08 November, 2023

We are already working 70+ hrs, Mr. Murthy

The world is split into two for the last week or so, ever since India’s self-made billionaire and tech mogul Mr. Narayana Murthy (NRN) said India and Indians should work long hours. It was a tete-a-tete with his former Co-Founder Mr. Mohandas Pai where he drew a parallel and to various developing economies of the previous century. 

Mr. Murthy corroborated and said that our countrymen and women should take it up as national pride and commitment to work 70 hours a week and drive the economy further, just how Germany and Japan did after the World War 2. 

A lot has been said (and remains unsaid) by top leaders, chiefs of conglomerates, politicians, State Heads, and so on, responding to NRN’s views. 

The father-in law of the current British Prime Minister Mr. Rishi Sunak, has been known to be a workaholic for well over 50 years. I travelled with him in the same flight in 2005 from Bangalore’s HAL Airport to New Delhi. He sat in the first row of the Economy class of the now defunct Jet Airways without much fuss. 

When I requested him for an autograph on a book that I bought specifically at the airport for this purpose, he politely declined, though he spent a few minutes chatting with me enquiring my whereabouts. 

Exactly a year later in 2007, another Co-Founder of Infosys, Mr. Kris Gopalakrishnan and I travelled in the first class of Singapore Airlines from Bangalore to Singapore, where I was a speaker on India’s aviation future at a much revered global conference. We hardly spoke with each other as it was a midnight flight, but it was a warm eye-connect between the two of us.

No comparisons between the two, but to each his own. Infosys has been built brick by brick, click by click rather, by millions of former and present employees of the company, which was one of the front-runners of the late 90s and all through the 2000s in shaping India as the “back office of the world’s IT needs”. 

If NRN has worked for 70 hours or more a week during his prime years, so have many of his employees. And many, across IT and ITES in India continue to do so till date. 

In fact, after the Govt. imposed and later on, self-imposed WFH regimen by scores of Indians since the first ever Covid-19 led lockdown from Mar. ‘20 onwards, employees have been working for over 70 hours a week, if we were to include intermittent times spent on calls, chats and email over dinner table, on weekends and during vacations.

Earlier this year in May, I proudly completed 26 years in retail. I started my career scooping ice-cream part time from 11am to 3pm at Chennai’s first and India’s second Baskin Robbins parlour way back in 1997. I would attend NIIT to learn computer languages from 7am for 2 hours and completed my graduation at RKM Vivekananda College in the evening from 4pm till 8pm. 


After I finished my MBA in Marketing, I joined RPG Retail where I worked in consumer facing retail formats in Store Operations roles at Musicworld and Foodworld at Kolkata & Chennai respectively. This was followed by tenures at The Future Group and Café Coffee Day – gaining significant experience in front-end retail as well as Strategic Management. 

All along, it was a 6-day workweek for most of us, especially serving consumer aspirations, as scores of Indians came out to spend their earnings in new, shiny retail formats. 

Last week, Bengaluru’s northern suburb, Hebbal witnessed the opening of one of Asia’s largest shopping centres, aptly titled “Mall of Asia”. As much as there was celebration inside the mall, there was a severe traffic jam outside and on both sides of the National Highway (cum Airport Road) leading to the mall. 

People complained on social media with photos and videos about the massive traffic jams (while they were indeed the traffic!), which was picked up and reported extensively by mainstream media. What no one shared was the lives and strains of retail employees inside this mall and many hundreds across India, over ten million at last count in organised retail, who are working towards uplifting their own lives, their families and the Indian Economy.

Many of us, millions of us rather, Mr. Murthy are already spending over 70hrs a week at work. This includes those employed in the pharma and para-medical industry, hospital staff, semi-professional services, those working for formal transportation businesses and so on. 

Of course, our beloved staff of Swiggy, Zomato, Zepto, Dunzo, Flipkart and Amazon (in who’s Indian entity, NRN’s Catamaran Ventures was a majority shareholder until last year) who deliver us stuff from 6am till 10pm. 

The traffic jams in India are unique and mostly self-made, where urbanites spend over 90 mins a day driving from/to work. This is also a part of the 70-hr work week. In a city like Bangalore, where the condos and apartments are mostly owned by IT & ITES professionals, the EMIs to banks flow through people who work over 70 hours a week, who ironically end up living in compromised, rental houses for well over half their lives!

The pressures of being employed are, at times, worse than the nightmares of several self-made Entrepreneurs who dread interest and debt repayments. EMIs for salaried people, on the other hand is a domiciles sword which hangs above one’s head all the time, all through their lives.

What we don’t expect or even ask for often, especially in retail Mr. Murthy, is an appreciation of our work. At least, do give us an acknowledgement that we are overworked as a tribe. And that’s enough. About our contribution to nation-building, lesser said the better, Sir.

26 October, 2023

The joys of festival shopping

Come festivals and its shopping time. Families flock together to shop, dine and celebrate the festive times with their extended social circles. While the big ticket shopping such as electric appliances, consumer durables, clothing, fashion, jewellery, automobiles and upholstery for are common, what is intriguing is the endless small-ticket shopping that happens on-and-off during these periods.

Navarathri / Dushera / Dassera / Pujo was celebrated for the past fortnight as I pen this article.

The flavour and fervour of these celebrations is distinct in various parts of the country. In one region, it is Goddess Durga who is worshipped primarily while in some others, it is the trio of Goddesses Durga – Lakshmi – Saraswathi who are celebrated for nine days, three each. And in another part of the country, Lord Rama’s arrival to Ayodhya from Lanka after the destruction of King Ravana is celebrated. 

In a different planet altogether, scores of Indians are using the festive holidays as a noble excuse to travel to their hometowns or to vacation locations such as hill stations, spending time with their own selves, their families and friends and by boosting the local economy. 

In Tamil Nadu, especially in the city of my Madras (now known as Chennai), the festivities are largely around two areas – festivities and special pujas at temples and the revered Navarathri Kolu – the doll exhibition display at homes. The origin of this cultural aspect of displaying dolls at homes is not exactly clear from our past texts but has been a practice for long. 

What we understand from elders and those from previous generations, is that during this period, scores of dolls made of clay and painted with colourful vignettes were displayed at temples of yore, so devotees can see how the idols and forms of Gods and Goddesses are at various shrines in the Bharatha desa (desam / desh for those who prefer that way!). 

This was because mobility of people across the country was quite limited over 100-200 years ago and one would just have to imagine how idols were imagined, based on texts and hear say. 

What began as a display at temples slowly penetrated to homes, with similar displays coming up at houses. Families and households would alternate and exchange the idol displays at their homes each year and the entire celebration would be around the nine-day festival. 

Visitors would go hopping from one home to another to see the dolls’ display, sing songs on the deities, chant religious texts, exchange gifts and have a hearty laughter with their kith and kin.

The local economy, meanwhile thrived. It was the smallest of the sellers, vendors and retailers who would serve the society with their requirements and hence made handsome money during this time. Food items, especially the nine pulses are served by host families to guests.

From the neighbourhood grocer to the unorganised sellers of flowers, fruits and other household items are the biggest beneficiaries, come Navarathri, especiallin in Tamil Nadu. 

The past fortnight for us has been among the most fulfilling over the last so many years when we celebrated the 9-day festival. We had over 50 guests come home and we visited several households too. Almost every guest brought us something and we reciprocated the same during our visits too. 

For those who couldn't visit us this Navarathri, here is the link of our home Kolu. 

I was so happy spending money with local and roadside vendors buying so many things and my better half went shopping for new idols this year too, just like any other year.

Festivals are all about giving, as much about receiving good wishes from friends and family and blessings from elders and the Gods. 

However, it is also about spending money – especially in the context of Retail – to boost the local economy. We did our best and ensured the “online shopping” from Apps with discounts were as minimal as possible – an anathema that the entire offline retail industry is struggling for the past so many months, especially.  

27 September, 2023

Reminiscing the past

It’s been over 5 months since I wrote anything on this blog, especially. Not that I didn’t have anything to observe, even better to share my experiences in retail as I learn a thing or two new every passing day. Frankly, the last 4 months have been overwhelming to say the least.  In my new role as Executive Vice President that I am helming at the Daily Thanthi Group - the world’s oldest and in-continuous production Tamil language publication for over 80 years, we are building an incredible digital product that has the potential to touch millions of lives, especially the small and marginalised retailers. 

More on that, later.

Yesterday, 26 September was the 9th Founding Day of my first entrepreneurial (mis)adventure Smiling Baby. Conceived as a one-stop baby-shop focussing on young parents and their little ones, we opened the first store on this day in 2014. Located right opposite to the city’s famed Malar Hospital at Adyar, the concept had the potential to spread its wings across the 33+ districts (back then) of Tamil Nadu. What remains today, is several crores of money invested without returns, memories, good and bad and a lot of life lessons.

I didn’t fathom the courage to write this piece yesterday. One, It was a long and busy day at work. And these thoughts do not come when I am positively preoccupied with things I enjoy doing. Second, I didn’t want to strain my emotions further on such a day.

I was an accidental Entrepreneur. My father was a Foreman at ITC Ltd., a class-8 pass-out turned factory worker for 33 years. My mother was a school teacher and ensured she superannuated, even though my elder sister and I were already working. My parents taught me to stand on my own legs, never to borrow money and live within our own means. 

I never had a childhood / youth-hood aspiration to become an Entrepreneur ever. It was always a safe sail that was preferred, from my spouse to parents and my closely knit circle of friends. In fact, none of them pursue their own businesses. So, it was always a salaried job, slog till one can, save as much for a rainy day and die peacefully. I lived that life for 35 years.

In 2014, I was pushed to entrepreneurship – by none other than myself. Not that there was a void of job opportunities for me; in fact that was one of the best periods for me professionally. However, shopping every other weekend for my second child, I felt that there was an insatiable opportunity in the baby care, kids care and maternity space. Just like most other Entrepreneurs in India who started off with their wife’s hard earned savings, I too did the same. We invested almost One Crore rupees in the venture, to set-up a world class baby products store, backed with technology powered by GoFrugal technologies (now owned by Zoho) and a solid business plan that we went about sharing with potential investors. 

A very few close well wishers whom we approached, advised me not to pursue this venture, instead of encouraging me with their financial investments. They were worried about their risk-taking abilities on a retail concept which was 98% semi-organised in India back then. None of our friends were in a position to invest, as they were struggling to pay their own EMIs and maintain a certain lifestyle. Well noted.

We managed to pivot an omni-channel model with a 3-hour delivery, a franchise model, just-in-time inventory supply chain system (that actually worked well) and expanded up to 5 stores across three cities in Tamil Nadu. Our concept of setting-up a small unit at a leading maternity hospital in Coimbatore turned out to be a game-changer. Even though potential investors refused to wake up and smell the coffee, my suppliers kept encouraging me, especially for the straightforward and clean business activities that we undertook. For the record, I ensured a 100% cash-and-carry model with zero credit. Childhood habits and upbringing, perhaps. However, from a cash flow perspective, I was locking up all my money against stocks without any leverage but future sales, though I was making 2-3% extra margins.

After pitching to over 30+ leading pre-Series A investors across India, I decided to give up. Not on my dream of setting up India’s largest regional retail chain in the niche that is “baby care”, rather being fed-up of justifying why I had to quit my corporate career to pursue a business. 

Some where outright honest – they said my aspirations were not big enough since I was not expecting or working towards a huge valuation outcome and a handsome exit for myself over a 5-7 period. A lot of them said I should remain unprofitable for many years by focussing on topline (sales) and pay salaries and marketing through funds raised. A few said that I should borrow big, both equity as well as debt from Investors. 

I didn’t want to skip my dinner and a 7-hour sleep everyday like many other entrepreneurs who had done this “mistake” before, so I decided to let it go. After losing several crores of hard earned money, a fledgling career that could have turned out to be an even more prosperous work-life and several sleepless nights on my inability of staying afloat, I called it quits in August 2019. I still believe it was one of the best decisions of my life. “Stop losing more money” was not just my mind voice but a writing on the wall. Loud and clear. I quit.

As I went to sleep last night, all I could remember was the learnings, the hardships, the insults, the helplessness of staying in the business to keep my aspirations live and most importantly, the time I lost trying to build an incredible business model in a niche, that continues to remain even more narrowed till date. There is not a single, regional, offline retail chain in India which has a standardised baby products offering. 

Will I start ever again from the ashes – perhaps a BIG no. While I continue to remain a risk-taker in other streams of life, raising money and selling lies to investors is not something I am capable of. Interestingly, and I have seen a hundred such instances in the last 9 years, that is exactly what Investors want – a sugar coated approach where they pass on their risks!

Scars remain, memories scare sometimes, but Life moves on. And so is the case with me. 

29 April, 2023

Brand Tags and why they matter

When I wore a new T-shirt during a weekend holiday earlier this month, my teenage daughter pondered why I chose this one with a loud-brand name on it, as usually I go mellow on displaying brand love. Even my walking shoes would hardly display the swoosh or the cat or the three stripes. It has been years since I bought formal shirts which bore the “iconic crown” on the cuffs. But even those would be gelled in to the fabric colour. 

So much for a person like me who is brand-conscious but not displaying it in public.

On the contrary, many brands, especially fashion apparel make sure their company / brand names are loudly displayed on their products. Even on PCs, HP, Dell, Lenovo and Acer – the top 4 companies with a collective market share of 95% in the personal computing space display their names while Apple shows just the logo.

From Bata shoes to Adidas, Levis T-shirts to Hidesign wallets, one can see the brand names liberally displayed on the products. Though it is easy to identify, premium bikes such as Royal Enfield or Harley Davidson by its looks, have still large, loud brand forms. When the car ignition is turned on, there is a dramatic appearance (with music) of the brand logos, from Honda to Volkswagen and everyone in between. 

While people buy products for their functionality, consumers “pay the price” for brands.

It is psychological, after all. Essentially, display of brands one uses is one way of display of wealth too. Most people in the world, who earn several lakhs per year (in India) and perhaps over USD 100,000 pa globally are not putting in their efforts for just 3 square meals a day. It is much beyond. 

From the locality and the apartment complex one resides in (especially in India) to the vehicle they drive; filling premium fuel at Shell vs value fuel from HPCL; the brand of eyeliner to the grooming essentials one uses; from the school the kids attend to brands they consume at home from the dining table to the rest rooms, there is an intrinsic tie with the psychological needs, based on the theory of hierarchy proposed by Maslow. 

As people start moving up the value chain, their desire to consume “brands’ over products increases. I have seen this first hand at hypermarkets such as the erstwhile Big Bazaar. While there would be heaps of dal, sugar and rice piled up in large steel utensils, it would be common for women to interact with the staff to enquire the prices and make mental calculations comparing with the local shopkeeper. 

And then, there would be a small set of customers, who would prefer packaged sugar, salt and grocery. There is, in fact premiumization even in these categories such as pink salt, low-iodine sugar and so on.

A friend once told me, whether you travel in an Audi or a (Maruti) Alto, the destination is the same, and that both vehicles have just 4 wheels, a steering wheel and an engine. So, why pay a premium? True.

Between a Jockey and a Lux inner wear or Sudarmani how does it matter what one wears, as this is not even to be seen by anyone! Quite true, minus the quality of the fabric, inner comfort, etc. 

Well, these are the “outlier customers” for brands who do not wish to pay a premium for utility. 

However, as is always said, it takes years to build a brand name while basic products (and services) are offered for their purpose of gratifying a simple need. 2-3 decades back, Indian customers were buying goods and services. In the past 15 years, we have seen branded showrooms for various products mushrooming all over the country. A simple business such as grooming – hair saloon / beuaty parlour – as it was called, is now one of the largest branded business with over 2,500 “salons” across the country. 

There are an estimated 300 malls in India which have the best-in class Indian and international brands. The top 50 apparel, accessories and jewellery brands have in excess of 10,000 exclusive stores, each around 800 sq ft. across the country. Branded coffee shops, from CCD to Starbucks and the much acclaimed neighbourhood favourites, are over 4,000 in India now.

Consumers today are chasing brands and not just the other way around. 

Two new Apple stores were inaugurated in April 2023 at Mumbai and Delhi. Seeing the crowds waiting to be among the early birds for store inauguration in the past for Ikea, Starbucks, H&M, Uniqlo among others, I can confidently say these two stores would have done tremendous business this month. 

While many companies continue to offer higher importance for the “brand” in the communication – on the product, inside the retail store and other communication material, many small as well as large companies ignore it. Unless there is a deeper focus on brand building, with a long term outlook, existing and new consumer stickiness is going to be minimal or worse, nil. 

Indian consumers will buy more branded products in the next few decades. Loud display of affection, from dresses to kitchen knives to drinking glasses to shoes, it is a kind of self-gratification after all.

01 April, 2023

Goodbye Retail | Adios, amigos…

After spending the last 26 years in retail, I have decided to hang up my boots for good. I have been preparing for this day for the past few months, as I set my feet in a new direction, adjusting the sails and the compass towards another exciting destination.

As much as the destination is important, I have always believed that the journey is as important. So, I will continue to enjoy every moment in whatever I would be doing.

My most recent stint with Indian Terrain Fashions went awry for reasons beyond my control. Not only did it leave a sour taste for me professionally but also things took an unfortunate turn, sadly. This, despite me putting in my best efforts for the 8 months that I was actively involved in the company, having visited over 96 stores across India (of the 210) and making a huge difference in several aspects of the business including sales, marketing, merchandising, etc. 

Nevertheless, life moves on.

My career in retail began in 1997, when I joined Baskin Robbins in Chennai as a part-time employee, working 11am – 3pm scooping ice-cream. I would attend NIIT to learn computer languages from 7am – 9am and study B. Com at Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda College from 4pm – 8pm. Between consumers, computers and commerce, I decided to choose “consumers” and pursued MBA. Armed with a campus placement with the RPG Group, I worked with formats like Foodworld and Musicworld, where I learned the basics of retail management. Two extreme concepts, yet the fundamentals were laid well. 

I moved to Bangalore with just four bags, three with clothes and one with music cassettes to join India’s first seamless mall, Central in 2004. I landed at the most prized possession of my professional work in 2006, to join India’s first private, greenfield airport at Bangalore. Over the next 4 years, I would travel across the top 10 airports worldwide, learn about Travel Retail and speak at global conferences about the opportunity that is Indian aviation (circa 2008).I was responsible for conceptualising, designing and setting up India’s first ever Travel Retail areas at Bangalore International Airport. The Indian Travel Retail industry, including domestic retail, F&B and duty free is now estimated to be around Rs. 4,000 cr in annual revenues. 

Then came the next illustrious phase of my life – setting up 140 cafes all India for Café Coffee Day; within department stores, book stores, colleges and university campuses; hospitals and medical centres; inside the MA Chidambaram cricket stadium and Eden Garden as partner with Chennai Super Kings and Kolkata Knight Riders, respectively. People still say they have saved my number as “CCD Shriram”. Such a humbling feeling to hear that.

In 2012, I came back to my hometown which was now Chennai; joined Royal Enfield during its growth phase and set-up 160 dealerships all India. I also worked closely with the leadership team on the new retail identity of dealerships, morphing them from looking like an automobile store to a lifestyle concept. Bowed out of professional life in 2014 to experiment entrepreneurship – the accidental entrepreneur! Ran a flourishing Management Consulting business as well, working closely with Founders and businesspersons of eminence.

Worked on creating a chain of baby care retail stores; set-up perhaps one of India’s earliest quick commerce concept – Oyethere, delivering grocery and household items within 30-300 mins of ordering. Baba Ramdev was our unofficial brand ambassador. We rode on the popularity of Patanjali back then, whose products were elusive to find. Expert Investors laughed at my idea and said why would anyone pay Rs. 30 for home delivery. I gave up after 117 pitches probably, accepting the fact that the timing was not the best one. 

When I joined Levista coffee in 2020, little would I know that Covid-19 led pandemic would strike India and rest of the world. Despite Covid, or due to it, my team and I doubled Levista’s business in 350 days from 16 Apr. ’20 to 31 Mar. 21. India faced a nation-wide lockdown for the first fortnight that April. 

Partnered with Chennai Super Kings as the Official Coffee Partner for 2020 - the first ever coffee brand for CSK as well as with any other team in the illustrious history of Indian Premier League Cricket tournament. Also, signed up with Star Vijay’s Bigg Boss franchise feat. Actor Kamal Hassan only to see the brand stand tall and proud next to the actor on Tv, every weekend. Was a life worth having survived the pandemic, in many ways so I could accomplish all this. 

My life store as a book - “My Retail Journey - Part 1” will be released in 2023. Fingers crossed.

Now, that you have finished reading my mini life-bio above, sorry that the news of me quitting retail was a prank for April Fools Day. I am what I am because of Retail. I have nowhere else to go other than this industry which has nurtured me for more than half my life.

Thank you my retail fraternity, friends and former colleagues for all the support give to me all along. With four national level awards from the Retail and F&B Industry, 17 years as Visiting Faculty at preeminent B-Schools on Retail, as author of over 1,000+ articles, I still have a few years ahead of me and I remain obligated to many of you to make me who I am today.

Have a great day ahead.

24 March, 2023

Three years after the first Lockdown!

On this day, 24th March 2020, India experienced its first ever full lockdown for 21 days. The entire country came to a halt; abrupt standstill of commercial and economic activities. The State & Central Governments imposed an extremely strict gag order that citizens were not allowed to even step out of home, save for buying medicines along with a proof of the most recent prescription from a certified Doctor. Each one of us in the country had a different story to narrate – some faced extreme medical challenges while many had other stories, such as loss of livelihood and uncertainty of the next meal, especially for the poor, the marginalised and physically challenged at that.

All forms of transportation came to a halt; flights, trains, buses and local transportation such as taxis and auto rickshaws. The retail segment was among the most impacted. It was a double whammy of sorts – those who worked in all other industries eventually spent their monies on Food, Clothing & Shelter. On the one side, shutting down the shops meant loss of business for the day; on the other hand, those who would spend at retail stores were themselves staring at a bleak present and immediate future, for many employers were not sure / clear how to pay for unproductive employees when there was no business at all. 

From the smallest kirana to large retail companies, it was VUCA in full flow – Vulnerability, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. None of us knew what would happen next. 

Slowly but surely, things started opening up from June onwards only to once again relapse shortly thereafter. This roller-coaster ride continued until May 2021, when a partial and a complete lockdown was brought back in several states. The festive season in 2020 and 2021 were muted, for, the majority of the retail sector and thousands of retailers were staring at several crores of rupees worth of stocks; unable to liquidate them to pay suppliers, in effect unable to buy new and more relevant stocks as required. Hard times, those were.

By October 2021, there was some semblance of orderliness that was back. People started to step out of their homes risking the dreaded spread of the infection. By then, most of the countrymen and women had taken atleast 1 dose of the vaccine and were now armed with the strength to face any eventualities. Whether the vaccine worked to its full or not – many had tested positive despite taking the shot – people had gained the strength to fight it. 

Three years later, as I write this note, I carry immense gratitude to the Almighty, my family, friends, former employers and colleagues, all of whom stood shoulder to shoulder with each other and overcame several obstacles. Though I too, like millions faced setbacks in the workplace, I am glad that it was this bleak period during which I could shine professionally with a few big ticket accolades to my credit. Signing up with Chennai Super Kings as beverage partner for Levista Coffee will be one of my most cherished moments along with placing the brand alongside Kamal Hassan in Big Boss Tamil. Working closely with Ad-film Directors, I co-scripted and oversaw a dozen films for Levista & Specsmakers during this time.

Joining Indian Terrain was a calculated move, but went awry due to various reasons. Some wrong calculations, despite various measures taken before and during my stint; so be it. Life moves on and keeps teaching us every other day! When we succeed, we learn; but when we fail, we learn a lot more. Wisdom is not repeating mistakes and I hope to gain from some of the key learnings I have taken during this three year period. 

Over the past 15 months, the Indian economy has shown much resilience. Retail Industry is back to its charm pre-pandemic, though there are a number of challenges ahead of us; inflation is pinching the middle class; over all cost of household has drastically increased, including fuel, power, road tolls, etc.; loan books by banks are seeing a huge surge, a sign of good times but fraught with higher risks as well. Nevertheless, I believe Indians are more hopeful now than ever before. And that matters.

PS: By the way, I am glad, that this happens to be my 300th blog article. No, it wasn't planned at all... 

20 February, 2023

The hype around Air India’s big buy

Much is being spoken, written and debated about the recent purchase of 470 aircrafts by Air India from Airbus and Boeing. So much so, that the US President made an official statement that this could create a million jobs for his countrymen. Many politicians thanked the Indian Prime Minister while so many questioned his role in this private affair between a buyer and a seller – why and how would the Governments on both sides have any role. Leaving all the controversies (if one exists!) aside, let us see the opportunity that we are sitting on. 

In the past 8 years or so, the present Government has reactivated over 70 airports. These are not new ones really, for they already existed. Barely. These were airstrips with an ATC Tower at best built before WW 2 by the British. The Union Government through its ambitious project to make the common man fly – Ude Desh ka Aam Nagarik (UDAN) was activated and many unused airports were operationalised. It is another thing altogether that our railway networks are choked and a small section of travellers do not mind paying a premium for air travel.

A view of the Udaipur Airport developed under UDAN

Altogether, the number of air passengers have grown from 37 mn pa in 2010 to 167 mn in 2019 (sans 4 days of the first lockdown!). The number halved for FY 2021, grew to 123 mn in 2022 and would be around 130 mn in the current FY. By 2027, we expect over 200 mn passengers to hit the sky in a year. To give it a perspective, over 2.2 mn (2 Crores) people took train journeys daily in 2019 of which an estimated 8% of them travel in airconditioned classes.

What excites me, as a (Travel) Retail Professional are the possibilities for retail at airports. To accommodate these new 470 aircrafts plus another equal number from all other incumbent airlines at the moment in India, we are expecting a blast in the skies. Don’t worry, it wouldn’t be so choked like our railway networks where one express train has to stop at times to let the other one travel. But the congestion at airports (runways) would be inevitable. 

IGI Airport, New Delhi

The new Terminal 3 built at New Delhi Airport a decade back is already choking during peak hours. Mumbai is building another new airport and the same is the case at Noida. Bangalore has commenced a new parallel runway last year and a brand new terminal T2 which will be fully activated by Q3 FY 2024. Goa has a brand new airport in the north while there is no confirmation of shutting down the existing one in the south of Panjim. 

Keeping aside the top 20 airports – 2 super metros, 4 metros and the top 16 cities in India – there would be 175+ operational Airports across the country by 2025. The bare minimum would be a daily passenger count of 1,000 pax/day while the maximum would be 30,000. The top 6 airports, by then would be handline 30,000 – 60,000 passengers per day! 

At the moment, the spend per passenger in Indian airports is abysmally low. Singapore’s Changi Airport recently announced their CY 2022 revenues from Travel Retail – USD 870 mn. That would be 38% of 2019 revenues, which means in 2019, it would have been USD 2.2 Bn pa. Dubai’s retail and F&B revenues pre-pandemic were a little over USD 2 Bn pa; Hong Kong, Paris CDG, Frankfurt and Zurich Airport, each had Travel Retail Revenues between USD 600 mn to USD 1 Bn pa. All this crashed due to Covid-19 but is slowly bouncing back.

New Integrated Terminal Building coming up at Chennai Airport

In India, Travel Retail has been a non-starter except at the top airports, especially those which were privatised. AAI continues to operate quite differently, in a manner that is neither exciting nor enticing for retailers to embrace the opportunity. However, change is inevitable and we see a huge improvement coming our way. By 2025, over 5 lakh people would be travelling through our Airports every day. Imagine the  potential retail opportunity that we are eyeing. And these are reasonably affluent passengers with disposable incomes. From a humble cup of tea or coffee to a beer / gourmet meal, F&B seems to be a larger pie than product retail at airports. I had written the reason for this in my previous post

Nevertheless, Air India’s purchase of 470 aircrafts is a boon for Indian Travel Retail. Happy to be back here in my new avatar in Travel Retail supporting the Trinity - Airports, Retail / F&B companies and the Consumers.

29 January, 2023

The Popcorn Conundrum

Just realised that I have seen 3 movies over the last 3 weeks at theatres. Two were in top class cinema halls in a Tier 2 town and another was a Tier 2 theatre in Chennai. Meanwhile, I have also seen twice as many movies on OTT platforms during the same period. The reason to watch movies at theatres, for most of us Indians, is that it is a cherished family outing as well as to see our favourite matinee idols on the big screen on the opening week / weekend. 

As the movies that I watched were all of top heroes, the theatres had a full audience. Except that during the interval break, not even a third of them came to the F&B area to buy anything. 

The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India passed an judgement on 3 Jan. ’23 that Multiplexes & Cinema Theatre Owners had the right to not allow outside food (and beverages) inside the screening areas and that the cinema goers had a choice whether to go or not, and cannot therefore demand to take their own food inside the theatres like how it was 2 decades back. From biryanis to biscuits, fruits to homemade snacks like channa dal & groundnuts, ardent cinema goers carried their own food inside the theatres. Once the show was over, it was a nightmare for the theatre owner to get the auditorium cleaned up before the next show began. 

Enter mid-2000s – the onset of posh Multiplexes across India led by PVR Cinemas and INOX as well as modernisation of screens by standalone theatre owners across India. Around the year 2,000, there were 18,000 screens in India when the country produced over 1,000+ movies pa across 15 languages including foreign-language dubbed movies. By 2019, there were a mere 11,000 screens in India, of which the Multiplex chains had a share of over 2,500. 

Cut to Dec. 2022, there are a mere 8,500 screens of which almost 3,000 are in Multiplexes. 

In 2019, India produced 2,000 movies, running an annual business of over Rs. 30,000 Cr. Hindi  language films accounted for almost 45% while Tamil and Telugu languages made about 300 movies each annually. Post-pandemic, film watching trends have changed tremendously across the world and India is no different. Acc to Q3 FY 22-23 Financials of PVR Cinemas, the occupancy rate has diminished to 29% compared to 36% in the same period in 2019. Tickets prices  have gone up 18% - perhaps keeping inflation in mind. But that’s not the real reason why admissions dropped by a whopping 20% during the said Quarter. 

The reason is the price of Popcorn at theatres! Yes.

For most Indians, watching a movie is a family outing. People plan in advance, get dressed to look their best and travel with glee to watch a movie. Assuming the avg. ticket price pan-India (except Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore) is around Rs. 200 for a decent theatre, the cost per family of 4 is Rs. 800. Add parking charges for 2W/4W and a meal before or after. That would work out to Rs. 1,500- Rs. 2,000 already. Now, if the popcorn at the theatre is going to cost Rs. 100/- per person (usually these are family packs & combos of Rs. 250 and above!), add a beverage or 2 and some more snacks, the food bill is already as much as the movie ticket cost if not more. Most Indians, who were avoiding this madness before the pandemic have completely moved off watching movies in the big screens since 2022 onwards. The numbers speak. 

So why do theatres charge so much for Popcorn and food? Coz, they can never make money & be profitable with such ticket prices, especially if the occupancy rates are so low! 

Ok, Shah Rukh’s Pathaan (2023) has already crossed Rs. 200 Cr in BO collections (in 5 days)  worldwide as I write this; So have 1 or 2 movies each across regional languages, but these are exceptions. Most films of 2022 bombed at the BO. The ones that made headlines were non-Hindi language movies and were (dubbed) releases. 

A theatre needs sustained footfall through the year. 30-40% occupancy during the weekdays and 70% or above over weekends is a theatre owner’s delight. It used to happen until 2015-16. Until Popcorn prices went up! 

Fizzy Coke and Pepsi (with 90% gas & water) and 10% essence have also gone rogue with their sizing & pricing. No one in India wants to drink so much of sugary liquids anyway and in such short duration. To get back audiences to the plexes, we need decent content (of movies). And cheaper F&B, perhaps. One way is to subsidise the food offering; another way is to use them as a bait to get more audience. Afterall, subsidising is a national mantra in India. Sigh. 

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