Showing posts with label Consumer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Consumer. Show all posts

07 January, 2024

My Himalayan Odyssey

Just like every December, my family and I departed on our annual vacation expecting intense flight delays due to fog-related congestions across various airports that converge at Delhi.  

To our good luck, the flight departed and arrived on time at Indira Gandhi International Airport New Delhi, giving us plenty of time to – shop and dine! 


A view of the Himalayan peaks from Almora


Right from the word “go”, it was a shopping delight for the kids. A bit of airport shopping, in-flight (junk) food and then the eponymous walk along the inner circle at Connaught Place, New Delhi. It was their first visit to one of the retail havens of India and they enjoyed every bit, save for the prying eyes of random people on the streets. 

 

We first ate a hearty meal at Haldiram’s before undertaking the long walk, so as to end up at Wagh Bakri for a pre-dinner snack. 


 

Over the next 5 days, we travelled over 2,000 kms by road and rail across Devbhoomi Uttarakhand. We visited off-beat locations, including temples and high-points on the hills.

 

At every point of sale, it was surprising, perhaps I shouldn’t be, that the shopkeepers were accepting payments through UPI. There were instances where the vendor preferred a digital payment, for want of not accepting Rs. 500 and offering change.


 

Until 2017, this was a dream, rather a nightmare. It was not just important to carry along a Debit card, the town or city needed to have a functional ATM too. So, one had to carry adequate cash to shop, eat and consume goods and services. 

 

It is indeed incredible that in a quaint little town such as Bageshwar that the roadside vendor selling groundnuts was willing to accept Rs. 30 using UPI. 



Jageshwar, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited and offered his prayers, has atleast 50 shops and each one of them offer various items including pooja articles, trinkets, gifts and much more. All of them accept UPI payments, though many of them do not even have a credit card swiping machine. 


 

While a lot of credit would go to the Modi-style governance, I would also give it 100% to the users – shopkeepers and consumers for embracing UPI-based payments. And seamlessly. 

 

India is shinning and will further shine for the next 10-15 years, irrespective of which political party will rule the country. A continuity in regime will certainly help improve governance. The consumer boom will continue to stay as well, what with a growing middle class which is on a spending spree, whether it is during festivals or otherwise.



The tourism opportunity is opening big time in the country and domestic tourism spends are expected to double in the next 10 years. 


PM Modi’s recent visit to Lakshwadeep islands to promote tourism is nothing new. In 2019, he met the Chinese Premier at Mamallapuram, near Chennai, a historic travel point. Since then, visitors to the coastal town have swelled, post pandemic especially, including the springing up of various hotels, resorts, home stays and lodges. 


 

Similarly there have been many such examples of our PM promoting Indian tourism. Which is well followed by consumerism at its best. 


I have already swore I will tour more within India in 2024. We have shortlisted a few locations for our summer vacation during the last weekend. Where are you travelling next? Share your story.

29 April, 2023

Brand Tags and why they matter

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

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

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



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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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



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


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


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

12 December, 2022

RED letter day

As the calendar year 2022 ends, I complete the distinction of my “silver Jubilee” year in Retail. I started my career scooping ice-cream in 1997 at India’s second and Chennai’s first outlet of 

Baskin Robbins. Last weekend when I walked passed by that location, I took a photo of that store where another respectable global brand exists now. But it may soon be gone as Chennai Metro Rail works are on nearby. The impact of such civil infrastructure on retailers is immense but that’s for another article, another day. 


Just last week, I had shared a note on World Civil Aviation Day and the image I used for that tweet was that of Air India. Little did I realise that the first aero-trip I took was exactly 20 years ago and it was on an Air India flight too. And the best part was, that the trip was for an interview to Mumbai, with Shoppers Stop. I convinced the HR manager then to get me an air ticket instead of the standard rail fare, a rarity those days. I didn’t choose that position and life moved on. But then, when I look back, there has been so much that has been showered on my by this retail ecosystem for the past 2.5 decades. I cannot thank everyone who have been involved in “My Retail Journey” all these years to make me who I am today.

12.12 is a very important day of the year in the Indian Retail ecosystem even as most large retailers as well as small retail businesses including regional retail chains celebrate the day with much fanfare. Retail Employees Day was first celebrated a decade back and has since  garnered momentum with most CXOs of large retail organisations pitching in with their support. On this day, employees are celebrated for their unstinted efforts, thanked with small and large goodies and gifts and most of all, made to feel special for the sometime-thankless efforts they offer to their customers and their masters. In many cases, employees are recognised for their non-work related  From back then when I stared my retail career to now, so much has changed in the way consumers shop. And the staff members of retail establishments across the pyramid have always kept themselves in tune with their customers.


Let me share an anecdote of how my first employer made me and my colleagues “feel good” everyday – at Baskin Robbins. 


Though it was a neighbourhood ice-cream parlour, it was an American brand and certainly carried an “international tag” when compared to the domestic ones around. Therefore, the clientele was also more discerning and demanding. We were a team of 5 – 2 in the morning shift and 3 for the second shift. All of us were college students or had just finished. Given our age, our modest familial backgrounds and our tendency (perhaps) to have a bite of the beloved ice-creams, I guess he came up with an interesting idea. The Franchisee said that every day, each of us were allowed to sample one scoop of ice-cream on the house after making a note in the register. It was a learning exercise for us, so we know the taste of each of the flavours as well as to ensure we were not sampling it ourselves “off the book”. After a fortnight, we had tasted almost all the flavours amongst ourselves and requested if we could instead take the scoops home. He agreed but after a fortnight, even the folks at home were bored of eating them. 

The franchisee had successfully accomplished two things – ensured the staff wouldn’t steal the ice-cream and instead, take it officially whenever they wished to. More than a view to police us, I saw it as a great way to keep the flock engaged. It was his way to thank us everyday for our wor k, especially since it was the first self-service outlet where the customer was expected to remove their leftover cups and drop them off in the bin – much to their chagrin. So, when some of them sulked, we had to go the extra mile, but the Boss was already rewarding us. It was always a quid pro-quo, after all. There is an age old saying in retailing – take care of your employees and they will take care of the customers (and the business). Very few business owners are walking the talk. And it shows in the business outcomes, after all.

19 June, 2022

The rise of Tier 2 towns

Have been on a pan-India tour for the past few weeks, visiting our stores, interacting with my colleagues, our valued franchise partners, mall managers, heads & ecosystem partners and of course, our esteemed customers. I must admit that my trips have been skewed to Tier 2 towns and by design. For, this is where India lives and spends. Over the past 24 months or so, we have witnessed a massive reverse migration from bigger cities to smaller towns, ever since the pandemic led lockdown began. Initially thought to be a short-term trend, things seem to have gained traction all across India for the past 1 year. So much so, that many employees across Industries and companies are now – literally demanding – that they be allowed to WFH with a hybrid model of physical presence at the office precincts.

One’s loss is another’s gain, they say. As a Retailer, I cannot complain!

The photo above was taken early June at Uttar Pradesh capital Lucknow’s famed Phoenix Pallasio Mall on a weekday. The 1 million sq.ft. Mall has a dozen or so international luxury brands, 3 dozen+ international premium brands, over 50+ domestic brands and scores of regional brands in fashion and food. This mall is located pretty much in the outskirts of the town and has a neighbour closely, the 6-lakh sq.ft. Lulu mall which opens doors in Q2 FY22. Last week I was at Guwahati, Assam and our Franchise Partners says the state is about to get 8 new malls. At a Starbucks cafe in Bhubaneswar’s Esplanade Mall, I saw for the first time more tables filled with family crowds than anywhere in India! The foodcourts across Malls are overflowing as though there is a shortage of food in some areas (sic). 

This kind of retail upswing in Tier 2 towns is unprecedented at best. As I celebrate by silver jubilee in Retail this year – 25th year since I started scooping ice-cream in 1997, I have seen multiple waves in retail. The first one was around 2001, when modern retail hit the streets. Around 2008, we saw a Mall boom, primarily led by the Metro cities and Tier-2 asking for department store chains like Central, Shoppers Stop, Lifestyle, Westside among others. Around 2014, the retail growth hit a peak with several unstructured malls (zoning wise) either shutting shop or turning coats to become a commercial (offices) dwelling. Since 2017, things swung back to action, especially after the introduction of GST, much to the surprise of economic critics and experts.

We live in a pandemic world – I don’t call it a post pandemic one – because the virus is just here to stay in some form or the other. Just that we humans have become more resilient. Every 6-8 weeks, the Media Industry fuels scare with new statistics, but consumers have been dodging these overtures since Sep. ’21. This shall continue for a while and eventually pass by. But the growth of Tier 2 markets is here to stay for sometime. One big reason for this is that there is money in the pockets of the aspirational middle class. Monsoons have been good for the past 2 years, so has been Agri-production. Oil crisis has been surging ever since the Ukraine-Russia conflict began. But India and Indians have adjusted. The statistic compilation on inflations seems to read otherwise, but that’s more theory I guess. The jobless have remain so by choice, not because there is a lack of opportunity.

While a small group of people were throwing stones and torching trains at Patna Railway station last week, I saw several hundreds of youth at retail stores and malls working earnestly for a better today and tomorrow for themselves and their families. Real estate, residential and empty plots - especially if it is of any indication, then the smaller towns seem to be a better bet in terms of wealth creation. The surge in Tier 2 markets across India seems to be unstoppable, atleast in the Retail sector, one that is integral to me personally and professionally. The rent for retail stores matches metro cities by 1:1, sometimes 1: 1.5 or even more. The challenge is supply (of spaces) and not demand. This will settle down soon, as well.

 

10 June, 2022

My travel travails and why I love them


After a long while, I travelled all through the week and in one of the most favourite parts of the country – Northern India. Though the summer was a killer, I enjoyed every moment being there – doing what I love the most in life – observing consumer behaviour at high streets and malls, interacting with our customers, staff, franchise partners, mall owners and the entire ecosystem. Some great food all along – wholesome North Indian stuff was a bonus. 

View of the New Delhi railway station

This is my 25th year in Retail and I’ve been travelling almost 45 weeks a year, 3 days a week for over 15 years now, mostly on work. Though it’s mostly just one Boss to be accountable to, managing a fairly young & a cross-functional team and being a part of a mature, mid-sized organisation is quite a challenge. Here are some quick learning that I have acquired over the years. While all of them may not be doabe by everyone, am sure some of this could be useful to a few discerning ones;

The itinerary

This is the most important part of the journey. I have always believed that the journey is as important (and exciting) as the destination, its quite important that one plans their journey time-table, including the choice of flights / trains / local accommodation. A poorly planned itinerary is the beginning of chaos to come during the trip. 

A shirt holder that I make the best use of

The right luggage

While there is no secret to packing the right quantity and quality of luggage, let me tell you it always is a science and an art. A fairly planned set of clothes – 2:1 ratio of shirts to trousers usually does the work, whether casual or formals. Extra sets of inners always helps, just in case of an emergency. 

Meeting schedules

This is one area where things can go awry – due to a client or a business partner not turning up in time or the most common reason in India for getting late to meetings – bad / congested roads + traffic snarls enroute the meeting place. It really helps adding a 15-30 min cushion ahead of the next meeting including the travel time. If you end up early (to the meeting), there are anyway enough emails and messages on WhatsApp to respond to.

When in the North, do like the locals!

Food / Drinks – the lure

Any business trip is incomplete without a fair dose of local cuisine. After all, what’s the point in sweating out so much if you don't eat well during the journey. But then, I can tell you out of experience, it always, almost always helps to avoid over-eating during business trips, especially if you like loaded stuff or spicy outings. Alcohol, while is an extension of our night life and leisure, may put you out of the best that one can appear, especially in front of the most important people you’re set out to meet the next day. Abstinence during the business trip is among the best though a bit of indulgence is not a bad idea.

Emails & Calls

One thing to keep in mind is when we travel, there could be chances that we miss reading & replying critical emails as well as end up skipping regular review calls / VCs. One trick that has always worked for me is to keep clearing emails while on the move, that is from one meeting to another. That way, the email box always remains light and we are looped in most of the time. While its important to reschedule regular review calls or VCs during the trip, it also helps to have it first thing in the morning, right after breakfast, in the same hotel room, to ensure privacy and quietness which one may not get while on travel. 

Sleep & Rest

This is most important part of the entire journey and the least focused one. Most of us get very groggy (or smashed) when we wake up the next morning because of our “other priorities”. As I said before, it does help to avoid a heady dose of food / alcohol which can put your resting time out of zone. But there is a trick which I have been learning over time. Even when not travelling, I am conditioning my body to sleep for 6 hours – call it yoga or what you will. But a good 6-hour sleep during the night will go a long way in having a very productive day.

Lastly, make time for yourself. For making calls to the family and close friends, laughing off silly jokes and forwards, reading stuff you like, taking photos and writing or posting on social media, doing fun things and to just stay still to see the sunrise and breathe well during the business trip. All work and no play make Jack & Jill dull. So go there and make the best of a business trip next time.


04 March, 2022

My trysts with Ad-film making


Yesterday, I completed making my 12th Ad film, this one for my current employer Specsmakers. Though I always had a liking and flair for commercial cinema, the most I have come close is to write movie reviews. Never in my life did I imagine I would be part of 12 Ad films for 2 brands, one an established one with a great market presence and another, a budding consumer brand. Whichever way, it’s been a great learning experience.



It all began in 2020 during the peak of the first ever lockdown which was an outcome of an unknown viral disease which was popularised by its medical name SARS Novel Coronavirus, moniker name Covid-19. The country was shutdown for over 3 weeks since 27 March and the rest of the world was no different including Europe, Australia and everything in between, save for the US where the former President and many others reckoned that such a didn’t never exist – living in denial for long. 


I read newspaper reports of silly family arguments which led to extreme cases of domestic violence all the way leading up to suicides and divorce. The reason – disagreement to share household work. These were young couples, most of them who had not even crossed their 10th wedding anniversaries. From a nervous breakdown due to not stepping out of home or socialising to concerns of job loss or loss of income, people were getting more depressed than ever. During late May, my septuagenarian parents tested positive for Covid-19. I took them to the Govt. approved medical isolation centre and dropped them off – eyes swollen and with an eerie feeling, whether I would see them ever after. To all our surprise, they both were discharged on the 3rd day after a basic treatment even as the Govt. had to fill their beds with more deserving patients.



That’s when it stuck to me that I should do an AD film which would go on TV to showcase how Senior Citizens in India (and worldwide) went about doing their own things while the younger generation was complaining. The result was a TVC shoot feat. Pandmashree Dhananjayans, the ace dance couple from Chennai who popularised Bharatnatyam dance form world over. The couple shot for 8 hours, showcasing household work and enjoying Levista coffee & their own company! In a few months, we shot 3 Ads for Levista coffee to celebrate the association with Chennai Super Kings. The Ads which were played exclusively on TV channels and on Youtube went viral, garnering mass appeal and great brand presence. Later, we did 2 more ADs to celebrate the festival spirit and festivities as well as accepting WFH and moving on.

In 2021, when I joined Specsmakers, we shot 2 Ads, one of which was an industry first. The lead actor prompted people to buy a new pair of specs as part of their festival shopping which had some serious positive impact on our Deepavali Sales. The other one was two friends discussing about affordable specs continues to garner more and more respect for the brand.


And over the last 2 days, we shot six TVCs – yes, six of them in a tightly planned and executed schedule which wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperation, strategic planning and execution of the Director and his capable team members. While all the 12 Ads have been directed by professional Ad film makers of high repute, I must say that I was actively involved in evolving the concept, writing the script, being at the shooting spot and making on-the-spot corrections and improvisations and of course, to plan their broadcast appropriately so the respective brands got their desired and deserved visibility and promotion.  Needless to say, never tried to ghost-direct the scenes while leaving all creative liberties to the Director, Camera & Lighting team, Costume Designers and the Actors.


Last but not the least, I also ended up acting in an AD film for Quick Heal anti-virus products which was released earlier this week. Though I desired to take up modelling 25 years back, it finally happened now! 



My most important learning from the creation of these Brand assets – either being behind the camera or in front of it, something for which I have not been formally trained, is that one can excel in any field of their choice including film-making, whether short form or long and at any age in their lifetime, provided we give our best to sincerely learn the techniques from scratch with dedication and latch on to the one who teach us. 

Practical experience that I have gained watching innumerous commercial feature films all these years have also helped me to appreciate the detailing and importance for nuances which have often come out at the sets and on the spot much to the surprise & delight of the crew!


05 March, 2021

Upwards & Northwards! Finally


On Thursday, Fitch Solutions, one of the world’s top rating agency estimated that India’s HHS – Household spending would grow 7.9% y-o-y in 2021 after 14% contraction in the year 2020 due to the Corona pandemic. In nominal terms, the HHS is estimated to be Rs. 125 lakh crores (whatever number of Zeroes, that is!), a 3.3% growth over 2019. Not bad at all, huh. Food & non-alcoholic drinks is expected to grow the highest among all other consumption categories and this, in my humble opinion is perhaps the biggest good news of the year! 


Here’s why I feel that this will propel the economy to a large extent.


India has an estimated 14 million kiranas and retail touch points – who sell anything from cigarettes, biscuits, tea, coffee, grocery all the way to other household items including consumer durables, fashion, footwear among others. This segment drives India’s consumption opportunity, a key reason why the Amazons, the Walmarts, the Wall street Investors all the way to the Chinese & Japanese billionaires and everyone in between are eyeing a small pie in the Great Indian Retail Story which is yet to unfold. The world has been witnessing an ugly battle in the public involving some of the most reputed businessmen and their companies, thanks to a hostile take over which has seen stiff resistance from the other. Meanwhile, Indians are jolly well shopping their home needs and personal requirements through gadgets – apps as well as a simple phone call to order their roti, kapda and makaan – quite literally. 



I started working in the retail Industry 24 years back scooping ice-cream and later with one of the pioneers of Grocery Retail, Foodworld Supermarkets two decades back. Even back then, most Indians in bigger cities had to travel not more than 2 kms to buy their food and grocery. Every locality and neighborhood had a kirana store who offered personalised and tailor-made solution for her / his customers. From topping the shopping bag with FMCG freebies (what we call as Loyalty points these days) to offering a chocolate to the kid (instant gratification in today’s terms) all the way to a speedy home delivery (some Start-Ups who never made a transaction level profit over 10 years are now Unicorns!) and so on. The Kirana offered credit at a time when a “Credit Card” was a western phenomenon and raised capital – through internal accruals and market offering, rather than the obnoxious Equity based Investments.


Cut to 2021, my excitement with the latest Fitch report is simple. Though the Kiranas have dwindled in real numbers – not because the Modern Retailers or E-Commerce companies replaced them – rather than many of them did not have second-gen successors to run their businesses, they have simply been replaced by “Convenience Stores” – family owned as well as Corporates who vie for the consumer’s spends. And daily shopping for Food & Grocery shall never go out of fashion in the India’s consumption story. As most Indian households are small and barely have refridgerators, and even if they do, no more than 165 – 200 litres that cannot hold over 2-3 days’ needs; the kitchens of India are big enough to accommodate one adult to stand and cook with a provision to carry 3-4 weeks dry grocery requirements. Daily use items like Milk, Biscuits and snacks are almost bought every other day, rather than the large packs of colas, juices and nachos which are more the western phenomenon. Small is Beautiful and India’s sachet revolution is a glaring example of how and what India consumes.



If you are unable to relate to most of the above, I can understand as yours and my house are perhaps a lot bigger than the majority of consumers in India, for you are reading this on a digital gadget which is a privilege for a few of us Indians. The majority still read physical newspapers, watch sops and news on TV sets and shop from their neighborhood stores as they walk back home after work or leisure. In fact, shopping is a form of entertainment in India, isn’t it, for we make-up and dress up for buying groceries or eat at a restaurant.


I have always reckoned that “Consumption is Growth” compared to “Consumption leads to growth”. The moment, we are consuming, there is a need to repurchase and the cycle continues. The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed us behind, but not by light years. The recovery across segments, from automobiles to entry level smart phones, consumer durables to even the more discretionary types, is a confidence boosting measure that things are back on track, slowly but surely.




As Indians, what we can do to boost our economy is to consume. And consume a tad more than the previous one. Be it our daily dose of coffee & tea to household needs or fashion, every rupee that we spend will go in to building back India, one step at a time. But where’s the money to spend, one may ask. I have eternally believed that India is one country where no Indian can sleep hungry – if they choose to work and earn their meal. Such is the opportunity in this country. While lakhs of people have been displaced of their daily jobs, we have seen a resurgence in our mental strengths, especially from the marginally placed and the lower strata of the society. One will find enough work in this country, if they choose to. And the entire ecosystem has to work together. Am I living and writing this from Utopia, No. Am I sure that we shall survive this crisis? Well, we have always created history with our resilience over the centuries and this pandemic is also one which shall pass by. 


Back to the Fitch estimates, Food and Grocery are the real propellers to the Economy’s consumption pattern. We earn our dough, spend at the neighborhood stores which employ people and provide them a livelihood; they in turn spend on their basic necessities and slowly but surely increase their non-discretionary spends and the cycle continues. Daravi in Mumbai has more set-top boxes than many urban clusters in India, remember. 



At Levista, where we sell Instant and Filter Coffee across Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, we have grown 50% in our sales over last year (and we have 1 more calendar month to finish). I added 70% more manpower this year over last and increased retail touch points by 3 times to 79,000 as of 1 Mar. 2021. And we still occupy less than 2% of the Rs. 2,200 Crores pa packaged Coffee market in India which excludes B2B / Restaurant & CafĂ© consumption business. We have just begun, I believe. With a 98% headroom to grow and such confidence building measures – our real growth as well as estimates like that of Fitch solutions, I guess we are headed upwards and northwards, even as we should remain grounded to reality with a eye and ear on the consumer who’s always sending us notes, thoughts and reactions. If only we listen… more!

 

03 January, 2021

Thank you 2020. Hello 2021.

More than anything else, I once again learned to unlearn a lot of things in the year that passed by that was 2020. I learned, yet again, that Change is the only constant and over time, we realise that “Change” in any form is good. Honestly, when I look back 365 days behind as the train was chugging in to the Mysore Railway Junction on the morning of 3rd Jan. 2020 around 7.30am, little did I realise that I would come this far. I was on my way to take up the new assignment at Kushal Nagar as Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Levista Coffee, where the parent company SLN Coffee Pvt. Ltd. is head quartered. As always when I take up a new assignment, I went with an open mind, so I can learn as much as I could and decided to take up the new role, one day at a time. Within a few days, I had settled down in the Company’s Guest House in Bangalore and spent a good amount of time trying to understand the various aspects of our business, Industry, colleagues, external & internal stakeholders. 



I would avidly look forward to returning to Chennai where my family lived. And it was quiet emotional for me to leave on a Sunday night often even as the kids would get in to all gloom for not being able to see me in person for 2 weeks or so. Until one day, everything turned topsy-turvy and life took a 180-degree turn. U Turn, if I could say so. From mutually missing each other, at one stage it felt like an over-dose (not really!) that we spent 150 days precisely under one roof, thanks to continued lockdowns. In the first 2 weeks of the first Lockdown, life came to a standstill, literally and figuratively. None of us had much to do other than watch News channels in multiple languages to get different perspectives. By mid-April, there was some action slowly on the work front but still we were all locked up at home with limited chances of stepping out, even to shop necessities. 



A chance visit to a local retail store and my Father seemed to have picked up the dreaded Coronavirus which eventually moved on to my Mother. Little did he realise and when he visited our home one fine morning to deliver vegetables, we panicked and rushed my parents for tests which proved positive. Meanwhile, my daughter picked the infection from him, her sister from her and my wife from them. I tested “Negative” being O+ve (or for some strange reason) and was blessed to take care of the family for the next four weeks until things settled down albeit very slowly. However, it was in May ’20 that Levista achieved a historic highest monthly sale followed by another historic Sales milestone in June. And I was here, in my bed as I write this article, seven months ago when all members of the family were fighting an unknown infection. 




The fact that we as humans were so vulnerable and life is too short was a shot in the arm for me from those days and I vowed to be ever so grateful and thankful to the Creator and Mother Nature for bestowing whatever we have today. From sighing that I had lost crores of rupees on my StartUps over 5 years since 2014, to being happy that my Parents came back home in flesh and blood from the hospital after treatment and that my wife recovered though slower than anticipated was the last nail in my box of worries. From that day onwards, I have been the happiest if all members of my family woke up the next morning and lived a basic, normal life. 



My second XUV500 AT was 2 years old when I joined Levista. This was my sixth vehicle in 15 years after self-driving over 2,75,000 kms all by myself across India on work & leisure, I was contemplating an upgrade to a more posh German beast in the coming months. That’s when I had to call a mechanic to jump start the engine of my beloved XUV whose battery went dead due to no usage for weeks together! How things change… From planning to buy a new car, I decided to sell the XUV so I can save on the EMI since I had almost NIL travel during those 6 months. I ventured out from home on the 151st Day on 10 Aug. 2020 to Bangalore well equipped with E-Pass for an Up and down Travel and have driven 13,600 kms till date on my beast ever since. The entire discussions of Levista’s partnership on Bigg Boss Tamil Season 4 feat. Padmashree Kamal Hassan was decided and finalised during one of those long drives between Bangalore & Chennai. Every 40-50 mins, I would stop at a Toll Booth and make calls, internal and external to seek views. What a drive this has been – I mean the ones to Bangalore / Chennai as well as life overall. And many such discussions while the Office driver was behind the wheel including Zoom Calls with my iPad perched behind the seat. 




In the middle of Nov. ’20, our team completed the total Turnover of FY 19-20 and that was a moment to celebrate with fellow soldiers even as they ventured out carefully everyday those 8 months fighting an unknown enemy that Covid-19 is. A big round of applause and hearty thanks to their family members for allowing their beloved to go out and conquer the world. As is the case of MS Dhoni, I realised that all the noise in the stadium (read: my surroundings who kept cheering and booing me!) was insignificant as long as I don’t take it too much to my heart. As Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, don’t get very upset when something unfortunate happens and don’t get too ecstatic when something very cheerful happens. Easy to say for you, Dear Lord as you are the Creator and we are mere mortals. 



Listening 15 mins daily about the epic Mahabharatha narrated by a noted and eminent scholar Velukkudi Shri. Krishnan helped me immensely for the past 225 days. In his daily bulletin, he would move the story as written by Guru Shri Veda Vyasa and narrated by Sage Vaishampayana to King Janamejaya. It was so timely that there would be gems every few days which had a direct impact on my daily life, personal and professional, that it was surreal to hear those advices.



Even as I ended the Calendar Year professionally with a first ever Virtual Media Launch on 28th Dec. ’20, with our new flavours of coffee and the much awaited mass market variant - Levista Supreme Instant coffee, it seemed to be a memorable, meaningful and a successful year that I completed, much to the chagrin of my detractors, happiness and joy of my well-wishers and with the constant love and encouragement of my immediate family and a few close friends. Without the unstinted support of my Management and my colleagues at work, this journey wouldn’t have been this smooth – even if I wish to call it so. It certainly has been the fastest, toughest and perhaps the most fulfilling professional journey I have had in the past 24 years in Consumer Retail. 



I started the year (lockdown) with virtual classes for MBA students whom I was teaching offline until Mar. ’20. Over time, this virtual address became a way of life with me having spoken at over a dozen Webinars as well as my 4th consecutive year at BIL Trichy teaching the Retailing Elective for the second year students. While I didn’t miss my walk through during the lectures – my laptop screen would be off and I'd keep walking in my room as I gave the lectures using my bluetooth earphones, I really missed my campus stay at the guest houses, the morning walks within the sprawling BHEL dwelling in Trichy, the food feasts and of course the much awaited train travel. And yesterday, I addressed over 100+ MBA students of XLRI Jamshedpur, a session which I must have presented at the campus in the third week of Mar. ’20 to the previous batch.



Of all things, I learned to appreciate life as it is; from what we have to seeing what others didn’t have and to compare ourselves to be blessed than them. We cannot change the system, the nature and destiny. But we, as humans are blessed with the knack of converting adversities in to opportunities. That’s a choice we all wake up with. For Ex., I sensed an opportunity that the Out of Home Coffee Consumption and Workplace Coffee consumption could be coupled with incremental household consumption, add to it the WFH woes and the initial days of adjusting to the new normal. After 8-9 months, it sounds boring to hear or to utter the phrase “The New Normal”. It is, rather “normal” and it shall be so all along now. 

While I didn’t have time, rather didn’t make time to learn a professional course or start gaming on one of my i-devices, "i-learnt-cooking" was perhaps the proudest moment for my me and more for my Mom rather, who still is unable to come to terms that I could take so much interest in this “art” which she has been an expert at that I have shown no interest for the past 30 years! Other than exploring life from different perspectives, it’s been a yet another adventurous year for me. So, thank you 2020. I am clear about my destination by 2030. But until then, I shall enjoy the journey every day. As I always say, the Journey is as important as the Destination. #Miles2Go 



24 February, 2020

Consumers & Advertising

In my new role at Levista Coffee, I have a dual role to play in Sales & Marketing. While Sales is something I have been on to almost every day of my 23 years’ in Retailing, Marketing is an even more interesting and close-to the heart subject which precedes my Sales experience. Right from college days (and even before as a curious consumer), I have always wondered why Companies market their products if it’s Sales worthy. In fact, it’s an old adage that a great product doesn’t need Advertising. This doesn’t hold good for any product or service in today’s context (and perhaps, even for people given how Mr. Trump & Mr. Modi promoted their agendas at Motera Stadium). So, any business needs Marketing and Consumer facing businesses need a tad more. A lot more rather, with the increasing and insane competition.


As I have been talking to Heads of various media businesses ranging from GEC Channels to Entertainment, News Channels to Spirituality, I have been able to decipher the needs of Media consumers and thought I should write about it briefly. In my opinion, Consumers have three key characteristics – Gossip, Anxiety and Greed. The programs with highest TRPs are Soaps (Tele-Serials), Reality Shows and News Debates. No wonder that they fit in to the three-key human characteristics.

Tele-Serials are all about gossip. The characters in the play gossip and play truant against one another. This vicious cycle goes on for weeks. Contrary to many people who think that Serial scripts are pre-decided and are usually written like film scripts, no they are not. Script Writers change the storyline every few weeks based on audience reaction as well as, wait “BARC Data” which ultimately announce TRPs! So much so, that Script Writers are even replaced by the TV channels / Producers should they wish to. 


As consumers (serial-viewers) love this “gossip” quality of others and themselves, they get hooked to the screens, small and ultra-small ones (almost all Tv Channels have OTTs now to view on Mobiles). So are the News Channels which have more debate-style programs than actual News Reading sessions. No matter how loud a motor-mouth he or she is, the audience love their Anchors! And that’s what raises their popularity and the program’s ratings, after all.

Reality Shows build anxiety, be it KBC-styled quizzes or Box-styled houses that prison inmates for 100 days or even Music Performances which have elimination rounds where even normal looking Musicians outperform their onscreen persona with inimitable hyper histrionics. So is it with Cookery shows or task based programs, especially ones that involve NCC-type arduous tasks in real life situations. Nerkonda Paarvai, the show hosted by Ms. Lakshmi Ramakrishnan began with a bang on 24 Feb. 2020, this time on Kalaignar Tv and is sure to rock TRPs. 


Lastly, greed. Media Consumers want more of what they already watch. With an estimated 10+ Regional General Entertainment Channels in over 10 top Indian languages and almost a similar number in mainstream Hindi, the audience is spoilt for choice with the need to make more time to watch these serials, even while on the move (on OTTs) or on YouTube rehashes. 

Surprisingly, spiritual programs such as temple information or horoscope reading have low TRPs, rather lower viewership. Maybe consumers feel God doesn’t have much to do with their greed, anxiety or gossip. Probably. But Advertisers like us have our customer profiles cracked. We know what and when they watch, so we feed them what they love. So, they ultimately visit a retail store or a website / app and order our stuff. I seem to have been in the most exciting part of my career which I think is yet to begin. Honestly. 



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...