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.