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The Case of the Missing Millions

April 27th, 2006 by Devangshu Dutta

In my previous column (“Deal Ya No Deal“, 9 March, 2006), I raised a point about unrealistic volume expectations on the part of many marketers launching new products and brands in India.

In some part these are due to the marketer believing his or her own hype. However, a more insidious influence on the expectations are the unrealistic assumptions – a big factor being the incorrect assumption about the size of the market.

Back in the early days of economic liberalisation, during 1993-94, I remember figures being thrown about that talked about the 200-300 million middle class. Multinational and Indian consulting firms, in the slick presentations on behalf of Indian clients pitching partnerships to foreign companies, fed the legend. (Hey, let’s face it, for a while I, too, was part of that game!)

Well, for the last two to three years, those times have been upon us again. The difference is that, instead of hiring consultants, Indian companies have smartened their act, hired a few (or a few dozen) young MBA’s, who are making the exact same pitch to potential international partners again.

As a fall-out in my own small little corner of the world, I have been severely troubled by several international clients and associates whose first question is: “Just how big is India as a market?” and I must say that not many of them like the answers I have given them.

Foreign companies’ first attraction to India is the billion-plus population. Brands from countries which have domestic markets of 50-300 million salivate at the prospect of 1.2 billion Indians starving for their particular make of biscuit or coffee or the latest backless cropped blouse. The thinking goes, “If we can capture even 2% of the market to start with…

Let’s stop dreaming and tell the truth for a change. And I promise you, the truth is still very palatable – you just need to shift your perspective a bit.

The simple fact is that, if we were to evaluate incomes, spending and consumption the way they are evaluated in the developed markets, even allowing for purchasing power parity, the Indian “Middle Class” is possibly less than 20 million individuals.

“What?! But that’s less than 2 per cent of the Indian population,” has been the anguished reaction of many international marketers that I have spoken to in the past year or so. Followed by, “Where are you pulling out these figures from?”

The answer to the first question is: “that’s correct”. And the answer to the second question is: the sample survey carried out by the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) over the past few years focussed on household income.

Let’s consider the figures that NCAER has been coming up with. In its figures for 2001, NCAER estimated that approximately 2.5 million households earned above Rs. 500,000. The reason I see the Rs. 500,000 figure as important is because, in absolute terms in the Indian, context it is a good benchmark – about Rs. 40,000 per month – by which to categorise the middle class. Also, in relative terms, adjusting for PPP (say a factor of 3.5), this is an annual income of about US$ 40,000.

After allowing for mandatory household and other expenses, these (or higher) income levels do leave a good margin for discretionary spending. This population has much greater access to the stimuli and information that international marketers rely on to build a brand presence across borders. Other sources of brand and product influence include overseas travel (or relatives travelling in from overseas).

NCAER has dubbed the class earning between Rs. 500,000 and Rs. 1,000,000 as “the Strivers”, and that I believe is the most apt definition of the middle-classes across the world.

Currently, the estimate for this population would be over 3 million households, or about 18-19 million individuals. That then, my friends, is the size of the middle class, to be targeted by international companies and premium Indian brands.

Ouch! that was the sound of thousands of dreams shattering and hundreds of business plans going into waste-bins!

Come, come, let’s pick the pieces up and look at them afresh.

Firstly, a population of 19 million is no small market by itself. Many of the international brands’ home markets are about the same size – Australia’s population is a little over 20 million. Italy’s total population is estimated at about 58 million and UK’s slightly above 60 million, and so on. The problem is that when you start with a reference point of 1-billion, a figure in the vicinity of 20 million looks very uninteresting. So, the first solution is to shift one’s initial perspective on the Indian market.

Secondly, a significant part of this target population in India is concentrated in a few large cities in the country. This makes it easier to target this consumer group, rather than dispersing the budget and management effort across a very large number of locations. The reality is that most national brands can achieve a bulk of their sales from the top 8-12 cities in the country, and there is no reason why the story should be any different for international brands looking to create a new presence in the market.

Third, and very important, I would challenge you to show me another similar population anywhere else in the world (other than China), which is growing at the rate of 11-12% a year i.e. doubling every 6-7 years. This is certainly not because the upper income classes are producing babies at a more prolific rate – it is the rise in real incomes and the wider distribution of wealth through greater business opportunities for businesspeople and increases in salaries for the employed.

So, as an international brand, or as a premium Indian brand, by the end of this decade you’re looking at a potential market of 30-40 million consumers.

Now, that number is a respectable market anywhere in the world. What’s more, on the back of the growing market, if you launch your products now, you’re looking at very healthy business growth rates over the next few years.

“But where is the mythical 200-300 million middle class?” was the third painful question raised by our clients and associates, “Do they really exist and how do we reach them?”

But that, my friends, is the next column.

Posted in Apparel, Consumer, Food & Grocery, Footwear, India, Lifestyle & Fashion, Market Research, Marketing, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Textiles, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Creating an effective supply-chain mechanism

April 15th, 2006 by Devangshu Dutta

(This was a Case Study Analysis for The Financial Express on the justification for implementation of ERP in a start-up modern (organised) retail business – 15 April 2006)

Most consumer, product-supply chains have evolved into fairly complex chains for two main reasons. Firstly, despite all the talk about removing intermediaries, there are still many people involved in the entire supply chain at different levels — for no reason but that they do add some value in the steps they are handling. Whether this is breaking of bulk, or handling of disparate products, shipping or storing goods, or providing bridge finance, each intermediary is in the chain because he has a role to play.

Secondly, and more importantly, product diversity has increased tremendously. Whether it is the number of brands available of biscuits, or the number of types of melons, or the package sizes of shampoos, the growing market has created more suppliers, more product segments and more variety for the retailer to handle.

With perishable items, a third factor gets added in: date of production and shelf-life. Clearly, even in a developing market like India which has lax regulation and low compliance, consumers are increasingly aware of perishability of products. And as companies grow in size and profile, their vulnerability to litigation also increases.

The retailer, who is the critical link between the consumer and the rest of the supply chain, must effectively manage not just the diversity and the perishability, but also communicate with and manage with the rest of supply chain. And given the nature of the complexities, Mr Paul’s business would have no choice but to implement an effective IT system that would keep the company’s executives clued into the information on as near-time a basis as feasible. For a company that is planning operations at a certain scale, even the opening of one store without the IT system would create a huge gap to overcome in subsequent growth.

However, the IT system alone cannot guarantee the success or failure, and certainly not the profitability of the venture. Technology may be seen as the easy quick-fix, or as the stick with which to drive process discipline. But to me it is the last link in a chain that begins with ‘People’ and leads to ‘Processes’. Without the right orientation, training and skills, effective processes cannot be created. Without effective processes, the best IT system in the world is, at best, very effectively enabling a bad organisation.

The advantage of an existing branded product is that it is more ready for roll-out than a bespoke (custom-developed) system would be. Not just would it take more time to create a bespoke solution, it would also require the involvement of senior management. Senior management time is a rare commodity in the best of times — in a start-up business, it is even more scarce.

There is also the premise that a branded IT product that has been implemented across other companies will have some amount of best practice built in. With the assumption that poor practices are not also built into the system, it might actually help the management to leap-frog the business learning curve.

On the other hand, Mr Paul may be paying for features and capabilities in the branded IT product that his fledgling business will not use for a long time. Customisation and implementation needs may also push the cost over the limit.

Therefore, the ERP system must be evaluated just like any other business investment or expense.

There must be a clear rationale for it, a very clear set of objectives and deliverables, and a well-structured programme and project plan for implementation. Like any other investment, IT must also be evaluated for returns.

Posted in Entrepreneurship, Retail, Supply Chain, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Fast Fashion

April 5th, 2006 by Devangshu Dutta

Fashion is, by definition, perishable. Like, bread, eggs and milk. Or is it?

When bread turns stale, eggs turn rotten or milk turns rancid, you do have to throw it away. Fashion is different, because its perishability is artificial, driven by popular perception that something is “out-of-date” or that something else is “the look of the day”. You don’t really have to throw that blue peasant skirt out in the garbage or in the Salvation Army bin…but you do anyway, because it is so yesterday…or that’s what everyone else is saying.

Earlier, perceptions took time to spread, today they can be spread instantaneously through the web, TV and cell phones, and pretty quickly, even through slow media like print magazines.

So ‘Fast Fashion’ is really a product of fast media and communications technologies.

Having said that, it is here to stay, and regular (mainstream) slow-coaches do need to be worried about customers being seduced away by the ever-fresh look of a Chico’s or a Zara.

I can’t even begin to estimate the millions of dollars that must have been spent on “studying the Zara model”. However, while Zara’s model seems to scream “best practice” and everyone wants to emulate it – is it really for everyone?

Inditex (Zara’s parent company) has grown over 40+ years of evolution, in a specific market and business context. It may have “exploded” on the global scene when it floated its IPO in 2001, but the business model has been brewing a long time.

It has such significant investments in production that Inditex is as much a manufacturer as a retailer. Its people and process model almost diametrically opposite the command and control, “buying director – driven” model of other retailers. Its technology investments are focused better than most of its peers. (See case study and presentation)

Would your company’s DNA allow you to invest in and manage fabric and apparel manufacturing? Would it allow young people to be sent out to take bigger-ticket purchase decisions with fewer approvals than they do now? Would your design team really trust your frontline store staff with feeding them relevant trend information every day?

And yet, and yet…As labour costs rise in Europe, Zara is also being forced to rethink its model of local or regional production. As it does move more production to places like India and China, the big question is whether it can maintain the sanctity of its business model.

I won’t advise other retailers to breathe easy, but they don’t need to roll over and die just yet.

Posted in Apparel, Branding, Footwear, Lifestyle & Fashion, Marketing, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Supply Chain, Textiles, Uncategorized | No Comments »

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