Thursday, December 3, 2020

Lacing up a billion pairs of feet

The good old Sales analogy – A Salesman was sent to a village where no one wore shoes; he returned back saying there’s no business opportunity here. A few days later, another goes to the same village and screams with excitement that the whole village is an opportunity. After all, it’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it? When I got an opportunity to join Levista early this year, I was doing my interview-prep and stumbled at the fact that the packaged coffee market in India is approx. Rs.2,200 Cr.pa, of which over 80% comes from South of India and is largely dominated by two companies with their three brands. 



Having set-up 140 cafes for Café Coffee Day across India a decade back, especially at Airports, Malls and Edu. Institutions, I realised what an opportunity that the coffee industry in India was staring at. Add to that, the ever increasing exposure to “Café and Coffee culture” over the past 20 years, right from the TV sitcom “Friends” to so many Indian films eulogising a coffee shop as the go-to place, be it with friends or for a an elusive date. I preferred to be the second type of Salesman who believes that the entire country is a coffee opportunity rather than just the Southern States. Levista has grown in size and presence over the past six months, a healthy 2-digit growth (although not at the cost of increased Opex.) Call it “Due to Corona or Despite Corona” and we still occupy less than 2-3% of the total market opportunity.



Two similar industries which have always caught my attention are footwear and time wear. And the top 2 Brands that resonate with us with the mere mention of these categories are Bata and Titan. 


What started off as a JV with the Government of TN in the 90s has now become a globally acclaimed brand that is Titan Watches. On the other hand, a hitherto unknown Czech who traversed across India in the 20th Century saw Indians were walking around without basic footwear essentials and felt there was a great need to lace them up, just like the suited-booted British who showed their imperialism with the way they dressed their bodies & shoes. Thomas Bata set-up “T&A Bata Shoe Company” at Zlin, Czechoslovakia along with siblings Anna and Antonio in 1897 and later set-up an Indian unit at Kolkata. Over the years, especially after Independence, Indians have leaned towards the Brand for two reasons – that it was “very Indian” in nature. And because of their durability, affordability and consistency. Globally, Bata is sold over 70 countries and sells more than 180 million pairs of footwear each year. The Indian footwear market is estimated to be around USD 11 Billion and has been growing well.



It is for an another article how Bata penetrated in to the Tier 3/4 markets of India and looked beyond the city centres and CBDs over the last 2 decades. Having said that, the Retail Brand grew mostly through a robust distribution system over the past 40 years, essentially targeting Multi-brand footwear stores owned by local traders initially and later creating their own flagship stores, essentially Franchised, with bright lighting, spaced out interiors and a wide range. In fact, the belief that continues to be with most ardent fans and customers of Bata is that they would mostly never run out of stock for a model or a size or a colour. Shows the brains behind assortment and range planning – and all this without the so called “deep tech”, “AI-led Merchandising” nor “Machine Learning techniques” for better stocking. No Pricing gimmicks, no EOSS, No high-decibel Marketing campaigns. Focus on what matters the most – the 4Ps and remain consistent. And that’s all is the success mantra, after all.


The sales guys at every Bata store recognised their customers either by face or name and most importantly knew the kind of footwear the users in a locality wore – formal, semi-formal, slippers or sandals. Add to that, the advent of Back-To-school Campaign that was introduced a decade or so back meant that the store was a “celebration point” for kids ahead of the new academic year. The adage “Catch them young, Watch them grow” cannot be more appropriate for any other brand than Bata, save for a few chocolate / candy brands.



And steering all this is Sandeep Kataria who has been recently named as Global CEO for the fledgling footwear company. With 40% of the total Global Turnover coming from the Indian Subcontinent and a few adjoining South Asian Countries, I am quite sure Sandeep is surely going to make a dent in applying best practices learned from India. Sandeep joins an elite list of CXOs including Sanjeev Mohanty of Levis and Shailesh Chaturvedi of Tommy Hilfiger who hold similar international profiles, thanks to their extensive experience in the Indian market. It’s so nice to see great Indian talents getting recognised worldwide for their contributions. As I always say, the Indian resurgence (we are the oldest civilisation, you see!) has just begun. I am sure, we will find many 100s of Indian professionals donning top Retail roles globally. As it is, a number of Indians hold remarkable positions in many foreign countries across Retail Chains and Consumer brands. The number is growing and faster thatnwe expect. 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Revenge travelling is here to stay

I returned back home on 17th Oct. 2020 after a two week business trip across Karnataka. With this, I have completed 9,400 kms of travel by road since 10 Aug. 2020 when I stepped out of home for the first time after a 150-day self-imposed exile, thanks to multiple lockdowns due to the Covid-19 Virus outbreak. The rubber I have burned is mostly self-driven and partially chauffer driven. But for a short trip to visit some of my favourite temples in September, all other trips have been on work. I have met already 80% of my 140-member sales team at Levista Coffee across TN & KA these last two months and as I write this, my Samsonite is gleefully smiling at me for yet another trip that begins Tuesday and thereafter. 


Revenge Travel, as the term has claimed obnoxity in the recent past is here to stay, I guess. If trends are to be believed (and seen personally!), I guess it is so. To begin with, some hard numbers issued by the Oil Industry in India indicate the same. A 1.65% & 1.5% increase in Diesel and Petrol consumption compared to last year, same period. A very small single percentage number of growth but the digits make it look more attractive. For the record, India consumes 3x Diesel to Petrol, noticeably because most of the goods movement in India is by trucks and they are almost 100% Diesel-driven. Due to the surge in work related travel to scores of us and a lack of public transportation, even taxis (mostly diesel consuming ones) are back in demand while a small portion of personal vehicles (like mine) use diesel as well. 


Sale of Petrol grew to 982,000 tons in the first half of October, up from 967,000 tons in the same period in 2019 and 968,000 tons in the first fortnight of Sep. 2020 while Diesel sales rose to 2.65 million tons in the first fortnight of October from 2.43 million tons a year back and 2.13 million tons in the first half of Sep. 2020. With the Navarathri / Dassera / Pujo festivities lined up in the second fortnight of October and a subdued yet enthusiastic Deepavali in the anvil, it seems that fuel consumption is going to continue to rise. 


Another noticeable point is the upward trend in Fastag usages, from Rs. 1,800 Cr. in Feb. 2020 to approx. Rs. 1,700 Cr in Aug. 2020. And this, even as I see fewer vehicles in the dedicated Fastag lanes compared to the “cash lanes” across several Toll Plazas where I have travelled the last two and half months. One obvious negative trend is the dwindling numbers at highway restaurants, cafés and pit-stops. From the nondescript coffee kiosks dotted along the highways to the more organised eating joints, there is a significant drop in numbers, save for a select few which are in high demand due to scarcity of outlets in the vicinity. 




Interestingly, I saw a number of vehicles parked aside the Highways and people eating off plates, perhaps with home-cooked food – a trend which was the “only” way before the driving-down trends began around a decade back. The otherwise famous cafés which witness a huge surge in visitors riding their prized motorcycles or cavalcades of cars with bunches of friends and families is sorely missed, quip restaurant managers and owners.


Hotels that provide lodging are also seeing a growth in occupancy levels albeit still less than 50% of pre-Covid levels which used to hover around 65% on an average but for weekends where select properties were lucky with a full house. I still wonder if the entire room is fully sanitized, linens washed off after every guest departs – not just an expensive affair but also laborious, one reason why I have been cautious about where I retire for the night during my travels. And the F&B areas of these hotels are no different with social distancing of tables and limited numbers of Chairs per table to avoid crowding. Most restaurants avoid Buffet – which has been proven to be one of the fastest ways to spread the dreaded virus, especially with a number of people sharing crockery and cutlery.


As clichéd as it sounds, “Revenge Travel” is here to stay. Only difference is that most of the Tourism business will be Domestic and the Indian Hospitality Industry cannot ask for more.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Let’s rebuild the Economy – Ourselves

After a self imposed exile at home in the garb of WFH for over 150 days, I finally stepped out of home and moved to Bangalore last month to join my “real office”. I also travelled to Kushal Nagar in Coorg where our company’s Headquarters and Plant are located for a review with my Management. All through my two weeks at Bangalore, I was pleasantly surprised and motivated how we are ourselves building back lost time, money and economy. For instance, we had full attendance at office and also ensured all of us wear face masks while seated. Every alternate chair in the Meeting room is left empty (so fewer persons and therefore the meetings end early too!). Usage of hand sanitisers, and most importantly washing hands frequently is encouraged to ensure this is rather a “habit formation” in the long run. Cleanliness is Godliness, someone said long ago and remains relevant all along. 



I travelled across two major parts of Tamil Nadu last week, to Coimbatore and Madurai to meet my team members, Distributors as well as for market visits. Same protocol, another precinct. Nothing changed. The hotels have accepted the new norm, so have Guests. Food is served outside the room as per WHO protocol and the guest must take it inside their rooms themselves. Buffet is off the menu and breakfast is served in the room. Works for all of us plus the added advantage of “NIL wastage” at the buffet counter. Limited and minimal contacts with other people around works to everyone’s favour after all. 



This week, my wife and I decided to travel by road to visit a few of our favourite temples to seek the blessings of our beloved gods. We departed on Tuesday morning even as the TN Govt. opened up the doors of all religious places in the state. We were not just surprised but also impressed with the steps taken by the Government and the penultimate cooperation by devotees. We witnessed this first hand not just at one but across some of the oldest and perhaps, otherwise most populous temples. For Ex., the Srirangam temple, the world’s largest temple complex witnesses at least 30,000 visitors on a regular day. However, now is a different story with less than 1% of that number of visitors being allowed everyday. Still, the devotees maintained strict social distancing and followed norms, while at the entry inside, temperature check has been made mandatory. Well, that’s not accurate, quip many. But then, do we have a choice of shutting down everything for some more time to come? 



We travelled around 1,100 kms over 5 days and stopped by at least a dozen restaurants. Almost everywhere, customers and patrons seem to be following self-discipline which is the key to combat this virus which apparently is here to stay for some more time to come. 



What was pleasant to see was that even in the smallest of Tier 3 villages, locals understand the reason to wear a mask and the reasoning not to touch others, walk in groups or sneeze in public. The awareness created all along by the Media and the Governments is impressive although there is a surge in unruly motoring skills in city roads as well as on Highways – especially 3-4 persons on a 2-Wheeler and most of them not wearing Helmets which goes unchecked by the authorities. Well, we gain a few brownies and lose some ourselves. Sad part of humankind.


Ultimately, to bring India back to it’s foot is the duty for each of her citizens and beyond a point, I believe the Government can do very little beyond disbursing loans and doling out subsidies. While the Central and State Governments are doing their best despite so much negativity around, I personally believe it is up to each one of us to pick up the broken, leftover pieces and push the economy upwards. If not anything, this is just another form of patriotism and duty to the nation. Needless to say, we need to ensure safety precautions for ourselves as well as to our surroundings. And for me, I filled up Diesel full tank today even as I entered my home garage, ready for the next drive. I pledge to do my bit. I have Miles to go, after all.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Future of Retail

The writing was on the wall for a long time. Many old timers like me and thousands of retail enthusiasts in India and worldwide were eagerly waiting for the announcement. That the Reliance Group was a strong contender to buy out The Future Group lock, stock and barrel was a known fact. And that Amazon and Walmart were discussing the final nuances was also a known thing. And then, it happened finally. It Happened In India – on 29th August 2020, Reliance Retail and The Future Group formally announced in the media that the former had bought out the wholesale, retail and warehousing business of the latter in full. A red letter day for self made Entrepreneurs, groaned many on social media and in passive interactions. The man recovered his 30 year’s investment of time, quipped many others. A few former employees were seen sulking in public and private, some even wept at this outcome. At the end of the day, it’s a business that has changed hands, owners and course. Life moves on, so why fret, said many others. 


Kishore Biyani and his cousins started the traditional business of selling dress materials for men in Calcutta in the 80s. As a family driven business from the “Maheshwari” community of Marwaris, the family spread their work load. Each one of them had an important role to play – from sourcing to selling, accounting to managing working capital. They named the company “Pantaloon” as they were selling Pant lengths for making patloon, the Indian namesake for western clothing. When the family gathered pace with their wholesale business, was born an idea of retail models such that customers could grace the shop and buy. They opened their fancy big outlet at Gariahat, Calcutta in the late 90s. The shop was a runaway hit and also boasted “Green Card” – a loyalty platform. Yes, 1990s. With the stupendous success of the fashion format, the company decided to cater to the other essentials for the family – Roti, Kapda aur Makaan. Thus was born Big Bazaar on VIP Road, Kolkata in 2001. All along the Biyanis were shuttling between the city of joy and the city of dreams. With dreams unlimited. 


I joined the group in 2004 when the company ventured with Mall Retailing – Bangalore Central which opened it’s doors in May 2004 And has over 45 Malls to its credit till date all India. The company opened some format of retailing in every residential locality of India’s top 100 cities – from Gauhati to Madurai, Baroda to Bilaspur. At some point, the company was selling everything from a humble Rs. 10 samosa to the entire wardrobe for the house with accessories, furnishings, paraphernalia and everything in between. After the big slowdown of 2008, Kishore Ji in his inimitable style conceded at the 2009 India Retail Forum at Mumbai that the company wanted to be “everything to everyone” and failed miserably at it. As a person who only gathers learning and lessons from failures, he simply moved on to build a coveted “Pantaloon Fashion” business which he sold at a handsome profit to the Birlas. Once again, he painstakingly built other fashion retail brands including Cover Story and fBB alongside the equivalent of India’s very own Walmart – Big Bazaar. 


For every 10 customers who frowned at the business model of BB, 100 others became loyal patrons everyday of the multi-category retailer infamous for crazy deals and price-offs. During these last 20 years, there were several internal and external forces that wanted a slice of the Golden Sparrow – a pneumonic which the group added to it’s logo when the company’s name was changed to The Future Group – Sone Ki Chidiya tagged along with. When Reliance Retail was contemplating to enter the retail business in 2008, they had obviously explored a buy out. However, the company built it’s own fort with all it’s might. Amazon and Walmart made several attempts all these years to get a pie in the business but couldn’t lay siege in a big way. In turn, Bharti-Walmart ended up selling their retail business “Easy Day Stores” to the group several years back even as Carrefour bowed out of India with a single store in East Delhi which never took off. The group and it’s Founder were building a mighty retail company with several formats, several business models including a foray in to packaged FMCG with the “Tasty Treat” Brand which was an outcome of the private label business of the company through its grocery retail business. 

It’s all about timing, as they say in business and bourses. 


The Corona Crisis was a great opportunity for the Promoters to exit the business especially when the richest man of Asia was willing to write a cheque. This was not a hostile bid. Yes, there has been mounting pressure from Investors, bankers and share holders due the company’s debt levels. But a bailout, if needed was only favorable for the Biyanis. As they didn’t just sell grocery, household, electronics and fashion alone. Kishore Biyani was a Dream Merchant. He made millions of Indians to dream. To dream Big. To dream big about building scale and grow their businesses. For thousands of naysayers of the group’s way of running the business, lakhs of small time business persons grew their small ventures inspired by the self-styled and non-conformist serial Entrepreneur who tried to sell everything a consumer can consume, literally and figuratively including insurance and EMI-led credit to shop more at his 1,000s of stores. Some even went public or raised private investments. He strongly believed in a consumption led economy and Kept repeating that the Great Indian Consumption Story is yet to take off in a big way.


As a Retail professional, my second stint was with the group where I saw firsthand decision making of a slew of deals; how to take risks with determination and a cushion to fall; gather self motivation and courage to keep moving, no matter what. If one thing doesn’t work one way, try it another away. And a 100 other ways. It would eventually work, after all. It had to. Had I not moved to Bangalore on that Sankranthi day of 2004, much to the chagrin of my parents with 4 bags and a bagful of dreams, my professional career, a Retail dominated one at that wouldn’t have occurred, probably. I am ever grateful to the Leadership Team at the erstwhile Pantaloon group who guided me as a young man with a mere 2.5 years’ experience and of course my many interactions with Mr. Rakesh Biyani with whom I worked closely while setting up the Concessionaire Business at Bangalore Central. 


I personally see this as yet another lesson for budding as well as well settled Entrepreneurs  - to believe in oneself and keep moving with earnest efforts. If you do well, you will succeed. If you don’t do as well as you could have, yet have built something incredible, then there will always be someone to support you, invest in your dreams or perhaps buy them out. 

The Great Indian Retail story is yet to be fully told. I am glad I am a part of it.
A Retailer by Profession and Choice. Since 1997. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

A lot happened to Coffee


I was taking an 8.30am flight that morning when News channels at the Chennai Airport flashed that Mr. VG Siddhartha had gone missing the previous night at Mangalore. He had asked his driver to stop the car and walked along the now infamous bridge along Nethravathi River near Ullala town only to never return. His dead body was found two days later along the coast and was cremated the same day at his native town, Chikmagalur. Those unfortunate three days, I happened to be in Bangalore on work. I was restless right from the moment I heard the news, the two days of suspense and finally watching the last rites on a TV App on my mobile even as my Cab was passing by Coffee Day Square on Vittal Mallya Road. I was breathless for a few hours even after reaching my hotel room that night. Sometimes, I still get nightmares.



Although I was never too close to “Chairman” as we called him, I had the rare opportunity to work closely with him between 2009 – 2011 when I was General Manager – Business Development at Café Coffee Day setting up 140 new cafés within the confines of retail precincts including Airports, Metros, Hypermarkets, Supermarkets, Apparel Department Stores, Cinemas, College and University Campuses and so on. We would meet twice a month or so to go through the potential sites that were on offer and he would share his wise views whether to proceed or not, given his global experience in the Coffee business. 




He always wanted to make Café Coffee Day one of the most loved homegrown Indian consumer brands. Legend has it that the farmer’s son was fascinated how Coffee was brewed, served and enjoyed at cafés in Europe, the US and the world over when he would travel on work in the 90’s across continents. Initially, CCD as it is known lovingly was stated off as an Internet Parlor on Bangalore’s Iconic Brigade Road. However, VGS as he was addressed affectionately decided to sell Coffee for a fee and offer the Internet for free even as he would sip his coffee slowly and see the future of coffee cafés all over India. 


The company started off expanding in Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad and quickly moved to Bombay and Delhi. There would be constant comparisons in the early part of the new Millennium between CCD and Barista, though CCD evolved & grew sooner than Barista and others, thanks to a very strong team that focused their strengths on F&B, Café Operations, Marketing and of course, a very well laid HR Foundation. That every cup of Coffee should be consistent was a goal that each one of us tried to achieve to the best of their abilities. 


Mr. Siddhartha gave a different “meaning” to Coffee in a predominantly tea drinking country. After all, during its hey days, CCD was serving over 2 lakh cups of Coffee through Cafés and Vending machines installed at Offices, Colleges, Canteens and so on. “Coffee?” became a buzzword in India. For friends to catch up, for asking a Date, for an informal job interview and so on. In fact, I would wonder if there is any Start-Up in India which has never had at least one of their many discussions at a CCD nearby. VGS made Coffee the unofficial beverage of Indians who are on the move – from Airports to Colleges, Malls to Multiplexes and beyond. Today, if Coffee is a popular drink across the span of the country and is a preferred ice breaker, the credit solely goes to Café Coffee Day and the visionary Late Shri. VG Siddhartha. In fact, in my current role at Levista Coffee, one of the audacious mission statements I have been crafting is how to replace the first beverage of the day, being Tea to Coffee across millions of Indian households. Among the erudite and the educated, this would be a relatively easier task because VGS & CCD have already built much familiarity to this fascinating hot beverage across the predominantly Tea consumers even within Tier 2/3/4 towns in India. 


Over the past 12 months, so many people have asked me why he committed suicide – such a successful Entrepreneur who build a fledgling empire, with one bean at a time. Almost. And my reply has always been the same. Neither I nor anyone else was standing next to him when he fell off the bridge. No one other than him would know what was running in his mind on that fateful evening of 29th July 2019 or the few days and weeks ahead of that. Was it political? Business? Debts? Societal Pressure? No one knows and will ever know. 


Law has taken its due course, so have scrutiny by the authorities. But this is all post-mortem. The world lost another soul to suicide. As we always say, one is driven to this malaise called suicide. It’s sometimes a meticulously planned one. Like my maternal uncle did in 2014. Like many of us are pushed to the decision in a whim. Most of us, including me don’t’ end up doing it for some reason or the other, With VGS, we just don’t know. However, a lot happened to Coffee since 1997. Coffee as a product, CCD as a brand and VGS as an Entrepreneur will always have a page in the Indian Consumer & Retail book. So much to learn from this episode. May his Atma attain the Lord’s Feet and I pray to my cherished Deity that his soul attain Mukti. Om Shanthi.

Here are my Obit , RemembranceHomage articles I wrote last year. 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

WFH – Boon to Retailers & Brands

Many companies have advised their employees to plan WFH until end of this Calendar year. This means a good / happy news as well as a significant job loss for millions. That more people will lose lives and livelihood for the grave mistakes of themselves and the Governments across the world is a reality that we are staring at. However, the eternal optimist that I am, I can already see green shoots in certain segments of the consumer business. Some of you may recall that during my Webinar sessions in the months of April & May, I had referred to certain categories which is only bound to increase if not at least sustain its current business opportunity. Most of the daily household items have seen consistent growth even during the extended lockdown while Food related FMCG have shown tremendous growth. Categories such as Coffee, Tea, Sugar, Flours & Pulses have seen a spurt in sales for many brands while Retailers, albeit with a shortened operating time than before, are not complaining, thanks to consistent footfalls and increased bill values. 

However, what has taken many Retailers, Distributors and the entire supply chain by surprise is the huge surge in work-furniture for home and Electronics + Consumer Durables. We ourselves went shopping last week only to find that Godrej Interiors had completely run out of stock for 4 weeks, Home Town had absolutely no sight of when stocks would be replenished, over 40 customers merely waiting to enter Home Stop and hitherto B2B players such as Featherlite living up to the unprecedented opportunity and serving customers with their backend capabilities being spruced up. Traditional Furniture Retailers are not lagging behind either. Actually, I see many of the neighborhood shops doing brisk business with the highest demand for compact desktop / laptop chairs under Rs. 4,000 a piece followed by chairs that suit or double up for other purposes. I have also been hearing a few of my Architect-friends getting calls from their Business Clients to set-up / renovate their homes to be able to work. 


The other category which has been doing extremely brisk business is Cosnumer Durables, Home appliances and personal electronics. While Amazon & Flipkart haven’t resumed their deliveries fully across geographies, consumers are literally seen shuttling from one shop to another for want of peripherals such as computer mouse, headphones, Mobile Phones with 4GB RAM (to be able to take up Apps such as Skype & Zoom) under sub-Rs. 10,000 and most importantly, Laptops. I guess desktops as a category is passé – one, it occupies too much space and it’s immobile within the house as well as across users, which gives a push for laptops. 

In my own personal case, I had to wait for over 6 weeks to get myself a new MacBook Air, an upgrade after using the previous Air for 5 years. Thanks to good friends, I was able to lay my hands on one out of the two pieces that landed in Chennai after the recent lockdown. The folks at Apple India as well as Apple Retailers say with a grin that most models of MacBook / iPad are out of stock and there is no immediate visibility of their arrival into the stores.


With the State Governments finally budging for schools to conduct Online classes – the High Court of Tamil Nadu has especially allowed private Schools to collect 40% of the Annual Tuition Fee for the present academic year – Online Classes are getting more and more real. The state run “Kalvi Tv” in TN shall also showcase online lessons while every other State Government is looking at similar measures to ensure continuity of education. This further means more requirement of laptops, earphones and so on. That there is no shortage of Electricity at urban and semi-urban homes is a big advantage.

Smart Entrepreneurs, Individuals and Businesses have lapped up this opportunity. A second-degree associate of mine who was retrenched by his employer, a Hardware Engineer with 10+ years of experience has taken up direct sale of Laptops to Corporates making a neat 4-5% commission on the purchase value. He claims his income, although a temporary one is lesser than what he used to make in his previous job while he reconciles that he is unsure how long this would go on – his parallel entrepreneurship and the Corona lockdown. Whichever way, make hay while the sun shines is the way forward I guess. 

Meanwhile, traditional retailers in both these categories are indeed an aggrieved lot. For Example, the Founder of a family business which is in to Electronics for the past 2 decades has been adamant on downsizing his margins for want of volumes. He claims that this one-off discounting model on gadgets such as Iron boxes, Personal Shaving Equipment (for men) and other household items such as mixer grinders and refrigerators will hurt the business once the challenges are over, especially around Deepavali 2020. What he doesn’t realize is whether he would be operational until then, running 20+ stores across the state, employing over 300 people and a joint family of 4 siblings and their wards. 


In another instance, a proprietary furniture dealer near my home refused to entertain any sort of reduction on Chairs claiming that these items were already on high demand and that he sees no reasons why they should be sold at lower prices. That there are literally 100s of furniture shops around is something the gentleman should realize soon. Maybe, he wouldn’t. 

I am actually planning to write a book which would go by the name “Corona Millionaires” which could be release in 24 months or so. No, I am not referring to the likes of billionaire Shri. Mukesh Ambani and his ilk. I am referring to common people like you and me – who found this crisis as the biggest business opportunity of their lives. May be a Netflix original too. It could rake in more money than what many Entrepreneurs would make during this crisis.

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?