August is the month when India celebrates gaining its independence in 1947.
So it is quite apt to think about the implications the word “independent” has in the world of grocery retailing as well.
India’s food and grocery retail sector (as most of the other product sectors) is full of traditional “mom-and-pop” operations. Estimates of their share of the market vary from 97% to 99.5% of the total food and grocery sales – but it is given that “independent” retailers rule the roost, and the estimates vary only in the degree of predominance.
The word “independent” in this context differentiates an entrepreneur-run stand-alone operation from a chain store, and encompasses all the kiranawalas and corner shops – traditional, modernizing, as well as the best-of-breed. The business owner-manager of these operations is solely responsible for merchandising, buying, staffing & HR, finance and the rest of it. If he works well, he makes a decent living and helps others to make a living as well. If he doesn’t work well, others may still make a living but he will most likely just scrape by.
In many ways, of course, the word “independent” is related to “freedom”. The phrase “independent retailer” also conjures up a picture of overall economic freedom, of self-ownership of one’s business and economic destiny.
There is freedom from an externally imposed operating framework, freedom in selection of products, freedom in pricing, freedom to service local customers for the store in the most appropriate and locally-relevant way, freedom to manage the cash-flows as the owner-manager wishes to, and so on.
This picture obviously is based on the premise that the independence that is assumed is actually available, as it would be if the market remains hugely fragmented and the supply base also becomes fragmented with many suppliers and brands fighting out for their share of the pie.
Clearly, to anyone who is actually involved in the retail sector that is a huge assumption.
Yes, the supply base is certainly becoming more diverse than earlier as new brands get launched in the market and battle for shelf-space. These brands include not just start-ups or mid-sized companies, but also large companies who are well-equipped to deal with the large incumbents on their own terms. This is surely a good thing for the independent retailer, as it provides him more choice and makes his shelf-space more valuable.
However, there is a quantum difference in the sophistication in organisation, information availability and financial capability between a single-location independent retailer, and even a mid-sized branded supplier, and the balance of power is actually more fragile than it seems. As a supplier grows, it builds up a differentiated position and a distinctive branding and becomes less easily replaceable, while each independent retailer becomes more and more generic, and therefore replaceable. The major differentiating or sustaining factor for most such retailers is their physical location, whose desirability and marketability is not as much within their own control.
When you add large modern retailers into the mix, the economic freedom of the independent looks even more fragile.
Some observers would have us believe that in India modern retailers have little or no impact on the long-term health of independent retailers. This is quite contrary to the ample evidence available from the modernization of retail over several decades in other markets around the world. (Should we chant the old hymn, “But India is different”?)
The fact is that modern retailers don’t suddenly lead to a boom in consumption of food and FMCG products. While there may be some increment due to greater supply and better retail techniques, a new store will invariably take business from existing retail channels. After all, given a choice of a wider variety, a better shopping environment, similar or better products, and similar or better pricing, why would consumers not shift some or all of their spending to a modern retail store?
This, then, brings us to the (sensitive) question – what would happen to the independent retailers in such a circumstance?
Of course, we can take heart from the fact that independent retailers continue to exist even in highly-consolidated and more “developed” markets, and imagine that such a thing will happen in India as well.
Let’s not forget that in some developed and consolidated markets, independents may be supported by local laws and regulations (such as urban planning constraints), while in other places they are supported by the community which may not just show their support by shopping at the mom-and-pop store but also by actively blocking the entry of large retailers and chain stores.
In India the picture is a bit more complex and nuanced.
One the one hand, the consumer is apparently quite happy to enjoy better shopping environments, the convenience of all-under-one-roof. And, while estimates of “wastage” in the food supply chain vary widely, it is widely acknowledged that modern retailers can have a significant positive impact on product quality, value addition, and logistical infrastructure. That is surely a good thing for the country when it is vital to explore every bit of efficiency in food production and its delivery to the population.
On the other hand, regulatory or activist blocks have started to appear already, very early in the growth cycle of modern food and grocery retailing. A few state governments have even taken to banning or at least restricting the growth of corporate-promoted retail chains. Traders’ associations in many markets are quite clear in their perception of the threat from modern retailers to the independent’s normal existence. They express the wish to retain a livelihood threatened by corporate-backed retail operations that are perceived to be competing unfairly with their deeper pockets.
One of the core issues here is the sense of ownership, of being one’s own boss, the dignity offered by being an entrepreneur. Think about what we said earlier about the sense of freedom. Is there a way to retain, or even improve upon that?
The answer may lie in franchising. This may be the bridge between the two sides, and the vehicle for a “co-opted” growth of both.
In a fragmented market like India, it will certainly be a while before corporate retailers can understand and service diverse localities as well as the independents can, or have operations that are as efficient as a kirana-store. As long as independents evolve their own business to offer consumers better service, keep their operating expenses low, manage their inventory closely and retain the energy to run their family business, they will thrive. Imagine if that management capability, sense of ownership and drive became available to a corporate retailer.
At the same time, surely the sourcing scale and marketing muscle that are available to retail chains could be useful to an independent retailer, and help him build more business.
The fundamental successful structure for franchising is identical the world over. The franchiser is an entrepreneur or a company with a product or service that has a market beyond what he can immediately service. The franchisee is an entrepreneur who wants to have the pleasure and privilege of being a business owner, but would also like to benefit from being part of an organisation.
For a win-win, both franchiser and franchisee have to bring something to the table, they both have obligations and responsibilities and both have rights. The framework of the franchise relationship has to be clear in defining these, and yet allow operational flexibility. The partners must also be able to break-away if things don’t shape up the way they have planned, without being too restrictive of each other after the break-up.
The Indian market is not new to franchising. Lifestyle products such as apparel, footwear and others have franchise networks that date back to the 1960s. However, food retail has only seen sporadic attempts at franchising (many of them unsuccessful).
Some of the problems can be tackled by improving the operational and system rigour, while others (such as how do you manage fresh produce consistently at franchise outlets) may be insurmountable in the short term and will require some constraints to be built into the business model.
I believe food and grocery retailers need to explore the option of franchising for faster and possibly more efficient growth, and for encouraging a spirit of partnership in the development of the grocery retail sector. Inclusive growth is a trite phrase, but very true in this context.
India has been and will remain a land of entrepreneurs, and companies would be wise to co-opt that energy.
Who knows – you may even be giving birth to a retail giant. After all, Sam Walton also began his business as a franchisee of another company.