Desam” which was among the first films of a three-way love story and each friend making a sacrifice for the other in a round-robin fashion. On the other hand, retailers like Landmark, Odyssey, Crossword, etc. selling greeting cards took cognisance to this fad, which was originally conceptualised by none other than the Founder of Hallmark Cards, Joyce Hall in 1930, only to promote the concept of sharing Greeting Cards for various occasions, thanks to a falling interest and demand for greeting cards in the US during the 19z. Much later in the year 1998, Nane Annan, wife of Kofi Annan, former UN General Secretary named “Winnie the Pooh” as World’s Ambassador of Friendship at the United Nations. Although the concept doesn’t have much takers worldwide over the past half-century, I guess Indian Consumers have taken this “social festival” actively, thanks to a full-pronged promotion by Films, Brands and Retailers.


In the 90s, it was quite popular in India for friends to buy greeting cards and send to each other, some by post and others passed on in person (this was when post cards and inland letters were fading off). Although it was gender agnostic, it was mostly to the opposite gender – what would later on become a dating fad to the generation in the 80s, 90s and early millennium. Those days, due to the lack of social networking Apps like Facebook or Dating Apps like Tinder, people would actually see, meet, greet and spend time with each other in person (as ironic as it sounds today!). 

And the most common meeting point was none other than a Café Coffee Day outlet (of course, temples, churches and other social places like parks were common too). As the by-line of the iconic retailer read, “A Lot can happen over Coffee”, many people took it too seriously to meet their loved ones at a café and would go on to propose their love and their intention to marry. While I do not have data to correlate how many such proposals would have been received at CCDs over the past 2 decades and how many were converted (!!!) to become marriages and how many would eventually become break-ups or even end up at divorces. But CCD played an important role in this real-life social networking.


The Greeting Cards industry was perhaps the biggest beneficiary because in the 90s, a large sized Greeting card would cost more than a Coffee at CCD (or any other equivalent such café, probably). There were variations in sizes – the shape of Alphabets, Cartoon Characters, pets and of course that of a heart. Archies, Hallmark and even UNICEF which worked closely with so many corporates for meaningful collaborations made a windfall during their peak years by encouraging patrons to buy greeting cards to wish one another. However, the proposition of exchanging cards became irrelevant over time, thanks to the advent and advancement of technology, especially with emails and early social sites like Orkut gaining popularity. Today, e-cards are a norm and there are hundreds of Apps which help users to create fantastic digital cards for various occasions and not just for Friendship Day, perhaps. However, CCD remains an icon for friendship and even their interiors / graphics inside the cafes portray young ones, what with the designs only getting more contemporary over the years.


From salons to cafes, restaurants to Malls, Friendship Day is a large and still untapped marketing opportunity. How I wish Marketeers create a larger than life consumption opportunity around this day which celebrates the spirit of Friendship & Camaraderie which traverses across professional and social boundaries. 

Wish people could discuss this over coffee – after all, A lot can happen over Coffee!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

My Retail Journey with the Coffee King

I have sang praises for the coffee consistency across India. I have shared so many anecdotes about my most favourite Indian Retail brand. I have done case studies on what went well and what didn’t for my previous company. And I have also occasionally complained about a few things I haven’t liked, much to the chagrin of my former and present colleagues. But I never thought I would have to write such an obituary for my former boss, retail czar, coffee king of India and the most unassuming Late Shri. VG Sidhartha.  


My first premium coffee was at Barista, KNK Road in Chennai in the late 90s. But I preferred CCD over Barista for two reasons – there were more youngsters at CCD; it was easy on the purse (I hadn’t graduated to a wallet those days!). When we finished our MBA and received Certificates at the Convocation event, we celebrated the day at CCD Ispahani Center, Chennai. A few years later, I took a Shatabdi to attend an interview at Bangalore for the role of an Area Manager at Café Coffee Day but I was rejected for the role since at the time, the hiring manager preferred someone who could also taste the food to ensure they were in fit form to serve customers, which I declined being a pure Vegetarian in my food habits. In 2006, I happened to meet Mr. Sidhartha for the first time. CCD was chosen as the preferred café for the upcoming Bangalore International Airport in a tightly fought Tender process. As Manager – Commercial Contracts, I was solely responsible for designing, conceptualising, leasing and managing the retail areas at India’s first private Airport and was delighted to meet the Chairman of Coffee Day Enterprises who came to sign the contracts. He was taller than me and a taller personality with his trademark smile. 

Over the course of years, I happened to be on the other side when I joined CCD as General Manager – Business Development (Key Accounts) in Nov. 2009. My team and I were responsible for identifying and later setting up over 140 cafes pan-India at Airports, Retail formats, Cinema Theatres, Colleges, Hospitals, Metro Rail Stations, Railway Stations and even IPL Stadia. In this period, I would get to meet him at least twice a month or more when my team and I would present the potential locations on a giant screen at the 10th floor Conference Room of Coffee Day Square at Vittal Mallya Road. He was a very affable man, loved by everyone. When I visited his hometown Chikmagalur where the group runs a finishing institute where the children of coffee farmers of the region study basic skills of hospitality and coffee making, I have seen first-hand the gratitude, love and praise these kids and their families have showered on him. Many of them stepped out of their district for the first time only to work at a CCD across India. He took care of his people very well. Many of these staff members went on to join other popular Retail chains over time. 



Chairman, as we would address him was a stickler to time. Most meetings would start and finish on time. I would be asked by my Director to come to the Tenth floor at a stipulated time to make my Presentation but I would arrive 10 minutes before for a very selfish reason. His floor would have HBR Magazines which were very pricey those days to buy and read. So, I would make the most of my time to come up and wait and in that pretext pick up reading a few interesting articles. Would never forget those days of my life where I travelled across India, three days a week, over 40 weeks a year for two years non-stop. Today, I am known in the Retail Industry with two backgrounds – Bangalore Airport and CCD despite having worked at 5 iconic Retail Companies over the past two decades.

I owe whatever little name, fame and success I have achieved to CCD which gave me a global pedestal to learn and make a good name for myself. About 3 years back, I wrote to him seeking a small round of funding for my start-up. As expected, he replied quite soon however in the negative stating that his fund invested in maturing ventures and not really in start-ups. During one of our meetings, he quipped “This is your second coffee in 1.5 hours” and I replied “Sir, I drink 6-7 cups of coffee a day” to which he replied, “Boss, don’t consume so much coffee, it’s not good for health”. Who would expect a coffee czar to say this? But he did. Because he really cared for people. Pray for his soul to attain Mukthi and reach the foot of the Lord who created this world. Om Shanthi.

Pic taken at CCD Dharamshala (2010)  - boys were from Chikmagalur

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Elevating the Pantry Shopping Experience

I was at the FoodHall on Linking Road at Mumbai for a recce on behalf of an FMCG Brand that I am working as a Retail Advisor. This was my first visit to the store and I have heard quite a lot about the concept which has been around for over half a decade and with the number of Stores / Store business growing quite well, YoY. The 4 storied outlet spread over 6,000 sq. ft. approximately houses everything that a Food Bazaaar sells, from Grocery to Fresh Vegetables, Oils to Snacks and so on. Except that most Indian Brands do not find a place here. Most Indian “mainline” or mass FMCG Brands, perhaps. And its not just the merchandise that’s different, rather the entire shopping experience. With the assortment of products spread across the four levels, almost NIL promotions or Discounts and a very private shopping experience, I guess the concept has caught up quite well with shoppers. 

I did see atleast 3 Celebrities (Cinema related) in the 2 hours that I spent at the store. They had a private shopper along with them not just to carry a basket or push the trolley, rather to ably assist them in their choice of products to purchase. They seem to be at ease while just being there and of course the entire elevated customer experience which makes the format a hit with the high and mighty. 


Cut to 2002 when I used to run Foodworld Stores as Operations Manager. Even then, my store at RA Puram, would attract quite a bit of celebrities given that this was one of the premium locations in South Chennai. I would personally assist film stars likes Ms. Khushbu Sundar, Ms. Sarika Kamal Hassan, the former CEO of Ford India who would live at the Boat Club Area and the families of the top brass at Hyundai who had chosen this part of town to form small communities of their ilk. The reason for them to shop at an air-conditioned environment (in 2002) was not just convenience but privacy too. However, over the years, the much coveted “Grocery Shopping” has evolved along with Customers. 


Today, the good old Big Bazaar looks shinier than before. The Future Group has created a new vertical in FBB – Fashion at Big Bazaar which has actually evolved from the learnings of the apparel department of Big Bazaar. One would recall the Group sold its jewel-in-the-crown "Pantaloon" business to Aditya Birla Group couple years ago. And now they have built FBB from scratch as well as the upmarket Cover Story which is a dazzling women’s-only store with fast fashion curated from London & beyond. Similarly, FoodHall is a great evolution from the erstwhile Food Bazaar but with an elevated shopping experience. Note – the elevation is not just the imported olive oils and nuts, wide range of cheese, or organic vegetables, rather the entire experience. 


The FoodHall also has a Deli, a Café and a Chocolate Bar, an in-house curation where a Chef prepares fresh chocolates with a Tempering Machines to produce interesting cute-looking chocolates which costs upwards for Rs. 500 for 6 pieces. Connoisseurs Delight, perhaps. The Cellar stocks and sells some of the finest wines from the world. And the Fresh Poultry / Meat / Seafood is a massive hit with an exclusive area demarked in so manner that there is absolutely no stench that comes out of the area. Overall, FoodHall has elevated the Grocery Shopping in India. 



Recently, RP-SG Group which runs Spencers Retail acquired Godrej’s Nature’s Basket which is a similar concept as FoodHall but the latter beats the former hands down with it’s range, assortment, pricing and customer experience. There are similar concepts in all major cities but the trend is yet to catch up outside Delhi/NCR, Mumbai and Bangalore. Is the market ready for gourmet grocery? Yes. Are the Retailers / Mall Owners & Shopping Centres ready? Perhaps, No.  It’s not just the shop or the real estate that would elevate the experience, rather the Retailer’s vision and readiness to cater to this elite segment of customers. Actor Madhavan is the Brand Ambassador for Elite Matrimony (in this age and time when marriage is not an institution but more of convenience and social status). 

So the premium Customer not only exits but also waiting. Let’s see who expands first and fast.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Why Coke wants Coffee...


A budding second generation Entrepreneur started an Internet café in Bangalore’s iconic Brigade Road in the mid-90s with the unprecedented boom in consumers using the World Wide Web to communicate with each other besides knowing a bit more about the world on the other side. Those days, an hour of browsing the Internet would cost ₹100 and a cup of coffee, perhaps ₹10 or so. It’s no surprise the costs have reversed today. 
 


Cut to 2019, the same Entrepreneur is expecting a valuation of $1 billion for his coveted asset, Café Coffee Day which he has patiently and painstakingly built over the past 20 years. The café has over 1,700 cafes across India now including a few outlets abroad. I was privileged to work in this team a decade back for 2 years where my team and I went ahead to set up over 140 cafes across Airports, Metros, inside large Retail formats such as Wal-Mart, Shoppers Stop, Odyssey, at Hospitals, University campuses, Cinemas and even at Cricket Stadiums at Chennai and Kolkata during IPL Matches. The bidder for CCD this time is none other than Coca Cola Company, world leader in carbonated beverages who has also been in India for 2.5 decades.

Why does Coke want coffee? Because they see an untapped opportunity to reach out to the millenials in India who are among the largest of their ilk worldwide. Pepsi, on the other hand has a majority of its business coming from snacks and food while Coca Cola Company with its wide portfolio dominates the carbonated beverages market which has seen a shy growth in India, thanks to alternative beverages, let alone a few healthier options. CCD cafes interact with over an estimated 3,50,000 patrons a day with an estimated 100,000 bills daily (assuming an average 3 persons per bill). That’s over 1.2 billion times of engagement annually, something that Coca Cola Co. can do perhaps only online with constant advertising. 


A recent report published by Euromonitor states that the Indian Coffee Market was pegged at ₹2,500 crores as of 2018 and could double in the next 5 years. With cafes becoming the third and most preferred alternative place to hang around after home and work place, Indians are embracing coffee cafes and tea bars like never before. In the immediate past half decade, chains like Chaayos and Chai Point have gained much attention from Consumers as well as deep pocketed Investors. World’s biggest café chain Starbucks entered India a decade back in a JV with Tatas and has grown to over 150 cafes till now while others like CBTL and Café Pascucci left the market even as the homegrown Barista and British chain Costa have found a small niche for themselves. Interestingly, Coca Cola Co. bought Costa Coffee last year for $5 Bn while Nestle bough the distribution rights of Starbucks across Europe for over $7 billion in 2018.

Interesting times ahead for discerning Indian consumers. Would we see us drinking Coke and Fanta along with a Cappuccino at the neighborhood café or the Mall down the road? I don’t know yet. Interestingly, Sidhartha of CCD has refrained all along from selling carbonated beverages ever since the beginning. But the brand’s future could be different. We are now seeing Spicejet logo on the erstwhile Jet Airways’ crafts. Time will tell how this story spins out. And although it’s not in my plan today, I am already fixing my Auditor’s meeting at a CCD. For the love of the brand and their coffee.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Self-Checkout or Assisted

Earlier, I wrote in my article for The Economic Times about how Self-Checkout or even an assisted one would make a cut in the Indian scenario even as Indians are embracing E-Commerce like no other and the Indian E-Commerce business is expected to cross over USD 50 Billion by 2025 by various estimates. Meanwhile, the Retail Industry in India is pegged at USD 500 Billion with just about 10% being Organised or even semi-Organised (meaning those shopkeepers who use some form of PoS for Billing & Accounting). Almost half of the semi-organised Retailers do not have an end to-end PoS solution and this is the latest trending opportunity in the realm of Retail Entrepreneurship with a number of existing players upping their ante while a whole lot of new technology is being tested and introduced by new Start-Ups. Interesting days ahead indeed.


Meanwhile, I visited the Apple Store on Orchard Road at Singapore during my recent vacation to the Country. It’s been 11 years since I travelled abroad and was yearning to see the Temple of Technology to seek the blessings of the Almighty Apple (sic). I have owned every Apple product ever made by the Company in it’s recent history, starting from the iconic iPod in 2007, iPhone (several of them!), iPad (two of them), MacBook, Apple Tv, Apple Watch and Airpods. I felt like a little kid inside Disneyland when I entered the Apple Store, that I was walking all along the counters and seeing the whole retail theatre with glee.  I wanted to interact with the staff and hence gave a request for a query on iCloud Management. I was given an appointment and was asked to wait for about 40 mins which I agreed with utter happiness so I can spend time there seeing how Apple consumers interact with the Apple Store. On the first floor was the Genius Groove – apparently the Genius Bar has now become a fledgling hub where atleast 100+ customers & staff can be seen seated together and interact on various service issues. I picked up my iPad and started browsing with the free internet provided by the Apple Store – a whopping 110 mbps even as so many of them were sharing the same internet. Finally, my turn came and I was assisted ably by Justin who clarified some basic as well as a few complicated queries on iCloud. He was extremely polite and knowledgeable and sent me back happy. 


I returned a day later to buy the new iPod which was launched on Thursday 30thMay 2019. I saw about it on their website and ended up at the store to pick it up. The staff themselves were surprised that it was ready for Sales! I placed an order on the mobile PoS which the staff had where I was allowed to browse the options, colours, etc. I placed the order and waited for 10 minutes by when another Apple Staff brought the product and handed over to his colleague. She placed my order on the same handheld PoS and my transaction was completed in less than 2 minutes. I was pretty excited doing this transaction and saw first hand how Omni-Channel Retail actually works. While I have seen similar technology being made available at a few Indian Retail Stores (Croma, For Example), the seamlessness and the convenience was fantastic from a user experience. 


There are atleast 20,000 companies, small medium or bigger who make PoS solutions including market leaders like GoFrugal, Wondersoft, Pathfinder, etc. to name a few. The solutions are priced from a one-time payment for as low as Rs. 10,000, SaaS models with recurring payments, enterprise solutions and so on. At my own Start-Up “Smiling Baby” – a chain of baby care stores, we signed up GoFrugal Technology’s eponomous “RayMedi” software which is now christened “RPoS” and have invested heavily 2 years backwith a module to manage Inventory across our multiple franchise stores including product management, adding inventory, live stock status and much more. With two running stores and two more in the pipeline, we have put the software to great use although we are yet to unlock so many hidden features including the omni-channel option where in we can rotate stocks across stores based on user requirements. Also, there is an option to connect the software with a mobile App, so Consumers can actually check which product is available at which store and accordingly, they can place orders online for a home delivery or a store pick-up. And this, for a small Start-Up like ours which is certainly not heavy on piled up cash investments. 

Omni-Channel offers a great opportunity for SME Retailers as much as the established ones. Time to make the most of it now.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Marketing or Sales – Take your pick?

I participated in a professional debate after a very long time last week. The Topic was “Marketing or Sales - Take your Pick” organised by TiE Chennai. Quite obviously I was given the topic of Sales and the co-speaker was a much senior person to me with vast experience in Marketing & Lead Generation. The Moderator conducted the session very well asking some uncomfortable questions on behalf of the august audience who were all members of TiE Chennai and many of them young Entrepreneurs. The topic was more in the scheme of Entrepreneurship and Start-Ups. For a young Start-up, be it 1 month old or 3 years old (Oh, btw, Flipkart and Ola are not start-ups anymore – the unofficial timeframe that is globally accepted for a new business to be called a Start-up is only 5 years!), should it put its focus, money and effort on Marketing (Offline or Online) or on getting the first Sale (and successive Sales) therefore effectively in building a Sales Team which will eventually build a Sales pipeline. The jury was out that evening, as decided by the Moderator and “Sales” won the topic of the day hands down. However, my co-speaker as well as a few in the audience (and some of my friends too) had a different view. Many felt that a product becomes a Brand only because of it’s Marketing, Promotions, Brand Recall and so on. 


Here’s my take. If a Brand is only remembered for it’s Marketing and probably not for its Sales, then it is, perhaps not selling enough! There’s a good old saying that a good product doesn’t need Marketing. Then there is evoking, invoking and hard selling the theories of Ace Marketing Professor Peter F Drucker (with which accompanies loads of 2 decade old emotions from University PG days) by one and all. I am of the humble opinion that Marketing, in it’s true definition and application has truly changed in the last 3 decades, more so in the last decade with the emergence of the Millenials and Gen Z as consumers of products and services.

For Ex., the newest Indian Interest which are the Food hailing Apps, affectionately (sic) known in the Start-Up ecosystem as “FoodTech” – apparently using technology to sell food (hic). Companies that are funded by Wall St., the Chinese and the Japanese, tease customers who order through the App with deep discounts, at times 50% or more effectively making a mockery of the efforts of the Restaurateurs who prefer to align with these Apps for the fear of losing out to competition. Interestingly, none of these discounts are offered in most cases by the Restaurants themselves, rather by the FoodTech companies – in order to acquire new customers and retain existing ones. The so called coupon codes aka cost of acquiring new customers is shown as Marketing – for convenience purposes as well as for the Balance Sheet. So, what was traditionally known as a one off “Sampling exercise” has now morphed in to this. Most e-commerce companies that sprang up in the past 10 years or so have effectively used this tactic to raise more funding. This, I do not call as Marketing. Cut to bigger and established consumer brands who offer 10% extra Shampoo or 15 gms extra of Biscuits and 20% more of Air in packs of Chips for the same price – No, this I do not call Marketing either. 


The core principles of Marketing haven’t died, they have just been tweaked conveniently to suit new age Marketing Campaigns, created by new age Marketers, approved by new-age Marketing Standards to please new-age Millenials and Gen-Z Consumers. Be it is a Start-Up or a Larger company, if you are not selling enough to fund your cash flows, you will cease to exist in the short term, no matter how strong a brand equity you build. Everyone is not as lucky as a Flipkart or Idea Mobile. 

I have been a firm believer of the adage, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. In the recent Tamil film “Petta”, there’s a conversation between two friends how a Facebook video garnered thousands of likes and shares to which another quips, if these could fetch him a beer. This is the reality of the so called new-age Marketing. Even as we felt that the physical sampling of audience viewership by Research Firms was a dubious exercise, today’s digital marketing metrics are not just dubious but futile. In fact, most of today’s new-age techniques do not have a conversion to sale, thereby making the money and most importantly the time invested in the exercise, a gross wastage.


Yet, there’s so much hype for Marketing a new product or service without giving it the much needed Sales push. There’s only so much Marketing can do, finally the product has to sell. And sell again and again for the company to remain in business. Be it a Start-Up or an established one. Take your pick.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Customers Expectations & Managing Impatience

The Ola App says your driver will arrive in 3 mins. It’s already 4.26 mins and you are irked.

The Swiggy App says your food is on the way and shall reach at say, 8.05 pm. It’s already 8.08pm and you are calling the driver frantically to figure out where your food is.

You spent one hour taking trials of 17 dresses and finally picked up 3 at the Department store in the fanciest Mall in town and have been impatiently waiting at the billing queue for over 10 mins. During a “sale” season, the wait time trebles and a few customers are already dropping their shopping bags.

Are you still staring at the guy getting his hair-cut for the past 20 mins and wondering why would the stylist take so much time to complete the "job"?


Sounds familiar? Well, you are not alone. An article in Nautilus has an easy explanation: “Slow things drive us crazy because the fast pace of society has warped our sense of timing.” Does it mean humans first experienced impatience when life became fast-paced sometime in the 19th century? No, nature gave us impatience as a useful instinct. In fact, animals also show impatience. “It’s an internal timer that tells us when we have waited too long for something,” says the article. A webpage took 4 seconds to load in 2006, 2 seconds four years back and 0.25 seconds today. We are still impatient until it loads. How true!

The iconic Sambhar at Ratna Café, a popular restaurant in Chennai which is over 6 decades’ old takes a few hours to be prepared every morning to get that consistency and a lasting taste. The iconic Lassi from Punjab is stirred for hours together while the Tanjore Spice powders and Chettinad Pickles take days to be prepared. Although I am a pure vegetarian when it comes to food, I have heard how it takes 10-12 hours to prepare the Hyderabadi Haleem dish. Remember, an egg has to spend 270 days inside a womb to be given birth as a human baby. Good things take time. Great things take eternity.


So why do humans get upset upon small delays? Why do we forget that unforeseen and unnatural delays are normal? And even if someone is actually late, why fuss so much? If the delivery boy turns up later than proposed, what would actually happen if the customer waits a few more minutes? If the Cashier at the till is slow in his/her work (probably a beginner), why cannot we wait a few more minutes and encourage them, rather than chide & complain?

I am not a psychologist, so I wouldn’t be able to answer many of those questions. But I can probably say how Retailers and Customers are handling this or perhaps supposed to. With so much of tech taking over our PoS billing solutions, why wouldn’t Department stores and Hypermarkets invest on small benches for customers to sit near the check-out areas, quite similar to Hotels? Even the smallest Lodge in town has a seating area near the Cashier while Star hotels have experience centers such as an Aquarium. This, in my opinion is the most important reason why Customers shrug the Trolley and prefer the Mobile Apps for shopping. It’s the impatience of standing in Q that drives customers to choose one over the other. While it is clichéd to say Men are bored at Department stores while their wives or girlfriends are shopping, I am yet to see (In India) a store which has a seating area or Foosball tables for men to hang around, let around a café or a bar. I don’t know of a shopping centre which has an affordable play area or Crèches, save for the one off “Fun City” outlets which end up being more expensive to hang around for an hour or so than actually shopping & dining together. 


In services businesses like a Salon or a Restaurant, chances are lower to replace the physical presence. While the Food hailing Apps can deliver even the most exquisite delicacy in town all the way to your private dining area at home, the “Dining Experience” is something that cannot be replaced. However, Restaurants take way longer time to prepare, serve the food and send the bill than it is supposed to, thus making Customers lose their cool and get impatient while leaving, although after a sumptuous and a happy meal. Sadly, most Restaurant owners and Customers fail to understand the difference between a find-dine and casual dine restaurant, forget what is a Quick Service Restaurant. 

Ultimately, impatience begins when expectations are mismanaged. So, Hello Retailers – set your business expectations right to your patrons – like a simple placard on the dining table (or even on the Menu card itself) which states the estimated time for serving the food; or like at Airports, where you estimate the waiting time for Security Check or walking time to reach the Boarding Gate.

Setting the right expectations can turn the experience to be much better. In Retail or in our personal lives. Isn't it?

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Retailers and Jet Airways – Cross Learnings

I had just started flying frequently from Bangalore to Delhi for monthly meetings and the preferred choice those days was Jet Airways (9W). Their on-board service was perhaps the best in class (the only comparison was the erstwhile Indian Airlines) and a few years later, maybe Kingfisher. Even with the popularity of the red-dress stewards with mini-skirts that attracted millions of flyers (forget not those plastic Kingfisher branded earphones), the Corporate Traveller still preferred 9W. There were many reasons for this choice, despite their pricing being 7-9% higher than Kingfisher and almost 1.5 times of Indigo and Spicejet in the later years. 


The Jet Airways – Citibank co-branded Credit Card was a must have on our wallets in the later part of the Millennium. The card provided several intrinsic benefits – including Lounge access at Airports as well as shopping and dining benefits across the country. The 5 Tier membership on Jet Privilege, among India’s largest Loyalty Program was similar to the Snakes & Ladder game, that travellers had to cautiously fly a designated number of flights in a quarter to retain their Membership Tiers. And how can I forget the uncountable “upgrades” I have enjoyed on 9W from Economy to Business to even First Class! 

Move over Kingfisher, which many Corporate Travellers thought were more hype and publicity than 9W which had a very genuine care for travellers. Be it the highly curated gourmet food menu even on Economy Class, Coat hangers for Business Travellers and an overall, relaxed travel experience for toddlers to Senior Citizens, these were a few things that attracted passengers until a few years ago. Around a decade back, 9W acquired Sahara Airlines only to burn out too soon, even as the low-cost airlines were matching or lowering air fares what Sahara offered. And after the merger completed, 9W continued to be a premier airline, some even calling it elitist. It was common to see celebrities, cricketers, reputed Business Leaders and many more socially popular people on board 9W. Even without the selfie melees those days, it was nice interacting with such personalities often on board or at the 9W Lounges. 


As I write this piece, I just finished reading that SBI which is managing the debt ridden airline’s takeover has further tightened the norms for a possible suitor even as travel agent-turned India’s most respected Aviator and business tycoon Mr. Naresh Goyal resigned from the Board recently. I am able to already see similar comparisons between 9W (and to some extent Kingfisher as well) and Modern Retailers, for they both cater to similar consumer segments. I have hardly seen traditional Kirana stores go out of business, save for financial mismanagement or not keeping in tune with changing times. In some cases, the next-gen of these Kiranas despise to take over the business calling them traditional, boring and uninteresting. 

But we have seen the meteoric rise and abysmal fall of so many Retailers, Shopping Centres and Malls. If we see what’s in common with those who downed shutters or ones that don’t have the grease to keep them up – it’s all about financial prudence, business stability and focussing on the core. For example, 9W lowered its fare over time to compete with the likes of cost-efficient airlines like Go Air. Being an International Airline and also having a Government norm to fly to far off destinations including Tier 2 towns, the airline was making losses for every nautical mile it flew in some cases. Sounds similar to many of our Retailers selling at cost or lower, a few or more SKUs which they call “Loss Leaders” and what is expected to drive footfalls who will eventually end up buying high-margin products. How I wish this dream was fulfilled. 


Most recently, 9W removed complimentary meals on board for the first time in it’s illustrious history which made even the most hopeless 9W Fan and Corporate Traveller to start whining, writing a fitting Obit for the airline on social media. Instead of upping its value proposition, the airline took to removing services, akin to how Retailers cut down support staff or reduce/switch off air-conditioning in the Retail Stores and Malls to reduce operating costs. In-flight Retail, which is a proven big-billion business worldwide remains largely untapped as well.  All is not over for 9W, yet. I am quite confident that the airline will find a new suitor who will continue and also improve the brand’s legacy with passenger growth touching double digits the last few years. Also, the Government wouldn’t let another airline fail, for it impacts the image of the country at large. However, Retailers may not be that lucky. A private Retail Company is not of national importance, yet – the way Americans eulogised Walmart & Starbucks. We see store openings and closures commonly these days. Ask me about E-Commerce players losing money for every transaction – from selling mobile phones to a portion of Roti or Dosa – well, they all hope that consumers will get used to convenience. Well. 

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Desi, Videsi or Woh!

I started my 30-hour 2 Credit Retail Management Elective Course at BIM – Trichy for the 40-odd sophomores who are completing their 2-Year MBA shortly. On my first session last Thursday, I was having exactly the same nervousness addressing students as was on my first session I took 15 years back at a B-School in Bangalore which was more of a one-off Guest Lecture. As with all the time, a few students asked me in the plenary session about the potential threat of Organised Indian players towards the 12 million+ Kiranas (Mom & Pop run) retail stores in India. And how the International Retailers and the fastest growing segment run by E-Commerce Retailers (despite their humongous losses) will fare in this game. 


Like in my past lectures, I invoked the story of David & Goliath and asked who really is the Goliath which elicited mixed responses. In my humble opinion, the Kiranas and small and marginal Retailers are the Goliath up and against the modern retailers. Their collective opinion-making (and vote bank) has found the flavour of the Politicians and ever since the starting of this Millennium when International Retailers heading India-wards, there has been growing unrest over Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Retail. The decade long UPA Government kept assuring to the small Retailers that their interests would not be compromised and the just about to conclude BJP Government has also ensured policy policing for the five years although by balancing the two power centres. While FDI in single-brand retail is allowed up to 100%, FDI in multi-brand Retail is controlled with a majority ownership by an Indian entity and no FDI in E-commerce at all, except for marketplaces. 

A growing economy like India needs FDI in many Industries and Retail is not an exception. While we keep telling ourselves that India is unique and that Indian consumers have a completely different attitude towards shopping, there is much to learn from International players, from the West, East and everywhere else in between. Having spent the last 22 years in Organised Retail, having grown with the Industry and with a notable and rich experience at Leadership levels at some of India’s home-grown top Retailers, I can say with confidence that no one is going to take away the opportunity and market share of the Kiranas. 


Metro AG, among the world’s largest Retailers and from Germany stepped in to India in 2002. The Retailer made profits in India recently after a presence of over 15 years and has assured a long term game plan for the Indian entity, which doesn’t sell to end-users rather only to Traders, Shopkeepers, Kiranas and anyone who prefers to buy in bulk. The coveted Retailer was recently called upon by DPIIT to work on a model that would help the unorganised to get organised, calling for a paper which could propose better fortunes for the marginalised retailers who mostly lack technology support for billing, reordering and consumer connect. Quite similarly, Wal-Mart which entered India in 2008 has been building large warehouse-styled Retail stores where it sells directly to Kiranas, similar to Metro. Walmart India provides a lot of information and support such as a native seller-marketplace for the Kiranas to reach their Customers, Sales associates who visit the Retailers with a Tab to get their instant orders and also arranges for delivery where possible. 

Reliance SMART (now being renamed MART) has done a similar thing while what it does differently is that it also opens its doors to end-consumers for shopping, a rule in the law book which allows home grown Retailers to do so. Being Indian companies, Reliance, D’Mart and even the Future Group have the opportunity to sell to Resellers and have created independent business units to cater to this need. The FMCG business of the Future Group is now the largest contributor across many categories at the Big Bazaar stores. Online players like UDAAN have created an e-commerce platform where small Kiranas can order products on the App which then gets supplied by wholesalers from across the India to the local store, perhaps even 1,000s of kilometres away. UDAAN connects the two and makes a small profit in the process, a much laudable initiative indeed.


So, are the Kiranas at an undue disadvantage despite all these advancements, provisions and support by Organised Retailers? Perhaps not. There’s a lot more work to be done to support the smaller retailers, beyond business interest. Ultimately, the SME Retailers are consumers for many other categories, so when they prosper, the economy also does. And Retailers increase their pie.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Travel Retail at Regional Airports

I am seated at Madurai Airport and my Spicejet to Chennai is delayed by 55 mins. It’s a swanking new terminal built a few years ago when the local heavyweight MK Alagiri, (eldest son of Late M. Karunanidhi, the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu) was an MP in the UPA Cabinet. Being his hometown, he pushed for this infrastructure development a decade back when the DMK was a key ally of the UPA led Congress Government between 2004 - 14. That was when Bangalore & Hyderabad came up with new greenfield airports while Mumbai and Delhi had a massive makeover – all four now being run by private partners. While the UPA Government selectively upgraded regional airports, the present Modi Government led by BJP along with NDA allies has given a further push to unlock aviation opportunities at over 40 unused airports under the ambitions UDAN – Udega Desh ka Aam Nagrik (Common man will fly). 


The Prime Minister inaugurated the Gangtok Airport recently, unveiling a host of opportunities for tourism to the Eastern hill state of Sikkim (although excessive tourism is a bane for ecology, but I will save this for another article) along with numerous airports across India taking the tally of operational airports in India to 100. A further 50 airports are yet to take off even as many airlines have wound up operations at some of these airports due to various reasons – poor patronage by passengers cited to be the most favoured response even as I reckon that it is due to careless Business management by these operators who took up routes which they knew were unviable and continued to bleed operationally without building parallel commercial opportunities other than not marketing the cost of time to the locals to fly, rather than take up a rail or bus journey. Truejet has ceased operations to Salem while Air Deccan (yes, they were resurrected by Captain Gopinath) ceased operations in the East. And many such examples.  


I had to rush to Madurai on an urgent personal work and took a day trip by Air. After my work was over, I reached the Airport four hours in advance since I had a 2-hour Video Conference with a Client. I was dreading the thought of being seated in those most uncomfortable standard airport-seating. But to my own surprise, there was an oasis – a Lounge before Security hold area. It was prohibitively expensive for Rs. 900 per pax with unlimited time one can spend plus some food and snacks on the house. They wouldn’t accept Mastercard or Visa’s Complementary Lounge options either. But my call was more important, so I chose to pay and use. Didn’t realise how I spent the three-hour period at this well maintained Lounge with polite and courteous staff. Thankfully, I was the sole occupant all along so had the entire 20 seater Lounge for myself.


Took my boarding pass from the Kiosk and walked around and upstairs to be greeted by unexcited staff who were clueless why their “shops” existed what with not a single passenger glancing inside. I noticed local delicacies – Halwa and Milk Khova from neighbouring Tirunelveli and Srivilliputhur respectively. Once inside the waiting area, there were the usual food Kiosks savouring watery coffee, dip tea and oily snacks with sugary bakery stuff. Absolute gold mine of an opportunity to cater to the 3,000 plus passengers who fly off daily from the domestic terminals. Being sensitive Tier 2 cities like Madurai, it would make sense to engage passengers with affordable F&B and Retail options. Perhaps a Levis or Nike may not work, but Indian brands with a regional appeal could do well. 

Tourism development in India is usually seen as an activity to be undertaken by a particular Department of the Government. Worldwide, I have seen a cohesive collaboration between the Public and Governmental agencies to promote tourism – from Singapore to Switzerland, Bangkok to Berlin. It’s only in India that we compartmentalise the potential opportunities. There wasn’t a single poster or a visual that speaks about Enchanting Tamil Nadu which is the spiritual and cultural capital of India. At the Departure hold, passengers and visitors are already travelling back, so instead of promoting the city, why not promote the State? We would sell more Coffee, Tea & much more at neighbouring airports too!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Rail Retail – The next big thing?

Among the few exciting assignments that I have worked all my life, one of the most interesting ones was setting up commercial opportunities at the first greenfield private airport in India at Bangalore in 2006. I was among the first few to join BIAL, the company which was helmed by Zurich Airport along with L&T and Siemens as Private Partners and the Union Government of India & Government of Karnataka providing the necessary statutory support. I was solely responsible for conceptualising, designing, leasing and later managing the Retail areas at the Airport which included Duty Free Retailing in the International Departures & Arrivals, Domestic Retail in all other areas, F&B outlets including Cafes, Restaurants, Pubs and ForEx outlets keeping in mind the convenience of passengers as well as increasing the non-Aero revenues for the airport company. What was then (in 2006) – Travel Retail, a national industry of Rs. 300 Crores pa is now over Rs. 3,000 Crores, thanks to upgraded Airport Terminals at Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Kochi over the past decade. 


I have been an avid traveller all my life and after flying two times a week, forty times a year for a decade in work, I took to rail travel over the past half-decade ever since I turned an Entrepreneur due my business interests largely being achievable by train and more so saving travel time (during night) as well lower cost of travel and transportation, save the cost of F&B at Airports. I just got in to yet another Shatabdi trip and I ain’t surprised I know by platform number already and a clear plan of what to munch when I arrive at Bangalore as well, at the Adigas outlet where the train would drop me. Similarly, the F&B outlets at various stations are familiar to regular passengers like me and those who plan their travel around food & snacks (your’s truly included) know how early to reach the station for the last grub or drink before boarding. 


Shatabdi has been a revolutionary product (sounds like a software product from Infosys or ICICI, hic!) from Indian Railways and with faster drive time as well as complimentary meal on board. What used to be an exciting array of food items before is now a simple breakfast and a simpler meal with a beverage or two in between. The not so great thing is that there is no possibility for passengers to purchase food items even if they wish to do so. Sounds familiar to the scenario a decade and half back when low cost carriers like Air Deccan started off leaving passengers stranded ob=n board with no possibility of even buying water or snacks. Last week, I was traveling in the much touted and recently inaugurated Tejas Express from Chennai to Madurai which was inaugurated by none other than the man of the moment, the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi.The train covers a distance of over 450 kms in 6.5 hours compared to other trains which take 90 mins more than this. With traffic on rails (yeah, more trains you see) having grown manifold over the years, it’s an awesome feat by Indian Railways that they have managed to cover this distance in the said duration. While the train has several exciting features such as an access controlled door, CCTv cameras and personalised entertainment, the F&B scenario is the same as a Shatabdi. 


The Railways could help themselves by offering “Travel Retail” on board akin to the Airlines which not only opens up an array of incremental income to the agency but also provide passengers a break from monotony in travelling seated all day (or evening). Way back in 2010 when I was responsible for setting up new cafes for Café Coffee Day, India’s largest coffee chain with over 1,600 outlets today, I charted a plan to set-up a mini-café on board Rajdhani and Shatabdi Trains. The proposal was to have a portion of the pantry car culled in to a café – a café on the move with outstanding visuals even as the train cruises at 90-110 kms between cities. The proposal was rejected by the then Head of IRCTC, the agency which was and is responsible for the commercialisation of the Railway network for reasons best known to him. Even as I was walking up to my train this morning, I saw this tuck shop selling Railway merchandise and once again I am intrigued by the immense possibilities and opportunities that beckon in Travel Retail at Railways. With the elections ahead, I don’t see any new initiatives until June 2019 but am hoping the new Ministry would take this up more seriously. For the love of travelling. 


Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sleep Matters


It’s been an eternal debate if it makes sense to fly business class or first class while the seats in the Economy Class also take us to the same destination. The arguments in favour and against this topic have been featured in various magazines, articles and even International symposiums and Travel Seminars worldwide, some of which I have personally attended. 

I have had so many memorable trips within India and outside. The first stamping on my passport was a Swiss Visa when I joined BIAL in 2006. I was sent for a study tour and orientation of Zurich Airport towards Travel Retail which was also one of the shareholders of BIAL, India’s first private airport built on a PPP model. Between 2006 – 2009, I travelled 10 countries including China, speaking about Indian Aviation at Conferences in Singapore & Malaysia. My most memorable trip has been the one on Singapore Airlines in 2007 on First Class, up and down for one of those Travel Retail Conferences where I was representing Indian Aviation and presented the masterplan for BIAL. Since then, I have taken hundreds of flights and especially between 2009 – 2014, I would travel 3 days a week, over 40 times a year and would live out of my Samsonite. Almost.


Ever since becoming an Entrepreneur in 2014, I started embracing Train Travel for two reasons; obviously it saves a lot of money (and associated pangs such as taxi fares, exorbitant coffee & food costs, etc). But most importantly, I started valuing my health and time. My retail venture Smiling Baby had its first Franchise store in Coimbatore, some 500 kms south west of Chennai; a few of my clients in my consulting business “Miles2Go Advisory Services” were located across various parts of Tamil Nadu such as Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Trichy, Salem, etc. And of course, on and off trips to Bangalore as well, mostly on work. I still travel by a flight when required – but my travel plans are clear; all journeys under 500 kms (typically overnight) would be by rail and all travel upwards of 500 kms would be on a flight. Been at it for a few years now and trust me, it’s worked so well.

Now that my preferred mode is chosen, I have experimented with the options and succeeded too; For all trips on business by Air, I have started opting for the first row or middle rows for an additional fee, thanks to my height at 6’2”. And I prefer seat “D” than any other; here’s why. When I am seated on Seat D, I get elbow space which is unhindered, so I can type on my MacBook – such as this article which I have written while flying Delhi to Mumbai one late evening; No other seat allows flawless movement of right elbow than this seat. Also, an extended legroom means I get more comfort while on the flight as well as when I land – which is paramount to having an efficient workday as well as to get some good sleep in the night. As much as I bemoan the atrocious additional charges of carriers, I still think God has been kind to me to take up these small mercies – after all, it’s me who benefits more than anyone else using these preferred seats once I land. The complimentary meal along with the additional cost means I get more time (mostly on ground before departure) so I wrap up as much as I can, including calls or responding to messages and short reply-emails.


Similarly, I avoid all flights that land after 9pm – most Indian airports have International movements in the nights and the ATC would give preference for landing & parking (near the Terminal Building) to them than the Domestic ones. So, when a domestic flight gets a remote parking bay – one which is far off, it takes double the time or more to even arrive at the Baggage area and then the subsequent processes of baggage retrieval, boarding a taxi, etc. While on Trains, I have become a big fan of 1st A/c with just 4 berths; one there is that much less noise level; two, there are no side berths which again impact my sleep and the productivity next day. This, again is based on experiences travelling with 8 persons in a single bay (3rd A/c), or getting a raw deal of a side berth even after paying a 2nd a/c fare. Oh, so my car drives on work or pleasure – that’s for another post. 


For me, the journey is always as important as the destination. If the journey is not a happy one, the destination will not be charming, no matter where it is. Life is similar too, And I have Miles to Go…