(Contributed to the BusinessWorld cover story – “What 2 Expect in 2010″, issue of January 4, 2010)
Everything that can be said and assumed about the Indian market is true at some level of granularity. Very simply, in India there is a segment for every product, an opportunity for every service, be it ever so small. But when bubbles are bursting all over, as the Noughties Decade comes to a close, the puzzle that is Indian consumer market also warrants a fresh look.
For most of the Noughties Decade India has seen Generation-C, the “Choice” generation, coming of age. They have moved over from being “secondary customers” consuming off their parents’ incomes, to entering the work-force and becoming customers in their own right.
It may sound trite, but Gen-C customers have grown up with many models of 2-wheelers and 4-wheelers and colour television with multiple channels. They have many more career options and many more opportunities in each career. Not only have they grown up on a diet of choice, they have also grown up with much higher confidence about the future, about their place in the world and what they can expect. And they have infected the outlook of generations older than them as well with a similar confidence.
Therefore, for most of the decade, it has been a distinctly rosy picture for consumer goods marketers and retailers. Business plans routinely expected 20-50% annualised growth, and businesses even delivered those figures on some basis or the other. Organizations as diverse as retailers and management consultants were inspired by India’s age-old image as the Bird of Gold. Supermarket chains mushroomed like never before, department stores and speciality retailers grew their footprints, quick-service and casual dining expanded covers, while electronics, durables, leisure companies, and car brands all counted India among their hottest markets.
Product off-take reflected this outlook. Amongst the FMCG sector, while basic items such as the bath and shower segment demonstrated a steady annualised growth of about 7%, premium cosmetics galloped at almost 20% a year. While the relatively mature 2-wheeler market grew at just over 7.5% annually between 2002-03 and 2008-09, the 4-wheeler passenger vehicle market demonstrated growth of almost 14% a year in the same period.
All this was before the recent rude interruption.
A speed-breaker began showing up in the consumer market in late-2007 and grew larger through 2008. Once the global financial markets melted down in late-2008, media sentiment turned acutely negative about the Indian market as well. And, eventually, with uncertainty prevailing around the world, consumer spending in India did take a hit. Consumers cut back on the frequency of purchases or traded down.
On the trade side, retail businesses began acknowledging that stores were performing below plan and went into rationalisation mode. For branded suppliers, where some of the growth had come from stuffing the pipeline and filling new shelves, wholesale order books became thinner.
Yet, as painful as the economic scenario might have appeared, the Indian consumer market has shown remarkable resilience. Demand in smaller cities and towns has remained robust. Regional brands, especially, found plenty of opportunity to grow in markets and geographical regions where they were under-penetrated or absent.
And as the mood lifted through the latter half of 2009, consumer demand clearly moved back up. The speed at which the demand rebounded would suggest that the Indian market was relatively sheltered from the global economic storm.
However, there are some critical differences to understand.
On the one hand, Gen-C’s confidence shook for the first time – a generation that has only seen upward mobility, witnessed job cuts and salary freezes or declines even if only second-hand. Comparisons with the Great Depression may be exaggerated but it is a scenario they can now imagine as a possibility. At least three new professional academic batches have or will have moved into the job market under these sober conditions. On the other hand, tremendous inflation in basic costs supports some amount of uncertainty about the future. The fact that many of the Gen-C would have just begun or would be about to begin families serves to only heighten such anxiety.
So, let’s recognise two immutable facts about the Indian consumer market in the current environment.
First: that the ancestral “steel safes” are back, at least figuratively if not literally. Customers do want to save more for now. And if they are spending, they want to feel that they are extracting far more value than the price they are exchanging across the counter, value that will last long after the transaction at the store. In recent years, this inherent ‘value orientation’ of the Indian consumer was neglected by many. Now every product, service or brand must aim to deliver this sustainable value, and demonstrate the value repeatedly.
Secondly, each business needs to look at the lifetime value of a customer if it can. Rather than cutting the golden bird open and trying to extract all the golden eggs at once, one needs need to keep the bird well-fed, happy and healthy, and enjoy its rewards over several years. Rather than creaming the market, pricing, branding and distribution need to be structured for a sustainable relationship with the customer.
Some businesses will work better than others in this market, and strategies will need to be adapted. A lifecycle approach may handy in identifying the business segments which might meet the steel safe criterion, or the golden goose criterion, or both.
The first segment that comes to mind is weddings. Wedding expenditure is seen as a “social investment” for both the families, and the actual items bought are an investment into the couple’s future together. So, bridal trousseaux and wedding wardrobes, wedding arrangers and catering, and household goods provide significantly more tangible and intangible value than the money spent.
Similarly, “first child” isn’t usually a segment in any marketing handbook, but should be. The couple’s first born, especially if the baby is the first in its generation will usually get a disproportionate amount of attention and spending on clothing and utilities. A baby’s growth into a child, of course, can provide a relationship and marketing opportunity that can last for years, but the first 2-3 years are specifically valuable. What’s more, given India’s demographic dividend in the form of a sustained under-30 age group, baby products have a sustained and growing value as a market.
As the child grows, there are clear indicators of current and future value that can drive purchases. While base schooling is an essential expenditure, extra-classes and tuitions are a high-value discretionary investment that parents are choosing to make. Sports, on the other hand, however essential they may be to a child’s development are often seen as a distraction. That is, unless the child is attending sports coaching and the parents have an eye on helping the child create a career from it – in which case, a coach who is apparently good, branded equipment and kit are definitely worth investing in. So a cricket coaching franchise might just be the ticket to fortune, while a toy company may struggle. Some may decry the decline in art, craft, philosophy and fundamental sciences, but these are not on the list of priority of most parents. In the short to medium term, parents would continue to disproportionately push their wards into academic disciplines that are seen to develop marketable skills and pay well. Expect continued growth in the engineering, medical and management education market, but also in other vocational disciplines.
On the other hand, everything is not an investment for the future. Present comforts may also provide extra value, through convenience.
Some of these comforts may be as small as enjoying out-of-home exotic meals (pizza and pasta still qualify as exotic for the bulk of the population). Or if eating out looks out of budget, ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook meals are an easy substitute. Jubilant, Yum, McDonald’s, Haldiram, Sarvana’s, Nirula’s and the thousands of other casual dining and snack food chains have a long clear highway of growth ahead, as do snacks and packaged food companies such as Nestle, Britannia and ITC.
Brown goods and white goods that offer comfort and convenience – coolers, water heaters, convectors, air-conditioners and kitchen gadgets – continue their onward march, despite the huge shortfall in electricity. Even if the big brands struggle with their price points and overheads, regional brands and private labels will continue growing strongly in these segments.
Health is another area for significant investment. With prevalence of lifestyle-ailments, from stiff necks to high blood pressure, basic pharmacists to cardiovascular specialists are all in demand. Anticipate significant growth to continue in over-the-counter medication, medical devices, as well as clinical and hospital care.
At the other end of the scale, with decent and adequate public transport lacking in most cities, we can expect personal vehicles to increase multi-fold, despite the small blip in 2008-09. About 60 million 2-wheelers and over 10 million passenger vehicles have already been added during the decade, and the growth trend looks set to resume from 2010, unless there are significant oil price or vehicle taxation shocks delivered by the government.
And as consumer confidence resurges, more overt displays or personal spends will return as well, including apparel, footwear, home products, accessories, vacations, fitness and recreation, but we would expect them to follow behind the higher priority “safe” or “geese” segments.
Finally, the one thing that marketers in any product need not be really concerned about whether there is a future in this market. Even, Hindustan Unilever, a mature FMCG company with very high distribution penetration built over decades, still counts less than 60% Indians as its customers.
Surely most companies have a much longer road ahead before they need to be worried about their markets becoming saturated.