31 January, 2010

National Shopping (& Savings) Days…

We sold 40,000 cameras, 7,000 laptops and 8,000-9,000 LCD Tvs, during the 23-26 weekend, proclaimed Mr. Kishore Biyani last week, Founder and CEO of India’s largest Retailer, The Future Group. This property famously created as “Sabse Sasta teen din” or “Cheapest three days” six years ago, was experimented at the Big Bazaar Outlet at Lower Parel, Mumbai among others and has hence become a national rage. This year, over 120 outlets of Big Bazaar spread all across the country participated in this challenge. Over the past few years, the other formats of the group have also joined the bandwagon and this was vividly seen this year. The idea apparently stemmed from a simple fact – that consumption in India is driven largely based on two needs – a regular monthly need and a festival/event related one. So, there was monthly shopping of Grocery and Household items and the 2-3 times a year festival/event shopping – Diwali, Id, Christmas, Wedding, Birthday, Anniversary, etc when consumers shopped for Apparel, Electronics and other Home needs including premium and luxury products. The Group wanted to create a day (or rather a period) where consumers could shop without a specific reason – and only for the value and related happiness they derive. Thus was born this unique concept. 26th of January is India’s Republic Day, a national holiday which is always one or two days around the weekend and is usually considered as a long weekend since many take one or two days leave from their work places to spend more time with their family and friends.

Many industry experts have compared this to Boxing Day/Thanksgiving Day like in the West. These are specific days of the year when consumers throng to Retail stores because products are available at the cheapest prices. While most products are outdated or out of season, consumers still see value in the offering. For example, a laptop for home use which would usually cost $ 900 would be sold at say, $ 600 – and this is only for a day. So, consumers plan their purchases in such a way that they wait for the shopping season. A lot of research on the topic has revealed that more than 30% of such products purchased during these times were inconspicuous consumption – the customers didn’t really want them but bought only because it was cheaper… Consumers are the same everywhere – from Amsterdam to Ahmedabad, Bangalore to Boston, show them “value” and they would buy even if they don’t need it immediately. Thus, the value formats of The Future Group, namely “Big Bazaar” & “Food Bazaar” have seen a huge spike in sales.

What confused many of us in the industry is that this concept has been blatantly followed by many other Indian and even International Retailers who are not in the “value” retail formats. Apparel and Department stores were offering discounts, and so were the mono-brand fashion retailers. Electronics saw a huge surge in discounts, with a number of bundled deals and lowest prices for the period. While the offers were tempting enough for consumers to buy, was there a long-term approach in these efforts? Probably not. Beyond a point, discounts will not increase sales but will only decrease – what is famously know in Macro-Economics as “Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility”. Over a period of time, consumers will refrain from buying at full prices and will wait for the discount season. Yes, I agree that this country has over a billion consumers and thereby throughout-the-year shopping will exist, however this would do more damage to the brands' reputation, especially fashion and luxury, in the long run.

The End of Season Sale or EOSS is usually just around Christmas globally but in India, the cycle was a bit behind – many Retailers were planning it around Valentines Day (14th Feb.). But this has also changed of late. Many Indian Retailers have already started their EOSS in Jan. and there seems to be a mad-rush among them for the customer’s wallet. With all the brouhaha around discount shopping (my forthcoming article would delve deeper into this), consumers are smiling away to glory having got the best deals due to intense price-competition among Retailers. So, what happens to the Brand Equity of these players? Would consumers continue to shop at full-prices when they know that the same brand is available at a discount in the near future? Watch this space…

23 January, 2010

Coffee Conversations...

It’s almost a year since I started writing this column – recording my own observations about the Retail Industry as well as analyzing and interpreting decisions and actions of Retailers and their activities. I must admit that I have acquired a lot of admirers and a few critics on the way – not on a personal note but more on a professional stance. To make your reading more interesting, I am introducing a new column titled “Coffee Conversations”. In this section, I seek answers for queries that I have from Industry experts and stalwarts, while also discussing my own thoughts about the same. This is not mainline journalism – and I am not a journalist. Nor are those who opine spokespersons of their respective organizations. They are mere professionals who share their thoughts on certain specific topics.

The first such column is about the recent advertising fiasco featuring the world’s best known Ice-Cream Retailer and one of the most respected agencies. Many of you would know the fauxpas already – the agency communicated on a signage that entry to the newly launched store was “restricted only to holders of international passports”. What they meant was something else but this irked the Indian sensibilities almost immediately and what followed was brand bashing – offline and online. They say “Any publicity is good publicity” but I guess this is the last the Brand would have wanted even as they move into one of the toughest consumer markets in the world. The agency has been removed from the services of the company with immediate effect and it is yet to be seen what happens next.

I spoke to my good friend Akshay Ananth, a young and energetic advertising professional who leads the Client Servicing Division for one of the best known agencies in the world, which is also the most popular and respected one in India. Excerpts from the conversations that we had recently over coffee:

Shriram (SS): Tell me Akshay, how important is the role of the Advertising agency to get into the DNA of the Retailer or the Brand, especially if it is new in the Indian market?

Akshay Ananth(AA): Whether the brand is old or new it needs someone to communicate with the consumer. It’s the agency that does it right now. The whole idea of an agency is to talk the consumer’s language as opposed to manufacturer speak. Some of the best brands have been created by the agencies. E.g. BBH raised Johnnie Walker to where it is now. Lemon, Axe, McDonald’s. The list goes on.

SS: Is it important for the Retailer/Brand to engage the agency at a very early stage – say, even when the Brand plans to enter the country?

AA: Yes absolutely, the brand that will win the war over minds is the one that makes the consumers tell the right story. If the entry itself provides a story, why not?

SS: Is the agency solely responsible for all internal and external communication that goes out? What about the Brand Management Team?

AA: When s**t hits the roof, somebody has to be holding the can – accolades to the brand team and all s**t to the agency. It’s a hurting fact but its true… Globally.

SS: When there is a result that is not the most desirable (like in this example), what is the stance that the agency and the Brand should take? Defensive? Mud-slinging? Does sacking and replacing the agency help?

AA: I guess there are two things here, do the due diligence (also get someone to wear the black hat) and the second is, get a crisis plan ready.

Mud-slinging is our national sport, so I guess that’s good entertainment. Other than that, if you do not stick with each other thru thick and thin, what team are you? Firing the agency was a knee jerk reaction and an easy one. I would have started with firing the brand manager.

SS: What happens with the image of the Brand? Is it true that Consumers forget and forgive? Can you cite some examples?

AA: Yes, to a great extent. With all the clutter in the consumer space, nobody is an Einstein. People do have very short memories today and a lot of brands to take advantage of this fact. For examples, I will only say Lexus, Mattel and Cadburys & Pepsi.

SS: Last words of wisdom for Brand Managers?

AA: The agency is not your slave, but a partner. If you treat as a slave, like all slaves it will run at the first sign of trouble. A partner will see a problem and solve it, have a back up plan or atleast stick with you. Additionally, clients that treat agencies like dirt always end up paying the price. They see attrition rates shoot through the sky from the other end.

Only one word of wisdom to the agency crowd: one of my bosses was fond of saying: “client ke client ko samjho”, believe me, this piece of advice is invaluable.

Thank you, Akshay for your time and keep up the great work. Best Wishes for your future endeavors. Cheers.

10 January, 2010

Swagatham! Suswagatham! Welcome to India…

The Indian Ministry of Tourism recently announced Visa on Arrival for residents of Finland, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Singapore – a move which was debated so much that the Hon’ble Minister of State for External Affairs Mr. Shashi Tharoor even tweeted about the topic, which was covered more in the media than the Visa news itself! The visas would have a maximum validity of 30 days with a single entry into the country which will be restricted to airports at Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. The four airports account for over 65% of Indian aviation – of the over 110 million pax who fly within and outside the country every year. Whether there are enough takers from these countries is anybody’s guess.

But it’s a welcome move, many say. Martin Moodie, founder of The Moodie Report, the world’s most read Travel Retail website that never sleeps, remarks “Obtaining an Indian visa is a notoriously unwieldy process”. He couldn’t be wrong. He travels all across the world for over 200 days a year and visits India atleast once each year. One of my good friends in the Industry and a mentor of sorts in my professional life, Martin Moodie blogs regularly about his experiences across airports and the Travel Retail business in general. Apparently, the number of Japanese visitors into India grew by 3.5% in 2009 to 151,000. Understandable, since many Japanese Auto companies, Suzuki, Toyota and Honda, command a respectable market share in India. While Suzuki (with a JV with Maruti) holds the fort in the mass segment, Toyota and Honda slug it out in the premium segments and are famous among the Sec A+ and A in the large metros.

So what does it mean to have “Visa on Arrival”… Aplenty. To begin with, it is seen as a country which welcomes visitors. Thailand and Malaysia have been doing this for sometime now and have seen noteworthy results. While the domestic unrest in Thailand did crash the visitor entries in the first half of 2008, the tsunami after effect in 2006 and early 2007 was severe in Malaysia – a country which has a tremendous tourism potential due to its unending sea shore. They are also inexpensive for those from the West and the Pacific as the Dollar conversion works very well – from coffee to cigarettes, from luxury stay to gourmet food. India has taken a giant leap in 2010 by announcing this major initiative, kudos! The move is expected to help the country’s economy to a large extent and how.

One of my presumptions after the Congress Party won the Parliamentary Elections in Summer of 2009 was the main focus areas – Tourism and Infrastructure. And this is exactly what we are seeing. While Infrastructure Development is the mantra all around, the Tourism impetus has been doubled, the least to say. Wish the same focus remains on developing Domestic Tourism as well. The website of Incredible India is not just attractive, but quite informative, exhaustive and engaging as well. And is the entry point not just to India, bit for all those who are looking for information about Indian Tourism.

And with growing Tourism, Retail is sure to benefit in a big way. Global tourist destinations have tourists visit their Malls and Shopping Centers as much as the city residents.

In fact, certain products are always considered to be cheaper in foreign countries – possibly because they are either manufactured there or the country allows cheaper or nil import duties. For example, coir and jute products are famous in Thailand just as Dry Fruits are in Dubai. International Fashion Brands are always the pick of the place at Singapore and Hong Kong. Except for Mangoes and Tender Coconuts during summer and woolen clothes from Punjab and Cotton produce from Tiruppur or Surat, there is little that we have to offer that tourists can grab. But there is enough and more of tourism potential to offer across the country, throughout the year. From Deserts to Sea Shores, from Mountains to Fashion Capitals, India has everything to offer. And while people travel, they are bound to consume. It’s just a matter of time, that we see an uptick in Retail Sales due to foreign travelers. But it’s sure bound to happen, sooner than later

Till then, let’s keep chanting “Athithi Devo Bhava” – Welcome to India…

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...