Thursday, July 9, 2020

Is Kirana Retail dead? David vs. Goliath

For the first half of my life, I grew up in Tamil Nadu Housing Board Quarters in Chennai which had odd 800 tenements. Lloyds Colony at Royapettah, close to the Marina Beach came up in the 1960s when Late Shri. Bhaktavatsalam was the Home Minister of former Chief Minister K. Kamaraj's cabinet who’s primary motive was to provide affordable rented houses for the EWS, LIG & MIG of the state. The houses were owned by the Government of Tamil Nadu and houses were allotted to users on a rotational basis. Within the entire housing complex, there was a one commercial complex, a school, a community center for weddings & events, a park, a milk vending booth, a library, two playgrounds and about 400 trees. Yes, you read that right – 1970s. And the complex had a few shops allotted for various vocations such as carpentry, automotive, Public Distribution Scheme centers (for Ration products) and most memorably a Kirana Shop (Provisions Shop). That the shop owner was our immediate neighbour and a family well wisher was an advantage for me as I used to visit the shop as a child quite often to pick up some thing or the other and the Uncle would give me a toffee or two once in a while.

I remember vividly collecting newspaper copies of “The Hindu” which had a full page Advertisement in the early 90s when Pepsi launched in town and one could get a sample 100ml RGB against the paper clipping and we exchanged several of these at this particular shop which functioned in the name and style of “Murugan Stores”. Guess, the seeds of Retail and Consumer Business was sowed in my heart in an early age, unknowlingly. Or by design. And hence my nemonic, "Retailer by Profession and Choice".


So, when Subhiksha Retail stores started expanding in the late 90s along with a bunch of new age airconditioned super markets in the “Mecca of Retail” that is Chennai including my alma mater and first job at RPG run Foodworld, conches were blown that this was the death knell for small and marginal kirana shops. Around the new Millenium, larger corporates such as Tatas, Birlas, Rahejas among others entered in to business of Organised Retail and we saw formats such as Supermarkets at Neighbourhoods, standalone Hypermarkets as well as those in basements of Malls and so on, Big Bazaar being the most popular such chain across India over the past 15 years and is India's largest Hypermarket chain. Once again, naysayers blew the conch that this would be the death knell for Kiranas. 

Then came the likes of Big Basket followed by small dotcom companies such as PepperTap, Grofers (including Oyethere.com founded by Your’s truly in 2015 and made strides) where the conch was blown yet again against the Kirans. 

Yet, amidst all this hullaboo, the Kiranas are standing rock solid with their determination, continued efforts to modernize & upgrade and of course, sustain their business with changing times by adapting to the new normal. 

Covid-19 is yet another opportunity for the Kiranas who form the backbone of India’s FMCG retail industry. With over 13 million Kirana shops across India, the Industry employs over 50 million people directly and indirectly including shop management, logistics such as first mile (from factory), middle mile (to Distributor points) and last mile (delivery of goods to Retailers / Consumers). Other than this, the Organised Retail Industry is estimated to employ a million or so staff members. The Share of Kiranas in Grocery & Household / FMCG Retail is approx. 90% which over the past 100+ days during Lockdown has increased to, perhaps say 98% since most Organised Retail stores were shut and E-Comm players remained non-operational or marginally. 


I have been saying this for over 15 years – in this battle, Kiranas are the Goliath. 

It’s almost impossible to get them off this equation – not because they outnumber organized retailers on a ratio of 9:1, rather because of the proximity that they enjoy with the end Consumers and the longstanding relationship they've meticulously built. 

According to a recent study by E&Y, over 40% of Kiranas have imbibed the Digital route including collecting online payments through Google Pay or PayTM as well as delivering through e-comm apps. Agility and Adaptability are the two main traits that these small business owners display, which is also the bane of larger companies and corporates who's employees work for a salary while the small entrepreneurs work for a living and especially to earn for the next meal. Makes a lot of difference in their approach, isn’t it.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

A Makeover’s Makeover

There are very few instances when we lose something and still be happy – One is at a Salon and another when we watch with glee, a drop-in ounce on a weighing scale. It’s a different pleasure to watch one’s own hair strewn all over the place even as the “Stylist” performs like in a concert – with utmost precision and concentration, chopping off even that one extra strand of hair. Salons have come a long way over the past 20 years in India. From being popular as a Sunday morning ritual for men across metro cities and smaller towns to discuss current affairs, politics, cricket and everything in between; and a “behind the curtains” secret service of sorts for women even in popular cities, the business of “make-over” has seen a “make-over” for themselves all these years. 


“Preeti Beauty Parlour” or “Ganesh Hair Dressers” is now more formal in their approach – they have either taken up a Franchise of a popular National or International chain; else they have upgraded their infrastructure and have a more modern name, especially with words like “Trendz” and “Salon” as a suffix to draw the attention of passersby and potential customers. Not just that, the staff have undergone tremendous training than before and are now well entrenched into the job and many even see this is a viable career option. Most importantly, the workforce has a new identity now – they are no more addressed as “barbers” rather more stylishly called as “Stylists”, after all. Their Salary packages range from Rs. 12,000 – Rs. 30,000 pm and many Salon chains even offer them a “cut” on their services as well in the form of a commission. Discerning Customers fix their own daily schedules depending on the availability of their preferred Stylists at select Salons to ensure a more personalized service. 

After a hiatus of over 3 months, I finally visited my neighborhood Salon recently. The brisk 12-minute walk from home was one among the happiest moments in the past 70 odd days of confinement during the 4 phases of lockdown. Much to my surprise, the entire experience at the Salon was spectacular. I had already taken an appointment much in advance before visiting, so I was just in time for the service. My body temperature was checked using a thermo-gun, I was asked to wear a PPE and sanitise my hands before entering the precincts. The boys were already in PPEs and were sweating profusely looking tired sans the A/c. With the number of Guests availing services being rationed, the boys were sweating it out for the sake of customers who were willing to pay a “tad extra” towards the additional costs incurred by the Franchisee of the popular Salon chain. But for extra “fittings” on both of us, the migrant stylist and I shared our usual camaraderie and banter; about the lockdown, loss of livelihood, extra safety measures and how they were the real “Covid warriors”. 


This is the beginning in my opinion. 

The cost of a “make-over” is only going to further increase in times to come, thanks to higher hygiene standards and overall salon maintenance. There was already a forwarded message on WhatsApp which was floating, questioning the additional cost included in the bills by Salons. I wondered why would customers expect the business to offer PPEs at charitable costs; someone argued that a PPE can be procured at much lesser cost than what was being charged by the Salon; another said this has not been approved by the Government; yet another piqued that the Salon owners were trying to make a quick buck by showing such additional costs to the service. I wonder why we criticize businesses with our varied personalized attacks. The Salons didn’t send a home invitation to anyone, anyway. So, why this fuss? 

This, IMHO, is the New World Order. This is how things would evolve and this is how Businesses and Customers would adapt themselves to the Corona Crisis. 


Those who complain of expensive PPEs always have a choice of the good old Tamarind Tree "stylists" or friendly neighbourhood salons and ladies parlours with closed curtains. There is no push from the semi-organised Industry which employs over 3-4 lakh people directly and indirectly across the country. While there is no doubt that there is going to be a burden on the wallets of the urban and rural middle class visiting salons regularly, this is a price the world is to pay for the unwanted and uninvited Virus which has become a part of our daily lives. Let's hope we don't mess up ourselves even further - there are fewer woods to cremate and even lesser earth to bury. 

As the Make-Over Industry goes through yet another "make-over" to itself, Our own personal Safety first should be our only goal, isn't it? 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Power of Scheduling

It was the second week of April 2020. Three weeks into Lockdown 1.0, a broken supply chain, employees and team members dispersed all across and most retail stores closed, it was one of the toughest moments in my professional life. That I had a roof and secure four walls, three meals to eat, a lot of snacks to munch and salaried job – the real luxuries of the Corona-crisis made me feel a lot luckier than the millions who were displaced world over. And that I was staying with my wife and kids – I had come on a work trip to Chennai on 13th March and remained here ever after through the lockdown – was the happiest thing I could enjoy in life. Honestly, we have never spent such a long time together within a single precinct all our lives!


Yet, I was beginning to crack under pressure – workwise as well as managing household chores including mopping the floor intermittently, washing vessels, drying and folding clothes among other things all day. To get a peaceful uninterrupted 7-hour sleep was becoming a challenge. I am usually a reasonably disciplined guy. I cannot fathom that my bed is not done within a few mins of waking up; a small slush on my white car and I get it cleaned as soon as I could; from rotating my shoes, watches and dresses on FIFO basis to booking darshan at Tirupati 4 months in advance, it’s been a usual rigor. After all, when you are the son of a Factory Worker whose salary gets deducted for late attendance and a schoolteacher mother who must arrive before the students come to school every day, this is just a way of life. 


Even as I was struggling to manage things better, was when I recalled I should speak to one of my professional mentors, a former boss of mine whom I’ve admired for his multi-tasking Leadership abilities. Working with a popular Promoter Entrepreneur, managing a team of a dozen high-flying direct reports and handling a Retail business spanning the length & breadth of the country, I couldn’t think of anyone better than him to seek advice and assistance in my Leadership role at Levista Coffee which I began in January this year. I too have a similar professional assignment at the moment although the complexities are quite different and a lot lesser, so a comparison may be inappropriate. 



A scheduled 60-minute call with him helped me sort out my stuff quite easily. 

To begin with, I created scheduled buckets of my time for all my key tasks – regular VCs with direct reports, allocating time for emails, for clearances & providing approvals, Meetings with external stakeholders, Interviews with Candidates & Media interaction and so much so, that I also included “Lunch” on my Calendar. Keeping my EA involved in all my day-today business activities helped immensely so he could follow up on important tasks from others and revert to me as per schedule. And most importantly, absolutely no out of turn calls or VCs unless it’s tearing urgent. All my day's activities get captured in the iWatch which my beloved wife gifted me 5 years back and the device keeps reminding me of my schedules  as well as measures my sleep patterns (through the Sleep++ App) and my daily fitness goal - how many steps I walk inside home. This is such a blessing. 


I also included slots to, don’t exclaim, Read Newspaper & Articles as well as for my Daily dose of Yoga at 6am! In exactly one month’s time, my entire day has been well sorted out and results are showing up. My Blood Sugar is well under control, I sleep and wake up on time with my 5am routine, spend enough time to read 4 Newspapers and a couple of Articles early in the morning and of course, write and share my thoughts regularly on social and other public media. I ended up doing Four Webinars each weekend too. 


And on the work front, not only have I been more efficient, my team has also done a spending job in the month of May and we have set new business standards for ourselves. I cannot thank my former Boss enough for that timely intervention and take this opportunity here to acknowledge the same. I hope this schedule gets better, so I get more efficient in June and beyond. 

How does your time management go about? What's your kind of Scheduling of Tasks? 


Monday, May 11, 2020

Covid Vacations

The weekend that went by, we were on vacation. Virtually though, from the confines and comfort of our homes. Wifey opened the home Laptop and on the giant screen, took us through photos of various vacays that we spent as late as until December 2019. This was was the most adventurous as my younger daughter fell off a Pony she was riding atop Nainital viewpoint with no guide beside her even I was trying to apply brakes on my horse without much luck. That she escaped unhurt was nothing short of a miracle. In a previous one at Longhewala, we saw the War-trucks on grand display when India defeated our friendly neighbour as they attempted a midnight attack on our Forces in vain. We undertake 2 long and 2-3 short vacations annually and these are, in my own view a way of giving back to the society. We book Flights / Trains / Cabs providing revenue opportunities for the carriers. We stay at Hotel chains or at Club Mahindra Resorts for free (well, it’s time-share) but end up spending a fortune on food and snacks. But then, Mahindra Holidays manages over 50 resorts and employs 1,000s.


We avoided taking our kids abroad ever since they were born and their maiden trip was only last year to Singapore. Perhaps, this one would remain etched in their minds for their lifetime. Not because it was a “phoren trip” but because of the professionalism and hospitality displayed by the countrymen; the impeccable cleanliness and hygiene standards across the city; the discipline of cab drivers who maintain eye view of the tyres of the vehicle ahead at traffic signals; and of course the Retail Therapy at Malls, Restaurants and Theme Parks. We are getting there (in India) in many areas, but still have a long way to go. The Covid crisis is an opportunity for Domestic Tourism, something that I have been echoing from the time this started. Here’s how.


I foresee (am no Nostradamus, remember!) a huge dip in International Travel on leisure, save for artists in Cinema and arts; Not just in India but globally. This means, savings garnered by avoiding International travel that could be spent elsewhere. Secondly, this is the opportunity for India and Indians to grow Domestic Tourism. To help rebuild a nation, to build our own ecosystem which is so fragile and dependent on Government subsidies almost all the time for everything.


As a family, we have travelled to all borders of India – Longhewala, Nathula and Rameswaram. With limited savings and crores blown on my Entrepreneurial escapades over the past 5 years, all I can offer my kids is a view of things – inside out and from their own lens. I personally believe that this is among the precious gifts I could give them – to see things themselves and appreciate the rich beauty and culture of India. One such adventure was at Tanjore last Summer where we went to the Palace. My daughter had imagined some kind of a Barbie-like Castle. But we had to pay ₹10/- to enter the “complex” not to even find a decent restroom with stinky museum like rooms. This is managed by ASI, sadly. And the general public give scant respect to the monument, even otherwise.


This is not an exception. I can list many. But that’s not the solution. The riches and the Haves are shunning domestic tourism and boarding planes abroad. Nothing that I should comment upon, it’s their prerogative, their money and wish. But, if we don’t take care our own Tourism opportunities, then who else will? I saw Foreigners were going ga-ga during the 8am foggy morning walk at The Taj last December. But down the road were dirty footpath and unhygienic neighbourhoods for all the brouhaha about the city administration. This coating by the Government is not going to help. It’s with us, the citizens to support Domestic Tourism.


Remember, your few thousands of Vacation money will feed hundreds of families for a long time with Travel and Tourism being a long term Industry. I have nothing against PM Cares or CM Funds, but this money is direct benefit to the economy. And one can see results ourselves without complaining in the future that the previous governments looted the public. It’s action time.

Pledge your resources to support and revive Indian Tourism. Am sure We the tourists would benefit the most in times to come, after all. Let me know if you’d like more information about Gurudongmar Lake or Dhanushkodi. Happy to share details.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

My Nostradamus moments in Retail

The year was 1998. My classmate and I created an online booking option at 123India, a popular website which allowed users to build websites with a personalised domain suffix for free. The Madras based Client was Enhancers, an Event Management Company which organised concerts, Carnatic & Fusion Music involving some of the most reputed artists in India and abroad. We were freelancers cum college students and had the privilege of companionship and brotherhood, sparingly some snacks and coffee on the house. After all, we wanted to put to good use the coding languages that we were learning at NIIT.  One could choose the Concert, click on Number of Tickets required, share their Phone Number and Residential Address and within 3 hours, we would deliver the tickets and collect the money.


That was when I imagined a day when as a Consumer, I would simply click a button on a website, order grocery, food and other items which would get delivered right at my doorstep. Few months later, I heard that a company was already doing something similar to this at California in the US. The firm went by the name Amazon. During my stint at Musicworld, I saw in action the same model put to use where HamaraCD, the Kiosk installed at the store could be used to build a personalised playlist digitally, which would get recorded at the backend and delivered to Customers in a week’s time. That a CD bearing 9-11 songs would cost ₹399/- was a deterrent to potential customers and the project never took off.


In 2015, I tried to go back to my idea of 1998 and tried to put it in to good use. I built a website myself on Zepo (similar to and an Indianised version of Shopify) where Customers could order Grocery and Household items which would be picked up by my team from a neighbourhood area and delivered to Customers. Oyethere was warmly welcomed and embraced by Customers and we made a lot of noise and news for delivering Tender Coconuts during the Summer of 2016 and Kabali Movie Tickets and T-Shirts thereafter. We delivered 100s of Patanjali products across Chennai and 100s of clay Ganesha Idols a day ahead of Pillaiyar Chathurthi 2016 – ones which were available by the roadside but many patrons ordered to simply see how this worked, for we also said we shall take back the Ganesha idols for immersion.


Investors although were not impressed. A noted personality from Mumbai, when I pitched at TiECon 2016 asked why would he order on our platform when he could walk down to buy it. He and many other “Potential Angel Investors” said the venture doesn’t make “Unit Economics” for we had more Opex than Revenues, an unwritten norm and a must-do for StartUps and Founders today. There was no Corona Lockdown back then. I said, our StartUp targeted “Cash Rich Time Poor” shoppers who preferred convenience over cost, because our model was to charge 2% on Retailers of the Order Value and a small fee from Shoppers. With volumes of deliveries, we would eventually break even. Those days, Swiggy and Zomato were not delivering Idlis or Burgers below the Menu Price, there was no concept of Delivery Charges for “parcel food” from Restaurants although MakeMyTrip and BookMyShow were already charging users. I convinced him and many others over the next three years, around 50+ pitches. I went back to a day job early this year.


When the Covid Crisis was taking shape and making headlines in India during the first week of March, I sensed a huge surge in OTT Consumption and switched Levista’s Advertising to News Channels instead of GECs. I also shared my views that Multiplexes would reserve 1 seat unutilised for every 4-6 seats which were blocked. And that Swiggy, Zomato and Dunzo would redefine Hyperlocal Retailing. Small joys of life when I see things happening right in front of my eyes.

These are some of those “Nostradamus moments” for me as I look back at my 23 years of being in the Indian Retail Industry. There are many such instances that I could add and share. Like how Consumers would order online and get home-delivered Microwave Ovens, Refridgerators and LED Tvs along with grocery items, although not from the same App. Amazon Prime could be an exception. We’ve just begun. Miles to Go... 

Friday, May 1, 2020

Lockdown Blues!

It’s day 39 of an Official Nationwide lockdown ever since we shut ourselves at home on Tuesday 24 March on Ugadi Day!

The best thing that has happened to most of us is that we spent the last month and a half entirely at our own homes, with our immediate loved ones although many were away from their families.

There’s no bigger joy and happiness that I have had in my entire life that I could spend so many days continuously with my kids and wife. These golden days will be cherished all my life.

I haven’t seen my Sister and Mother for all these days which makes me very sad. Not the longest, since I’ve lived away from them for over 25 years. But this one is rare coz she lives two streets away and I haven’t walked that far.

Though many of us perform household work regularly at home, the lockdown meant No Maids, so we did additional work. Whenever I washed vessels, I felt bad for my elderly maid who washes vessels without a grin. Always. And the mopstick is oh-so bad to handle.


Friends - missed their company the most for I haven’t seen a few for long. Makes me realise how much more important they’re to me. Thanks for being there for me over phone calls!

I ran out of 2 months’ stock of After Shave Lotions so ended up using Savlon. They both do the same job, similar chemicals. But our minds are conditioned to use branded ones than generic ones. Sigh.

We lost choice of many other day today utilities. We used / use what we get. We’ll get used to this.


No outside food. No shopping, visitation to Malls and Cinemas. No hospital / Doc visits. Our body consumed only home cooked food. Bizarre that we could actually survive this.

My Credit Card Bill (mostly official, a bit of household) was the lowest in about 14 years - only FOUR figure bill. Unbelievable. ICICI must be in a state of shock. Also, lost out majorly on my Payback Points.

No new movie releases for 6 weeks, no FDFS. Life moves on. Awaiting OTT releases and FDFS in May 2020.

I never imagined all my life that sales professionals like me can ever work from home. This has been a reckoning of sorts on how we are conditioned to think, act and behave repeatedly on the professional front.


Missed human interactions all along, ironically. Shows why humans are social animals and need socialising. Am quite sure that this too shall also pass and we will come to terms to the new world order, soon.

Indian PM and Tamil Nadu CM have led the Country and the State impeccably all along. Not fair to compare how other countries fared, especially the usual suspects of USA, China, Japan, France & Germany. But our men in Kurta and Veshti have rocked.

We clapped hands on a balcony, lit lamps in the night in solidarity without expecting any miracle. They said, We did. Some didn’t. Many mocked the idea. So be it.


Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor passed away. Many felt bad for them personally. So much of noise on social media for the departed souls. Rishi’s daughter saw the cremation on a Video call. Like how Indian migrant labourers working in Middle East, Africa and South East Asia see the last rites of their departed ones. Just that mostly they don’t have a choice to fly back.

But the same ones who mourned Irrfan and Rishi didn’t condemn on their FB Walls when Dr. Simon’s last rites were disallowed in his preferred Cemetery at Kilpauk, Chennai. The vehicle was vandalised and destroyed with the corpse in it by members of the same community whom he loving served all along. Two men dug the grave for a Doc who saved so many lives all his life.

Priorities. Ignorance. Impatience. Human race, I say.

As always, Bollywood (and Hollywood) comes first. Our own local heroes - Nope.


Of the two drivers who took a corpse to Mizoram in an ambulance from Chennai driving for three straight days, one has tested positive yesterday. Mizo Minister rewarded him ₹2,000 for the trip. No, we will not celebrate this Driver as he was not the original Romantic Hero or a Really emotive actor. Just another labour fellow and driving an Ambulance is his job, after all. Not sure, if he was singing “Hum tum, ek kamre mein bandh ho” along with his co-driver. Very very sad.

Economic Stimulus - Instead of catchups at Cafes and benches at Tea Shops, social media is abuzz on this. From Raghuram Rajan to Raghu Thatha, everyone is advising, Xi, Trump, Modi and Merkel. Nice to see the world has 5 billion Economists. Wow. I should have taken my Class XI and XII Economics Lectures more seriously.

Some people want to urgently open shops, malls, cinemas and salons. But I wonder if Customers are willing to walk outside.

E-Commerce is here to stay. Dot. As I always say, E-Commerce is not a new business, rather it’s just a new channel of distribution.

Lastly, Hyperlocal ECommerce is the way forward. My startup Oyethere did this 5 years back. Potential Investors scoffed and mocked at me then. Today, they are cribbing that Dunzo doesn’t deliver at their Pin code at Bangalore, Bombay or Delhi. The Chennai Investor Mamas still believe it’s best to walk up to the neighbor hood shops than invest on Hyperlocal StartUps. Sigh.


Lastly, I haven’t been to a Temple Precint - longest ever in my life. Missing this aspect the most.

Do share this article if you feel this perspective interests you.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

100 Days of Employment

It’s ironical that I am writing this article on my 100 days of Employment from home. So be it. Out of the 100 days, 25 have been Work from Home, a first of it’s kind in my 2 decades of being employed. The first day of my job and almost everyday thereafter have been on the shop floor, meeting, interacting and solving consumer challenges – from helping them to choose the right merchandise to closing a sale, somehow. But the last 25 days have been very different, thanks to Covid-19 Crisis and the ensuing lockdown. More on that later.


 

Mid-December 2019, I was lounging with my classmate who had come to India for a vacation. We were at Westminister, Crowne Plaza (though we still call it as Park Sheraton) which is our favourite hangout for the past 20 of the 24 years we have known each other since studying UG together. The Waiter who used to serve us way back then is now the F&B Manager of the Hotel, something that makes us feel happy that everyone around us has been growing. I received a call from an unknown number and the caller identified himself as an HR Consultant and spoke briefly about a Coffee brand. In the next 24 hours, my tickets were booked to Bangalore for a face-to face Interview with the Management and in the next 7 days, an Offer Letter was sent while I was on vacation at Jim Corbett National Park for Christmas holidays. Things moved very fast, to my own surprise but that’s how God’s grace has always been. He surprises us without even us realizing what He is up to. I joined the company on 3 Jan., on my Father's Birthday!

 

I completed 100 days recently at Levista Coffee as Vice President managing Sales, Marketing, Supply Chain, Logistics and everything in between. It has been a very short tenure yet, but a very fulfilling one. Be it setting up a Corporate Office from scratch (Furniture, Interiors, what not), to plan a detailed Business Plan for the next 24 months as I lead the company to greener pastures with a vision to accomplish 5% Market share of the Rs. 2,200 Crore Instant Coffee Market annually in India of which 80% is held between HUL and Nestle, who’s majority of business comes from Southern India. I have been fortunate to interact with executives and experts from the Indian Media Industry – small, big, large as well as meeting staff members along with prospective new recruits to join and grow the Sales & Marketing team meaningfully. Have also met and interacted with some very bright minds from the Indian Retail ecosystem who have been very supportive to a baby brand that we are, which is only 27 months young now.

 

After 100 days of this tenure, everything seems surreal. I was an Accidental Entrepreneur, thanks to a turn of events in the family way back in 2014. I was not prepared for running Retail Businesses or E-Commerce although Consulting was always on the cards. While all my entrepreneurial escapades went bust including a few Crores of personal savings between my wife and me, what has remained are memories and learnings. Something which I will cherish all my life and of course, am putting them to good use every day. Working for a retail company is very different than running one, for it’s easier to get paid than to pay employees. My hyperlocal ecommerce venture, which is incidentally the most utilized today during the N-Covid Crisis, where we delivered FMCG from nearby Retailers to Consumers was way ahead of time, perhaps. I received messages from a few friends over the last few days and even potential Investors who appreciated my forethought but was difficult to execute it then, due to lack of funds then.

 

Miles2Go Advisory Services, my Consulting firm worked with at least 50 Entrepreneurs on business ranging from Jewellery to Organic Bio-Manure, Agri-products to Idli-Sambar serving restaurant chains. Airports, Railways, Travel Retail Concepts were some of the areas where I worked in various consulting roles. This rich experience and exposure for over 60 months has helped me immensely as I wade my way through this complex maze of Retailing, yet again wearing a new hat (and new clothes!). I am learning every day; with a clean slate every morning – that I do not know anything about Retailing or the Retail Industry and that I get one more day to (unlearn) and learn from scratch.



I have Miles to Go. I have just begun.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Consumers & Advertising

In my new role at Levista Coffee, I have a dual role to play in Sales & Marketing. While Sales is something I have been on to almost every day of my 23 years’ in Retailing, Marketing is an even more interesting and close-to the heart subject which precedes my Sales experience. Right from college days (and even before as a curious consumer), I have always wondered why Companies market their products if it’s Sales worthy. In fact, it’s an old adage that a great product doesn’t need Advertising. This doesn’t hold good for any product or service in today’s context (and perhaps, even for people given how Mr. Trump & Mr. Modi promoted their agendas at Motera Stadium). So, any business needs Marketing and Consumer facing businesses need a tad more. A lot more rather, with the increasing and insane competition.


As I have been talking to Heads of various media businesses ranging from GEC Channels to Entertainment, News Channels to Spirituality, I have been able to decipher the needs of Media consumers and thought I should write about it briefly. In my opinion, Consumers have three key characteristics – Gossip, Anxiety and Greed. The programs with highest TRPs are Soaps (Tele-Serials), Reality Shows and News Debates. No wonder that they fit in to the three-key human characteristics.

Tele-Serials are all about gossip. The characters in the play gossip and play truant against one another. This vicious cycle goes on for weeks. Contrary to many people who think that Serial scripts are pre-decided and are usually written like film scripts, no they are not. Script Writers change the storyline every few weeks based on audience reaction as well as, wait “BARC Data” which ultimately announce TRPs! So much so, that Script Writers are even replaced by the TV channels / Producers should they wish to. 


As consumers (serial-viewers) love this “gossip” quality of others and themselves, they get hooked to the screens, small and ultra-small ones (almost all Tv Channels have OTTs now to view on Mobiles). So are the News Channels which have more debate-style programs than actual News Reading sessions. No matter how loud a motor-mouth he or she is, the audience love their Anchors! And that’s what raises their popularity and the program’s ratings, after all.

Reality Shows build anxiety, be it KBC-styled quizzes or Box-styled houses that prison inmates for 100 days or even Music Performances which have elimination rounds where even normal looking Musicians outperform their onscreen persona with inimitable hyper histrionics. So is it with Cookery shows or task based programs, especially ones that involve NCC-type arduous tasks in real life situations. Nerkonda Paarvai, the show hosted by Ms. Lakshmi Ramakrishnan began with a bang on 24 Feb. 2020, this time on Kalaignar Tv and is sure to rock TRPs. 


Lastly, greed. Media Consumers want more of what they already watch. With an estimated 10+ Regional General Entertainment Channels in over 10 top Indian languages and almost a similar number in mainstream Hindi, the audience is spoilt for choice with the need to make more time to watch these serials, even while on the move (on OTTs) or on YouTube rehashes. 

Surprisingly, spiritual programs such as temple information or horoscope reading have low TRPs, rather lower viewership. Maybe consumers feel God doesn’t have much to do with their greed, anxiety or gossip. Probably. But Advertisers like us have our customer profiles cracked. We know what and when they watch, so we feed them what they love. So, they ultimately visit a retail store or a website / app and order our stuff. I seem to have been in the most exciting part of my career which I think is yet to begin. Honestly. 



Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Heavier Crown, a Lighter Head is the Aim

Many of you wouldn’t know that I started my retail career in the food industry way back in 1997. It was the first outlet for Baskin Robbins in Chennai and only the second in India where I would scoop Ice Cream and sell then for ₹35 a cup while local brands such as Kwality, Joy and Arun Ice Cream would sell cones and sticks for ₹5 & ₹10 a piece. With plans to board an airplane for employment or to pursue higher studies sooner than later in the US of A, I thought this part time stint during the day (as I went to Evening College) with an American Food chain would be a stepping stone since this sort of menial jobs is something I would anyway end up with, while studying there for my pocket money or as an alternate income. I gave my best at the shop for a little over 9 months when my 18 month course at NIIT was about to end. I had learnt coding skills on languages such as C++, VC++, Visual Basic among others. 
Grocery Retail - Where my Retail career started. 

As my parents waited eagerly for me to complete my graduation, stand outside the US Consulate on RK Salai (Cathedral Road) in Chennai for 8 hours to get a Visa and head out abroad for higher studies or pursue a career in Computers, I had changed the course of my career meanwhile. A desktop was a little less interesting than interacting with new customers at a retail store everyday. Coding languages in an a/c room was a lot less impressive than conversations across languages on the shop floor with Guests. The lure of Dollars was replaced by the lure of learning something new daily with so many interactions with people around. Afterall, money cannot replace everything in the world. I prostrated at my parents feet handing over my NIIT Certificate and told them this beautiful artpaper doesn’t excite me anymore. 

After giving their hard-earned money for me to learn Software development, they were kind enough to oblige my request. I went on to pursue an MBA in Marketing, conferred myself the title “Retailer by Profession and Choice since 1997” and here I am writing this article from the lobby of Taj Land End, Mumbai as I receive a citation today - 12 Feb. 2020 that reads “Most influential F&B Industry professional in India” by CMO Asia in association with World Retail Congress. 


Humbled, is the least I can say as I receive my fourth such Award in 6 years. In 2014, I was conferred “Top 50 Retail Professionals in India”, “Young Achiever Award” by Vels University, Chennai in 2016 and “Top 100 Retail Professionals in India” in 2018. The crown became heavier today with this feather but the ego within got lighter, for I feel I have so much more to learn and accomplish in life. Makes me realise what a Responsibility this is (with a capital R) to carry such accolades on my shoulder and also makes me wonder how little I know about the Indian Retail Industry where I have played a minuscule role and who’s History which is yet to be fully told.

Over the years of my employment, I have worked in managing Store Operations in the Grocery Retail business at RPG Foodworld (2001) and thereafter set-up 140 outlets across India for Cafe Coffee Day (since 2009) as General Manager - Business Development. Had the opportunity to work with several iconic F&B Clients during my 5.5 years stint running my own Business Advisory firm “Miles2Go Consulting Services” until 2019. F&B remains my most cherished vertical within Retail afterall even as I joined Levista Coffee as Vice President earlier this year. A full time role of employment, I am responsible for the business P/L where our coffee proudly shares valuable shelf space at Grocery stores with world famous brands like Bru, Nescafe and Sunrise as well as several homegrown brands like Narasus, Leo, Continental, Cothas, to name a few. 



There were two frogs which were climbing a small hillock. Fellow brethren told them not to venture since there was danger lurking ahead. One frog came back to where it started while the other frog kept leaping ahead and finally reached the summit. There was no danger there, rather there was a bounty in the offing. While everyone wondered why the frog never listened to anyone, they later realised that the Frog was deaf (to their comments and feedback) and surged ahead with a clear goal in mind.

The path I chose 23 years back was the road less taken. Retail was not all this glossy or popular way back then. Not only was an employment in Retail a low-income opportunity, It was chided as a very localised job assignment which doesn’t suit MBA profiles and one that is confined to a certain social strata of the society including a profiling that is even linked only to a few specific castes. 



Looking back, I missed several buses in other industries and lucrative job opportunities, but do I have a sense of grief or regret? Not a bit. I am very glad I chose this path and shall always be proud of what this Industry has taught me as I look forward to contributing meaningfully to my Country. 

I have just begun and I have Miles to Go before I sleep.

Miles2Go. 

Friday, January 3, 2020

Inflight Retailing - Retail 2020 (Article #7)

Air Asia, the low cost airline which pioneered the concept in South East Asia two decades back has been in the news for the few days for other reasons. The company has pioneered, much to the surprise of both the Aviation and the Retail Industry, an F&B concept by the name “Santan” which apparently has a wide range of menu curated from ASEAN countries. From Vietnamese chicken rice to Thai Noodles to the most favoured local Malay food, it features many an item which is a Local delicacy. And then comes the surprise. Hold. Santan has opened its first outlet at a premium shopping Mall in Kuala Lumpur and Tony Fernandes, the maverick CEO and Founder of Air Asia aspires to open 100 such outlets in the region. While executives of the Two related industries are sharing extreme feedback – from calling Santan a bizarre experiment to one that’s refreshing and pioneering, the jury is yet to be out.


Cut to 2005. Capt. Gopinath, an Indian Pilot who had retired from the indian Air Force aspired to set up a low-cost airline minus the frills and launched a test flight from Bangalore to Bellary followed by a national presence before ultimately selling off the business to Kingfisher Airlines. During the early days of Air Deccan, the airline ran several innovative promotions to catch the fancy of public and stood true to it’s Brand Byline – Now every Indian can fly, by offering inaugural promo tickets at ₹1 per ticket plus local and statutory aviation taxes. Was a great way of Marketing but here came the surprise – in the early days, there was no seat allocation for passengers who would run toget their preferred seats, from windows to aisles and to avoid the rear facing ones adjacent to the Crew.and to make add-on revenues, Air Deccan “sold” water much to the chagrin of the flyers and general public. Indian Aviation has come a long way forward since then. 

Retailing products on the flight, rather during the Flight, popularly known globally as “Inflight Retailing” in India is in it’s infancy in India currently. While one gets to savour a wide range of RTE (Ready to Eat) Food items from Biriyanis to Bhel Puri, Dal Chawal to Poha & Upma, these are not really innovations from the airlines themselves. Café Coffee Day created an innovative ready to mix coffee powder which only required Hot Water and introduced it in the skies in 2010. Although the coffee was not a hit, it has given birth to an innovative way of tea-making in similar lines. 


Airlines out up a catalogue of products, from key chains to power banks, Bluetooth earphones to toys. But I hardly see flyers buying them for the range is so boring and nothing that’s not available on ground. Not sure of the Commercial Management Team at airlines across India do not sense this opportunity which is over USD 2 Billion worldwide or are they simply focussing on the traditional aeronautical revenue coupled with faster and improved performance on ground, for that’s where a Plane should spend the least of its time. 

Once upon a time, Retail Brands would issue Gift Vouchers to Airline passengers while Jet Privilege allowed to earn and burn bonus points at select Retail Outlets.  Not anymore. Loyalty is dead, after all and Membership is in. I am waiting for the day when Netflix and Amazon Prime would provide a one-month trial for select passengers. Mall Chains and premium Department Store chains like Shoppers Stop would, for a small fee offer a coveted Membership that entails members to avail special offers including home pick-up, personal stylist and so on. Revv and Miles in a tie-up with Airlines would offer vehicles for self-drive at Airports so users can be more efficient all day as well as leisure tourists can avail sedans and SUVs for their tourist destination. In my opinion, inflight product and services retail is in the anvil and is bound to explode in a very big way in times to come. 


Would Air Asia launch Santan in India or would Indigo launch a café? I think that’s a too far-fetched idea at the moment. Retail, and modern retail is a different ballgame altogether. Long term Retail F&B companies are still tweaking their business models in India after being in service for 2 decades. I would rather hope we see more innovations in the inflight catalogue. Like Rajinikanth-branded aircrafts which was launched by Air Asia ahead of 2017 release tamil film Kabali. 

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Highway Retailing – Retail 2020 (Article #6)

I have just completed a 10-day vacation across North India. Being an avid traveler, my travel plans are usually frozen at least 2 months in advance, which includes booking of rooms, air / rail transportation as well as ground transportation including the last mile to the Hotel or Resort where we would stay. However. one thing which has always been unplanned, or rather difficult to plan is the place to eat / take a break during such trips, especially while travelling by road. On our last leg today, we drove from Jaipur to Delhi, a distance of 270 Kms which took us around 4.5 hours non-stop. Due to intense Fog in this part of India, we wanted to reach as close as possible to Gurgaon before we took a break. Thanks to constant protests across country on some pretext (currently the NRC) or the other, we decided we wouldn’t stop midway and filled our “tanks” at Jaipur during breakfast. Sadly, the weather played spoil sport and my flight was delayed by over 2.5 hours, thanks to the Fog.


To give a perspective, there are an estimated 40,000+ Fuel Stations across India. Of these, at least 90% of them are branded by PSUs including Indian Oil Corporation which has close to 40% of the outlets, followed by Bharath Petroleum, around 30% and Hindustan Petroleum, around 25%. Lastly, there are the privately-owned OMCs - Oil Marketing Companies such as Reliance, Shell and Essar which are less than 5% in number and growing faster than the PSU OMCs. During my stint at Café Coffee Day in 2009, I signed up two exclusive contracts with Shell and Essar which were riding high on the deregulation of fuel prices which meant that the OMCs could fix the price for Petrol and Diesel. Although they have maintained their prices on par with the PSUs, there are benefits they cater to the consumers beyond filling high quality fuel. For Ex., all Shell Outlets have clean rest rooms separately for Men and Women. Some of them even provide services such as Vehicle Wash and minor repairs. The erstwhile Reliance Fuel Outlets had separate Food Courts from the Fuel Station including independent ingress & egress which was extensively put to use by the company through company managed as well as Franchised / outsourced F&B operations in the name and style of A1 Plazas. 

However, the majority of Fuel stations managed by the Dealers of the 3 PSUs do not even have basic amenities such as clean rest rooms which has been a regular qualm of most highway warriors like me. There are exceptions such as the Yamuna Express highway which connects Delhi to Agra with an Eight-lane highway which has three Toll Plazas and each of them have a neighbouring resting area including large food courts housing International and regional F&B outlets. 


Café Coffee Day remains the Number One F&B brand in India which has the most number of highway Outlets as compared to any other business house in organised F&B Retail. But this trend at CCD started many years back, beginning with the coveted Bangalore – Mysore State Highway followed by many such Highways across India. Many other regional brands such as Haldirams in North India, Sukh Sagar in the West and A2B (Adyar Ananda Bhavan) and Adigas in the South have cracked the regional markets but none at a large pan-India scale. Perhaps, Indian businesses can take a leaf out of International operators in the US & Europe who have built Billion Dollar businesses around this model. 

Personal driving as well as Cab hailing for long distances have become affordable now, thanks to lower cost of owning 4-wheelers as well as many tourist locations across India. Highway Retailing is in it’s infancy in India now and much more needs to be done in times to come.