Showing posts with label Chennai. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chennai. Show all posts

22 August, 2021

Happy Birthday Madras - the Retail capital of India

I have always argued that one of the reasons why the British traded with our country for a long time was our ethical business practices coupled with abundant natural resources which have been bestowed on our land for centuries. Tracing India's roots to King Ashoka's reign or to the fledgling empires of the Chola Dynasty, trade was a very important aspect of the way India has been governed. While the fabric of the Indian ecosystem, spread across the length and breadth of the sub-continent cannot be taken away, there is a strong link to the very first organised retail establishment which was set-up by the British towards the end of the 19th Century in the erstwhile Madras. 


The Spencer’s Store and Higginbothams Bookstore, which are still edifices on the city’s famed Mount Road are over a century old. The current structure of the book store, once eponymous with everything books and which boasted customers such as Clement Atlee, former British PM, Shri C. Rajagopalachari, the former Maharaja of Mysore among others, was rebuilt to suit the needs of a sprawling bookstore in 1904. Mr. Abel Joshua Higginbotham arrived first in the city in the early 1840s. Over time, he purchased the Weslyan Book Shop run by Protestant Missionaries in Madras and renamed it with his own. He was the Sheriff of Madras in 1888 and 1889. After his death in 1891, his son, CH Higginbotham ran the company from the turn of the century until 1925 when John Oakeshott Robinson purchased the company and ran it until India’s independence. Subsequently, it was acquired by the Amalgamations Group and is managed by them, till date. 


Spencer’s as we all know, was set-up in the city in 1863 by Mr. John William Spencer. In 1895, the then largest Department store in the continent with 80 departments was constructed and inaugurated to the use of public, mostly the British. The store had a large number of imported items which came in Ships from Britain and all over the world for the comfort and use of the Brits living in the Madras region, one of the largest and most important bases of the Queen’s Establishment. Over time, the company changed hands many times until it was acquired by ace Indian businessman RP Goenka in the 1980s. 


India’s first FDI in Retail was by the RPG Group with Dairy Farm International, Hong Kong in the mid-90s which lasted for a decade and a half. The first “Foodworld” store was set-up at RA Puram in Chennai where I was a Store Manager early in my career from 2002-2004. After the JV ended, the RPG Group (now RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group) renamed it as Spencers. The place where the first Department Store in India was established in the 19th Century now houses the eponymous Spencers Plaza, which was rebuilt after a major fire in the 1980s. I have vivid memories of visiting the older plaza where a number of films have been shot at.


Pic Courtesy: Viveks.com
Pic Courtesy: Viveks.com


The city has many notable brands which are now popular not just in India but across the world, be it retail chains or FMCG Brands. Viveks & Co., one of the pioneers of Consumer Durables retailing, was set-up in the year 1965 at Mylapore, Madras. Giri Trading, a retail chain which specialises in selling Hindu spiritual & puja related products has an established presence in the US, the UK, Europe, Middle East, South East Asia and Australia. Ambika Appalams, a favourite snack food brand which has now grown to become a neighbourhood retail chain has fans and followers all over the world and exports their goods to over 50 countries worldwide. Butterfly Home appliances, a pioneer in kitchen related items and TTK Prestige, have a pan-India presence today with huge levels of customer interest online and offline. New age apparel brands like Basics Life and Indian Terrain have gained international acceptance of their designs and styles and have been well appreciated by western counterparts. On the food front, Hotel Saravana Bhavan was a must visit for those visiting the town, now replaced by Sangeethas and Adyar Anandha Bhavan. And on the entertainment front, Sathyam Cinemas was the first regional stand-alone multiplex chain to expand across the country. 


There are numerous examples of Retail glory that my Madras boasts of and I shall remain eternally grateful to the city which has given me an identity and beyond. 


HBD Madras. 


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. 


21 June, 2020

A Makeover’s Makeover

There are very few instances when we lose something and still be happy – One is at a Salon and another when we watch with glee, a drop-in ounce on a weighing scale. It’s a different pleasure to watch one’s own hair strewn all over the place even as the “Stylist” performs like in a concert – with utmost precision and concentration, chopping off even that one extra strand of hair. Salons have come a long way over the past 20 years in India. From being popular as a Sunday morning ritual for men across metro cities and smaller towns to discuss current affairs, politics, cricket and everything in between; and a “behind the curtains” secret service of sorts for women even in popular cities, the business of “make-over” has seen a “make-over” for themselves all these years. 


“Preeti Beauty Parlour” or “Ganesh Hair Dressers” is now more formal in their approach – they have either taken up a Franchise of a popular National or International chain; else they have upgraded their infrastructure and have a more modern name, especially with words like “Trendz” and “Salon” as a suffix to draw the attention of passersby and potential customers. Not just that, the staff have undergone tremendous training than before and are now well entrenched into the job and many even see this is a viable career option. Most importantly, the workforce has a new identity now – they are no more addressed as “barbers” rather more stylishly called as “Stylists”, after all. Their Salary packages range from Rs. 12,000 – Rs. 30,000 pm and many Salon chains even offer them a “cut” on their services as well in the form of a commission. Discerning Customers fix their own daily schedules depending on the availability of their preferred Stylists at select Salons to ensure a more personalized service. 

After a hiatus of over 3 months, I finally visited my neighborhood Salon recently. The brisk 12-minute walk from home was one among the happiest moments in the past 70 odd days of confinement during the 4 phases of lockdown. Much to my surprise, the entire experience at the Salon was spectacular. I had already taken an appointment much in advance before visiting, so I was just in time for the service. My body temperature was checked using a thermo-gun, I was asked to wear a PPE and sanitise my hands before entering the precincts. The boys were already in PPEs and were sweating profusely looking tired sans the A/c. With the number of Guests availing services being rationed, the boys were sweating it out for the sake of customers who were willing to pay a “tad extra” towards the additional costs incurred by the Franchisee of the popular Salon chain. But for extra “fittings” on both of us, the migrant stylist and I shared our usual camaraderie and banter; about the lockdown, loss of livelihood, extra safety measures and how they were the real “Covid warriors”. 


This is the beginning in my opinion. 

The cost of a “make-over” is only going to further increase in times to come, thanks to higher hygiene standards and overall salon maintenance. There was already a forwarded message on WhatsApp which was floating, questioning the additional cost included in the bills by Salons. I wondered why would customers expect the business to offer PPEs at charitable costs; someone argued that a PPE can be procured at much lesser cost than what was being charged by the Salon; another said this has not been approved by the Government; yet another piqued that the Salon owners were trying to make a quick buck by showing such additional costs to the service. I wonder why we criticize businesses with our varied personalized attacks. The Salons didn’t send a home invitation to anyone, anyway. So, why this fuss? 

This, IMHO, is the New World Order. This is how things would evolve and this is how Businesses and Customers would adapt themselves to the Corona Crisis. 


Those who complain of expensive PPEs always have a choice of the good old Tamarind Tree "stylists" or friendly neighbourhood salons and ladies parlours with closed curtains. There is no push from the semi-organised Industry which employs over 3-4 lakh people directly and indirectly across the country. While there is no doubt that there is going to be a burden on the wallets of the urban and rural middle class visiting salons regularly, this is a price the world is to pay for the unwanted and uninvited Virus which has become a part of our daily lives. Let's hope we don't mess up ourselves even further - there are fewer woods to cremate and even lesser earth to bury. 

As the Make-Over Industry goes through yet another "make-over" to itself, Our own personal Safety first should be our only goal, isn't it? 

27 August, 2019

Food Fiesta! But Free Food?

My favourite haunt in Chennai for a great Filter Coffee & South Indian snacks continues to be the iconic “Woodlands Restaurant” on RK Salai, Chennai which doesn’t have a towering personality quite literally (pun intended) like it’s neighbour Hotel Savera (which is among the first 5-Star Hotels in the city). But patrons and lovers of the third generation restaurant brand which runs a single branch in the city for over 5 decades is a sight to reckon. On a Weekend, one has to wait at least 30 mins if you are in a group of 4 or more, especially after 7pm. Around 9.15pm, the Manager would courteously inform you to look out elsewhere for dinner since the restaurant would take its last order by 10pm and that there would be no space for seating anymore. Call it brand arrogance or customer affinity; I term it the latter. For the love of Customers, that they would either come in early and dine their heart full or stay and dine, whichever suits them from time to time. Trust me, dining here isn't cheap; a table for four adults could cost upwards of Rs. 1,500 for dinner. Also, this is perhaps the only standalone restaurants in Chennai (or even in India) where you would hardly find boys in T-Shirts of various colours, Orange or Red or Black waiting to pick up food. For, this one restaurant never “logged in” to the Food Apps or their Loyalty Programs (namesake I say!). 


Two weekends back, we went for a family dinner at a leading Chinese restaurant in town. We logged on to an App which offered FLAT 50% off the Bill if we purchased an entry fee of Rs. 25 for each of us. Apparently, they termed is as Table Reservation Fee, which we anyway accepted. To our bad luck, there were only 3 coupons left to buy but we were 4. So I called the restaurant and requested if they could accommodate us. My friendly bangali babu accepted to allow the 4 of against 3 coupons and to my surprise, we saved a whopping 50% off the bill on a cheque of Rs. 2,200. The next week, I went out again with my classmates where I carefully booked a popular restaurant in the heart of South Chennai, known for its exotic fare and of course obnoxious prices. Again, I saved over Rs. 1,000 during this outing. At both instances, the restaurant was not even 25% full - the former was a dinner & the latter was Luncheon. Just when I was planning the next visit last weekend with an extended family and close friends (a larger crowd, perhaps), the NRAI announced a “Logout” Campaign to reduce their losses. Thankfully. For there was no end to this practise of subsidising patrons for what they would ideally charge others. Membership or otherwise, a 50% off on Bill was simply too much to give away as discounts.

Now compare the two glaring examples. As I always say, it’s a game of David Vs. Goliath, with the smaller, less-organised players being the Goliath collectively. How does it make sense to offer a food item on a discount when it is cooked with loads of investment - time and money included and of course with a lot of passion and love! It makes no sense to offer F&B at lower prices than what they are meant to be, except for lean times such as Happy Hours when people would prefer not to consume or to sell-out certain items at a discount to ensure there was no wastage at the end of the business day. From the beginning, I have watched closely how restaurants were getting caught in the whirlwind that the Food Aggregators were hatching on them, sadly. A friend who runs a large restaurant chain in Coimbatore was clear that he would neither discount their signature food nor allow the Apps to do so. And he, along with the local Federation members has been successful till date, save for a 10% discount once in a while. 


Most Restaurants complain that their bottomline has not seen a significant leap although the turnover has gone up significantly, helping them to reach more customers including many new users although there’s no guarantee that they would order at full price or even visit the restaurants. My hunch has been right – when there are no discounts, people order less frequently and lesser portion sizes. And the opposite in the contrary. This is not specific to India but a human quality called “greed”. Isn't it not common that we see people buying a lot more clothes during End of Season Sale even though they may not be sure whether they would ever wear it, even once. 

I have never believed personally in the theory of discounting in Retail, be it Grocery or Fashion, Food or Furniture. Some products like Electronics outdate faster or Room Inventory at Hotels perish, so perhaps yes. But then, most businesses believe Discounts attract Customers more than their products. I think it’s otherwise. If a user doesn’t see value in your pricing, then don’t decrease it, rather increase the value offering. 

After all,

Price is what you Pay;
Value is what you derive. 

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.

03 October, 2018

My i Vs. Mi Experiences

I purchased my Mobile SIM card for the first time in the year 2002 in Chennai from Aircel and that number is still active. My my first handset was an Ericsson followed by Samsung R220, the first mobile phone launched in India with a multi-colour display. This was followed by a few Nokia models over a decade and a Sony Ericsson P1i before I finally moved to Blackberry. A few models and 4 years later, I moved on to the Apple Ecosystem with iPhone 4S in 2011. I upgraded to 5S, 6 and 7 over the years as well as including other i-Devices such as 3 generations of iPod, 2 variants of iPads, a MacBook, Apple Tv and finally an iWatch. With a paid plan for Apple Music and a huge storage on iCloud, I don’t have to worry about my stuff on the hard disk anymore, for its all safe and secure, “Up in the Air”. Hopefully. With a seamless integration within the iOS, it is almost impossible for me to move out of the Apple Ecosystem anymore and I guess I will remain clued in here. however, when the announcements for new models of iPhone XS & XS Max were announced last month, I had less interest than last year for the iPhone 8 & X. Somehow I felt that Apple has stopped making mobile phones for common users and is perhaps focusing on a niche segment who can use most of their offering.


Notwithstanding my self-prejudice for a coveted Brand and its products that I love so much, I decided to visit a Retail Store to physically touch and see the new launches. On a sunny Chennai afternoon last weekend, visited an upmarket Mall in the City, which for some strange reason has four retail stores next to & opposite to each other who sell multi-brands of Mobile phones and accessories apart from an Apple Premium Reseller (APR) and a Mi Experience Store. Even before I could visit the APR I happened to see the new iPhones at one of Tamil Nadu’s leading multi-brand Retail Store. The Staff were as uninterested as I were and they hardly explained why the new damn thing costs a lakh and fifty thousand bucks, with which one can but at least three new laptops or 15 mediocre mobile phones or perhaps even 5 top-end new mobile phone models. I didn’t bother to even ask queries and quickly moved on to the next chore with the family. Was having a sad grin on my face that the same “me” had waited at the same Mall five years back in a queue for four hours on a sunny November afternoon along with my better half to buy my Apple iPhone 5S on the launch day. How things change, huh!

My wife has been asking me to buy her a wearable device to measure footsteps, which we have been exploring for the past few days. Surprisingly, Croma and Reliance didn’t have a wide range while the Mi Experience Store at Express Avenue Mall didn’t have the widely popular Mi Watch 2. The staff at the Mi Store was unapologetic that it wasn’t available at their flagship store in South Chennai and instead advised us to visit a few days later when it would arrive at the Store. Really? Do Brand staff think Customers will Queue up anymore for their once coveted products? We ended up buying at another store whose Sales staff surprised us and matched the same price as the Mi Experience store where the device’s price is Rs. 200 lower than outside. At the Mi Experience store, I saw a wide range of products including LED TVs but another flagship Mi A5 model of Mobile Phone wasn’t available, once again. 


Recently, I was reading how Best Buy has embraced omni-channel in the US by ensuring a wide variety of models across Brands were made available at the Store and the Retailer also offered multiple models of delivery such as in-store, same day delivery, Day +1 delivery, at home delivery, etc. This was the only way they could counter the intense competition from Amazon in the US. Back in India, things remain unchanged. Croma has a namesake omni-channel model but the staff are disinterested in taking the effort. The bigger surprise was Mi Experience Store, where the staff could have immediately engaged with us, potential buyers of a Watch to browse the range on a device kept right at the store where one could browse and buy with a deliver in a day or two, Lost opportunity. 


This is just my personal experience and am damn sure there are millions of such experiences across the world where Customers are walking away without purchasing, thanks to disinterested staff and their respective Managements. A report in the Economic Times suggests that of the 1 lakh units kept ready for the opening weekend in India, not more than 50% were sold, thanks to low interest of Customers for various reasons, from new innovations to pricing. This is a first for Apple, what with already sagging Sales and the same trend could continue if they keep making iPhones which people stop buying for snob-value. And a younger brand like Mi which boasts of giving a run for money with its devices could do better with Merchandise Planning some Staff training. hope that’s not asking for too much from a Brand which has apparently carved a niche for itself.  

19 August, 2018

Can Malls resurrect?

I went to a once-upon-a-time popular Mall in Chennai a week back – to watch a movie at Inox. I went 10 mins before the show began; during the intermission, I bought a Samosa and Tea for Rs. 200 and left the venue just after the film ended. There was nothing for me in the mall to hang around. No coffee shops, interesting retail concepts, a poorly scattered food court and absolutely uninteresting Mall Management. The toilet was a saving grace, neat and clean as always. 


Chennai Citi Centre was one of the earliest new-age Malls in Chennai which opened almost a decade back. Compared to the previously popular and hugely successful Spencer’s Plaza, Citi Centre managed by the ETA Group preferred to lease retail spaces as against selling them like Spencer’s. The initial euphoria was huge – located on RK Salai leading to the world-famous Marina Beach and the road being used by two former Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu viz., Dr. Karunanidhi and Dr. J Jayalalitha for their daily commute. The road was in its best form all these years with Traffic Police stationed all day and night as well as reasonably safe. The Mall opened with Chenai’s iconic Landmark Store, Lifestyle and Inox as anchors followed by Foodworld, Mc Donalds & KFC in the food court and roof top; a slew of national and international brands followed. The “Marina” food court had some interesting concepts offering a range of food and beverage options. Café Coffee Day was conspicuously missing inside. Instead, CCD opened a café right opposite the Mall which continues to be a crowd puller. The Atrium would be used for interesting events and activities.

A few years in to it’s bull run, Express Avenue Mall opened 3 kms away, followed by Phoenix Market City two years back. With a spread of no more than 2 lakh sq.ft for Retail and F&B, Inox Cinemas spread over 30,000 sft, private Office spaces spread over 20,00 sft. and two levels of basement Car Parking, the Mall had little to offer in terms of retail space. As always, Small is Beautiful. Plus, it had a great locational advantage. But the Mall Management let the mall die a slow death for reasons best known to them. Almost all the original Retailers have vacated but for Basics Life and Giordano apart from Lifestyle and Inox. I approached the Mall Management two years back and suggested we could do wonders with what we have on hand and give a run for money due to its locational advantage and easy access to South Madras. They refused to oblige and have remained adamant on letting the opportunity pass by. Even now, the mall is sitting on a gold mine, if only one could take a serious look at what could be done to make it great, once again. 


Citi Centre is not an isolated case. During the Mall boom in India between 2006 – 2012, about 800 Malls of all shapes and sizes were operational at its peak across India’s Top 50 cities & towns. Thanks to a slowing economy since 2013 onwards, uncertain consumer sentiment and tough business conditions, more than half of them have shut down or have morphed in to Office spaces. A recent research report suggested that the Mall vacancies have improved off late and over 80 Malls are expected to open in the next 24 months across India. As we speak about this, VR Chennai opened its doors to the city just a month ago, spread over a million sft. 

So what happens to these Malls which do not get the desired traffic (of customers) anymore? Many people compare this situation to the Ghost Malls in the US, which I believe is not fair. The Indian Economy continues to show strong signs but for some shortfalls here and there. Older Malls can be resurrected, if only the Mall Owners prefer to do so. In our country where most of the Malls are owned by Real Estate companies, their only focus is generating a certain “revenue” per sft. Taking an extra mile to get consumers walking in regularly and keeping them hooked – this is no rocket science. Can be done pretty easily at much lower costs with very minimal efforts. Add to this, inefficient Management Teams in many cases who have never worked earlier in Malls or have a deeper understanding of Retail dynamics. Just that the Mall Owners must come out of their slumber and their fixation for a certain “fixed” revenue model and consider Professional Management. Malls are community centers and Mall owners must connect with the consumers and not just their bank a/cs.
--> --> -->

01 August, 2018

Year 5 of Entrepreneurship

Very frankly, I am an Entrepreneur by accident. Having been part of India’s Retail revolution with 21 years’ behind me; having worked across various Retail verticals such as Food & Grocery, Malls, Airport Retail, QSR and Automotive Retail; Rated among Top 50 Retail Professionals in India; Young Achiever Awardee and so on, I never endeared to become an Entrepreneur. My entry to Entrepreneurship was more circumstantial than a planned one, which is very unlikely of me. Having spent a large part of my professional career in Business Strategy, I continue to remain methodical in most of my approaches. But this journey was different.


I decided to take a break from my professional career on this day, 1 Aug. 2014 and set foot in to this unknown, uncertain and unapologetic world of Entrepreneurship. With loads of aspirations in my mind, a continued fondness for Retailing and a special focus on the “Baby Care” format, I set-up Smiling Baby, a retail store that sells products needed for new born babies up to 6 years and Maternity products for Pregnant women and new Mothers. I created a catalogue spanning over 3,000 SKUs almost singlehandedly, right from finding suppliers to POS providers, staffing to architects, almost everything. Ran the venture for a year after having invested close to Rs. 1 Crore of personal savings that my wife and I made over a decade. Within no time, the bank account came to mere 4 digits although we didn’t achieve expected sales. Various factors, including failing miserably to expect potential Investors on my name than on the business, massive impact on offline Retail thanks to online companies selling Diapers and more below cost price; and lastly Investors refusing to put their money on a purely offline model swelled with Capex of over Rs. 40 lakhs per store. 


On the first anniversary of the store, the shop was not operational. Call it bad timing, miserable luck or simply underestimating the vagaries of Entrepreneurship. We moved to a smaller location close by but again, the misery continued; Chennai witnessed massive rains and floods in November 2015 and the store had recreated a mini Niagra within. Lost almost all of the stocks, computers, interiors, et al. The Insurance guys didn’t support stating that the “flooding” clause was not covered in the Policy. Bizarre  Continued to operate for a while until we decided to call it a day, once and for all. The business was shut, lock seal and barrel. Everything was lost, but for my persistence and perseverance. Decided to join hands with a fellow-Retailer and co-create a workable model, which again much to my chagrin, failed. All attempts were through and I didn’t have the courage to invest another penny more into this sinking ship. 


Went to the Himalayas and cooled my heels for a few weeks; introspected at Lake Gurudongmar at 18,000 feet, wandered around Lachen for a few days in freezing winter. Came back resurrected and found new ways to survive. While I was already pursuing Retail Consulting on and off, I decided to focus full time on Consulting and started to reach out to clients. Got a few wins, gathered steam and today have more work coming my way than I can actually handle, that I have to decline a few assignments. Life’s Good. Meanwhile, explored and worked on a Franchise model for Smiling Baby and today we already have a few stores up and running and business is picking steam. Hope to raise an Investment soon and scale up Smiling Baby across the 32 Districts of Tamil Nadu, the southern state of India.


My biggest achievement has been my “perseverance” and my “never give up” attitude. That’s one thing I wasn’t wired as a child by my parents and later by many whom I have admired and continue to do so. However, there is as much guilt that shows up often – my parents and wife continue to support me day and night in my adventures and endeavours, which is atrocious sometimes. I have peeled their skin more than they deserve and this haunts me a lot. But for my wife who’s stood rock steady the last four years – I am not an easy guy to; She’s handled our marriage of 12 years, my emotional tantrums and most importantly, the financials of the household. She has taken care of my Late Aunt who had Stage 3 Advanced Cancer in her Uterus & Vagina, my Kids education and their wellbeing and of course my parents – all singlehandedly. She's my Angel, she's my Investor and so she's my Angel Investor! And she continues to put the same smile on her face every morning while waking up and puts more effort than the previous day at workplace till date. 


Entrepreneurship is not easy. It is not for everyone. We don’t just need a strong financial backing and good luck – more than that, we need a supporting family and loved ones. A lot of people will come and encourage us midway, some may even discourage us but what matters is our undying spirit to keep moving on. My journey has just begun, Miles to Go…

20 July, 2018

Multiplex & Movies - Convenience or Complex?

It’s been a week since the Maharashtra Government passed a mandate that Cinema goers can bring their own snacks / food items and that the Multiplex owners cannot stop them from consuming the same. The response to this from various sections of the ecosystem has been mixed. While a section of film viewers is excited that they can carry their preferred snacks inside the theatres, another set of patrons are quite upset, so much so that there has been much disdain about this on social media. Some have compared the expected outcome to that of train journeys where passengers would bring parathas and Idlis and how the whole cabin would smell (or stink) of various Indian spices, especially.

On the other hand, Multiplex owners are clearly unhappy. They would be losing a majority of their revenues, estimated at approximately 30% of their Turnover. This would hurt their business economics and may even make a few screens unviable, especially inside Malls where the real estate costs are significantly higher. To give a background, there were about 12,000 standalone screens and less than 50 multiplex screens a decade back. As I write this article, there are an estimated 2,000 multiplex screens (Screens inside a multiplex & not just the number of Multiplexes) while over 4,000 standalone theatres have shut down, unable to cope with the latest improvements in technology, leading to lower patronage of users, and subsequently inability to maintain the screens. Due to heavy investments, Indian entertainment companies are adding no more than 150 screens pa while International players like Cineapolis couldn’t cope with the spiralling costs, which are never offset with premium services such as push back seats, exclusive box areas and so on. In comparison, the US has 40,000 screens and China, about 24,000. In the same tune, the Box Office Market in the US is about $10 billion pa, $5 billion pa in China and about $3.5 Billion in India. The average ticket price in the US is about $8, $5.5 in China while India is at a distant $2.


India makes about 2,000 films pa, 60% of which are from rest of India while 40% is in just one language - Hindi, which has a national appeal. From Amitabh to Shah Rukh, Rekha to Deepika, Hindi film stars have always been able to captivate the imagination of a majority of Indians, undoubtedly. Then there are regional stalwarts in almost every State of India who command record salaries as well as have magnificent BO openings when their films release. Despite all of this, the average time for a new movie to have a pirated version available online is under 12 hours. The July 9 release Kaala feat. Superstar Rajinikanth had its pirated version available by 8 am, even as the film only released in Singapore and Malaysia the previous night. Online activists are quick to bring down the ratings of a film with Video reviews published on YouTube which further minimises the potential of the film even during the first weekend. Interestingly, many films which had lukewarm opening have been able to boost theatre viewership through similar online reviews, positive ones of course, sometimes even rigged/paid. 

The Multiplex culture started expanding when a standalone theatre by the name Priya Cinema in Vasant Vihar area of Delhi set up multiple screens at Malls with its international partner Village Roadshow, which subsequently became to be known as PVR Cinemas. Today, it’s a public limited company having over Rs. 800 Crores in Turnover and has a number of innovations to its credit and is the most preferred Multiplex chain in India with a presence spanning Chandigarh to Chennai, Baroda to Calcutta. An estimated 800 malls of various sizes ranging from 1.5 lakh sft to 1 million sft came up during the peak period of India’s Retail explosion between 2006 - 2014. Therefore, almost every Mall had to have a Multiplex with a minimum of 3 screens up to 12 screens in some cases. Due to high operating costs (mostly rental & maintenance), Multiplexes pegged their ticket prices higher thank standalone theatres. In some states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the Government had a cap on ticket prices which added further strain on their viability. Therefore, most Multiplexes took to enhancing the experience with culinary delights with flavoured pop-corn, designer ice-cream varieties, gourmet food and so on. Therefore, a Samosa could cost between Rs. 40 – 80 per piece (Rs. 20-25 in the city) depending on which city/Mall one was consuming. A portion of Pop Corn came at 100 with higher prices for exotic flavours. There were times when consumers preferred to visit cinema halls just for dining & recreation than watching films. And Multiplex owners weren’t complaining one bit.


Until recently, perhaps 2 years ago when ardent film goers and the public at large felt that the food and beverage costs were so high, that for a family of 3 or 4, the cost of dining was 2 to 3 times the cost of tickets per person, putting heavy pressure especially on middle class families. This led to a lot of offline discussions and online debates, arguments with theatre staff and fist fights at public spaces, making the entire process of watching films at cinema theatres an expensive and an uninviting affair. With the economy slowing since 2016, Demonitisation impact, GST on Cinema Tickets and overall uncertainties galore, (The BJP Government thinks otherwise, though) piracy at unprecedented levels with nothing being done by the Government or Producers or the Film fraternity, the footfalls to Multiplexes started decreasing steadily. So much so, that as recent as Jan-Mar 2018, the average occupancy at Multiplexes has been less than 40% on weekdays and close to 75% on weekends. Except for a few mega hits (across languages), the overall Box Office earnings haven’t been one bit rosy. 

This has created a huge pressure on Multiplex chains with their dependence on F&B much more today than before. I have been organising full shows for the first weekend of every Rajinikanth movie for the past 11 years. I book an entire screen (approx. 220 seats) and distribute the tickets at face value to friends and friends of friends. Over the years, it’s almost been a custom now and many people look forward to the entire experience. I would usually organise one show on a Saturday morning of the opening weekend but due to unprecedented Marketing efforts and expectations galore, I organised 3 shows for the 2017 blockbuster Kabali feat. Superstar Rajinikanth. Similarly, I approached the Multiplex chain (am withholding the name for personal reasons) for the 2018 release Kaala but I was in for a shock this time. The ticket price had already been officially hiked by the Tamil Nadu Government and capped at Rs. 205 (in Chennai); add to this, a compulsory F&B Combo of Pop Corn & Coke for another Rs. 195, taking a single ticket cost to Rs. 400! Forget convincing 200 people, I was not ready to pay such a figure for my own family of six. So, I preferred to watch in standalone theatres, although I watched the film thrice within the first 10 days of its release. The film bombed at the BO and there has been much disappointment among Producers, Distributors & Exhibitors. Sanju, feat. Ranbir Kapoor, a film which was the official biopic of Actor Sanjay Dutt has apparently grossed Rs. 500 Crores at the BO in India and abroad, which is a saving grace to the Industry. Amitabh Bachhan starrer “102 not out” was off the screens in less than 2 weeks and is already available on Amazon Prime. 


Talking of OTTs, there has been an aggressive push by Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar and others with buying exclusive rights from the Producers even before theatrical rights are sold. With lowering data costs (for handheld devices) by the day, multiple options to view content such as Connected Tvs, Smart Phones, Tablets, etc. and the growing popularity of this medium, even pirated film watching has come down significantly as per Industry estimates. I reckon that the Multiplex owners are facing one of the darkest times right now, with lower patronage to the screens coupled with external factors galore. 

By allowing film goers to bring their own food to the theatres, would occupancy levels increase? This move looks more positive for a few reasons – 1) it brings down the cost of watching family entertainers by more than half, thereby making the entire effort less expensive for families than before 2) it could drive a completely new set of the aspiring middle class audience, one that is looking forward to a world class (hic!) experience watching cinemas at Multiplexes but with the ability to offset food costs 3) This move would most importantly make the Multiplex Owners more conscious about how they price their products. I have said this before and I repeat – instead of selling 1,000 samosas a day at Rs. 50 a piece, they could sell 2,000 samosas at Rs. 25 a piece. This is just one example. And with lower food prices, volumes will certainly improve – this is the main reason theatre occupancy is much higher even today at standalone cinemas than at Multiplexes. While one has to put up with spicy masala odour at Cinemas, it is of great cheer and joy to watch a film with a full house audience. And with the core Indian mentality of “sharing & caring” we could see unknown families in neighbouring seats share food & sweets. A novel way to build Communal harmony, perhaps. Much needed right now in India. 

I plan to carry specially flavoured Idlis for the next outing. Anyone wishes to share some?

A Firefly finally takes off

Monday - 22 Jan. ‘24 is a very important day in my professional life. I complete eight months today in my role as Executive Vice President a...