30 August, 2009

Selamat Datang in Malaysia

I had been to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia last week to speak at a Conference. This was my second visit to KL, although my previous visit lasted only a few hours – my former colleague and I had gone to attend a business meeting and returned the same day. There is something so special and magical at KL – it’s traditional yet modern; slow-paced (compared to many other cities in SE Asia) but fast in its own way. What I loved the most about the city was its infrastructure – right from the Airport – the gateway to any city or country to the skyscrapers – I could just say Wow all over. I was told that the Government has allotted an area admeasuring 10*10 sqkm for the Airport which handles over 25 million pax a year and is rated No. 1 among its peers in the segment. There is a High Speed Rail from KL International Airport to the City Centre; a distance of about 60 kms covered in just 28 minutes. And the best part is the rear side if the ticket thanks the user for helping reduce the Carbon footprint (compared to, if one had traveled by road which would take between 60-90 minutes!). And the train ride takes just about MYR 35 – that’s about INR 420 or USD 9. Superb. And Efficient. Something similar to this has been underway in Bangalore too and we hope to see this soon.

There has been a good penetration of Retail in this city – from mainline bargain retail to premium Department stores to High – End boutiques! The city offers so much as one can take to the city's residents as well as the millions of tourists who throng the place every year. One such latest addition to the city is the Pavilion Mall. A magnificent piece of architecture hosting some of the classiest brands spread across seven floors with massive parking lots. The most brilliant element is the layout itself. And for the first time, I saw that the Brands on the ground level had access from the roadside as well as from inside the Mall; something that’s uncommon in India as the Mall developers here believe that shoppers would in that case, avoid visiting other outlets than the ones that they originally planned to.

Look at the view from the main entrance – an attractive line-up of Shops across levels and the Atrium put to its best use! There was a promotion related to Hennessy XO and was inviting curious onlookers to have a glance of what the special beverage is all about. And the colorful row of outlets across all floors which is visible from every nook and corner of the mall makes it quite an interesting view. The walkways do not have corners or ends – they gradually swirl and that makes it smooth while shoppers are walking. The top most floor – is aptly named Seventh Heaven; it features some of the best in class personal therapies.

And the best part is the basement floor. I have never seen such an eclectic mix of F&B Brands across various malls in South Asia. Food Republic, a chain of food courts in this part of the world operates the larger portion of this floor which boasts of street food from almost every popular Asian city – perfect in taste (apparently) and easy on the wallet. In fact, this is the only floor that had the maximum number of people than anywhere else in the Mall… Apart from this, there is a full floor dedicated to gourmet cuisine – from Japanese to Indian to other favorite Asian and International varieties.

The only thing I never understood quite well was that the Mall was one for everyone –From the Tangs Department Store mainly targeted at budget consumers to the marquee ones such as an Omega/Rolex Mono Brand Outlets, Gucci/Prada Boutiques and so on, the Mall has everything for the discerning shoppers. But the Question is whether such a model will work? I am not sure about the way people shop in Malaysia but in India, I doubt if it would. I don’t buy the logic that budget shoppers would get enticed into the Brand Boutiques or Gourmet Restaurants. As I write this article, there are not too many such malls (atleast that I know of). But I know of something that’s coming up. Will do my research and share my thoughts again. For now, Selamat Datang in Malaysia, ie., Welcome to Malaysia! One of the most tourist-friendly locations and one, that’s very Asian, as their campaign goes!

27 August, 2009

OMEGA - The End...

Many of you would have been noticing something unique on the masthead of the Times of India newspaper all through July & Aug. Swiss watchmaker Omega has been showing two small pictures of its models – Seamaster, Speedmaster, Constellation, DeVille, etc. While advertising on the masthead is not unusual, a brand such as Omega taking this approach in India is quite surprising. In India, the sale of premium and luxury watches picks up from Aug. onwards, especially with the upcoming wedding and festival seasons. Most Brands take either a first page solus or near the business pages, targeting the right set of customers. These ads actually set the mood – I doubt how much of purchase influence do they hold on a prospective buyer. And even more, when the ambassadors endorsing their watches are featured. For example, would someone buy a Tag because King Khan sports it? Are consumers so emotionally attached with the Brands such that their reasoning is impractical and loyal to their stars? Well, that’s a long debate one could have for hours or even days together. For sure, this would create excitement and lead consumers to the Retail Stores. It’s good to have footfalls coming in, isn’t it?

Coming back to Omega – in 1848, Louis Brandt set-up an assembly workshop to assemble precision pocket watches. In 1937, waterproof watches were launched and in 1943, automatic watches. Since 1969, it is the first and the only watch to land in the moon! From Cindy Crawford to Michael Schumacher, George Clooney to Abhishek Bachan, even James Bond uses this time-machine, in reel and real life. Such is the glamour of this particular watch that it is usually identified with its bracelet – with its unique and outstanding design. The Seamaster – a deep diving watch has a second crown (at 10 ‘o’ clock) which is a helium reverse valve, to allow helium out of the watch after diving at great depths. While the blue one has been around for some time, the black one is new in the market.

They say OMEGA means “The End” (the last and the 24th letter in the Greek Alphabet). I am not sure why this Swiss watchmaker named this Brand so. For me, it’s the beginning. My new Omega Seamaster that I got a few days ago and my resignation! Yes, I have resigned from my services today from BIAL after over three years in the Travel Retail Business. My next assignment is back in mainline Retail – shall write about that soon. For now, I am treasuring my new steel toy - when awake and while asleep!

16 August, 2009

When you mean Value!

Over the weekend, I visited the latest commercial addition in Bangalore, The Forum Value Mall at Whitefield (just a few minutes away from India’s silicon valley). Conceived over four years ago, the Value Mall was supposed to be Marathahalli (India’s largest Factory Outlet’s district) in a box! The Mall doesn’t have a common HVAC, which means that there is no air-conditioning, in the common areas, although every store is provided with individual facilities. The very thought that there wouldn’t be a common HVAC was a smart one, given the fact that the cost of electricity (and the running maintenance of equipments) forms the largest chunk of the Malls’ expenditure which in turn is passed on to the tenants as CAM (Common Area Maintenance). This was already tried by The Prestige Group who are the developers of this Mall, in their previous attempt - the EVA Mall on Brigade Road. So, it was possible to operate such a Mall in Bangalore where the weather is pleasant almost through out the year.

I remember (I used to be with Benetton those days) there was a big discussion among the Retailers’ community on the success of this model – whether shoppers would step in for such an experience. It was nice to see it live in action shoppers actually thronging this place, notwithstanding the impact of H1N1 flu (some extra-cautious ones were seen sporting masks too!). Although 80% of tenants have occupied and commenced business, some prominent ones are yet to.

The Mall is spread over 300,000 sft across four floors. MegaMart is the largest shopping anchor for the mall, while FAME Cinemas is the entertainment anchor. Tommy, Esprit*, Benetton, Nike, Reebok, Levis, Pepe, Lee, Neerus*, Bata*, Bulchee, Loot Mart, are among the other smaller outlets spread between 1,000 – 3,000 sqft. McD* (Ground Floor) and MTR* (First Floor), as F&B anchors, are expected to draw good crowds even during the weekdays. Cookieman, Daily Bread and Juice Booster, all F&B Brands again, operate on the ground floor – something that is usually unusual by Indian standards. The Transit food court with half-a-dozen operators including Subway, Pizza Corner, Mama-Mia Gelatos and other local delicacies, is already functional on the top-most floor. Two escalators next to each other in opposite directions are located at the fag end of the Mall on each level. Toilets are situated on all floors along with emergency stair cases. The most attractive element is the central Atrium spread over 10,000 sft and a sky roof – a tensile material that covers from the top such that rain water wouldn’t enter (hopefully) and would also provide natural daylight. The Atrium is also used for various promotions – temporary kiosks and as an inaugural attraction, there was some loud DJ music with other acts by artists – not surprising as this Mall is jointly operated by CapitaLand, which operates over a dozen Malls in Singapore where such things are common to see throughout the year. There is a specialty restaurant, Toscano (yes the same one at UB City) on the second floor, Sony Center, Onkyo Store, Access 2 Future (Computer peripherals and accessories), Whizz Photo Studio, Metro and Soles footwear, and even a saree and sherwani shop plus a Forex Money Changer! An entertainment zone for children is yet to open.
* The ones that are yet to be functional.

Ample parking is available (probably for over 300 cars) while the multi-level parking areas are two-ways, something that’s again uncommon in India. So drivers must be extra cautious especially when they take left-turns (that’s how the traffic is managed and a good thought again, given the fact that we are used to driving on the left). The most unexpected good thing however was “Free Parking” – probably coz the Mall is new and the Management is expecting to draw new crowds. Whichever way, it was pleasantly surprising to see that almost everything was so well organized. Great job done, once again and am sure they would keep up to their reputation – after all, the group manages the Best Mall in South India - The Forum.

Conspicuous missing includes an ATM/Bank, a Pizza Place and a Super Market. There is always a great round of debate on Super Markets at Malls – whether it would work – for the Retailer as well as for the Mall. Well, it must be remembered that the frequency of individuals and families visiting Supermarkets (in India) is about 4-6 times a month, which means that such an outlet would bring steady footfalls, even on weekdays. A Pizzeria (I mean the Dominos or Pizza Hut or the other new ones), although are present almost in every Mall are important crowd-pullers. A Bank would have also done wonders, probably facing roadside, given the fact that this is more or less a neighborhood Mall. An ATM with cheque drop boxes would have been useful for shoppers, especially the IT fraternity that spends more through plastic than paper. A 24/7 Gym would have brought in the health-conscious who reside in that area frequently to the mall! Who better knows that “Health is Wealth”.

However, one cannot ignore the uncanny choice and placement of certain Brands – how can a “Value” Mall boast of a high-end boutique restaurant, an international QSR Chain, Ice-cream and Juices that’s cost over INR 60 for a portion (and that too in prime space). The argument that shoppers would come to shop their favorite brands at lower prices and would end up at the expensive food outlets is a myth – atleast as I feel. The Value and Brand conscious consumer who walks into this Mall to buy his favorite Tommy or Esprit is not the types who would spend INR 800 for a meal for two at the Boutique Restaurant or a similar sum at the Food Court for a family of four. Not that he/she doesn’t see value in it, ofcourse the food is awesome and of high quality but he’s probably not the best target. On the other hand, those who frequent such places may not be the ones to wear discounted stuff – two or three seasons old. Now, this is something I am personally waiting to watch – how consumers perceive this model. After all, Value for me is different than what it means for you. Let’s see.

06 August, 2009

One-Way High Streets and Mall Footfalls

The front page of Times of India (Bangalore edition) today proclaimed loudly, “MG Road will be one-way for a while”. What worse news than this for Retailers in and around this area! And Economic Times (Bangalore edition) which is also owned and published by the same Bennett Coleman and Co., created headlines, quite literally, how the upcoming Mantri Mall has remained “unscathed” by global retail slump. With due regards to those who write such news items, one would agree that good research is a “MUST” before writing such articles. For starters, Mantri Mall was conceived in the year 2004/05 and leasing started even before Indian Retail hit its peak in 07/08, before coming down to realistic levels a few months ago. Most of the Retailers have been signed quite well in advance and the Mall is ready to commence operations within a few weeks time. So, the Mall space was not signed like, six weeks back! And by the way, this would be the first and only Mall (for now) to have a direct connection from the Malleswaram Metro Rail station – what a way to bring customers to the Mall. Wow.

In Mall Management, Space leasing discussions (with Retailers and Leasing companies) start almost along with Mall design and construction. As the construction proceeds in phases, Key Anchor(s) are signed up, who occupy almost 50% of the total space that’s available. And then, the smaller ones are signed up, leaving it lastly to “fillers” or last moment concepts. This is historical and usually followed all over the world. Large Retailers in India such as The Future Group, Reliance Retail, Shoppers Stop, TRENT, etc. also play “consultants” to Mall developers in terms of space and adjacency planning, provision of utilities and facilities including Mall entrances/exits and even Car parking. This helps quite a bit as the Retailers have much better experience and exposure due to their large scale operations in India and abroad, while the Mall Developer could be a budding Real Estate Company. There are only two kinds of Malls – the successful ones & the others. The first category is usually because of the unstinted support & commitment from the key Retail partners & Leasing Companies. The second category is also largely due to the same reason (pun intended!!).

Coming back to my title – the first thing that consumers would get in their mind after reading the “MG Road one-way” article is to avoid visiting/passing through MG Road/ Brigade Road over the weekend. The proposed routes are not only long, but illogical (according to me, but I am not a town-planning expert, you see) and tiresome, wasting valuable shopper time and automobile fuel. Even if it was such an important issue, the news item could have been articulated better. As it is, footfalls on MG Road have seen a sharp decline over the past year and a half, thanks to construction of Metro Rail piers. Parking was always a key concern and Retailers in the area were battling this with utmost courage. And now, a one-way comes into place.

Dashera-Diwali shopping is expected to commence in two-week’s time and this area would usually see a surge in traffic – humans as well as vehicles. This is all set to drown this year. Retailers downtown have just started to recover from the slump and were expecting the “season-shopping” to boost Sales. Unfortunately, they have to wait for a few more months, probably just ahead until Christmas.

A parking complex was not just a requirement, but a necessity in this area. The City Corporation planned this (for once) very well in advance, and commissioned a Multi-storey parking lot close to Brigade Road. However, due to “various” reasons, this parking lot ended up becoming a Mall… - The Garuda Mall. So, today most consumers think they could drive into Garuda, park their vehicles and shop within and not step into MG Road/Brigade. For those who know the charm of these areas, they would know what it means to be seen on MG & Brigade. To Shoppers. And for even those who walk, simply.

Bangalore has two large Malls, Forum and Garuda and over a dozen smaller Malls (mostly neighborhood) and other Large-format Stores. For a city of 8 million people, assume 1% of them would be those who could shop at High-streets and Malls including premium and luxury products. That’s 80,000 people. If half of them were to be seen in the busiest shopping areas together, trust me, we don’t have enough walking space, forget car parking! And many shoppers visit their locality for most household needs and avoid the ever-crowded shopping hubs.

Need of the hour are new Malls – with lots of space. Mantri would fill the gap immediately. And then the upcoming Brigade Mall. And then the Shobha. And so on. In the next five years, over 2 million sqft of Retail areas would be made available for shopping, including parking facilities for over 50,000 vehicles. By then, (hopefully), the market would have grown. The demand-supply mismatch is expected to continue atleast for the next 5-7 years, by when things would have stabilized quite a bit.

One’s loss is another’s gain, they say. MG Road’s loss should be somebody else’s gain. Sadly, not to be. We don’t have so much of Retail Space in this city, for the city-dwellers to relax, unwind, congregate, consume. Not for the time-being. Instead, many would be glued to their television sets. And many more, reading the same newspapers on weekends, increasing their readership. Such is life.

02 August, 2009

Brand Ambassadors and Brand Endorsers

Oscar Award winner AR Rahman had to grow and maintain his long locks for five years during his association with Sony Music in the late 90’s. The boys, men and uncles of the Indian Cricket team must wear formal clothing only from Pantaloons during their official public engagements. Shah Rukh must wear only a Tag Heuer (even as a local tapori in the movie DON) and Abhishek must use only a Motorola mobile outside his home. No one knows if Big B Amitabh Bachhan actually drinks only Pepsi at home and munches Cadbury chocolates with his grand children and if Sachin drinks only Boost to build his energy levels. Superstar Rajnikanth has endorsed only one campaign – The Polio Immunization in the early 90’s and never supported any particular Brand ever. Apparently, he doesn’t use a mobile phone and a telecom operator’s connection in his own name because he doesn’t appreciate the fact that they may consider his usage as an endorsement!

According to a recent study by Sunday ET-Synovate, the most popular Brand Ambassador in India is the King of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan followed by ace cricketer – The Little Master, Sachin Tendulkar. While Khan earns over Eight Crores (USD Two Million) a year, Sachin earns about half of that; quite a lot of money by Indian standards. Not surprising for a movie and cricket crazy country like ours. A number of actors and sportspersons endorse products and services that are required for day-to-day living, many of which are discretionary purchases. The earliest acts were for “Lux” body soaps by erstwhile Bollywood actresses in the 80’s and that of the former cricketer Sunil Gavaskar who appeared for a TV Ad in the 90’s for “Dinesh” suitings. The soaps matched the complexion of the actresses and the formal attire matched the cricketer’s profile – a gentlemanly appearance but a terror on the field. By the late 90s, as many as 50 products were already being endorsed by as many or more personalities!

Actress Madhuri Dixit for Lux and Preity Zinta for Liril, the public noticed Aishwarya Rai, former Miss World, budding actress and future Bollywood queen Rani Mukherjee and the most versatile actor Amir Khan when they appeared together for a Cola Ad. Later on, Pepsi and Coke roped in over a dozen actors and sportspersons from time to time, so did Titan (watches) and many automobile manufacturers. So much so, that most actors are obliged to show (off) their brands even in their movies while sports persons are expected to carry the Brands in public.

However, in the history of Indian advertising, I believe there would be more examples of “ordinary people - aam admi” endorsing Brands than celebrities. Some of such Brands and products have more market share even today, than their competitors who pay hefty fees for their stars. For Ex., Raymond Suiting’s, more famous for its ad jingle than anyone else in its segment, has never used strong celebrities, when compared to Reid & Taylor (BIG B, Amitabh Bachan) and Belmonte (Shah Rukh Khan). Washing Powder Nirma and Surf used and continue to use home-makers and mothers to demonstrate the power of the detergents. So did Glucon-D and Crocin, both medications for daily use for general health care and common ailments respectively. Complan, a premium health drink showed young siblings proudly screaming “I am a Complan boy, I am a Complan girl”. Bajaj Scooters and Luna Mopeds were more popular because they were being shown as used by common people. Bajaj Electricals emphasized on the quality of their bulbs using common households.

The first Indian Retailer to use a celebrity for endorsing the business is The Future Group in the year 2008 when MS Dhoni, presently the captain of the Indian Cricket Team was roped in specifically as a face of “Big Bazaar Fashion” – a vertical that’s most popular among the fastest growing Indian middle-class.

But there is a reason that most Indian Brands and Retailers don’t need an ambassador, rather an endorser. Over 60% of India (largely rural) doesn’t have access to popular media such as TV & Radio while over 30% of India cannot read (newspapers or magazines). What works with this segment is word of mouth popularity and performance of the Brand/Product. Even in the urban areas, I wonder how many including me and you would buy certain Brands because they are endorsed by our favorite actors and sportsmen. For sure, I wouldn’t buy Tag Heuer because Shah Rukh sports one – I just don’t like the collections at the entry level which I can probably afford while the Korean cars that I have are not just because my favorite actor endorses them.

Brands and Retailers should rather focus on the promise for what the product stands for. It would be worth investing the monies on the buyers – the consumers, as they would automatically turn endorsers, vouching for the consistency of the quality of the products and over a period of time, would become Brand Ambassadors. For a nation of a billion people, a million ambassadors is all is needed – for every aspiring Brand to survive in the long run.

Thank you, HR

It was a surprise to see Zoho Corp, take up front pages of leading newspapers today (20 May) to celebrate International HR Day. Seemingly, t...