Trade, of course, has been global for millennia, so it seemed hardly unusual for retailers in the US, and in Europe to begin sourcing from distant countries in Asia where certain items were more readily available or significantly cheaper. Imports have also been encouraged as a political and developmental vehicle to aid friendly countries.
So, on the sourcing-end, large retailers have been comfortably operating beyond international borders for several decades even while the stores-end of their business was entirely domestic.
For most large modern retailers however, after the post-Second World War economic boom their core markets have grown relatively slowly (and rather predictably). While the sheer size of the US market kept American retailers busy domestically, planning and legal restrictions in terms of store size, locations, market share etc. limited manoeuvrability for retailers in Europe.
Among the current major retailers, the early retail explorer, Carrefour set out into neighbouring Spain in 1973 and then into distant Brazil in 1975. Soon after, Dutch retailer Ahold landed in the USA in 1977.
However, it took the opening up of East European economies in the 1990s to really prime the pump for growth of international retail. Suddenly, many more millions of consumers became available to European retailers close to their existing markets – both geographically and culturally – and western European retailers jumped at the opportunity.
At the same time, China seemed to have become steadily more open over the previous decade and in the early-1990s India looked accessible again. Some of the Latin American markets were also steaming up.
And, obviously, the prospect of 3-4 billion new consumers in emerging or developing markets was clearly not going to be ignored. In 2001, post dot-com, another inspiring idea hit the business world that was desperately looking for hope – the golden BRICs – the four countries focussed upon by Goldman Sachs as the biggest economies of the future: Brazil, Russia, India and China.
As incomes grew in these “developing” or “emerging markets”, the hypothesis was that consumer would want products and services similar to those in the more developed markets, creating the opportunity for retailers to cross borders. In the last 15 years or so, retail internationalization (and gradually “globalization”) has become an increasingly acceptable theme – in conceptual thinking, in retail boardrooms, in white papers, and finally in trade and mainstream media. The world has witnessed a network of retail subsidiaries, joint-ventures, franchise and other relationships spreading across continents.
Certainly, through the 1990s and 2000s, growing tele-connectivity, fashion, portable TV programming concepts, movies and print media seemed to give the impression that consumers around the world are becoming more similar, and can be reached by common formats and brands. Led by the FMCG companies on the one hand and fashion brands on the other, insights, concepts, products, formats, advertising campaigns are routinely extended across countries. (Unilever’s TV commercial for Close-Up in West Asia is a great example of this – an Anglo-Dutch company’s international brand of toothpaste, Indian models in Thailand, an Arabic voiceover and a Hindi song (“Paas Aao” – “Come Closer”) by Sona Mohapatra – surely you don’t get more global than that?)
But wait! Is the picture really as clear as that?
In 2006 Wal-Mart pulled the plug on its €2 billion German business that was a combination of German chains that it had acquired. In Russia it still has only a development presence since 2005, though it is reported to be looking at opening 10-15 stores in the following three years. According to Newsweek, Wal-Mart’s 13 year old Chinese business – even after an acquisition that is still to be approved – will have fewer stores than it would have opened in the US just in 2009. In the past it has struggled in Japan and Brazil.
In June 2009, Carrefour opened its first 86,000 sq. ft. hypermarket in Moscow, and a second one soon after that. In September, the company affirmed that the BRIC markets were its highest priority for international growth. However, in October it announced that it was pulling out of Russia. Within 4 months of the first store, Russia has gone from a market with “outstanding long term potential” to being a market to exit. In previous years the company has moved out of Japan, South Korea and Mexico. The Economist reports that significant Carrefour’s shareholders are forcing it to look at selling its Chinese business as well – obviously a move that would be politically very sensitive in China. The same shareholders are also reported to be urging a sale of its Latin American business. For now, the official statement from the company maintains an ongoing interest in all these markets.
Ikea has decided to freeze further investments in Russia, and has decided not to enter India until the Indian government allows 100 per cent foreign ownership of retail operations. It entered China in 1998, and has only 7 stores so far.
Even as Carrefour and Ikea announce plans to pull out of Russia, Russian retailers have pulled out from Ukraine, while Metro is cautious in its outlook about that country. French retailer Auchan has opened three stores in Ukraine since 2007, while the German retailer Rewe has opened all of nine since 2000.
Could the juggernaut of global retail be slowing, stopping or even – shock! – reversing? Are the BRICs and emerging markets falling out of favour?
Before we jump to conclusions, as they say in the television world: please don’t adjust your sets. As the French author Karr wrote: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they are the same).
It is a fact that, no matter how international or global a company becomes, when it gets to the business of retail, it needs to be intensely local. While elements of the business – concepts, products, people, money – can travel across borders, it is extremely difficult to take across an intact retail mix and expect to address a significant portion of the population in the new country. And given how important scale is to mass retailers, lack of localization would be a significant hurdle.
A company sourcing products from a developing country can fully expect his suppliers to adapt to his practices and customs. On the other hand, the same company entering that country as a retailer needs to do exactly that – adapt to the customers – rather than expecting them to fall in line because the “best practice” manual dictates certain processes or because central merchandising found some deals that were great for the home market which are totally irrelevant in the new market.
However, there are encouraging signs that retailers looking to grow internationally understand this more and more. Tesco, for one, has been following a localized approach in Thailand and South Korea, while Carrefour, Ikea, Wal-Mart have all steadily modified their approach in China and other markets. Wal-Mart’s cautious steps in India, including the stores opened by its joint-venture partner Bharti, are a complete contrast to the aggressive “plans” that were being reported in the press 2006-onwards. Recently Wal-Mart’s international chief C. Douglas McMillon was quoted by BusinessWeek as saying “we know you can’t run the world from one place”.
For the larger international retailers this means that, the benefits from international scale would be limited by the amount of localization that they carry out in their operations. For smaller and local competitors that are based in an emerging market this means a fighting chance to remain in business and even remain market leaders.
Lastly, as far as all the dark clouds gathered over international retailing and all the retreats being announced – stay tuned – this weather will change, too.