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.


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.