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.