19 June, 2022

The rise of Tier 2 towns

Have been on a pan-India tour for the past few weeks, visiting our stores, interacting with my colleagues, our valued franchise partners, mall managers, heads & ecosystem partners and of course, our esteemed customers. I must admit that my trips have been skewed to Tier 2 towns and by design. For, this is where India lives and spends. Over the past 24 months or so, we have witnessed a massive reverse migration from bigger cities to smaller towns, ever since the pandemic led lockdown began. Initially thought to be a short-term trend, things seem to have gained traction all across India for the past 1 year. So much so, that many employees across Industries and companies are now – literally demanding – that they be allowed to WFH with a hybrid model of physical presence at the office precincts.

One’s loss is another’s gain, they say. As a Retailer, I cannot complain!

The photo above was taken early June at Uttar Pradesh capital Lucknow’s famed Phoenix Pallasio Mall on a weekday. The 1 million sq.ft. Mall has a dozen or so international luxury brands, 3 dozen+ international premium brands, over 50+ domestic brands and scores of regional brands in fashion and food. This mall is located pretty much in the outskirts of the town and has a neighbour closely, the 6-lakh sq.ft. Lulu mall which opens doors in Q2 FY22. Last week I was at Guwahati, Assam and our Franchise Partners says the state is about to get 8 new malls. At a Starbucks cafe in Bhubaneswar’s Esplanade Mall, I saw for the first time more tables filled with family crowds than anywhere in India! The foodcourts across Malls are overflowing as though there is a shortage of food in some areas (sic). 

This kind of retail upswing in Tier 2 towns is unprecedented at best. As I celebrate by silver jubilee in Retail this year – 25th year since I started scooping ice-cream in 1997, I have seen multiple waves in retail. The first one was around 2001, when modern retail hit the streets. Around 2008, we saw a Mall boom, primarily led by the Metro cities and Tier-2 asking for department store chains like Central, Shoppers Stop, Lifestyle, Westside among others. Around 2014, the retail growth hit a peak with several unstructured malls (zoning wise) either shutting shop or turning coats to become a commercial (offices) dwelling. Since 2017, things swung back to action, especially after the introduction of GST, much to the surprise of economic critics and experts.

We live in a pandemic world – I don’t call it a post pandemic one – because the virus is just here to stay in some form or the other. Just that we humans have become more resilient. Every 6-8 weeks, the Media Industry fuels scare with new statistics, but consumers have been dodging these overtures since Sep. ’21. This shall continue for a while and eventually pass by. But the growth of Tier 2 markets is here to stay for sometime. One big reason for this is that there is money in the pockets of the aspirational middle class. Monsoons have been good for the past 2 years, so has been Agri-production. Oil crisis has been surging ever since the Ukraine-Russia conflict began. But India and Indians have adjusted. The statistic compilation on inflations seems to read otherwise, but that’s more theory I guess. The jobless have remain so by choice, not because there is a lack of opportunity.

While a small group of people were throwing stones and torching trains at Patna Railway station last week, I saw several hundreds of youth at retail stores and malls working earnestly for a better today and tomorrow for themselves and their families. Real estate, residential and empty plots - especially if it is of any indication, then the smaller towns seem to be a better bet in terms of wealth creation. The surge in Tier 2 markets across India seems to be unstoppable, atleast in the Retail sector, one that is integral to me personally and professionally. The rent for retail stores matches metro cities by 1:1, sometimes 1: 1.5 or even more. The challenge is supply (of spaces) and not demand. This will settle down soon, as well.

 

10 June, 2022

My travel travails and why I love them


After a long while, I travelled all through the week and in one of the most favourite parts of the country – Northern India. Though the summer was a killer, I enjoyed every moment being there – doing what I love the most in life – observing consumer behaviour at high streets and malls, interacting with our customers, staff, franchise partners, mall owners and the entire ecosystem. Some great food all along – wholesome North Indian stuff was a bonus. 

View of the New Delhi railway station

This is my 25th year in Retail and I’ve been travelling almost 45 weeks a year, 3 days a week for over 15 years now, mostly on work. Though it’s mostly just one Boss to be accountable to, managing a fairly young & a cross-functional team and being a part of a mature, mid-sized organisation is quite a challenge. Here are some quick learning that I have acquired over the years. While all of them may not be doabe by everyone, am sure some of this could be useful to a few discerning ones;

The itinerary

This is the most important part of the journey. I have always believed that the journey is as important (and exciting) as the destination, its quite important that one plans their journey time-table, including the choice of flights / trains / local accommodation. A poorly planned itinerary is the beginning of chaos to come during the trip. 

A shirt holder that I make the best use of

The right luggage

While there is no secret to packing the right quantity and quality of luggage, let me tell you it always is a science and an art. A fairly planned set of clothes – 2:1 ratio of shirts to trousers usually does the work, whether casual or formals. Extra sets of inners always helps, just in case of an emergency. 

Meeting schedules

This is one area where things can go awry – due to a client or a business partner not turning up in time or the most common reason in India for getting late to meetings – bad / congested roads + traffic snarls enroute the meeting place. It really helps adding a 15-30 min cushion ahead of the next meeting including the travel time. If you end up early (to the meeting), there are anyway enough emails and messages on WhatsApp to respond to.

When in the North, do like the locals!

Food / Drinks – the lure

Any business trip is incomplete without a fair dose of local cuisine. After all, what’s the point in sweating out so much if you don't eat well during the journey. But then, I can tell you out of experience, it always, almost always helps to avoid over-eating during business trips, especially if you like loaded stuff or spicy outings. Alcohol, while is an extension of our night life and leisure, may put you out of the best that one can appear, especially in front of the most important people you’re set out to meet the next day. Abstinence during the business trip is among the best though a bit of indulgence is not a bad idea.

Emails & Calls

One thing to keep in mind is when we travel, there could be chances that we miss reading & replying critical emails as well as end up skipping regular review calls / VCs. One trick that has always worked for me is to keep clearing emails while on the move, that is from one meeting to another. That way, the email box always remains light and we are looped in most of the time. While its important to reschedule regular review calls or VCs during the trip, it also helps to have it first thing in the morning, right after breakfast, in the same hotel room, to ensure privacy and quietness which one may not get while on travel. 

Sleep & Rest

This is most important part of the entire journey and the least focused one. Most of us get very groggy (or smashed) when we wake up the next morning because of our “other priorities”. As I said before, it does help to avoid a heady dose of food / alcohol which can put your resting time out of zone. But there is a trick which I have been learning over time. Even when not travelling, I am conditioning my body to sleep for 6 hours – call it yoga or what you will. But a good 6-hour sleep during the night will go a long way in having a very productive day.

Lastly, make time for yourself. For making calls to the family and close friends, laughing off silly jokes and forwards, reading stuff you like, taking photos and writing or posting on social media, doing fun things and to just stay still to see the sunrise and breathe well during the business trip. All work and no play make Jack & Jill dull. So go there and make the best of a business trip next time.


01 April, 2022

Happy New Year

I was among those millions in India who would end up waking up groggy on the 1st of Jan. for a few years every year between 2005 – 2012 or so. The rave parties, get togethers and the whole joy and excitement of welcoming a brand New Year was palpable. From buying new clothes to a trimmed hair cut and what not, there was so much consumer spending around Christmas and New Year. With homes getting a tad bigger, households getting more liberal, party venues moved from hotels and public places to living rooms, esp. in the high rise apartments. Shouting “Happy New Year” from a balcony and wishing strangers was absolutely acceptable on that night (and the next morning!). Many years later I realised how stupid the whole thing was. Been a few years since I attained my “buddha” moment from being a budhu.

The 1st of Jan. is celebrated with fanfare globally, for it marks the dawn of a new chapter in the lives of people in many countries. For them, it’s the starting of a new Academic year for children, a new Financial year for businesses and a new year, with a change in season to embrace the goodness of nature. Lastly, it is also celebratory right after Christmas, a festival revered and celebrated by over half of the world. So, yes for them it makes a lot of sense.

Retailers worldwide run huge sale campaigns right from end-Nov – the Black Friday Sale all the way up to Cyber Monday Sale which has caught up in the past 20 years. People change their cars and bikes, deck up their houses, paint the inner and outer walls as spring & summer season beckons and shop for new clothes to suit the weather conditions. Many professional change jobs and several others retire around December. The entire construct is so different in these countries and has been that way for them. Works well too, I guess. 

However, India and Indians have embraced this trend almost meaninglessly as we try to ape the West in several ways. As long as we imbibe the good – such as environmental awareness, climate change, gender pay-gap among other things, it’s okay. But to celebrate someone else’s new year and go ga-ga about it – has become a weird trend.

For many years now, I celebrate “New Year” twice in a year – one on the 1st of April as the professional year begins. It’s also the change of academic year for my kids, so that’s a reason to cheer and motivate them to do better. A sought after time in the year for employees to look forward to a hike in Salary, expect a Bonus and perhaps, even a job change for many. The second is the New Year celebrated within our community – Ugadi – that phase of the Spring season based on the Lunar Calendar. At a personal level, it’s about offering obeisance to the Creator Lord Almighty and wearing new clothes, but nothing much beyond.

On the professional side, it’s a very important day to look forward to. The run-up begins usually 45-60 days in advance, with the making of the coveted “Annual Business Plan” (ABP), reworking on it several times and finally making the entire team buy in to your vision for the business – right from the Board and Top Management till the lowest cadre employee in the system. While the more organised Corporates and large companies go through this almost ritualistically, several mid-sized companies and SMEs usually tend to ignore the importance of “Strategic Planning”. When I say this, it’s not just about a dream number to achieve – be it any business. Rather, a methodical and practical way to build up the entire narrative – either top-down or bottom-up like a pyramid. But this is just so important, so we know what to do with the next 365 days. That’s a lot of time to achieve any business goal, honestly. 

The first day and the first few days of the new Financial Year is so important towards clear goal setting and creating measurable plans to execute them. While completing the ABP well in advance helps – one gets 365 days to achieve it, even starting off the process in early April is not bad at all. But not having a clear plan for every working day of the year is so important.

It’s better to have a clear plan, try one’s best to achieve it and still, fail to do so, rather not having a plan at all. I have seen several leaders grappling with business challenges through the year – one of it being unplanned on the way forward. 

Here’s wishing you all a healthy, wealthy prosperous FY 22-23 ahead. Cheers & Good luck. 


04 March, 2022

My trysts with Ad-film making


Yesterday, I completed making my 12th Ad film, this one for my current employer Specsmakers. Though I always had a liking and flair for commercial cinema, the most I have come close is to write movie reviews. Never in my life did I imagine I would be part of 12 Ad films for 2 brands, one an established one with a great market presence and another, a budding consumer brand. Whichever way, it’s been a great learning experience.



It all began in 2020 during the peak of the first ever lockdown which was an outcome of an unknown viral disease which was popularised by its medical name SARS Novel Coronavirus, moniker name Covid-19. The country was shutdown for over 3 weeks since 27 March and the rest of the world was no different including Europe, Australia and everything in between, save for the US where the former President and many others reckoned that such a didn’t never exist – living in denial for long. 


I read newspaper reports of silly family arguments which led to extreme cases of domestic violence all the way leading up to suicides and divorce. The reason – disagreement to share household work. These were young couples, most of them who had not even crossed their 10th wedding anniversaries. From a nervous breakdown due to not stepping out of home or socialising to concerns of job loss or loss of income, people were getting more depressed than ever. During late May, my septuagenarian parents tested positive for Covid-19. I took them to the Govt. approved medical isolation centre and dropped them off – eyes swollen and with an eerie feeling, whether I would see them ever after. To all our surprise, they both were discharged on the 3rd day after a basic treatment even as the Govt. had to fill their beds with more deserving patients.



That’s when it stuck to me that I should do an AD film which would go on TV to showcase how Senior Citizens in India (and worldwide) went about doing their own things while the younger generation was complaining. The result was a TVC shoot feat. Pandmashree Dhananjayans, the ace dance couple from Chennai who popularised Bharatnatyam dance form world over. The couple shot for 8 hours, showcasing household work and enjoying Levista coffee & their own company! In a few months, we shot 3 Ads for Levista coffee to celebrate the association with Chennai Super Kings. The Ads which were played exclusively on TV channels and on Youtube went viral, garnering mass appeal and great brand presence. Later, we did 2 more ADs to celebrate the festival spirit and festivities as well as accepting WFH and moving on.

In 2021, when I joined Specsmakers, we shot 2 Ads, one of which was an industry first. The lead actor prompted people to buy a new pair of specs as part of their festival shopping which had some serious positive impact on our Deepavali Sales. The other one was two friends discussing about affordable specs continues to garner more and more respect for the brand.


And over the last 2 days, we shot six TVCs – yes, six of them in a tightly planned and executed schedule which wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperation, strategic planning and execution of the Director and his capable team members. While all the 12 Ads have been directed by professional Ad film makers of high repute, I must say that I was actively involved in evolving the concept, writing the script, being at the shooting spot and making on-the-spot corrections and improvisations and of course, to plan their broadcast appropriately so the respective brands got their desired and deserved visibility and promotion.  Needless to say, never tried to ghost-direct the scenes while leaving all creative liberties to the Director, Camera & Lighting team, Costume Designers and the Actors.


Last but not the least, I also ended up acting in an AD film for Quick Heal anti-virus products which was released earlier this week. Though I desired to take up modelling 25 years back, it finally happened now! 



My most important learning from the creation of these Brand assets – either being behind the camera or in front of it, something for which I have not been formally trained, is that one can excel in any field of their choice including film-making, whether short form or long and at any age in their lifetime, provided we give our best to sincerely learn the techniques from scratch with dedication and latch on to the one who teach us. 

Practical experience that I have gained watching innumerous commercial feature films all these years have also helped me to appreciate the detailing and importance for nuances which have often come out at the sets and on the spot much to the surprise & delight of the crew!


28 February, 2022

Brands are timeless, Khans are not

If you have been following all the chatter on social media and top brand / advertising journals and magazines, the buzz is about the recent TVC feat. Shah Rukh Khan for Thums Up and the upcoming new TVC feat. Salman Khan for Pepsi. That the two have swapped their roles for their previously endorsed brands is one thing. But are they even relevant in today’s times is another. The last hit film of SRK was over 12 years back. I mean, a Box Office hit, that is. Salman, on the other hand is up with a new movie every 2 years for ID festival and gets attention across the world, though mostly from the hinterlands of India. While the collections in the first week of the film’s release have been ranging upwards of 100 Cr, 200 Cr & 300 Cr for Salman, that’s not the case for SRK, unfortunately. His core audience, the 90s kids are now having kids who are in their teens or twenties. The moustache-less handsome young man that SRK was faded away many moons back. His demeanour and confidence of Chak De! hasn’t been revisited by the ace actor ever after, for reasons best known to him.

So why would multi-nationals Pepsi & Coke risk their brand image with the Khans? 



After all, Brands are timeless but the Khans are not…



Ask any kid in their high school age group of today and there is a lean chance they would have watched DDLJ, HAHK or DTPH. If you are even wondering what these acronyms mean, you belong to a different era altogether. In the early to mid-90s, SRK endorsed Pepsi and took it across the country – from Board rooms to class rooms, office canteens to Tech Parks and beyond with his “Dil Maange more” campaigns alongside Sachin Tendulkar. On the other side, macho man Salman pounced with “Taste the Thunder” alongside ThumsUp, an Indianized cola drink which is supposedly more popular outside the metro cities. Over time, the two heroes and the other Khan, Mr. Perfect Aamir, endorsed the three cola brands including Coke among themselves. And then came the young crop of actors & sportsmen, mostly cricketers who took over and lead the campaigns.


In 2022, after many years of association with their preferred soft beverages, Salman and SRK have reversed their roles, moving in to the opposite camps, much to the surprise of their fans. The Ad-Industry and Brand veterans are divided in their views too. Salesmen of both companies are a confused lot, for having seen their current Brand Ambassadors in competitive camps earlier. The shopkeepers, mostly kirana owners are clueless how these things work. For the common people on the road, it’s yet another marketing gimmick by multinational companies spending crores of rupees to drive sales. 



The verdict is clearly divided.


Why would SRK, who has always been known for his soft image, even in his recent outings like “Love you Zindagi” portray a more mean image with his latest campaign? See the Ad here.

And with Antim, Salman proved to be the most macho among Bollywood heroes (perhaps after Dharam garam) and remains a bachelor at 57 years of age alongside SRK – yes, that’s correct. In 2025, they both would turn Senior Citizens! 


Why have the best of Marketing minds in Pepsi and Coke chosen this path? Have they run out of options in today’s sporting and entertainment fields? Absolutely not. Do they still believe SRK & Salman draw their own crowds and fan following? Perhaps yes. A big yes, at that. 



Salman’s fanbase is far wider than that of SRK’s. That could be a reason why Pepsi has now onboarded Salman, so they get to target the more mature audience, supposedly. On the other hand, SRK’s core fanbase has now entered their 40s and 50s, some in their 60s too. Perhaps, ThumsUp with Rum is a great combination. Also, ThumsUp could now be vying more familial attention. Maybe not. 


All said and done, Khans age, brands don’t. They will outlive this campaign anyway. 

15 February, 2022

Valentines’ - a lost Retail opportunity?

A decade and a half ago, Valentine’s day sales was something that retailers across India were looking forward to. Slowly, the sales opportunity spread over to Valentines weekend – including the one before or after 14 Feb. What started off with red roses as gifts to woo across genders (yeah, including the Queer community) slowly moved up the value chain. Stores of yore back then like Odyssey, Crossword, Landmark and the good old Archies were customer’s favourites to flock to. From little table clocks in heart shape to greeting cards, posters, charts, perfumes – the list was unending. I recall how even apparel retailers and fashion brands started planning well in advance for the V-Day (sic) and had special collections with red and white patterns spread across tops, skirts, t-shirts and so on. So much so, that the EOSS – End of Season Sale at Department Stores and branded outlets would begin only during late-Feb. The idea was to cash in on the eagerness of customers to wear something new for the occasion. 



Restaurants, Pubs and Bars across India took the opportunity to have specials. Star hotels had a special table set-up including candle-night dinners. Some even had set packages – for the first proposal, to celebrate an anniversary and for families included. The costs were prohibitive in many cases but discerning consumers saved up for their big day. This is when Credit Card issuing Banks wooed customers with special offers for shopping & dining. Many even got in to expensive buys which spiked their interest payouts subsequently. 



With the evolution of the digital media around the end of the first decade of the new millennium, sales of these coveted products & services started declining. The focus moved away from roses and gifts to more elite and expensive ones. Mobile phones were among the most preferred one for the day! After all, the key purpose of a mobile phone is communication and what better than a mobile phone. The haves gifted iPhones. The less privileged took great efforts to gift expensive iPhones and other models to their loved ones. Retailers & Banks collided together by offering EMIs with or without interest. Greeting Cards were now being replaced with digital messages. Movie dates in premium multiplexes were a big draw. 


However, the millennials (Zen Z) were somehow not buying in to this larger story of gifting for a purpose. No matter how many movies in Indian languages and in western contexts have come and gone, the current gen doesn’t feel the necessity for this show-off.Many kids (and grown-ups) from the millennial background prefer to “go dutch” on their first and even the following dates until they are damn sure if the two want to go any further. Many new-gen today prefer to split the cost of marriage and are fast enough to decide on a break-up, before or after marriage. Therefore, gifting and the purported retail uptick in sales is glaringly missing these days. Numbers speak louder than opinions, after all. 



From being condoned for displaying public affection to their partners by right wing extremists, to avoiding public glare of the extended family and their surrounding society in the 2000s, today’s millennials have a very different take on dating and beyond. They are not too shy to not take a gift when they meet someone, prefer to pay for their coffee (or beer) and certainly not taking the date on an expensive dinner. This  consumer attitude is certainly impacting shopping behaviour at stores and online as well. Numbers speak for themselves, after all!


Retailers who had expected a surge in sales of various products were staring at empty store fronts during the last weekend, which also happened to be Valentine’s eve. Restaurants were not even running full capacity, forget having the ability to sell tables at a premium. Is it because of food ordering apps like Swiggy & Zomato? Perhaps not. For one, the cost is more or less the same (or more) as going out. Second, the occasion is best spent with an experience than watching Netflix and dining a pizza! So what’s the message for retailers at large? That V-Day sales opportunity in India is not as big a shopping festival as in other parts of the world?

16 January, 2022

The Annual Tribute post

Even as the country celebrates Pongal, Makara Sankranthi, Lohri and so on, I cannot but reminisce and thank my stars for where I am, what I am today professionally. For it was on this day, I flew off my comfort zone to build a career, a name in the Industry, and most importantly paved an opportunity for myself to pursue endless learning. Incidentally, I celebrate my Silver Jubilee year in Retail this year - A Retailer by Profession and Choice since 1997.


I grew for the most of my life in the erstwhile Madras until my Post Graduation. My first posting was at Kolkata to manage Musicworld. Honestly, this was the farthest maiden travel I had taken in my entire life of 21 years and also travelled for the first time ever in a 2nd class air-conditioner sleeper coach by Coromandel Express. A year later, I returned to Chennai (the name had changed by then!) and started at Foodworld, India’s first organised Grocery retail chain. After 3 years with the company, I sensed I was not going to grow much – internal challenges, business model clarity and so on. Based on a newspaper Ad in The Hindu, I applied for a job which was based in Bangalore. My interview happened inside the retail store of the company at the Spencers Plaza Mall and in a week’s time, I received a post from the employer informing about my recruitment.


I left my hometown on Pongal / Sankranthi day by a KSRTC bus from Chennai to Bangalore with 4 bags and a heart full of dreams. Honestly, at the bottom of my heart, I was shooting in the dark but somewhere my gut feel was I would certainly not waste my life, as I was doing in Chennai, living in a comfortable cocoon under the aegis of my beloved parents. Much to their chagrin and admonishment, I stepped off the home towards a vast world which was filled with VUCA even back then. I joined Pantaloons Retail which was setting up the country’s first seamless mall by the name “Central” at Bangalore followed by aggressive expansion at Hyderabad, Pune and so on – clear focus on upcoming Tier 2 cities. Though I had my own tons of challenges in a new city, to which I had travelled just thrice before that in my lifetime, I was fortunate to be filled with fantastic colleagues, a small but worthy bunch of well wishers and an extended social ecosystem. 5 years later, I was popularly known as the guy who set-up the entire Travel Retail business at India’s first private airport – BIAL. A few years later, I was fortunate to work with India’s largest café chain – CCD and set up 100s of cafés across the country while traversing the length and breadth of the geography. 



Made some money, loads of friends and a large, extended camaraderie with the who’s who of the city – from the State Bureaucracy to Retail, friends of friends and with a very large set of colleagues and strangers. Bought my first car, a Hyundai Santro on which I travelled 75,000 kms over 3 years – mostly between TN, Tirupati & KA and a single non-stop drive to Goa. Loads and loads of memories that I can cherish all my life. Regrets, yes many many too. But that shall remain buried within me, always. Best to leave it that way!


I returned to Chennai in 2012 and ever since “settled” in the city which has given me everything though I haven’t settled with my dreams, or rather settled my dreams, professionally, personally and as a publicly obligated person as well. Lots of unfinished things yet. Though in whatever small way possible, I continue to give back what I have – knowledge, guidance, money and of course in my physical capacity as well. Over the past decade, I have taught at at least a dozen B-Schools, run Retail Management as an Elective course for 2ndyear students and travelled extensively across the State and also pan-India on work and leisure. There’s still a lot more to see, explore and share and I am at it.

I wonder what if I had stayed back to please my parent’s wishes in 2004. Wonder how things would have been – something that we can only imagine but can never say with certainty how it would have spanned. But the courage I took on myself, guess I was right.  

The rise of Tier 2 towns

Have been on a pan-India tour for the past few weeks, visiting our stores, interacting with my colleagues, our valued franchise partners, ma...