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A crisis not to be wasted

February 18th, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

Cisco’s John Chambers is calling the current economic scenario “the biggest opportunity of our lifetime”, and asking managers to shift from a centralised approach to a more collaborative one. Of course, Cisco as a company has much to gain from the growth of collaborative network organisational models, but he does have a point.

But will it be simple to make that shift? After decades, maybe centuries, of command-and-control behaviour training from kindergarten, it will take more than a few months for people to learn how to collaborate. Remember the management adage: “Lead, be led or get out of the way”? May be time to question even that. I’m not suggesting that there is no further need for leaders, but Jim Collins’ Level 5 Leadership (or even a more evolved form) needs to be adopted, for true collaboration to happen rather than a push / shove / cut & chop. Many current management models have to be thrown out and new ones implemented, and even old ones re-discovered. While we may not realise it (or may not want to see it), many of the current management models are quite feudal in nature.

What’s more – and I might be out on a limb here – we may even have to de-construct our whole economic model which is built on the principle of “scaling up and consolidation”, in favor of fragmentation and individualisation.

A very very good documentary to watch in the current times is “The Corporation”, other than digging into the host of other literature that is available.

Posted in Entrepreneurship, Leadership, Strategy, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Online vs Off

February 16th, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

The internet seems to be as much alien territory for bricks and mortar retailers as catalogues are. Bricks and mortar retailers seem to struggle with the medium - most of them try to graduate from their corporate web brochures to transaction sites, and end up doing injustice to both. Many of them are not able to figure out how to create the traffic to their online store, how to create the excitement and liveliness to convert their traffic into transactions, and how to take the transactions to their final closure in terms of payment and delivery in a delightful way.

Of course, there are some notable exceptions – but possibly they are notable because they are exceptions rather than the norm. Many bricks and mortar retailers are also tied down by systems and processes that work very well for their physical store and distribution network, but fail miserably during the online experience.

However, what’s surprising is that even the basics of e-business seem to be escaping bricks and mortar retailers. Starting with search results.

Retailwire quotes a recent study by a search service provider which found that “online retailers claimed 38 percent of the search listings in 2006, 30 percent in 2007 and 35 percent in 2008. The next biggest category was shopping comparison sites at 25 percent in 2006, 26 percent in 2007, and 19 percent in 2008. Brick-and-mortar retailers lagged at 8 percent in 2006, and 12 percent in both 2007 and 2008.”

However, the study does show a steadily improving share of search listings on the part of the bricks and mortar retailers the last three years. It would be interesting to see whether the pressures of the market will push them to get more aggressive and strategic with their online presence to show a marked improvement in share in 2009.

Staying with the fundamentals: customer experience is another such, and it’s amazing to see what “attention to basics” can do for business. Amazon.com has bucked the recessionary trends displayed by other retailers in the US, with an 18% sales growth in the last quarter of 2009 and a 9% growth in profits.

I’ve shopped on Amazon.com since the year they launched. Every experience has been completely satisfactory, some delightful. On some occasions Amazon has picked my pocket – made me spend on stuff that I wouldn’t have bought otherwise, by their very helpful suggestions of what others had bought while they were browsing my selections. On other occasions they’ve saved me money, time and heartburn by providing comprehensive customer reviews at a click.

In my experience, Amazon’s sustainable advantage is their customer-orientation – the technology, the supply chain, the design – everything is geared to making the buying experience as good as possible. A Retail 101 principle that many other retailers – online and offline – seem to ignore every day.

At the end of the day, e-commerce is another channel to reach out to customers – some existing customers who may need to be connected with during additional shopping opportunity windows, others who are completely new to your wares and may never walk into your physical stores. But treating it as an additional graft that will work with your existing operating DNA is a mistake -  the online channel is distinctive and needs fresh thinking on the business model and consumer interaction from beginning to end. At the same time we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath-water, and forget the basics of understanding and addressing the needs of consumers.

Posted in Apparel, Customer Relationship, e-commerce, Food & Grocery, Footwear, Lifestyle & Fashion, Marketing, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Textiles, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Exuberance and Despair

February 13th, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

In the last few months, I’ve interacted with retailers and their suppliers from a number of countries in North America, Europe and Asia and, except for a handful, the conversations have not been happy.

In November-December companies in France, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom were dealing with a season where there was as much red on the P&L statements as in the Christmas shop windows. In January 2009, the National Retail Federation’s annual convention in New York had participation that was somewhat thinner than in past years, but the gloom in the atmosphere was thick enough to slow everyone down.

On the other side, the factory of the world, China, had been battered by a Year of the Rat that brought increasing costs, erratic power supplies, slowdown in orders, safety concerns and product recalls. All of this culminated in reports of factory closures and migrant workers at railway stations on their way home for the Chinese New Year holiday carrying not just clothing, but all their possessions including fridges and TVs. The resultant unemployment figures expected currently range from 20 million to 40 million people.

The Indian retail sector, of course, has had its share of pain. In an idle conversation on a sunny December afternoon, a real estate broker in Ludhiana had a pithy description for one of the retail chains: “Unhone apne haath khade kar diye hain. Bakee logon ne abhi tak toh haath neeche rakhe huey hain – unke bhi upar ho jayenge.” (“They have thrown their hands up in despair. The rest still have their “hands down” – but they’ll also give up eventually.”)

On the one hand you have the gloom-seekers. In the eyes of some of these people, the retail boom is over. In the eyes of others, the retail boom was all hype anyway, a big bubble of artificial expectations.

On the other hand, you have other people asking some uncomfortable questions: here’s a country that apparently has the largest population of under-25s, where millions of new jobs have been created and incomes have been growing. How can retail businesses be showing a decline in their top-lines?

I don’t think anyone has all the answers, but I can offer at least one speculation, borrowing from the title of a book that came out some years ago, named “Irrational Exuberance”. Robert Shiller’s first edition was related to the dot-com stock bubble, and his 2005 edition added an analysis on housing bubble that was developing at the time. He had, in turn, borrowed the term from the US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan who in December 1996 had said in a speech: “…how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions…?”

We now seem to be in such an unexpected (but was it really unexpected?) and prolonged contraction. Of course, consumers are feeling more cautious about spending, even if their actual income has not been affected (just as it wasn’t affected when they were feeling suddenly wealthy 12-18 months ago). Obviously, stores that should not have been opened will now get closed, or excessively large stores will be reduced in size. Companies that are over-stretched may collapse completely.

But I would label the mood prevailing now “irrational despair” as far as a consumer market such as India is concerned. From a position of over-optimism, the pendulum seems to be swinging to the other extreme of utmost misery, dejection and complete pessimism, and I think that is a swing too far.

I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of the factors that make India a market for sustained consumer growth. The country looks likely to have a large under-25 profile well into the next several decades. These young people will grow older and get into jobs. They will get married and therefore expand the number of consuming households. If the policy-makers don’t really mess up, real incomes should go up. Infrastructure projects should largely remain on track, regardless of the political party or parties in power, facilitating industry, trade and wealth distribution.

So the time is right for business plans that have sound fundamental assumptions – or as the cement ad says: “andar sey solid” (solid from within).

I’d like to repeat issues that I have highlighted earlier as top priority for retailers and consumer products companies in India. These are as follows:

  1. Realistic demand estimation: Let’s work with realistic sales expectations, and not expect all consumption to multiply like cellphones have in the last few years.
  2. Productivity Analysis: As a retailer (especially in food and grocery), margins are thin. Except for marquee locations there is no excuse for continuous losses. Store productivity depends on merchandise availability, staff capabilities and store operations, customer traffic and a host of other factors, and you need to know what’s working and what isn’t.
  3. Moderated growth: Many retailers in India have had tremendous growth in scale without growth in sophistication in processes or people. Some have been driven by motivation to capture market share, others driven by their investors who want an exit, and a few might have been driven by ego. I’m not asking anyone to grow slower that they want to, or slower than they should. However, I would say: do look at Intel. A manufacturing company that makes its own products obsolete in an industry where rapid change has been the norm for the last 40 years. Intel alternates changes in its production and supply chain processes, and products – it doesn’t change everything at once.
  4. People: A leader of the industry pointed out a few months ago that there is no shortage of people in India. But the race to the top of the heap (or as it seems now, the bottom of the loss-making pile) has created artificial scarcity of talent. One benefit of the downturn is that artificially inflated compensations for people jumping on the “retail boom bandwagon” will disappear (at least for now). If we can use the experience of people who have been in modern retail trade in India for decades, and train others who are fresh but committed, it will provide a more solid and lasting impact for businesses.

A number of companies worldwide that we know as market leaders and businesses to be emulated found their feet in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s. That should give some hope to entrepreneurs and professionals.

However, does that mean that only bad companies or unprofessional managements will fail in the current downturn? Certainly not. Does it also mean that all good companies or competent entrepreneurs will succeed? Again, the answer is, no.

Some bad companies will manage to ride through this trough, while some really deserving people will run out of cash, ideas and opportunities. Life and “natural selection” processes are not fair.

But, by and large, if we can get our heads down and focus on getting the right people together, making money to get through and having something left over to invest in the future of the business, we would have more chances of succeeding than by over-stretching, or by swinging to the other extreme and being totally defensive.

I won’t even attempt to predict how long the current downturn will last. The Great Depression lasted a whole decade, was “walled” by the Second World War, and the first blooms of real recovery only appeared in the early-1950s, or about twenty years from the first downturn. Other recessions have been shorter. In 2000, after the dot-com bust car bumper stickers in the US quoted a political satirist, saying, “I want to be irrationally exuberant again.” Within a few short years, many people were showing those very signs.

We can be pretty sure that such a time will come again. But I’m also quite sure that durable companies are unlikely to be built on bursts of such exuberance.

Posted in Apparel, COLUMN-Progressive Grocer, Entrepreneurship, Food & Grocery, Footwear, India, Lifestyle & Fashion, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Textiles, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Collaboration – A Supply Chain Disruption Still Awaited

February 2nd, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

A recent discussion online on retailwire.com quoted a book “Jump the Curve” by Jack Uldrich, in which he describes rapidly growing trends that stay small for a long time and then suddenly explode. He uses the example of water lilies to illustrate the point about exponential growth.  Say we start with one water lily and it multiplies to cover a pond completely within 30 days. On Day 20, only 0.01 per cent of the pond would be covered, and on day 25 it would be just over 3 per cent. The last days, hours, would show dramatic growth.

The water lily example is just so apt to describe technology adoption in the retail sector (especially in fashion and other soft goods). It’s so slow sometimes that it looks like molasses dripping down a wall. (And when a weed-killer gets dumped in the water at an early stage, the adoption can take even longer. )

In 1985 the industry was breaking new ground with the principles of Quick Response (QR) – then in the 1990s Efficient Consumer Response (ECR), Collaborative Planning and Forecasting (CPFR), and numerous other acronyms appeared in the supply chain alphabet soup. 

During 1999-2001 in my previous company, the team developed a collaborative supply chain enablement solution to create an easy-to-understand common platform for the various stakeholders in a supply chain to work together seamlessly. By 2001 we discovered that we were among a handful of companies speaking the same language, and among a sea of 300+ web-based portals aiming to catch up. And then the bottom fell out of the market. 

As we stand today, about a decade on, design-to-delivery lead times are still measured in months, buyers are still trying to gaze into crystal balls to forecast their future demand, and their suppliers are still trying to consult oracles to interpret their buyers’ orders. 

We may yet see adoption of true collaborative platforms in the next couple of decades. At that point it will look like sudden growth that’s come out of nowhere, and everyone will be asking “how did they ever manage supply chains in B.C. (Before Collaboration) Era?” 

Until then….

Posted in Apparel, Footwear, Lifestyle & Fashion, Product Development and Design, Retail, Soft Goods, Supply Chain, Textiles, Uncategorized | No Comments »

“Customer-Centric” – More than a Buzzword

February 2nd, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

Amazon was among the few US retailers last week to report any growth in the fourth quarter of 2008. There are, possibly, as many opinions about why Amazon has apparently bucked the recession as there are business analysts observing the sector.

I’ve shopped on Amazon.com since the year they launched. Every experience has been completely satisfactory, some delightful. On some occasions Amazon has picked my pocket – made me spend on stuff that I wouldn’t have bought otherwise, by their very helpful suggestions of what others had bought while they were browsing my selections. On other occasions it has saved me money, time and heartburn by providing comprehensive customer reviews at a click.

In my experience, Amazon’s sustainable advantage is their customer-orientation – the technology, the supply chain, the design – everything is geared to making the buying experience as good as possible. A Retail 101 principle that many other retailers – online and offline – seem to ignore every day.

Posted in Consumer, Customer Relationship, Uncategorized | No Comments »

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