Friday, October 9, 2009

Intricacies of Indian Retail

This article of mine appeared in 'Retail &Leisure International', which is a UK based magazine in their Sept '09 issue.

The Indian market is a strong attraction for any marketer simply because of the vast consumer base. A population of billion plus, of which approximately a third live in urban areas and this is expected to go up to 40% by 2030. This is enough to make any enterprise worthwhile, especially retail and more so food retailing. Most international chains are looking at India keenly and waiting for the opening up of FDI eagerly to partake of this market opportunity.

However, there are several factors that an international operator needs to be aware of and more importantly build into their entry strategy, failing which, even after FDI opens up the going would not be smooth.
  • Competition – Apart from the thousands of corporate chain stores that now dot the Indian Retailscape, there are approximately 12 million conventional outlets. Of these, roughly 60% to 70% are grocery stores and a third is in urban centers. Taking into account the geographical spread of India, this simply means that there are far more number of stores in cities and they continue to offer a compelling value proposition, fronted by convenience.
  • Also, the conventional stores operate with a significant cost structure advantage as also generate far higher sales per sq. ft. because of their smaller size. Such stores would definitely not be able to generate higher margins as compared to chain stores, especially those who leverage global sourcing. However, the relatively higher sales and far lower cost structure would enable these stores to comfortably take on any competition in their stride. Therefore, any chain store would require a dual strategy to manage competition from other chain stores as also the large number of neighborhood conventional outlets.
  • The Indian consumer – The consumer behavior is changing towards increased consumption and preference for a better lifestyle. However, the core sense of thrift and caution has not been eroded completely and the recent downturn has made these consumers more value driven. So pricing and promotions are not just important, they are crucial.
  • Indian cities – Barring a few newer cities, most have grown and morphed over the years. A substantial part of this development happened without zoning laws and therefore the cities have residential areas interspersed with commercial development. It is only in the past few years that well defined residential suburbs have come about and even that has not completely removed residences from city centers. If a store wants to leverage all the relevant catchment areas, real estate costs are higher in most parts of a city. If the store network plans on averaging this by having stores in the emerging residential suburbs, the sales would usually be inverse to the rental and by that logic the average sales would be lower.
  • Supply chain – The sheer physical spread of the country makes for a challenge with regards to supply chain. Compounding this is the current taxation and levies which does not allow for a distribution center network that can be planned basis distance alone. However, the recent budget proposal to implement GST by 2010 is a step in the right direction and would go a long way in enabling chains to plan more efficient supply chain system.
  • Other statutory and legal framework constraints – Today a store needs to obtain as many as 20 – 30 different licenses to start operations and usually from different authorities. Similarly, there is a legislation called APMC act in most states which effectively prohibits direct procurement from farmers. Some cities levy an entry tax called Octroi, which indirectly forces a retailer to either set up a distribution center in a higher rent area within the city or incur higher transportation costs for store fills.
  • MRP – Although there are many instances of price regulation in the retail sector across the world, I don’t think any other country enforces the Maximum Retail Price (MRP) rule. This price is printed on product and is applicable on all packaged products. This price is used to calculate certain taxes and manufacturers peg the margin structure with regards to this. As a corporate entity any chain store does not have the luxury of selling above this price and hence it acts like a glass ceiling. Even in high cost locations where the catchment might not be particularly bothered about the price, a retailer can sell only at MRP, whereas in price sensitive areas one is forced to discount, especially for KVIs.

I guess by now the reader would have concluded that my secret mission is to deter any international retailer from entering the Indian market. However, that is not the case. My intent is to portray a realistic picture that balances the huge market potential of Indian Retail with the ground realities that one would have to manage.

My suggestion to any international operator watching the Indian Retailscape with the intent of future entry would be to do so immediately leveraging the Cash & Carry route, simply because it is now immediately possible and would enable any retailer to build a ‘game changing’ back end infrastructure.

Take the food segment for example. It is no use focusing only on distribution centers, transportation, etc as an entry strategy. This would address only 60% to 70% of the household consumption in terms of CPG/ packaged products. Also, given the MRP scenario, there is a limit to how much value can be generated by focusing on the supply chain of these categories.

30% to 40% of Indian consumption is basic staples and grocery items as also fresh produce. Significant work needs to be done in this sphere to extract value from the supply chain. Being dependent on the same wholesale/ semi-wholesale chain with marginal infrastructure at the tail end will not help. Paradigm changing initiatives like end to end cold chain, cooperative/ corporate farm, etc. should be explored and indulged in to extract the value that is present, but is now lost due to damages and intermediaries. The APMC act not withstanding, such initiatives are possible and would provide a competitive edge to any retailer.

The game changer for a new entrant would not be setting up yet another store with maybe better facilities but in offering a significantly better value proposition. And for that, the key would be the back end.

Moving away from the food segment, several other product categories have not even been explored; Home Improvement being one. Housing being a key aspiration for Indians, the economic recovery will definitely see a boom in this sector. A retailer who understands the intricacies of Indian Retail would only stand to garner a major share of this boom.

In summary I would state that bring on the global best practices, but Indianize it for it to work, and it will.


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