Thursday, September 9, 2021

Opening New Stores - a Rewind...

When I first joined the retail Industry in 1997, scooping ice-cream as a part-time job for Baskin Robbins in Chennai, little did I imagine I would be bestowed the privilege and opportunity to open hundreds of stores in the future. Not that I aspired to do just this in my formative years, but I was quite clear and sure that the “Great Indian Retail Store” was in the making. And that it would last for decades to come. Looking behind 24 years, I am happy that my views and predictions have remained on course. This blog was started a decade back, as a way to respond to queries from my B-School students as I may not find enough time to share my thoughts during the classes. Over time, this blog has remained an edifice of many of my predictions, which have come true. Even as I inaugurated yet another retail store for the company I work for, I couldn’t gloat my feelings about how positive and committed I remain to the Retail Industry in which I play a minuscule role.



Statistics and numbers about the Industry prospects is one. It is indeed a tedious process and takes hundreds of manhours to get these findings accurately and later, analyse them analytically and correlate with reality. Me, on the other side, have always been a “market-first” guy while indeed relying on stats and data too. I have had the unique advantage of feeling the aura of a location, a neighbourhood or a certain geography. This is an acquired skill coupled with instincts which many of us in RBD – retail business development, are endowed with. It’s certainly not a privilege, rather something we hone our skills on. 


For me, it all began in 2005. Mr. Luciano Benetton was in Bangalore and was undertaking store visits, whom I accompanied with our CEO, Mr. Sanjeev Mohanty. As we ended the day, Sanjeev told me it was Luciano’s wish which he too echoed, to have a store at 100 ft road, Indra Nagar. India’s largest store at that. I was baffled. There was a Limelite Salon, Vivek’s Consumer Durables and 2-3 apparel brands, nothing more. Why would such luminaries in Retail and Fashion want to open a flagship store in a nondescript (that’s how it was back then) locality of the city. But they were right. UCB was the first large store ( a house was brought down and 10,000 sft was built) in the neighborhood, which is today perhaps the most expensive retail location in the Garden City. 


Thereafter, I have been in the business expansion roles at Café Coffee Day and Royal Enfield where I set-up 140 cafes and 160 dealerships, respectively across the country. While data was the lead, it was mostly our instincts with which we finalised most locations. Well, there is and will never be a 100% success rate. But the majority of the locations are still rock stars. For Ex., I was responsible for choosing, designing, setting up and operationalising the largest Royal Enfield Dealership and Service Centre in the world at Chennai. It’s been 7 years now and every time, I pass through that location, I feel a sense of pride. The Coffee Day Square at the Terminal 3 at IGI Airport New Delhi is another example. One at Raipur Airport and so on. 



The same is the case with the outlet we inaugurated today (9 Sep. ’21) at RT Nagar in Bangalore. This is the third branch within the neighbourhood for Specsmakers, whereas the locality already has about 15 Optical showrooms. Assuming an average 100 pairs a month per store, that’s 1,500 users who buy specs per month, 18,000 pa. With an estimated population of 5 lakh people within a 3 sq. km radius, that’s a sizeable population to believe there is a large market potential. Specific to the store location, the stretch already has 3 optical stores, which means potential customers are already coming regularly. With the Brand promise Specsmakers offers, I am quite sure that we will be able to get our share of the business, which should possibly be incremental to the pie. Obviously, these are back of the head calculations and it’s finally the Customer who decides whether they should conduct business with a store or not, no matter how hard Brands do try.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Happy Birthday Madras - the Retail capital of India

I have always argued that one of the reasons why the British traded with our country for a long time was our ethical business practices coupled with abundant natural resources which have been bestowed on our land for centuries. Tracing India's roots to King Ashoka's reign or to the fledgling empires of the Chola Dynasty, trade was a very important aspect of the way India has been governed. While the fabric of the Indian ecosystem, spread across the length and breadth of the sub-continent cannot be taken away, there is a strong link to the very first organised retail establishment which was set-up by the British towards the end of the 19th Century in the erstwhile Madras. 


The Spencer’s Store and Higginbothams Bookstore, which are still edifices on the city’s famed Mount Road are over a century old. The current structure of the book store, once eponymous with everything books and which boasted customers such as Clement Atlee, former British PM, Shri C. Rajagopalachari, the former Maharaja of Mysore among others, was rebuilt to suit the needs of a sprawling bookstore in 1904. Mr. Abel Joshua Higginbotham arrived first in the city in the early 1840s. Over time, he purchased the Weslyan Book Shop run by Protestant Missionaries in Madras and renamed it with his own. He was the Sheriff of Madras in 1888 and 1889. After his death in 1891, his son, CH Higginbotham ran the company from the turn of the century until 1925 when John Oakeshott Robinson purchased the company and ran it until India’s independence. Subsequently, it was acquired by the Amalgamations Group and is managed by them, till date. 


Spencer’s as we all know, was set-up in the city in 1863 by Mr. John William Spencer. In 1895, the then largest Department store in the continent with 80 departments was constructed and inaugurated to the use of public, mostly the British. The store had a large number of imported items which came in Ships from Britain and all over the world for the comfort and use of the Brits living in the Madras region, one of the largest and most important bases of the Queen’s Establishment. Over time, the company changed hands many times until it was acquired by ace Indian businessman RP Goenka in the 1980s. 


India’s first FDI in Retail was by the RPG Group with Dairy Farm International, Hong Kong in the mid-90s which lasted for a decade and a half. The first “Foodworld” store was set-up at RA Puram in Chennai where I was a Store Manager early in my career from 2002-2004. After the JV ended, the RPG Group (now RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group) renamed it as Spencers. The place where the first Department Store in India was established in the 19th Century now houses the eponymous Spencers Plaza, which was rebuilt after a major fire in the 1980s. I have vivid memories of visiting the older plaza where a number of films have been shot at.


Pic Courtesy: Viveks.com
Pic Courtesy: Viveks.com


The city has many notable brands which are now popular not just in India but across the world, be it retail chains or FMCG Brands. Viveks & Co., one of the pioneers of Consumer Durables retailing, was set-up in the year 1965 at Mylapore, Madras. Giri Trading, a retail chain which specialises in selling Hindu spiritual & puja related products has an established presence in the US, the UK, Europe, Middle East, South East Asia and Australia. Ambika Appalams, a favourite snack food brand which has now grown to become a neighbourhood retail chain has fans and followers all over the world and exports their goods to over 50 countries worldwide. Butterfly Home appliances, a pioneer in kitchen related items and TTK Prestige, have a pan-India presence today with huge levels of customer interest online and offline. New age apparel brands like Basics Life and Indian Terrain have gained international acceptance of their designs and styles and have been well appreciated by western counterparts. On the food front, Hotel Saravana Bhavan was a must visit for those visiting the town, now replaced by Sangeethas and Adyar Anandha Bhavan. And on the entertainment front, Sathyam Cinemas was the first regional stand-alone multiplex chain to expand across the country. 


There are numerous examples of Retail glory that my Madras boasts of and I shall remain eternally grateful to the city which has given me an identity and beyond. 


HBD Madras. 


Friday, June 4, 2021

20 years in Retailing

We were 42 of us who arrived at Spencers Plaza at Chennai, one of the only few malls in India in 2001. Most of them had come outside of Chennai. We all had one common reason to come together, through all the diverse backgrounds that we had. We were the Retail Management Trainees to join RPG Group for a 3-week induction at the HQ located on the fourth floor of the same building. Imagine a career, where you have to work amongst shops selling grocery, beauty products, food and beverage and all within a full air-conditioned environment. Only that this luxury would be short lived until we moved back to our “regions” – our destinations to write our own destinies, all by ourselves. The day was 4th June 2001. One of the most memorable days in my professional career. 

I had unofficially joined the retail industry way back in 1997 when I would scoop ice-cream part time at a Baskin Robbins parlour, the first one in Chennai and second in India. Though I was pursuing software languages in the morning at NIIT and a graduation in Commerce in the evening at Ramkrishna Mission’s Vivekananda College in Chennai, retail and consumer business became my first love, instant love, right from the first scoop I sold. For an eternal introvert until then, I never knew I could sell something to someone for a consideration, an expensive one at that, let alone the ability to speak with my chin up. 

To my utter shock, I was posted to Musicworld Kolkata for my 1st year assignment. For the record, I hadn’t ever crossed Chennai city limits in my entire life, save for an annual vacation once in 3-4 years to Mumbai where my maternal grandparents lived or to my father’s hometown at Kumbakonam, where the entire extended family would congregate once in a while for a religious festival or a wedding. I dreaded travelling 1.5 days by train from Chennai to Calcutta. That it was 2nd class A/c was a silver lining. After all, I was going to be travelling in a/c for the first time, that far. The only other time was one of the first rides from Delhi to Lucknow when Rajdhani was launched in the late 80s. I wondered what would I do alone, in the train, all day. And then, all alone in an unknown city, unknown people, unknown language and an unknown destiny. I am glad I took that train, much to my own chagrin, lest I won’t be writing this Anniversary article today with a sense of fulfilment and happiness. 

The memories I have etched of the city of joy, is perhaps one of the greenest that I would carry to my ashes. I made some amazing friends in Calcutta, spoke Bengali in a few months, and most importantly learnt the fundamentals of retailing at Park Street. Mr. Sanjiv Goenka was based in town, so we were always alert for he may turn up anytime. Seeing consumers spend hours together to pick up a cassette worth Rs. 27 was truly amazing. With 80% of volume business coming from cassettes, 15% from CDs and 5% from VCDs and Games, the 8,000 sft store would do a monthly turnover of Rs. 65 lakhs. Yes. In 2001. And the business grew 30% more during Pujo period and during Christmas! Amazing days. 

After a year, I moved back to Chennai on “job rotation” model of RPG Group’s HR Policy to join Foodworld, where I was in charge of the first store of the group. It was here, between 2002-04 that I decided that I wish to spend the rest of my life in Retailing, selling something or the other to end users. Extended Family members around me laughed, wondering why would someone study MBA to work in a grocery shop after all. Neighbourhood was worried if I was qualified enough for an arranged marriage. 14 years later, I received my first professional award – “Top 50 Retail Professionals in India” decorated by Asia Retail Congress. And then, three more awards in Retail and F&B in the past 6 years. In between, speaking at 100s of forums on Consumer Business & Retail in India, Singapore, Malaysia and China!

Before and after my first “public recognition”, my work in retail spoke more than what I could imagine to write. Designing and establishing India’s first ever Travel Retail environment across any private airport in India in 2006 at Bangalore; setting up 140 cafes across India for Café Coffee Day; driving and doubling the dealer network of Royal Enfield from 140 to 300 in just 2 years; and growing the topline of Levista Instant Coffee by 79% during the pandemic year 2020-21; I still try my best to stay grounded and humble without taking up any of the honours on my head. 



Every time I begin my lecture at a B-School as Visiting Faculty teaching Retail Elective to 2nd year students spanning 20-30 hours for the last 16 years, I still feel it is my very first day in Retailing, my tone and throat trembling for the first few minutes in to the class. Completing 20 years in a single Industry feels like an achievement. 


But for me, as I always say – I have just begun and I have Miles to Go before I sleep. Miles2Go. And needless to say, I am a self-proclaimed “Retailer by Profession and Choice. Since 1997”. For a reason!

Saturday, May 8, 2021

The E-commerce conundrum in Food Delivery

I was present at the India Retail Forum in 2012 at Mumbai’s Renaissance Hotel. The annual event was a carnival of sorts for Retailers across the country. Images Retail, the magazine publisher’s flagship event attracted thousands of retail enthusiasts every year and the year 2012 was a landmark one. This was when there was a cooling down in the Indian Retail story which scaled peak heights at the time. An estimated 350+ Malls were operational all over India and another 300 were in the making. India was touted to have 1,000 operational Malls by the year 2020 (which didn’t happen, obviously). Each mall would have atleast 250+ vanilla stores, 5-6 Anchor tenants and High Street rents had doubled in less than a decade. 

During an interactive session, Mr. Kishore Biyani, Founder and CEO of the Future Group was asked what went wrong with the group – this was the period the Group saw one of its toughest times in their history ever since they started operations in 1987 with their first ever company Manz Wear Pvt. Ltd. which sold suiting and shirting in Calcutta by the name and style of “Pantaloons” which was a combo-word of Pants and Patloons. Kishore Ji quipped that “they wanted to be everything to everyone” and hence a few things collapsed while a few stood tall and successful. The group’s e-commerce outing FutureBazaar.com was a colossal failure and couldn’t compete with a start-up named “Flipkart” (in 2012-13). So ironic looking back now. Their attempts to go “phygital” just didn’t work. Grocery e-commerce was unheard off and hyperlocal as a strategy didn’t even exist or was scripted. 


From running neighbourhood grocery shops measuring 1,000 sft. to running the Central chain of Malls across India, a hypermarket which redefined grocery and household products shopping in India, food courts and home improvement stores, joint-ventures with F&B chains and even a chain of kiosks by the name “ChaMosa” , which as the name suggests sold Chai, Samosas and may things more, the group was in to every format of retail which was in the book and which wasn’t. But the smart and suave entrepreneur that he is, Kishore ji exited his first love – “Pantaloons” store chain for Rs. 1,600 Crores to Aditya Birla Retail and pared an equal amount of debt driving the company back to success, profits and growth, eventually. 


Same is the case right now with many restaurants who wish to manage door delivery of food to customers. Off late, there has been a growing disquiet between the F&B houses – chains as well as neighbourhood standalone ones with the Food Tech companies such as Zomato, Swiggy among others. And the main bone of contention is that the tech platforms are overcharging the businesses – ranging from 20-45% towards discovery, discounts and delivery of food items to customers. What the restaurants believe is that these companies are mere delivery platforms. What the Food Tech companies are – are much beyond that. 


In India, eating out is “entertainment”. People dress up, wear make-up, connect with family and friends to step out for a meal – whether it is to celebrate a birthday or anniversary, salary weekend or just a casual outing. The premium that bars, pubs and restaurants have been commanding for “dining in” in India is not just for the great food, but also for providing an enjoyable and safe setting for individuals and cohorts of people to spend their time. So, more the premium a location is, the more expensive is the food (a cup of Coffee or Dal-Roti at a local restaurant vs. a  premium restaurant in a Mall, or a Star hotel & so on!). 


Assuming that patrons would keep paying more for the “setting” coupled with decent food, many restaurants across India have been charging a premium which has only been on the rise over the years. Even in a fiercely competitive category like pizzas – where Dominos specialises in take-aways vs. PH offering world-class dining options, prices of pizzas have remained more or less the same though Dominos saves immensely serving pizzas even to in-house guests in corrugated boxes with plastic chairs and tables. The likes of McD or BK have not been able to churn out profits like elsewhere in the world due to this continued focus on the restaurant format, the ambience and expected service standards. For Ex., India is probably the only country where we consumers expect someone to clear the paper packaging on which Burgers and Colas are served. So, the “cost of housekeeping” increases the business cost.


Now that consumers have been used to door delivery of F&B, mostly during the last 12 months and even before the pandemic began, the footfalls at restaurants for dining has dwindled. Sadly, most restaurant chains have not kept up with times and have followed their traditional ways of operating the business with the same kind of dine-in behaviour which today, unfortunately is becoming an expensive affair. With a total lockdown announced across some of the major towns in the country, restaurants are unable to operate the dining facility though the Government has allowed multiple delivery options. 


Now, what the Food-Tech companies have done, obviously is to charge consumers for deliveries and also charge a hefty commission from restaurants to catch-up on their hereditary losses – though am not sure if this model is sustainable. Even when the “Unlock” began around Aug. ‘20, many restaurants failed to convert their business model with a deeper focus on takeaways and deliveries, instead waited with bated breath for customers to keep pouring in. Until the second wave hit us and which has hit us very, very hard that there is no looking back now and consumers becoming weary to venture out, even after the so-called second wave slows down sometime in Jun. ‘21.


The ongoing tussle between the Restaurants and Food-Tech companies (I refuse to call them delivery partners because they are not just that) has reached a tipping point now that many restaurants are pulling off some of these platforms and are instead using pure-play delivery partners such as Dunzo, Shadowfax, Delhivery among others and / or are merely using their staff and waiters to deliver the food items. To opine the least, this is a disaster in the making.  The waiters and staff are not the “delivery person” material as their skill sets are quite different. But now, due to an imminent loss of livelihood, I believe they would double up their roles until they find their fitment elsewhere. 


To believe that each one is cut-out for the other’s business model is a myth. We saw how many so-called “Cloud kitchens” were created by the Food-Tech platforms which have not grown beyond a point. I am no one to judge but I guess, it’s best for the service providers to simply focus on their core skills so we consumers can keep at it without breaking this chain of discovery, ordering and reordering. Whether the players are listening to, is anyone’s guess.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Moving on... #Miles2Go

The past 12 months have been the most unfortunate and unhappy for millions of people worldwide. The Covid-19 pandemic was beyond comprehension in its new form since Mar. 2020 onwards and took epic proportions over the next few months. 

As they say, there is always calm before storm and in my case, it worked exactly this way on the professional front. Just that the lockdown period was the calm and what followed was storm, quite literally. I consider myself a lot luckier than the unlucky millions because I not only had a job to feed my family – my parents, wife and both kids tested Covid-19 positive (and I was the sole negative member in the home!) in May ’20 but each of them fought bravely and bounced back in full form in less than 45 days; I managed to ensure my team – starting from 100 around June ’20 growing all the way to 175+ around Mar. ’21 remained cautious of the dreaded infection and less than 10% of my workforce & their immediate family tested positive for the virus; increased point of sales presence for Levista Coffee across Tamil Nadu and Karnataka from 26,000+ in Mar. ’20 to over 79,000+ by Mar. ’21 – completely led by my brave boys in the field; which eventually led to a whopping 42% growth in the Brand’s top line over the past Financial Year; and finally – painstakingly have built a “solid team” of sorts which would work cohesively (and I sincerely hope) in my absence as I step down from Levista Coffee as Vice President - Sales & Marketing after joining in Jan. ‘20. 



It’s not been an easy decision for me to step down, honestly. It was unprecedented that I had to move on, even though things were looking bright for the Brand. Sometimes in life, we need to do what is right, rather than continuing to do what works well – for us and for others. More than this, I restrain from saying here or elsewhere the whys and whats of my decision – life moves on.



I wanted to summarise my learning through this tumultuous period even as thousands lost lives and livelihood, and here I was – making history by the day and night with unheard of and unseen types of marketing strategy coupled with fabulous execution by my team. By the way, these accolades have been showered by well-wishers around me – which I have openly declared as not mine and solely belong to my team, though there have been some black sheep around me. 


I credit the success of the Brand with the quote “Due to Corona or Despite Corona” but for the first time, I must confess that I kept moving on all these months “despite the black sheep or due to them”. At one point, you give in - for you need to do the "right thing". No blames, Peace. 



My single biggest learning during this period is to nurture people in the team and believe in them – as the adage goes, take care of your people and they would take care of the business. The moment it was formally informed of my leaving, many people within and outside my team reached out to me and expressed their disappointment over my decision. Goes to show that though I could have been harsh on them sometimes, they have perhaps realised and seen the  benefit for them – the larger view, perhaps. Another learning has been that I have maintained a healthy space between those around me and myself. This measured space ensured that we all had the much required time and thought process to ourselves. 



The fact that I have never called or summoned anyone on weekends or after office hours – not once in the past 12 months – is a simple edifice that appreciating everyone’s time works well. Keeping the interest of the staff and their families in each act and activity of the Organisation and staying on it genuinely works in the larger interest thereby delivering positive results. 



And lastly, never to antagonise those who are closer to the people who matter and speak behind you – it probably gives them more ammunition to pull us down. I had a choice – not to antagonise people and keep moving for the sake of money and a steady career; or to do the "right thing". I chose the latter. 


Obviously. When you are brought up with the right kind of “values” from childhood, that’s what you do. Works best for all of us, isn’t it. Adios, Amigos. Moving on and moving ahead in life. 


I have miles to go, after all. 




Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Buying Cars Online is Passe


After coming back home from the Voting Booth, I was sipping my 3rd cup of coffee watching breakfast news on Tv. I showed my kids and wife, meanwhile two AVs of Tata Safari, the one which was produced in the late 1990s and the one produced this year. They were pretty impressed than I thought, honesty. Then I showed a Youtube Review of the vehicle. Though the reviewer spoke in Hindi, which kids do not understand exactly, he showed the features of the vehicle one after the other and having spent all their life in a single 4-W model, that is our beloved XUV500, they were mighty impressed with the newness that the Safari bought to experience. And mind you, all this even as we were watching a review of the model on a SmartTv. 




One day in 2012, my wife and I went around looking for an upgrade to our Hyundai Verna. Having shifted to Chennai from Bangalore and with both our parents around here, we thought a slightly larger vehicle (read: 7 seater) would be useful for long drives. We saw a few models but took test drive of just one, which was for a distance of 4 kms. After we got back in to our Verna, my wife quipped – either we buy the XUV500 or just continue with the Verna. Nothing else. My second daughter was 9 months old then. A week later, we were on our maiden trip to our Family Temple in a brand new XUV. After 66 months, sold the manual model and bought an automatic – everything else inside the cabin remaining the same but for the gear shift. 





During the lockdown period in 2020, I felt it made no sense to own the “White Elephant” anymore – a Ship is not built to be docked, after all. Thanks to a few good friends and fellow auto- enthusiasts, I refrained. Boy, I ain’t complaining. Have driven almost 18,000 kms in my XUV since Aug. 2020 when I kicked off my road trips, especially on the work front to meet my Colleagues, Distributors (of Levista Coffee) and to see first-hand the Retail Experience. Now that I am driving so much, I have a deep urge to move to another model, what with the same cabin, interiors and features in both models of XUV500 since 2012. 





I never imagined that a YouTube video would impress the secondary decision makers, rather – the Influencers – in the household while making a beloved purchase such as owning an automobile. Test Drives are an important touch-point in selling 4-W. In fact, one of the biggest reasons for success of Royal Enfield, where I worked from 2012 onwards and set-up 160 Dealerships pan-India was that the company allowed patrons and prospective customers to take the vehicle for a test ride. And alongside, offered experiential rides over weekends, special commemorative days, etc. This, worked well for the brand. When a user uses a product first hand – something that Apple first debuted in the Electronics space 2 decades back – the experience cannot be replaced by older means such as reading reviews or word of mouth from other users. 

Over the past few years, online shopping of Automobiles made some noise. In fact, I bought, rather booked my XUV500 in 2018 online for a token sum of Rs. 5,000 for which the Parent company gave me accessories worth the same value as a token of shopping online. Today, things have changed. It’s all about the experience. While family members may not give much heed to what’s beneath the hood, what matters most are the features, comfort and safety. My elder kid exclaimed when she noticed there were 6 USB ports in the new Tata Safari – something that’s perennially important for the Millennial Kids, perhaps. Wife was all excited about the Captain seats in the second row too, which gives great comfort, The very fact that a review (which is not at a showroom but in the living room) can entice potential customers, is in my humble opinion, a tip of the iceberg. The new “influencers” of buying behaviour want everything in their palmtops. Are companies listening? What’s the next big thing that could happen in this space? Virtual Reality, perhaps? Like driving inside the cockpit… Well, the day is not too far, I reckon. And of course, the charm of trials – can never be taken off ever.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Upwards & Northwards! Finally


On Thursday, Fitch Solutions, one of the world’s top rating agency estimated that India’s HHS – Household spending would grow 7.9% y-o-y in 2021 after 14% contraction in the year 2020 due to the Corona pandemic. In nominal terms, the HHS is estimated to be Rs. 125 lakh crores (whatever number of Zeroes, that is!), a 3.3% growth over 2019. Not bad at all, huh. Food & non-alcoholic drinks is expected to grow the highest among all other consumption categories and this, in my humble opinion is perhaps the biggest good news of the year! 


Here’s why I feel that this will propel the economy to a large extent.


India has an estimated 14 million kiranas and retail touch points – who sell anything from cigarettes, biscuits, tea, coffee, grocery all the way to other household items including consumer durables, fashion, footwear among others. This segment drives India’s consumption opportunity, a key reason why the Amazons, the Walmarts, the Wall street Investors all the way to the Chinese & Japanese billionaires and everyone in between are eyeing a small pie in the Great Indian Retail Story which is yet to unfold. The world has been witnessing an ugly battle in the public involving some of the most reputed businessmen and their companies, thanks to a hostile take over which has seen stiff resistance from the other. Meanwhile, Indians are jolly well shopping their home needs and personal requirements through gadgets – apps as well as a simple phone call to order their roti, kapda and makaan – quite literally. 



I started working in the retail Industry 24 years back scooping ice-cream and later with one of the pioneers of Grocery Retail, Foodworld Supermarkets two decades back. Even back then, most Indians in bigger cities had to travel not more than 2 kms to buy their food and grocery. Every locality and neighborhood had a kirana store who offered personalised and tailor-made solution for her / his customers. From topping the shopping bag with FMCG freebies (what we call as Loyalty points these days) to offering a chocolate to the kid (instant gratification in today’s terms) all the way to a speedy home delivery (some Start-Ups who never made a transaction level profit over 10 years are now Unicorns!) and so on. The Kirana offered credit at a time when a “Credit Card” was a western phenomenon and raised capital – through internal accruals and market offering, rather than the obnoxious Equity based Investments.


Cut to 2021, my excitement with the latest Fitch report is simple. Though the Kiranas have dwindled in real numbers – not because the Modern Retailers or E-Commerce companies replaced them – rather than many of them did not have second-gen successors to run their businesses, they have simply been replaced by “Convenience Stores” – family owned as well as Corporates who vie for the consumer’s spends. And daily shopping for Food & Grocery shall never go out of fashion in the India’s consumption story. As most Indian households are small and barely have refridgerators, and even if they do, no more than 165 – 200 litres that cannot hold over 2-3 days’ needs; the kitchens of India are big enough to accommodate one adult to stand and cook with a provision to carry 3-4 weeks dry grocery requirements. Daily use items like Milk, Biscuits and snacks are almost bought every other day, rather than the large packs of colas, juices and nachos which are more the western phenomenon. Small is Beautiful and India’s sachet revolution is a glaring example of how and what India consumes.



If you are unable to relate to most of the above, I can understand as yours and my house are perhaps a lot bigger than the majority of consumers in India, for you are reading this on a digital gadget which is a privilege for a few of us Indians. The majority still read physical newspapers, watch sops and news on TV sets and shop from their neighborhood stores as they walk back home after work or leisure. In fact, shopping is a form of entertainment in India, isn’t it, for we make-up and dress up for buying groceries or eat at a restaurant.


I have always reckoned that “Consumption is Growth” compared to “Consumption leads to growth”. The moment, we are consuming, there is a need to repurchase and the cycle continues. The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed us behind, but not by light years. The recovery across segments, from automobiles to entry level smart phones, consumer durables to even the more discretionary types, is a confidence boosting measure that things are back on track, slowly but surely.




As Indians, what we can do to boost our economy is to consume. And consume a tad more than the previous one. Be it our daily dose of coffee & tea to household needs or fashion, every rupee that we spend will go in to building back India, one step at a time. But where’s the money to spend, one may ask. I have eternally believed that India is one country where no Indian can sleep hungry – if they choose to work and earn their meal. Such is the opportunity in this country. While lakhs of people have been displaced of their daily jobs, we have seen a resurgence in our mental strengths, especially from the marginally placed and the lower strata of the society. One will find enough work in this country, if they choose to. And the entire ecosystem has to work together. Am I living and writing this from Utopia, No. Am I sure that we shall survive this crisis? Well, we have always created history with our resilience over the centuries and this pandemic is also one which shall pass by. 


Back to the Fitch estimates, Food and Grocery are the real propellers to the Economy’s consumption pattern. We earn our dough, spend at the neighborhood stores which employ people and provide them a livelihood; they in turn spend on their basic necessities and slowly but surely increase their non-discretionary spends and the cycle continues. Daravi in Mumbai has more set-top boxes than many urban clusters in India, remember. 



At Levista, where we sell Instant and Filter Coffee across Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, we have grown 50% in our sales over last year (and we have 1 more calendar month to finish). I added 70% more manpower this year over last and increased retail touch points by 3 times to 79,000 as of 1 Mar. 2021. And we still occupy less than 2% of the Rs. 2,200 Crores pa packaged Coffee market in India which excludes B2B / Restaurant & Café consumption business. We have just begun, I believe. With a 98% headroom to grow and such confidence building measures – our real growth as well as estimates like that of Fitch solutions, I guess we are headed upwards and northwards, even as we should remain grounded to reality with a eye and ear on the consumer who’s always sending us notes, thoughts and reactions. If only we listen… more!

 

Monday, February 8, 2021

Mall revival - Real or Imaginary?


I have been visiting Malls in Chennai and Bangalore ever since they were open for public after continued lockdowns since Mar. ’20 due to the ongoing Corona pandemic. Mall owners, Multiplexes, Retailers, Restaurants and perhaps every consumer-serving business has been quite badly hit all these months and globally, we have seen many of them go bankrupt or shut down their businesses, while a few are somehow staying afloat amidst all the chaos. In the early years of my career with India’s first seamless mall chain way back in 2005, Bangalore Central I realised how Indians shop and consume – food, clothing and entertainment go together. We are a country that meticulously plans for a movie outing with a date, family members or friends and eventually dress up to visit a Cinema Hall. Therefore, Multiplexes, ranging from 3 screens to 7 or even 8 have been a regular feature at most of the Malls across India and is credited for one of the key reasons for a Centre’s success.



With the first lockdown that began on 25 March, the entire Movie exhibition Industry collapsed at one shot leaving thousands of employees astray as well as Standalone theatres and multiplexes in the lurch. Social distancing being the key advocacy for avoiding contact with the dreaded Corona virus carriers, all public spaces were shut and the entertainment thirsty consumer cohorts turned to Over the Top or OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and the more desi- Zee5 or SonyLiv among a dozen other options. Many small and hitherto unknown, unheard movies made it to the small screen – with a screen size ranging from 5” mobile phones to 10-11” Tablets and iPads to the more popular 13-15” Laptops. In unison, many of us echoed that it would simply make no sense to visit theatres anymore, given that an outing with a family could cost as much as Rs. 1,500-2,000 including the movie tickets, pop-corn+Cola and a meal before or after the movie. 



At one stroke, all this changed. India produces and releases over 2,000 feature films annually across theatres. It took an average 7-10 weeks for the films to hit an OTT screen until early 2020. And atleast 2-3 months until they made it to the small screen through Satellite Tv. Now, they remain just historical facts and nothing more. Bollywood takes credit of atleast 1,000 movie releases annually while Tamil and Telugu produce around 300+ every year. All other Indian language films as well as a few English releases (including dubbed in to local languages) take the rest of the pie. No wonder, that the southern states have more number of theatres and multiplexes though standalone centers have reduced from 12,000+ two decades back to under 5,000 pre-Pandemic and right now, we don’t really know how many are even ready to open their doors full-fledged. While the Multiplex screens have been growing and even now, PVR and Inox, the two top exhibitors have assured to add more screens and ensure safety and hygiene of the visitors, the audience are trickling in slower than anticipated. 



In tamil language, Penguin feat. Keerthi Suresh was the first big outing on an OTT while Surya’s Soorarai Potru, an adaption of the biography of Capt. Gopinath, the erstwhile Founder of Air Deccan Airlines was the first big top hero film to release on Prime. Actor Vijay’s much anticipated Master will remain etched in history and his story to be the first big theatrical outing after the Government allowed full functioning of theatres, much to the chagrin of Doctors, activists and the general public who have been heaving a sigh of relief with lower incidences over the past 3 months in Tamil Nadu, especially with Chennai being the hotspot during the peak season of Apr. – Jun. ’20 when Corona incidences were the highest. The films is estimated to have collected over Rs. 230 crores from Box Office collections, although the calculation of such revenues have always been murky and secretive. 



Amidst all this, did Multiplexes and Malls benefit? Little, to my limited knowledge. The more matured mall rats and multiplex audience have preferred to stay away as I don’t see many takers for the safe viewing of cinemas, especially with so many people crowding at theatres. While Foodcourts are brimming, I saw / see very few patrons walking out of apparel branded stores walk out with shopping bags, despite the deep discounts which the Brands are offering. 



The biggest surprise I learnt recently was BookMyShow, the pioneer of online booking has planned to release movies on their Apps doubling up as an OTT platform! Whoa. Look what the Corona pandemic has done to us! Who would have ever thought that a ticket booking website and App would also host movies on demand on a pay per view model. Fantastic times that we live in, indeed. Whether BMS will succeed in this already crowded space is anyone’s guess. But my worry is how will retailers draw crowds to their stores, especially those in the Malls who’s bread and butter was the more affluent Multiplex audience. We are running short of patience, time and money in the bank. Mall Owners, Multiplexes and Retailers have to collectively take a decision seated on a round table, leaving aside their individual motives and egos. Dropping off Parking Fee for 4W could be a beginning. Or atleast reimburse the fee against shopping, so we draw more footfalls into the malls. Screening older films, yesteryear superhits and perhaps a nice set of Academy / Award winning films could be another option. But waiting for a day when customers would pour-over and just do “revenge-shopping” like the Chinese did - is perhaps a hope that we all want to live with, unless it remains a widely circulated article & not reality.


Wake up guys. We are short of time, money and patience. Repeat. 


Friday, January 15, 2021

Uttarayan and my Professional Life


On 13 Jan. 2021, I was driving back yet again to Chennai from Bangalore on my XUV500. Even as my playlist kept jumping from 90s Tamil film songs to the latest tunes, spiritual discourses to FM Radio, my thoughts kept wandering from one to another to another. I was driving back in a spacious SUV, all alone and reasonably well placed in life than what I had imagined for myself 24 years back when I first joined the Retail Industry scooping Ice-Cream at Baskin Robbins as a part time salesman during the day, learning computer languages in the morning at NIIT and studying B. Com in the Evening College. I am ever thankful for my Stars, the Creator’s benevolence, blessings of Elders and good wishes of my close friends for where I am today in life. Professionally, Socially, personally and of course, most recently on the spiritual lane. 


It was a Makara Sankrathi / Pongal day that I landed up at Bangalore in 2004 to be part of a revolution in the making, little which I knew when I was interviewed in Oct. 2003. Even on the inaugural day of Bangalore Central in May 2004, none of us back then knew how big the Indian Retail Consumption story would grow to and that some of us would be a strategic part of it with our own tales of success, failure and most importantly, that of abundant learning.



As the playlist kept changing every few hours during my recent drive, I couldn’t help but realise how my life has been such a roller-coaster drive and that I have enjoyed, messed up and have overcome many such moments all along. The morning chills of my bike rides from my temporary stay at a cousin’s house in RT Nagar, Bangalore back in 2004 all the way to MG Road (where the Mall was located) and getting lost every now and then on my way to Jayanagar 4th block where the Regional Office of the erstwhile Pantaloon Retail was once located gives me the chills in the spine till date. Honestly, I never thought I will come this far in my professional life, that I would write about the last 20 years every now and then and fondly recollect the moments that has made me an eternal Student of Retailing for the rest of my life.



Last Sunday, I had met a former colleague for Lunch at a posh Restobar which was once upon a time a suburban hamlet that was Sahakar Nagar. I was sharing how I could never feel “belonged” at “Bengaluru” although the city has given me so much. My retail resurrection has happened multiple times and Bangalore has lifted me up multiple times. A few other cities hold as much or more importance to me – of course Madras being my hometown is always the dearest. Every time, I enter or exit Bangalore city - the iconic arch at Attibele, the retail library that is Brigade Road / MG Road, the eponymous UB City, the wet markets of Malleswaram or Basavangudi, the Windsor Manor underpass, Mekhri Circle, the new Airport Road towards KGIA and so on – each one of them have a deep meaning and a related anecdote in my life. But the attachment is always temporary. Just that this temporary attachment turns 17 this Uttarayan season and remains an undetachable part of me forever. 


Yet again, I moved to Bangalore during Uttarayan 2020, bag and baggage for my current role at Levista. What was once supposedly a guest accommodation at my current abode in the Western suburb of Bangalore, Peenya and “the so-called home” at Chennai has now been reversed, with me spending more time at my own Bangalore Headquarters even as we march against an insurmountable business target of achieving Rs. 100 Crores of turnover for the 4 year young brand in the next 12-18 months. Am I dreaming, yes. Are dreams good, yes. Do they get achieved, sometimes yes. And how about this one, I am working harder than ever for it. 


I am once again grateful to this once-upon-a-time quaint town which has given me so much yet remains detached from my life and expects nothing from me, other than gratitude and thankfulness in my thoughts. But I vow to make this city proud of an outsider like me, in one way or another and give her the due recognition as I share a great part of my professionally somewhat-successful career to this place. 

I won’t get attached to her ever. But would always ensure that this city is always a part of me and My Retail Journey in the making. Forever.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Thank you 2020. Hello 2021.

More than anything else, I once again learned to unlearn a lot of things in the year that passed by that was 2020. I learned, yet again, that Change is the only constant and over time, we realise that “Change” in any form is good. Honestly, when I look back 365 days behind as the train was chugging in to the Mysore Railway Junction on the morning of 3rd Jan. 2020 around 7.30am, little did I realise that I would come this far. I was on my way to take up the new assignment at Kushal Nagar as Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Levista Coffee, where the parent company SLN Coffee Pvt. Ltd. is head quartered. As always when I take up a new assignment, I went with an open mind, so I can learn as much as I could and decided to take up the new role, one day at a time. Within a few days, I had settled down in the Company’s Guest House in Bangalore and spent a good amount of time trying to understand the various aspects of our business, Industry, colleagues, external & internal stakeholders. 



I would avidly look forward to returning to Chennai where my family lived. And it was quiet emotional for me to leave on a Sunday night often even as the kids would get in to all gloom for not being able to see me in person for 2 weeks or so. Until one day, everything turned topsy-turvy and life took a 180-degree turn. U Turn, if I could say so. From mutually missing each other, at one stage it felt like an over-dose (not really!) that we spent 150 days precisely under one roof, thanks to continued lockdowns. In the first 2 weeks of the first Lockdown, life came to a standstill, literally and figuratively. None of us had much to do other than watch News channels in multiple languages to get different perspectives. By mid-April, there was some action slowly on the work front but still we were all locked up at home with limited chances of stepping out, even to shop necessities. 



A chance visit to a local retail store and my Father seemed to have picked up the dreaded Coronavirus which eventually moved on to my Mother. Little did he realise and when he visited our home one fine morning to deliver vegetables, we panicked and rushed my parents for tests which proved positive. Meanwhile, my daughter picked the infection from him, her sister from her and my wife from them. I tested “Negative” being O+ve (or for some strange reason) and was blessed to take care of the family for the next four weeks until things settled down albeit very slowly. However, it was in May ’20 that Levista achieved a historic highest monthly sale followed by another historic Sales milestone in June. And I was here, in my bed as I write this article, seven months ago when all members of the family were fighting an unknown infection. 




The fact that we as humans were so vulnerable and life is too short was a shot in the arm for me from those days and I vowed to be ever so grateful and thankful to the Creator and Mother Nature for bestowing whatever we have today. From sighing that I had lost crores of rupees on my StartUps over 5 years since 2014, to being happy that my Parents came back home in flesh and blood from the hospital after treatment and that my wife recovered though slower than anticipated was the last nail in my box of worries. From that day onwards, I have been the happiest if all members of my family woke up the next morning and lived a basic, normal life. 



My second XUV500 AT was 2 years old when I joined Levista. This was my sixth vehicle in 15 years after self-driving over 2,75,000 kms all by myself across India on work & leisure, I was contemplating an upgrade to a more posh German beast in the coming months. That’s when I had to call a mechanic to jump start the engine of my beloved XUV whose battery went dead due to no usage for weeks together! How things change… From planning to buy a new car, I decided to sell the XUV so I can save on the EMI since I had almost NIL travel during those 6 months. I ventured out from home on the 151st Day on 10 Aug. 2020 to Bangalore well equipped with E-Pass for an Up and down Travel and have driven 13,600 kms till date on my beast ever since. The entire discussions of Levista’s partnership on Bigg Boss Tamil Season 4 feat. Padmashree Kamal Hassan was decided and finalised during one of those long drives between Bangalore & Chennai. Every 40-50 mins, I would stop at a Toll Booth and make calls, internal and external to seek views. What a drive this has been – I mean the ones to Bangalore / Chennai as well as life overall. And many such discussions while the Office driver was behind the wheel including Zoom Calls with my iPad perched behind the seat. 




In the middle of Nov. ’20, our team completed the total Turnover of FY 19-20 and that was a moment to celebrate with fellow soldiers even as they ventured out carefully everyday those 8 months fighting an unknown enemy that Covid-19 is. A big round of applause and hearty thanks to their family members for allowing their beloved to go out and conquer the world. As is the case of MS Dhoni, I realised that all the noise in the stadium (read: my surroundings who kept cheering and booing me!) was insignificant as long as I don’t take it too much to my heart. As Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, don’t get very upset when something unfortunate happens and don’t get too ecstatic when something very cheerful happens. Easy to say for you, Dear Lord as you are the Creator and we are mere mortals. 



Listening 15 mins daily about the epic Mahabharatha narrated by a noted and eminent scholar Velukkudi Shri. Krishnan helped me immensely for the past 225 days. In his daily bulletin, he would move the story as written by Guru Shri Veda Vyasa and narrated by Sage Vaishampayana to King Janamejaya. It was so timely that there would be gems every few days which had a direct impact on my daily life, personal and professional, that it was surreal to hear those advices.



Even as I ended the Calendar Year professionally with a first ever Virtual Media Launch on 28th Dec. ’20, with our new flavours of coffee and the much awaited mass market variant - Levista Supreme Instant coffee, it seemed to be a memorable, meaningful and a successful year that I completed, much to the chagrin of my detractors, happiness and joy of my well-wishers and with the constant love and encouragement of my immediate family and a few close friends. Without the unstinted support of my Management and my colleagues at work, this journey wouldn’t have been this smooth – even if I wish to call it so. It certainly has been the fastest, toughest and perhaps the most fulfilling professional journey I have had in the past 24 years in Consumer Retail. 



I started the year (lockdown) with virtual classes for MBA students whom I was teaching offline until Mar. ’20. Over time, this virtual address became a way of life with me having spoken at over a dozen Webinars as well as my 4th consecutive year at BIL Trichy teaching the Retailing Elective for the second year students. While I didn’t miss my walk through during the lectures – my laptop screen would be off and I'd keep walking in my room as I gave the lectures using my bluetooth earphones, I really missed my campus stay at the guest houses, the morning walks within the sprawling BHEL dwelling in Trichy, the food feasts and of course the much awaited train travel. And yesterday, I addressed over 100+ MBA students of XLRI Jamshedpur, a session which I must have presented at the campus in the third week of Mar. ’20 to the previous batch.



Of all things, I learned to appreciate life as it is; from what we have to seeing what others didn’t have and to compare ourselves to be blessed than them. We cannot change the system, the nature and destiny. But we, as humans are blessed with the knack of converting adversities in to opportunities. That’s a choice we all wake up with. For Ex., I sensed an opportunity that the Out of Home Coffee Consumption and Workplace Coffee consumption could be coupled with incremental household consumption, add to it the WFH woes and the initial days of adjusting to the new normal. After 8-9 months, it sounds boring to hear or to utter the phrase “The New Normal”. It is, rather “normal” and it shall be so all along now. 

While I didn’t have time, rather didn’t make time to learn a professional course or start gaming on one of my i-devices, "i-learnt-cooking" was perhaps the proudest moment for my me and more for my Mom rather, who still is unable to come to terms that I could take so much interest in this “art” which she has been an expert at that I have shown no interest for the past 30 years! Other than exploring life from different perspectives, it’s been a yet another adventurous year for me. So, thank you 2020. I am clear about my destination by 2030. But until then, I shall enjoy the journey every day. As I always say, the Journey is as important as the Destination. #Miles2Go