Showing posts with label Bangalore. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bangalore. Show all posts

04 June, 2021

20 years in Retailing

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

08 February, 2021

Mall revival - Real or Imaginary?


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



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



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



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



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



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


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


30 August, 2020

The Future of Retail

The writing was on the wall for a long time. Many old timers like me and thousands of retail enthusiasts in India and worldwide were eagerly waiting for the announcement. That the Reliance Group was a strong contender to buy out The Future Group lock, stock and barrel was a known fact. And that Amazon and Walmart were discussing the final nuances was also a known thing. And then, it happened finally. It Happened In India – on 29th August 2020, Reliance Retail and The Future Group formally announced in the media that the former had bought out the wholesale, retail and warehousing business of the latter in full. A red letter day for self made Entrepreneurs, groaned many on social media and in passive interactions. The man recovered his 30 year’s investment of time, quipped many others. A few former employees were seen sulking in public and private, some even wept at this outcome. At the end of the day, it’s a business that has changed hands, owners and course. Life moves on, so why fret, said many others. 


Kishore Biyani and his cousins started the traditional business of selling dress materials for men in Calcutta in the 80s. As a family driven business from the “Maheshwari” community of Marwaris, the family spread their work load. Each one of them had an important role to play – from sourcing to selling, accounting to managing working capital. They named the company “Pantaloon” as they were selling Pant lengths for making patloon, the Indian namesake for western clothing. When the family gathered pace with their wholesale business, was born an idea of retail models such that customers could grace the shop and buy. They opened their fancy big outlet at Gariahat, Calcutta in the late 90s. The shop was a runaway hit and also boasted “Green Card” – a loyalty platform. Yes, 1990s. With the stupendous success of the fashion format, the company decided to cater to the other essentials for the family – Roti, Kapda aur Makaan. Thus was born Big Bazaar on VIP Road, Kolkata in 2001. All along the Biyanis were shuttling between the city of joy and the city of dreams. With dreams unlimited. 


I joined the group in 2004 when the company ventured with Mall Retailing – Bangalore Central which opened it’s doors in May 2004 And has over 45 Malls to its credit till date all India. The company opened some format of retailing in every residential locality of India’s top 100 cities – from Gauhati to Madurai, Baroda to Bilaspur. At some point, the company was selling everything from a humble Rs. 10 samosa to the entire wardrobe for the house with accessories, furnishings, paraphernalia and everything in between. After the big slowdown of 2008, Kishore Ji in his inimitable style conceded at the 2009 India Retail Forum at Mumbai that the company wanted to be “everything to everyone” and failed miserably at it. As a person who only gathers learning and lessons from failures, he simply moved on to build a coveted “Pantaloon Fashion” business which he sold at a handsome profit to the Birlas. Once again, he painstakingly built other fashion retail brands including Cover Story and fBB alongside the equivalent of India’s very own Walmart – Big Bazaar. 


For every 10 customers who frowned at the business model of BB, 100 others became loyal patrons everyday of the multi-category retailer infamous for crazy deals and price-offs. During these last 20 years, there were several internal and external forces that wanted a slice of the Golden Sparrow – a pneumonic which the group added to it’s logo when the company’s name was changed to The Future Group – Sone Ki Chidiya tagged along with. When Reliance Retail was contemplating to enter the retail business in 2008, they had obviously explored a buy out. However, the company built it’s own fort with all it’s might. Amazon and Walmart made several attempts all these years to get a pie in the business but couldn’t lay siege in a big way. In turn, Bharti-Walmart ended up selling their retail business “Easy Day Stores” to the group several years back even as Carrefour bowed out of India with a single store in East Delhi which never took off. The group and it’s Founder were building a mighty retail company with several formats, several business models including a foray in to packaged FMCG with the “Tasty Treat” Brand which was an outcome of the private label business of the company through its grocery retail business. 

It’s all about timing, as they say in business and bourses. 


The Corona Crisis was a great opportunity for the Promoters to exit the business especially when the richest man of Asia was willing to write a cheque. This was not a hostile bid. Yes, there has been mounting pressure from Investors, bankers and share holders due the company’s debt levels. But a bailout, if needed was only favorable for the Biyanis. As they didn’t just sell grocery, household, electronics and fashion alone. Kishore Biyani was a Dream Merchant. He made millions of Indians to dream. To dream Big. To dream big about building scale and grow their businesses. For thousands of naysayers of the group’s way of running the business, lakhs of small time business persons grew their small ventures inspired by the self-styled and non-conformist serial Entrepreneur who tried to sell everything a consumer can consume, literally and figuratively including insurance and EMI-led credit to shop more at his 1,000s of stores. Some even went public or raised private investments. He strongly believed in a consumption led economy and Kept repeating that the Great Indian Consumption Story is yet to take off in a big way.


As a Retail professional, my second stint was with the group where I saw firsthand decision making of a slew of deals; how to take risks with determination and a cushion to fall; gather self motivation and courage to keep moving, no matter what. If one thing doesn’t work one way, try it another away. And a 100 other ways. It would eventually work, after all. It had to. Had I not moved to Bangalore on that Sankranthi day of 2004, much to the chagrin of my parents with 4 bags and a bagful of dreams, my professional career, a Retail dominated one at that wouldn’t have occurred, probably. I am ever grateful to the Leadership Team at the erstwhile Pantaloon group who guided me as a young man with a mere 2.5 years’ experience and of course my many interactions with Mr. Rakesh Biyani with whom I worked closely while setting up the Concessionaire Business at Bangalore Central. 


I personally see this as yet another lesson for budding as well as well settled Entrepreneurs  - to believe in oneself and keep moving with earnest efforts. If you do well, you will succeed. If you don’t do as well as you could have, yet have built something incredible, then there will always be someone to support you, invest in your dreams or perhaps buy them out. 

The Great Indian Retail story is yet to be fully told. I am glad I am a part of it.
A Retailer by Profession and Choice. Since 1997. 

28 July, 2020

A lot happened to Coffee


I was taking an 8.30am flight that morning when News channels at the Chennai Airport flashed that Mr. VG Siddhartha had gone missing the previous night at Mangalore. He had asked his driver to stop the car and walked along the now infamous bridge along Nethravathi River near Ullala town only to never return. His dead body was found two days later along the coast and was cremated the same day at his native town, Chikmagalur. Those unfortunate three days, I happened to be in Bangalore on work. I was restless right from the moment I heard the news, the two days of suspense and finally watching the last rites on a TV App on my mobile even as my Cab was passing by Coffee Day Square on Vittal Mallya Road. I was breathless for a few hours even after reaching my hotel room that night. Sometimes, I still get nightmares.



Although I was never too close to “Chairman” as we called him, I had the rare opportunity to work closely with him between 2009 – 2011 when I was General Manager – Business Development at Café Coffee Day setting up 140 new cafés within the confines of retail precincts including Airports, Metros, Hypermarkets, Supermarkets, Apparel Department Stores, Cinemas, College and University Campuses and so on. We would meet twice a month or so to go through the potential sites that were on offer and he would share his wise views whether to proceed or not, given his global experience in the Coffee business. 




He always wanted to make Café Coffee Day one of the most loved homegrown Indian consumer brands. Legend has it that the farmer’s son was fascinated how Coffee was brewed, served and enjoyed at cafés in Europe, the US and the world over when he would travel on work in the 90’s across continents. Initially, CCD as it is known lovingly was stated off as an Internet Parlor on Bangalore’s Iconic Brigade Road. However, VGS as he was addressed affectionately decided to sell Coffee for a fee and offer the Internet for free even as he would sip his coffee slowly and see the future of coffee cafés all over India. 


The company started off expanding in Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad and quickly moved to Bombay and Delhi. There would be constant comparisons in the early part of the new Millennium between CCD and Barista, though CCD evolved & grew sooner than Barista and others, thanks to a very strong team that focused their strengths on F&B, Café Operations, Marketing and of course, a very well laid HR Foundation. That every cup of Coffee should be consistent was a goal that each one of us tried to achieve to the best of their abilities. 


Mr. Siddhartha gave a different “meaning” to Coffee in a predominantly tea drinking country. After all, during its hey days, CCD was serving over 2 lakh cups of Coffee through Cafés and Vending machines installed at Offices, Colleges, Canteens and so on. “Coffee?” became a buzzword in India. For friends to catch up, for asking a Date, for an informal job interview and so on. In fact, I would wonder if there is any Start-Up in India which has never had at least one of their many discussions at a CCD nearby. VGS made Coffee the unofficial beverage of Indians who are on the move – from Airports to Colleges, Malls to Multiplexes and beyond. Today, if Coffee is a popular drink across the span of the country and is a preferred ice breaker, the credit solely goes to Café Coffee Day and the visionary Late Shri. VG Siddhartha. In fact, in my current role at Levista Coffee, one of the audacious mission statements I have been crafting is how to replace the first beverage of the day, being Tea to Coffee across millions of Indian households. Among the erudite and the educated, this would be a relatively easier task because VGS & CCD have already built much familiarity to this fascinating hot beverage across the predominantly Tea consumers even within Tier 2/3/4 towns in India. 


Over the past 12 months, so many people have asked me why he committed suicide – such a successful Entrepreneur who build a fledgling empire, with one bean at a time. Almost. And my reply has always been the same. Neither I nor anyone else was standing next to him when he fell off the bridge. No one other than him would know what was running in his mind on that fateful evening of 29th July 2019 or the few days and weeks ahead of that. Was it political? Business? Debts? Societal Pressure? No one knows and will ever know. 


Law has taken its due course, so have scrutiny by the authorities. But this is all post-mortem. The world lost another soul to suicide. As we always say, one is driven to this malaise called suicide. It’s sometimes a meticulously planned one. Like my maternal uncle did in 2014. Like many of us are pushed to the decision in a whim. Most of us, including me don’t’ end up doing it for some reason or the other, With VGS, we just don’t know. However, a lot happened to Coffee since 1997. Coffee as a product, CCD as a brand and VGS as an Entrepreneur will always have a page in the Indian Consumer & Retail book. So much to learn from this episode. May his Atma attain the Lord’s Feet and I pray to my cherished Deity that his soul attain Mukti. Om Shanthi.

Here are my Obit , RemembranceHomage articles I wrote last year. 

31 July, 2019

My Retail Journey with the Coffee King

I have sang praises for the coffee consistency across India. I have shared so many anecdotes about my most favourite Indian Retail brand. I have done case studies on what went well and what didn’t for my previous company. And I have also occasionally complained about a few things I haven’t liked, much to the chagrin of my former and present colleagues. But I never thought I would have to write such an obituary for my former boss, retail czar, coffee king of India and the most unassuming Late Shri. VG Sidhartha.  


My first premium coffee was at Barista, KNK Road in Chennai in the late 90s. But I preferred CCD over Barista for two reasons – there were more youngsters at CCD; it was easy on the purse (I hadn’t graduated to a wallet those days!). When we finished our MBA and received Certificates at the Convocation event, we celebrated the day at CCD Ispahani Center, Chennai. A few years later, I took a Shatabdi to attend an interview at Bangalore for the role of an Area Manager at Café Coffee Day but I was rejected for the role since at the time, the hiring manager preferred someone who could also taste the food to ensure they were in fit form to serve customers, which I declined being a pure Vegetarian in my food habits. In 2006, I happened to meet Mr. Sidhartha for the first time. CCD was chosen as the preferred café for the upcoming Bangalore International Airport in a tightly fought Tender process. As Manager – Commercial Contracts, I was solely responsible for designing, conceptualising, leasing and managing the retail areas at India’s first private Airport and was delighted to meet the Chairman of Coffee Day Enterprises who came to sign the contracts. He was taller than me and a taller personality with his trademark smile. 

Over the course of years, I happened to be on the other side when I joined CCD as General Manager – Business Development (Key Accounts) in Nov. 2009. My team and I were responsible for identifying and later setting up over 140 cafes pan-India at Airports, Retail formats, Cinema Theatres, Colleges, Hospitals, Metro Rail Stations, Railway Stations and even IPL Stadia. In this period, I would get to meet him at least twice a month or more when my team and I would present the potential locations on a giant screen at the 10th floor Conference Room of Coffee Day Square at Vittal Mallya Road. He was a very affable man, loved by everyone. When I visited his hometown Chikmagalur where the group runs a finishing institute where the children of coffee farmers of the region study basic skills of hospitality and coffee making, I have seen first-hand the gratitude, love and praise these kids and their families have showered on him. Many of them stepped out of their district for the first time only to work at a CCD across India. He took care of his people very well. Many of these staff members went on to join other popular Retail chains over time. 



Chairman, as we would address him was a stickler to time. Most meetings would start and finish on time. I would be asked by my Director to come to the Tenth floor at a stipulated time to make my Presentation but I would arrive 10 minutes before for a very selfish reason. His floor would have HBR Magazines which were very pricey those days to buy and read. So, I would make the most of my time to come up and wait and in that pretext pick up reading a few interesting articles. Would never forget those days of my life where I travelled across India, three days a week, over 40 weeks a year for two years non-stop. Today, I am known in the Retail Industry with two backgrounds – Bangalore Airport and CCD despite having worked at 5 iconic Retail Companies over the past two decades.

I owe whatever little name, fame and success I have achieved to CCD which gave me a global pedestal to learn and make a good name for myself. About 3 years back, I wrote to him seeking a small round of funding for my start-up. As expected, he replied quite soon however in the negative stating that his fund invested in maturing ventures and not really in start-ups. During one of our meetings, he quipped “This is your second coffee in 1.5 hours” and I replied “Sir, I drink 6-7 cups of coffee a day” to which he replied, “Boss, don’t consume so much coffee, it’s not good for health”. Who would expect a coffee czar to say this? But he did. Because he really cared for people. Pray for his soul to attain Mukthi and reach the foot of the Lord who created this world. Om Shanthi.

Pic taken at CCD Dharamshala (2010)  - boys were from Chikmagalur

14 March, 2019

Rail Retail – The next big thing?

Among the few exciting assignments that I have worked all my life, one of the most interesting ones was setting up commercial opportunities at the first greenfield private airport in India at Bangalore in 2006. I was among the first few to join BIAL, the company which was helmed by Zurich Airport along with L&T and Siemens as Private Partners and the Union Government of India & Government of Karnataka providing the necessary statutory support. I was solely responsible for conceptualising, designing, leasing and later managing the Retail areas at the Airport which included Duty Free Retailing in the International Departures & Arrivals, Domestic Retail in all other areas, F&B outlets including Cafes, Restaurants, Pubs and ForEx outlets keeping in mind the convenience of passengers as well as increasing the non-Aero revenues for the airport company. What was then (in 2006) – Travel Retail, a national industry of Rs. 300 Crores pa is now over Rs. 3,000 Crores, thanks to upgraded Airport Terminals at Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Kochi over the past decade. 


I have been an avid traveller all my life and after flying two times a week, forty times a year for a decade in work, I took to rail travel over the past half-decade ever since I turned an Entrepreneur due my business interests largely being achievable by train and more so saving travel time (during night) as well lower cost of travel and transportation, save the cost of F&B at Airports. I just got in to yet another Shatabdi trip and I ain’t surprised I know by platform number already and a clear plan of what to munch when I arrive at Bangalore as well, at the Adigas outlet where the train would drop me. Similarly, the F&B outlets at various stations are familiar to regular passengers like me and those who plan their travel around food & snacks (your’s truly included) know how early to reach the station for the last grub or drink before boarding. 


Shatabdi has been a revolutionary product (sounds like a software product from Infosys or ICICI, hic!) from Indian Railways and with faster drive time as well as complimentary meal on board. What used to be an exciting array of food items before is now a simple breakfast and a simpler meal with a beverage or two in between. The not so great thing is that there is no possibility for passengers to purchase food items even if they wish to do so. Sounds familiar to the scenario a decade and half back when low cost carriers like Air Deccan started off leaving passengers stranded ob=n board with no possibility of even buying water or snacks. Last week, I was traveling in the much touted and recently inaugurated Tejas Express from Chennai to Madurai which was inaugurated by none other than the man of the moment, the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi.The train covers a distance of over 450 kms in 6.5 hours compared to other trains which take 90 mins more than this. With traffic on rails (yeah, more trains you see) having grown manifold over the years, it’s an awesome feat by Indian Railways that they have managed to cover this distance in the said duration. While the train has several exciting features such as an access controlled door, CCTv cameras and personalised entertainment, the F&B scenario is the same as a Shatabdi. 


The Railways could help themselves by offering “Travel Retail” on board akin to the Airlines which not only opens up an array of incremental income to the agency but also provide passengers a break from monotony in travelling seated all day (or evening). Way back in 2010 when I was responsible for setting up new cafes for Café Coffee Day, India’s largest coffee chain with over 1,600 outlets today, I charted a plan to set-up a mini-café on board Rajdhani and Shatabdi Trains. The proposal was to have a portion of the pantry car culled in to a café – a café on the move with outstanding visuals even as the train cruises at 90-110 kms between cities. The proposal was rejected by the then Head of IRCTC, the agency which was and is responsible for the commercialisation of the Railway network for reasons best known to him. Even as I was walking up to my train this morning, I saw this tuck shop selling Railway merchandise and once again I am intrigued by the immense possibilities and opportunities that beckon in Travel Retail at Railways. With the elections ahead, I don’t see any new initiatives until June 2019 but am hoping the new Ministry would take this up more seriously. For the love of travelling. 


17 February, 2019

Sleep Matters


It’s been an eternal debate if it makes sense to fly business class or first class while the seats in the Economy Class also take us to the same destination. The arguments in favour and against this topic have been featured in various magazines, articles and even International symposiums and Travel Seminars worldwide, some of which I have personally attended. 

I have had so many memorable trips within India and outside. The first stamping on my passport was a Swiss Visa when I joined BIAL in 2006. I was sent for a study tour and orientation of Zurich Airport towards Travel Retail which was also one of the shareholders of BIAL, India’s first private airport built on a PPP model. Between 2006 – 2009, I travelled 10 countries including China, speaking about Indian Aviation at Conferences in Singapore & Malaysia. My most memorable trip has been the one on Singapore Airlines in 2007 on First Class, up and down for one of those Travel Retail Conferences where I was representing Indian Aviation and presented the masterplan for BIAL. Since then, I have taken hundreds of flights and especially between 2009 – 2014, I would travel 3 days a week, over 40 times a year and would live out of my Samsonite. Almost.


Ever since becoming an Entrepreneur in 2014, I started embracing Train Travel for two reasons; obviously it saves a lot of money (and associated pangs such as taxi fares, exorbitant coffee & food costs, etc). But most importantly, I started valuing my health and time. My retail venture Smiling Baby had its first Franchise store in Coimbatore, some 500 kms south west of Chennai; a few of my clients in my consulting business “Miles2Go Advisory Services” were located across various parts of Tamil Nadu such as Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Trichy, Salem, etc. And of course, on and off trips to Bangalore as well, mostly on work. I still travel by a flight when required – but my travel plans are clear; all journeys under 500 kms (typically overnight) would be by rail and all travel upwards of 500 kms would be on a flight. Been at it for a few years now and trust me, it’s worked so well.

Now that my preferred mode is chosen, I have experimented with the options and succeeded too; For all trips on business by Air, I have started opting for the first row or middle rows for an additional fee, thanks to my height at 6’2”. And I prefer seat “D” than any other; here’s why. When I am seated on Seat D, I get elbow space which is unhindered, so I can type on my MacBook – such as this article which I have written while flying Delhi to Mumbai one late evening; No other seat allows flawless movement of right elbow than this seat. Also, an extended legroom means I get more comfort while on the flight as well as when I land – which is paramount to having an efficient workday as well as to get some good sleep in the night. As much as I bemoan the atrocious additional charges of carriers, I still think God has been kind to me to take up these small mercies – after all, it’s me who benefits more than anyone else using these preferred seats once I land. The complimentary meal along with the additional cost means I get more time (mostly on ground before departure) so I wrap up as much as I can, including calls or responding to messages and short reply-emails.


Similarly, I avoid all flights that land after 9pm – most Indian airports have International movements in the nights and the ATC would give preference for landing & parking (near the Terminal Building) to them than the Domestic ones. So, when a domestic flight gets a remote parking bay – one which is far off, it takes double the time or more to even arrive at the Baggage area and then the subsequent processes of baggage retrieval, boarding a taxi, etc. While on Trains, I have become a big fan of 1st A/c with just 4 berths; one there is that much less noise level; two, there are no side berths which again impact my sleep and the productivity next day. This, again is based on experiences travelling with 8 persons in a single bay (3rd A/c), or getting a raw deal of a side berth even after paying a 2nd a/c fare. Oh, so my car drives on work or pleasure – that’s for another post. 


For me, the journey is always as important as the destination. If the journey is not a happy one, the destination will not be charming, no matter where it is. Life is similar too, And I have Miles to Go…

15 January, 2019

Notes of a Frequent flyer



The biggest technology revolution Indian’s have encountered in the past 5 decades is the advent of the internet for daily use. From ordering Vegetables & Grocery, booking Travel tickets for Air, Train, Bus and Taxi rides on Ola & Uber and not to mention the flirtatious relationship we enjoy with Amazon, Flipkart, Snapdeal and others – India is the only country in the world which has the highest percentage of “Cash on Delivery” model – a method we have invented where the delivery boy collects cash after delivering the parcel from an E-Commerce company… be it mobile phones or an acrylic accessory which hides the back (and sometimes even the front of the Rs. 50,000 (about $700) worthy iPhone XR) or a simple Pizza that is delivered from the neighbourhood Pizza Hut. 

And this is where the first nightmare begins for the frequent Indian Traveler like me. Even as a harried (and hurried) passenger books his/her cab through a cab-hailing App such as the Wall St. funded Uber or the Indian discovery (and Japanese funded) Ola say around 4 am, the traveler realises she is low on Digital Money for paying the cabbie. So, she adds up a sizeable amount in to their wallet from a bank account or credit card and the transactions fails at the first instance. Why did it fail? While we have the highest number of mobile connections in the World, the number of towers is quite disproportionate to the usage. Isn’t there something called Broadband? Oh yes, we do, in fact India’s broadband rates are among the lowest in the world. Recently, our Honourable Prime Minister quipped at a Conference in Japan that India’s internet rates are lower than a cup of Coffee. Well, if he says so. But the internet is patchy most of the times and the promise of 100mbps speed by the Operator is applicable only when a single device is used – but a typical Indian household would have two mobile connections for the gent and the lady each, one each for their parents & kids, a couple of other devices such as iPads, Alexa and a Smart Tv and last but not the least, the live-in maid and the household’s car driver also are allowed to use the home Wifi because of the unlimited usage options offered by the Telecom providers.


And finally, the traveler completes her wallet transaction only to find that the cab prices have surged meanwhile due to peak demand - well, the Top 7 Airports in India including at Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Kochi (in that order) which contribute to over 70% of India’s total air traffic have their peak capacity between 5am – 8am. So, finally she accepts a surged fare and curses how the Cab Companies funded by the Japanese, Chinese and American Investors have spoiled the market with freebies during off-peak hours and apply surge pricing which take away the incentives of using the App. The Cabbies in India, especially those who have joined the likes of Ola and Uber (and also food-hailing Apps such as Zomato, Swiggy & Uber Eats) have a new-found love for GPS – especially when it comes to delivering food or showing up a Taxi at the client’s place. India’s GPS is, well not so great obviously because 8 out of 10 times, these App users end up at the nearby street and call the user and sometimes even insist that the Customers come over there – either to board the cab or to collect their beloved Rotis and Pizzas. 

While the call happens between the Traveler and the Cabbie, one must be very cautious about the mood of the driver – so depending on their convenience, the user must agree to pay by wallet or cash. So, typically from around the 20th of the month, the cabbies reject trips which have a wallet payment since they need working capital and the Cab companies (despite funded in Billions of dollars) do not settle their payments on time. So, when a traveler says she is going to pay by Wallet, there is a high chance that the trip gets cancelled only to get allotted to another driver. By a stroke of luck, one could get the next cab arriving in 3 mins or 10 mins. Again, the cabbie who’s nearby would most probably prefer a cash payment and if the traveler refuses, the process repeats. This is a pattern, in fact. With most flights not allowing Free Cancellation or postponement, the traveler usually prefers not to cancel the next cab, because time is more precious than money. So, she finally settles for a cab with the payment option preferred by the Cabbie and heads to one of the Architectural wonders and marvels of the country – the multi-billion dollar funded “City Airport”.


It has always kept me wondering but hell yeah, why do almost all Airports in India except at Bangalore have only 3-4 entry gates when the influx of passengers during the morning and evening peaks are an estimated 20,000 – 30,000 spread over 3-4 hours? CISF – the National Agency entrusted with the protection of Airports among other prestigious Infrastructure projects are always in a situation where the supply is lower than demand. So, the waiting queue to simply enter the Airport Terminal could take between 5-12 mins on an average, depending on how quick the CISF guard is willing to skim through the paper (or digital ticket) and match it with the 5 acceptable identity Proof documents. Now, most of these identity docs for us in the late 30s, 40s and 50s who form the frequent traveler base, were perhaps made about a decade or two earlier, so the hardcopy doesn’t match the image with the  real one, despite the L’oreals and Gillette grooming accessories which Indians are embracing like no other. So, there is a 50% chance that the CISF guard takes a third look and compares the two images giving competition to the advanced AI techniques being practiced in many other developed countries. He gives a stern and final nod and allows the passenger to get inside the terminal. Oh, btw visitors are not allowed inside Terminal buildings in India. What started as a threat perception after 9/11 and 2008 London attacks has become a convenience excuse, thanks to the crumbling infrastructure in the public areas of the Terminal. So works well for the Airport Operator and the CISF indeed. 


All the four Private Airports have an excellent check-in process with kiosks that help travellers to skip the queue. However, most Frequent Traveler check-in before arriving to the Airport, which means the baggage Drop Queues are more crowded than those which have pax who haven’t checked-in. What an irony this is! Another 15 minutes later, the pax heads to the Infamous Indian Security Check. A decade back less than 8% of all air pax were women, but not the case today. The split is at least 80:20 today especially with more women travelling on work and leisure. Although the Frisking Queue for women is just one, perhaps two. Men have to wait endlessly and finally get their “trays” where they unload their offering from their laptop bags, backpacks and other fancy bags. It’s interesting to note what all a man carries - from multiple chargers to power banks, iPad, laptops (some carry coveted MacBooks as well), two mobile phones on an average and some even carry reams of papers (somewhat work related, although I wonder who keeps paper records anymore). The best part is how Men stand at the Security Frisking area - with hands raised and legs spread. It could be gory to hilarious to a security threat to the guards themselves with some pax standing as though they would pounce on the guards! Meanwhile, there is another senior guard who’s carefully skimming the Tv screens of the X-ray machines. 4 out of 10 bags (random average, but yeah) are identified for a total display of all the internal compartments of the bags even as the pax who is already late is sulking to get to the gate. 



Once at the Gate, a few pax try to board a flight which is for a different destination and realise it only when the staff at the Boarding Gate send them back saying they are still boarding pax for the previous flight. Many Indian Airports still have bus gates, mostly more of them than aerobridges, purely due to infrastructure costs as well as availability of remote parking bays. So, the pax now gets to a level below and waits to board the bus and finally reaches the aircraft. Once inside the craft, there is a wrestle for multiple rights; first comes the right to stowage - who gets to keep more and how close to where they are seated. Then comes the eternal right for arm space. Seasoned travelers like me always, almost always prefer an aisle row and seat number “C” so I get one arm space for granted and also I get to do some elbow space, such as writing articles like these. Last comes the right to alight - who gets out of the craft faster as though this will ensure who will get out of the airport itself. Because the bus ride to the terminal building is a sort of sight-seeing to showcase the marvellous infrastructure that the Government or the Private Operators have invested. While waiting for the baggage, one would wonder what was the topic the unloading guys must be discussing today - from Trump’s intentions on curbing sanctions to the latest celebrity gossip and more which eventually decides how soon (or late) your bag would arrive. After spending over 200-300 mins or more at two Airports, the passenger finally leaves the Terminal Building back to civilisation which looks very different altogether. 

On the way back to a catch a flight home, the frequent flyer heads to the Lounge and flashers his Mastercard or a Privilege Pass to get seated in a cushioned leather sofa and catch up on the latest cricket score. Some of them order a drink only to be forewarned by the waiter that they need to pay for this while the food is complimentary. After gulping one or two depending on how soon or later their flight would depart, the passenger continues to enjoy the hospitality while somewhere thanking the guy who took his application form for a Credit Card many moons back, so he gets this privilege. Those who aren’t blessed with such an offering loiter along the endless pathways which have numerous shopping and dining opportunities. From the latest Hidesign leather bags to Designer Neck Ties, from local delicacies like Sambar Vada to customised Pastas and Sushis, one could get almost everything inside an Airport that a typical restaurant serves in the top cities of India. It’s so heartening to see Travel Retail has come of age so much at Indian Airports over the years that many passengers prefer to shop here than in the city stores, thanks to deals on books and electronics as well as the personal space and staff attention they receive.


Having said that, most Airport Retail Stores, in my humble opinion aren’t investing even 25% interest or effort to cash in on the impending opportunities. Talk about CRM or customisation, Data Science or Business Intelligence, there is so much more to do. The staff are busy fiddling their mobile phones most of the times and even when the Customers (pax, in this case) show interest on products, they react very minimally. Of course there are a few exclusions and some of the staff do get interested in a dialogue with customers but frankly thats mutual. I have personally shopped quite a lot at the Airport stores. To show them that by building meaningful conversations with customers, one can actually “encourage customers to buy” than merely trying to “sell” a product or force them to “buy”. At Restaurants, food courts and Kiosks, the staff are more functional than vending machines with eye contacts hardly present or pitching to up-sell a thing or two. 


Even as the Frequent Flyer is on her / his way back home, the same process as in the morning repeats until finally one has taken the taxi back home. TSome of us start catching up sleep in the taxi and when we hit the sack, it’s close to midnight - most of us have been taught in our early days of professional employments to travel “first flight out, last flight in” and thus utilise the working day the most. Habits stay on.

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