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Carrying and Being Carried

May 31st, 2010 by Devangshu Dutta

Are you being carried, or are you carrying others?

To know the answer to that question, bear with me while I take you on a short mental journey through the emerging landscape of “ethical business” and to the stories at the end of this piece. (Okay, you can cheat and skip ahead, but I would really prefer you to read through the whole thing.)

For the most part sustainability and responsibility – or “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) to use the proper jargon – is seen as more relevant to the western economies, rather than the emerging economies like China, India and Brazil.

The pressure to do the ‘right thing’ is like a carpenter’s vice, whose one jaw is public opinion and the other is regulation, together squeezing ever tighter on corporate business. Clearly, there is a significant portion of customers in western markets who are vocal in expressing their opinions on business practices that are seen as wrong or unethical. On the other side, judicial implementation of regulations is also extremely stringent.

In fact, in the last 10-15 years CSR and sustainability have become far more important to top management in western economies since the real penalties in terms of negative impact on the brand and financial penalties through regulation and litigation are extremely high. Multi-billion dollar businesses certainly have much at risk, as demonstrated by well-documented PR disasters of large brands and retailers in the last decade or so. The variety of issues they have faced has covered sweatshop factories, child-labour, product safety, food adulteration and many others.

Since the mid-1990s there has been a steady increase in CSR initiatives, or at least an increase in initiatives that are labelled under the CSR umbrella. There is no doubt that there is good intent behind many CSR initiatives.

Some of these are focussed on improving the core business processes and practices of the company, and have measurable improvement goals that also have a positive impact beyond the company itself. These can truly be called socially-responsible corporate initiatives.

However, one can’t help but question many others which are fuzzy in their impact on both within the business and outside. The motivation of this type of initiative seems to be a two-pronged PR effort: firstly to get positive PR for “good work” mostly unrelated to the business and secondly, more importantly, to avoid negative PR for poor or questionable business practices in the company’s mainstream products or services.

Lest I sound too cynical about the corporate efforts, let me say this: there is also lack of clarity and agreement in non-corporate circles about what constitutes “corporate social responsibility” or “responsible business”. The label is relatively new to mainstream management thinking and very mutable. Social responsibility, ethical business, sustainability are all terms that are broad-based, used interchangeably, and are open to interpretation which can change with the context. (I wrote about this in an earlier column “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel” about 18 months ago.)

And that brings me to four separate incidents that happened recently, which are (in hindsight) neatly threaded together with a common thought process. (Thank you for your patience so far!)

The first was a discussion recently initiated by an international organisation about what could motivate Indian brands and retailers to make moves in the area of corporate responsibility, whether regulations needed to be tighter or whether it would be consumer pressure that would bring about a change. The underlying assumption – right or wrong – was that, as corporate entities, Indian retailers and brands were not sufficiently motivated to take significant and visible steps towards making their businesses more sustainable and socially responsible than their current state. The discussion was inconclusive, with many different, all potentially valid, points of view on the subject.

Very soon thereafter, I had the opportunity to participate in a dialogue with Gurcharan Das, the philosopher-author who, in his last corporate role, was Managing Director – Strategic Planning for Procter & Gamble worldwide. The dialogue primarily centred on his latest book: “The Difficulty of Being Good”. There was much debate and discussion on the wider consequence of individual actions and especially of those in positions of authority, highlighting the importance of individual choices.

A few days later, in a totally different context and with an entirely different person, the third incident occurred, when I was told an updated version of an old story to demonstrate the power of “a few good men” (and women). The story was as follows:

“50 people were travelling in a bus. Part-way through the journey, the weather suddenly turned stormy, with massive thunder and lightning bolts cracking all over the place. At times it seemed as if lightning would strike the bus and kill everyone on board. Then, someone proclaimed that there was someone on the bus whose end had come, who the lightning was seeking, and that it would be better for everyone else to get that person off the bus. The driver stopped the bus, and each person was sent off by turn, to go and touch a tree at a distance. 49 people got off the bus and returned unharmed after touching the tree. Then, as the last person got off and walked away from the bus, the bus was struck by a massive bolt of lightning.”

I thought this was a gruesome but effective moral science tale! During the next few hours I went about my activities, but kept mulling over the lesson(s) in that little story.

Then, that very afternoon, I got an email containing the following thought: “…when it looks like the whole place is going to implode – with pollution, disease, and war; famine, fatigue, and fright – there are still those who see the beauty. Who act with kindness. And who live with hope and gratitude. Actually, they carry the entire planet. (Mike Dooley)”

In looking back to the article 18-months ago, I closed the loop: it is the individual manager, who is also a citizen in a community, a consumer, and as a parent a stakeholder in future generations, who has to make the choices. His or her choices – both right and wrong – do have an impact beyond his or her own life and business. The so-called triple bottom line – profit, people (community) and planet (environment) – are irrelevant unless the first question is answered: “what does this mean for me?”

So as we go about our day, launching and growing brands, opening new stores, creating new products, I offer you this thought to reflect upon: are we carrying, or being carried? Is the bus safe because of us, or are we the ones the lightning is seeking?

[Go to the earlier post: "Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel", December 2008]

Posted in Apparel, COLUMN-Progressive Grocer, Corporate Social Responsibility, Food & Grocery, Footwear, India, Leadership, Lifestyle & Fashion, Marketing, Product Development and Design, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Supply Chain, Textiles, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Chargebacks – the Ugly Side of Retailer-Vendor Partnership

May 21st, 2010 by Devangshu Dutta

A lively discussion / debate took place on Retailwire.com about whether retailers were using chargebacks as justifiable penalties for poor performance by vendors or an unjustified means of generating income for the retailers.

The fact is that fees, discounts and chargebacks are becoming more common, and in private conversations – when no retail customer is within earshot – vendors will verify this. Retailers say that such chargebacks are only compensation for vendors not complying with processes that have been clearly laid down and agreed to, since non-compliance creates extra costs for the retailer, or loses the retailer margin.

But is vendor performance really becoming worse with each passing season? Or is it that difficult trading conditions or insufficient skills are making buyers take this easy road to margin?

It’s an open secret that merchandise quality and delays - the two most common causes for chargebacks - are easily overlooked when the market is hot and the product is in demand.

Chargebacks are a dangerous tool in the hands of a lazy, short-term thinking buyer who is incentivised on gross/realised margins from season to season; to him/her they are a quicker way to get to that bonus check for the season. Pragmatic vendors, for the most part, don’t want to antagonise the buyer because that risks not just business with the current retail customer, but any retailer that the buyer moves to in the future.

It’s ironic that vendors are mainly cited as “partners” when it comes to sharing the retailer’s pain. I don’t recall any retailer calling such vendor-partners up to a stage for distributing checks to share extra margin in particularly profitable years. Comments are welcome from anyone who can remember that happening; we’ll all have something inspiring to quote in industry meets, then. (And I’m really hoping some comments quoting such incidents will appear soon!)

The Retailwire discussion on this topic (with comments justifying both sides) is here - ”Clothing Vendors Take a Chargeback Hit” – and the original article in Crain’s New York Business is here - ”Retailer fee frenzy hits designers“.

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

Taming the CEO’s Nightmare

May 11th, 2010 by Devangshu Dutta

REVIEW: BEATING THE COMMODITY TRAP: Richard D’Aveni (Harvard Business Press)

In his latest book, Professor Richard A. D’Aveni focusses on a topic that most businesses should be acutely concerned with: the problem of commoditization. In interviews he has accurately described commoditization as “the black plague on modern corporations” and “a deadly disease that’s spreading like crazy”.

Certainly, if one had to pick the ultimate nightmares to keep CEOs awake at night, commoditization would definitely be among the top of the list. Specifically, given the economic uncertainties around the world in the last couple of years, business leaders who are not concerned about their products or services being turned into commodities are either supremely equipped to maintain their differentiation, or immensely deluded as to their capabilities to fight market forces. Prof. D’Aveni suggests that maintaining differentiation alone is not enough to sustain business.

A product or service becomes a commodity when it is not distinguishable from competing offerings and therefore not valued above the competition. Prof. D’Aveni views commoditization along two key attributes: the benefits or features that are being offered and the price (margin) that is available to the business. Based on his model, he has identified three types of competitive stress that a business could face:

  • Deterioration: In a deteriorating market, competitors present low-cost and low-benefit offerings that appeal to the mass market. This is possibly commoditization in its “purest” sense, where the customer ends up valuing the lowest price over and above any other benefit or feature. In this scenario a business can either get stuck in the commodity trap, fighting an ever downward spiral of price and cost minimisation, or could marginalize itself to a niche where it can protect its margins.
  • Proliferation:  According to Professor D’Aveni, a proliferating market constantly sees the emergence of new combinations of benefits and price that serve specific segments. This is not about the business offering turning into a true commodity, but extreme differentiation and proliferation of choice do make it difficult for businesses to create a clear value statement that can be priced above competition. Professor D’Aveni describes this as “being squeezed in the middle of a pack of piranhas” which are snapping away pieces of the market.
  • Escalation: This form of commoditization is possibly the most prevalent in industries that are prone to disruptive changes (such as technology, consumer electronics and communications). Simply put, extreme competition here results in more for less, as each competitor goes one-up in terms of offering more benefits for the same price, the same benefits for a lower price, or at its most extreme, higher benefits for a lower price. Prof. D’Aveni suggests that companies try and control this downward momentum.

The book suggests competitive strategies that a business could take to avoid getting caught in the commodity trap.  These strategies can be boiled down to the biological choice: fight or flight (escape). Professor D’Aveni echoes the basic warfare strategy laid out by many military and business strategists through the ages. He suggests that businesses need to gauge the opponents, choose their battles, and pick opponents against whom they can win. He also calls for pre-emptive action: where companies can, they should either change the business environment to avoid commodity battles entirely, or initiate the battle of commoditization and control its direction and momentum.

In fact, anticipation and pre-emption is the key to avoiding the commodity trap. To help with this, Prof. D’Aveni offers a relatively simple framework to analyse a current market situation in terms of a price-benefit matrix, and to identify the advance corrective actions to be taken.

The book is short and straight-forward enough to pick through a domestic flight, or to read in the back-seat during a long commute between office and home. The easy to understand framework gets the messages across quickly. In analysing the variations of commoditization, both in consumer and business oriented industries, the Professor also offers up something for everyone.

However, the book’s strengths also turn out to be among its biggest weaknesses. The book would have benefited from more depth to each of the concepts. Skipping quickly from one area to the other, in some places the book risks losing coherence of thought.

Some short books are like downhill hairpin bends on a mountain road; Prof. D’Aveni’s book is one of those. Much as you might be tempted to go fast, it’s advisable to go slow. If you speed through it, you might miss a nugget that actually makes sense to your business.

One of the other grouses I had was with the examples quoted. The predominantly US market examples reduce the book’s relevance for a global audience – the Professor presumes the reader will know the company and its context well enough to understand the lessons being discussed. In some cases the examples are incomplete and possibly even incorrect: one such is the example of Zara. The broad-brush attributes Zara’s business success to turning fashion into commodity, and ignores the fact that fashionability and desirability are a cornerstone of Zara’s offer, not the cheapest price. Others would possibly be far more accurate examples of commoditization in the context of price.

However, if you are sufficiently concerned about the possibility of being commoditized out of profitability, or being marginalised out of market share, I would suggest that you could easily overlook these flaws. The fundamental premise of the book is far too important to ignore. [Beating the Commodity Trap on Amazon]

(This review was written for Businessworld.)

Posted in Apparel, BOOK REVIEW, Branding, Consumer, Customer Relationship, e-commerce, Entrepreneurship, Food & Grocery, Footwear, India, Leadership, Lifestyle & Fashion, Market Research, Marketing, Product Development and Design, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Supply Chain, Textiles, Uncategorized | No Comments »

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