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One Ring That Rules Them All

January 10th, 2017 by Devangshu Dutta

In this piece I’ll just focus on one aspect of technology – artificial intelligence or AI – that is likely to shape many aspects of the retail business and the consumer’s experience over the coming years.

To be able to see the scope of its potential all-pervasive impact we need to go beyond our expectations of humanoid robots. We also need to understand that artificial intelligence works on a cycle of several mutually supportive elements that enable learning and adaptation. The terms “big data” and “analytics” have been bandied about a lot, but have had limited impact so far in the retail business because it usually only touches the first two, at most three, of the necessary elements.

Elements in Operationalizing Big Data and AI

“Big data” models still depend on individuals in the business taking decisions and acting based on what is recommended or suggested by the analytics outputs, and these tend to be weak links which break the learning-adaptation chain. Of course, each of these elements can also have AI built in, for refinement over time.

Certainly retailers with a digital (web or mobile) presence are in a better position to use and benefit from AI, but that is no excuse for others to “roll over and die”. I’ll list just a few aspects of the business already being impacted and others that are likely to be in the future.

  1. Know the customer: The most obvious building block is the collection of customer data and teasing out patterns from it. This has been around so long that it is surprising what a small fraction of retailers have an effective customer database. While we live in a world that is increasingly drowning in information, most retailers continue to collect and look at very few data points, and are essentially institutionally “blind” about the customers they are serving.
    However, with digital transactions increasing, and compute and analytical capability steadily become less expensive and more flexible via the cloud, information streams from not only the retailers’ own transactions but multiple sources can be tied together to achieve an ever-better view of the customer’s behaviour.
  2. Prediction and Response: Not only do we expect “intelligence” to identify, categorise and analyse information streaming in from the world better, but to be able to anticipate what might happen and also to respond appropriately.
    Predictive analytics have been around in the retail world for more than a decade, but are still used by remarkably few retailers. At the most basic level, this can take the form of unidirectional reminders and prompts which help to drive sales. Remember the anecdote of Target (USA) sending maternity promotions based on analytics to a young lady whose family was unaware of her pregnancy?
    However, even automated service bots are becoming more common online, that can interact with customers who have queries or problems to address, and will get steadily more sophisticated with time. We are already having conversations with Siri, Google, Alexa and Cortana – why not with the retail store?
  3. Visual and descriptive recognition: We can describe to another human being a shirt or dress that we want or call for something to match an existing garment. Now imagine doing the same with a virtual sales assistant which, powered by image recognition and deep learning, brings forward the appropriate suggestions. Wouldn’t that reduce shopping time and the frustration that goes with the fruitless trawling through hundreds of items?
  4. Augmented and virtual reality: Retailers and brands are already taking tiny steps in this area which I described in another piece a year ago (“Retail Integrated”) so I won’t repeat myself. Augmented reality, supported by AI, can help retail retain its power as an immersive and experiential activity, rather than becoming purely transaction-driven.

On the consumer-side, AI can deliver a far higher degree of personalisation of the experience than has been feasible in the last few decades. While I’ve described different aspects, now see them as layers one built on the other, and imagine the shopping experience you might have as a consumer. If the scenario seems as if it might be from a sci-fi movie, just give it a few years. After all, moving staircases and remote viewing were also fantasy once.

On the business end it potentially offers both flexibility and efficiency, rather than one at the cost of the other. But we’ll have to tackle that area in a separate piece.

(Also published in the Business Standard.)

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

The Next New Thing: A Retail Store

July 30th, 2015 by Devangshu Dutta

Much has been written recently, with more than a touch of surprise, about ecommerce companies opening physical retail stores. Whether it is Amazon, Birchbox and Bonobos in the US, Spartoo in France, Astley Clarke in the UK or FirstCry and Flipkart in India, young tech-based ecommerce businesses are adopting the ways of the dinosaur retailers that they were apparently going to drive into extinction.

Perhaps, the seeds of the surprise lie in the perception that the ecommerce companies themselves built for their investors, the media and the public, that it was only a matter of time that the traditional retail model would be dead.

Or perhaps we should pin it on their investors for keeping the companies on the “pure-play” path so far – venture funds that have invested in ecommerce have largely taken the view that the more “asset-light” the business, the better it is; so they’re far happier spending on technology development, marketing, salaries, and even rent, than on stores and inventory.

After a bloody discounting and marketing battle, in a few short years, there are now a handful of ecommerce businesses left standing in a field littered with dead ecommerce bodies, surrounded by many seriously wounded physical retailers who are trying to pick up unfamiliar technology weapons. And their worlds are merging.

Which is a Stronger Building Material – Bricks or Clicks?

Online business models offer some clear strengths. Etailers have a reach that is unlimited by time and geography – the web store is always up and available wherever the etailer chooses to deliver its products.

An ecommerce brand’s inventory is potentially more optimised, because it is held in one location or a few locations, rather than being spread out in retail stores all across the market including in those stores where it may not be needed.

However, we forget that consumers don’t really care to have their choices and shopping behaviour dictated by the business plans of ecommerce companies or their investors. The fact is that physical retail environments do have distinct advantages, as etailers are now discovering.

omnichannel-2

Firstly, shopping is as much an experiential occasion as it is a transaction comprising of products and money. In fact, the word “theatre” has been used often in the retail business. For products that have a touch-feel element, the physical retail environment continues to be preferred by the customer. Of course, there are products that could be picked off a website with little consideration to the retail environment. For standard products such as diapers or a pair of basic headphones, online convenience may win over the need for a physical experience. However, non-standard products such as apparel or jewellery lend themselves to experiential buying, where a physical retail store definitely has an edge.

Shopping in a physical retail environment is also a social and participative activity. We take our friends or family along, we ask for their opinion and get it real-time. The physical retail environment lends itself to the consumer being immersed in multiple sensory experiences at the same time. These aspects are not replicable even remotely to the same degree by online social sharing of browsed products, wish-lists and purchases, nor by virtual smell and touch (at least not yet!).

In a market that is dominated by advertising noise, a physical store also helps to create a more direct and stronger connect for the consumer with the brand than any website or app can. An offline presence creates credibility for a brand, especially in an environment where online sales are dominated by discounts and deals, and many brands have risen and fallen online in the customer’s eyes during the last 3-4 years.

As a matter of fact, every store acts as a powerful walk-in billboard for the brand. If used well, the store conveys brand messages more powerfully than pure advertisements in any form. This reality has been embraced by retailers for decades, as they have created concept stores and flagship stores in locations with rents and operating costs that are otherwise unviable, except when you see it as a marketing investment.

Showrooming vs. Webrooming

As ecommerce has grown and brands have become available across channels, offline and online, the retail sector has been faced with a new challenge: customers browsing through products in the store, but placing orders with ecommerce sites that offered them the best deal. This obviously meant that retailers were, in a sense, running expensive showrooms (without compensation) on behalf of the ecommerce companies! The industry adopted the term “showrooming” to describe the phenomenon.

However, ecommerce businesses are now getting a taste of their own medicine as retailers are benefitting from a reverse traffic.

Consumers have now started using websites to conveniently do comparative shopping without leaving the comfort of their homes, and collect information on product features and prices but, once the product choice has been narrowed down, the final decision and the actual purchase takes place in a physical store.

This is described with a slightly unwieldy term, “webrooming”. This is one among the reasons that lead to consumers abandoning browsing sessions and carts when they’re online.

Bricks AND Clicks

The wide split between offline and online channels is mainly because traditional offline retailers have been slow to adopt online and mobile shopping environments.

Most physical retailers around the world have approached ecommerce as an after-thought, with a “we also do this” kind of an approach. Ecommerce has typically been a small part of their business, and not typically a focus area for top management. So, in most cases the consumer’s attitude has also reflected these retailers’ own indifference to their ecommerce presence. However, due to the accelerating penetration of mobiles, tablets and other digital devices, a serious online transactional presence is now vital for any retailer that wants to remain top of the consumer’s list.

On the other hand, ecommerce companies, as mentioned earlier, have so far mainly stuck to “pure-play” online presence due to their own reasons. However, with passage of time there is bound to be a convergence and eventually a fusion between channels.

The Journey to Omnichannel

Omnichannel today, in my opinion, is still more a buzzword today than a reality. Being truly omnichannel requires the brand or retailer to offer a seamless experience to the customer where the customer never feels disconnected from the brand, regardless of the channel being used during the information seeking, purchase and delivery process. For instance, a customer might seek initial comparative information online, step into a department store to try a product, pay for it online, have the product delivered at home, and be provided after-sales support by a service franchisee of the brand.

Very few companies can claim to offer a true omnichannel experience, due to internal informational and management barriers. However, having an effective multi-channel presence is the first step to creating this, since operating across different channels needs a completely different management mind-set from the original single-channel business. Having a presence across different channel means that a retailer will need to juggle the diverse needs. Capabilities, processes and systems that are fine-tuned for one channel, may not be fully optimal for another channel. This requires the retailer to restructure its organisation, systems and processes to handle the different service requirements of the various channels.

For instance, brick-and-mortar retailers moving online need to rethink in terms of the service (“always open”), speed (“right now”), and scale (“everywhere”). A traditional retail organisation is seldom agile enough to work well with the new technology-enabled channels as well.

An etailer opening physical stores, on the other hand, needs to embrace product ranging and merchandising skills to allocate appropriate inventory to various locations, as well as the ability to create and maintain a credible, distinctive store environment – in essence, inculcating old-world skills and overheads that they thought they would never need.

The retail business is not divided black-or-white between old-world physical retailers and the upstart online kids – at least the consumer doesn’t think so.

Retailers need to and will see themselves logically serving customers across multiple channels that are appropriate for their product mix. They need to mould their business models until they achieve balance, proficiency and excellence across channels, and eventually become truly omnichannel businesses. It doesn’t matter from which side of the digital divide they began.

Posted in Apparel, Branding, Consumer, e-commerce, Food & Grocery, Footwear, India, Lifestyle & Fashion, Luxury, Marketing, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Supply Chain, Textiles, Uncategorized | No Comments »

India – A Growth Trajectory for Global Fashion Brands

February 14th, 2014 by Tarang Gautam Saxena

2013 has been a mixed year for retail in the Indian market with multiple factors working in favour of and against the business prospects.

Economic growth had slowed to 5% for 2012-13 (as per advance estimates by The Central Statistics Office, Government of India), down from 9.3% in 2011. The ray of hope is that the growth rate is expected to rebound to 6.8% in 2013-14. Spiralling inflation, with prices of some basic vegetables shooting up almost eight to ten times, distracted the consumers from discretionary spending. The year hardly saw irrational expansions by retail businesses as they primarily focused on bottom line performance.

While the Government of India liberalised Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy in retail in September 2012, international investors have been slow to respond and sizeable foreign investments have been announced only recently at the end of 2013.

The political environment also took unexpected turn with the success of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) at the Delhi Assembly Elections held towards the end of the year. This may augur in a new era of politics driven by performance and results but in the short term it could restrict market access for international multi-brand retailers, as the AAP has declared their opposition to investment from foreign multi-brand retailers.

So is India still a strategic market for international fashion brands to look at?

FDI Policy – Clarifications and Impact

India’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy has come a long way with foreign investments now being allowed in multiple sectors including retail, telecom, aviation, defence and so on. The Indian government is now exploring the possibility of allowing FDI in sectors such as railways and construction.

The year 2006 was a significant year for international brands in fashion and lifestyle space as the Government of India allowed up to 51 per cent foreign direct investment in the newly-defined category of “Single Brand retail”. In September 2012 the Indian Government liberalised the retail FDI policy to allow foreign investment up to 100 per cent in single brand operations and up to 51 per cent in multi-brand retail albeit with certain conditions related to the ownership of the brand, mandatory domestic sourcing norms for both single-brand and multi-brand retailers and additionally certain investment parameters for the backend operations of the multi-brand retail business. The idea was to attract foreign investment in retail trading a part of which could flow into improving the supply chain while providing Indian businesses access to global designs, technologies and management practices.

Large Investments in the Pipeline

The investments flowed in slowly initially. Some of these have looked at converting existing operations, such as Decathlon Sports which was present in India through a 100% owned subsidiary in cash and carry business. The brand is converting its cash and carry business in India to fully-owned single brand retailing business.

But there have been some significant moves as well. A record breaking FDI proposal in single brand retail is the Swedish furniture brand IKEA’s, that had to apply three times since December 2012 before its’ proposed investment of €1.5 billion (Rs. 101 billion) received the nod from the Government. However, the proposal is reportedly still in the works, as Ikea looks to structure the business to comply with the laws of the land. And as the year came to a close the Government cleared Swedish clothing brand Hennes and Mauritz’s (H&M) US$ 115 million (Rs.7.2 billion) investment proposal. According to news reports the brand had already begun blocking real estate with the goal of launching its stores in India at the soonest.

While the initial response to the relaxation of FDI policy spelt positive inflow for single brand retail, there was no new investment forthcoming in multi-brand retail. The existing foreign multi-brand retailers present in India through the cash and carry format showed a marked lack of interest in switching to a retail business model. On the other hand Walmart, the only foreign multi-brand retailer having access to a network of retail stores through its wholesale joint venture Indian partner, Bharti Enterprises Ltd., ended its five year long relationship and has restricted itself to the wholesale business. Though the company cited that it was disheartened by complicated regulations, it was also caught up in its own corruption investigation as well as allegations that it had violated foreign investment norms. The sole bright spot was the world’s fourth largest global retailer Tesco proposing and getting approval for a US$ 115 million investment into the multi-brand retail business of its partner, the Tata Group. At the time of writing the precise scope of this investment remains unclear.

If you want the full paper please send us an email with your full name, company name and designation to services[at]thirdeyesight[dot]in.

Posted in Apparel, e-commerce, Footwear, India, Lifestyle & Fashion, Luxury, Marketing, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Go Your Own Way

October 12th, 2013 by Devangshu Dutta

Much has been written about the various relationship break-downs that have happened in the Indian retail sector in recent years. The biggest, most recent high profile ones are between Bharti and Wal-Mart and the three-way conflict playing out at McDonald’s. Other visible ones include Aigner, Armani, Jimmy Choo, and Etam, while Woolworth’s faded away more quietly because, rather than being present as a retail brand, it was mainly involved in back-end operations with the Tata Group.

I think it’s important to frame the larger context for these relationship upsets. Most international companies, non-Indian observers as well as many Indian professionals are quick to blame the investment regulations as being too restrictive, and being the main reason for non-viability of participation of international brands in the Indian consumer sector.

However, India with its retail FDI regulations is not the only environment where companies form partnerships, nor is it the only one where partnerships break up. Regulations are only one part of the story, although they may play a very large role in specific instances. In most cases, FDI regulations are like the mother-in-law in a fraying marriage: a quick, convenient scapegoat on which to pin blame.

Many of the reasons for breaking up of partnerships can be found in the reasons for which they were set up the first place. The main thing to keep in mind is that the break-down is inevitably due to the changes that have happened between the conception of the partnership to the time of the split. The changes can fall into the following categories, and in most cases the reasons behind the break are a combination of these:

  • External factors, including regulations, economic conditions or politics which could fundamentally change the operating environment, close off existing opportunities or open new ones, and raise questions about the logic of the partnership.
  • Internal factors, including differences between the partners in terms of overall business strategy, scale expectations, operating methodologies, desire for management control, margin and return expectations, or investment capability.
  • Changed perceptions, primarily around the strengths and support that each party expected the other to bring into the relationship, or performance they were supposed to deliver, and finding out that the reality differs from the initial perception on one or both sides.

According to Third Eyesight’s estimates, more than 300 international brands are currently operating in the Indian retail sector across product categories, if we just count those that have branded stores, shop-in-shop or a distinct brand presence in some form, not the ones that merely have availability through agents or distributors.

Of these, about 20 per cent operate alone, while other others work with Indian partners, either in a joint-venture or through a licensing or franchise arrangement. The relationships that have broken up in the last decade are only about 5 per cent of the total brands that have come in, and in many cases the international brand has stayed in the market by finding a new partner.

So there’s life after death, after all. And my advice to those who’re feeling particularly defensive or pessimistic because of a few corporate break-ups: take time for a song break. Fleetwood Mac (“Don’t Stop”, “Go your own way”) or Bob Dylan (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”) are good choices!

Posted in Apparel, Food & Grocery, Footwear, India, Lifestyle & Fashion, Luxury, Marketing, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Supply Chain, Textiles, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Shopping Malls – Start-Off on the Right Foot

August 19th, 2013 by Devangshu Dutta

Lulu Mall India

If you’re planning to develop a mall, here’s a short-list of key issues you must address:

Fail-proof the business plan by focussing on the customer: Focus on the development of retail brands and not solely on quick returns on investment. The primary responsibility should be that of catering to the consumer catchment and driving footfalls for the retail occupants. The other requirements follow from this simple premise. Also, a tenant-unfriendly revenue model that overloads the tenant with a high rent (whether fixed or as a percentage of sales) leads to a churn in tenants, and in combination with other factors, keeps the best tenants out of the mall making it unattractive to customer as well.

Do a thorough recce of the catchment: Ask questions like “can the catchment support the development in terms of consumer footfall and spending?”, “Is there a connect between the needs of the immediate catchment and the occupants of the mall?”, “Are there too many malls in the catchment area?”

Offer a good occupant mix: You cannot have mall occupants who have little relevance for the target consumer. Also, the retailers must complement each other in a healthy way rather than cannibalise customers and sales from each other.

Ensure good access: Accessibility and connectivity to get the traffic smoothly in and out of the mall is a must; ensure there is adequate parking space.

Avoid undersizing: A small-sized is a straight handicap because it will lack variety, and you run the risk of getting dwarfed by the next big mall that throws its hat into the ring. [However, the specific size can vary depending on the state of development of your own catchment.]

Focus on design: This involves making the mall brands ‘visible’, ensuring appropriate ‘zoning’ in terms of entertainment, multiplexes, kids’ areas, food courts etc. This will result in better customer flow management. Bad design and poor customer flow management within the mall leaves large parts of mall “invisible” to visiting consumers, or improper zoning that confuses customers and breaks up the traffic.

Finally, remember, it’s not so much about the “square feet”, as about the feet that will occupy it! Focus on the consumers that you want visiting the mall and why they should return again and again.

(Published in the Business Standard “Strategist”)

Posted in Apparel, Branding, Consumer, Food & Grocery, Footwear, India, Lifestyle & Fashion, Luxury, Market Research, Marketing, Real Estate, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Textiles, Uncategorized | No Comments »

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