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.
“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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
When American fast food standard bearers McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza stepped into India in the mid-1990s, the market was just ripe enough for take-off.
McDonald’s and later Domino’s Pizza can be credited with not just growing the consumer appetite for fast food but also for fostering an entire food service ecosystem, including fresh produce, baked goods, sauces and condiments, and cold chain technology.
India has been typically difficult for business models driven by scale, replicability and predictability. The customer is price sensitive, operating costs are high and non-compliance of business standards is a frequent occurrence. In this environment, these brands have reinvented the meaning of meals, snacks and treats.
Their growth has set the stage for other international players and also set business aspirational standards for Indian food entrepreneurs and conglomerates alike.
Product experimentation has also been an important part of their success; it keeps excitement in the brand alive and help improve footfall. However, how far a product sustains and whether it becomes a menu staple can’t be predicted accurately. New products also need significant investment in both supply chain and front-of-house changes in standardisation-oriented QSRs, so the new product launch cannot be undertaken lightly. This is one reason these successful QSR formats don’t overhaul their menus drastically but make changes incrementally.
For these market leaders, future scale and deeper penetration is only feasible with higher visit frequency. For growth in middle-income India, they need to become a significantly cost-competitive option to be seen as more than a ‘treat’ or celebration destination.
So, while both McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza have invested significantly in Indian flavours and menu offerings, perhaps it’s also best for them to reconcile with the fact that there will be a significant part of the consumer’s heart, stomach and wallet that will remain dedicated to indigenous offerings.
In a global environment that’s turning hostile to fast food, India isn’t a quick-fix growth market, but it’s certainly one to stay invested in, for the longer term.
And I have no doubt that as much as these companies aim to change India, over time India will also change them.
(Also published in Brand Wagon, The Financial Express)
P. Karunya Rao of Zee Business in conversation with Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive, Third Eyesight and Narayan Devanathan, Group Executive & Strategy Officer, Dentsu India, about festive discounts, the evolution of ecommerce and retail business in India.
Third Eyesight’s CEO, Devangshu Dutta recently participated in a discussion about the phenomenal growth of the Patanjali brand, from yoga lessons to a food and FMCG conglomerate taking well-established multinational and Indian competitors head-on. In a conversation with Zee Business anchor, P. Karunya Rao and FCB-Ulka’s chairman Rohit Ohri, Devangshu shared his thoughts on the factors playing to Patanjali’s advantage. Excerpts from the conversation were telecast on Brandstand on Zee Business:
In about 20 years, Café Coffee Day (CCD) has grown from one ‘cyber café’ in Bengaluru to the leading chain of cafés in the country by far.
In its early years, it was a conservative, almost sleepy, business. The launch of Barista in the late 1990s and its rapid growth was the wake-up call for CCD — and wake up it did!
CCD then expanded aggressively. It focussed on the young and more affluent customers. Affordability was a keystone in its strategy and it largely remains the most competitively priced among the national chains.
Its outlets ranged widely in size — and while this caused inconsistency in the brand’s image — it left competitors far behind in terms of market coverage. However, the market hasn’t stayed the same over the years and CCD now has tough competition.
CCD competes today with not only domestic cafés such as Barista or imports such as Costa and Starbucks, but also quick-service restaurants (QSRs) such as McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. In the last couple of years, in large cities, even the positioning of being a ‘hang-out place’ is threatened by a competitor as unlikely as the alcoholic beverage-focussed chain Beer Café.
CCD is certainly way ahead of other cafés in outlet numbers and visibility in over 200 cities. It has an advantage over QSRs with the focus on beverage and meetings, rather than meals. Food in CCD is mostly pre-prepared rather than in-store (unlike McD’s and Dunkin’) resulting in lower capex and training costs, as well as greater control since it’s not depending on store staff to prepare everything. However, rapid expansion stretches product and service delivery and high attrition of front-end staff is a major operational stress point. Upmarket initiatives Lounge and Square, which could improve its average billing, are still a small part of its business.
Delivery (begun in December 2015) and app-orders seem logical to capture busy consumers, and to sweat the assets invested in outlets. However, for now, I’m questioning the incremental value both for the consumer and the company’s ROI once all costs (including management time and effort) are accounted for. The delivery partner is another variable (and risk) in the customer’s experience of the brand. Increasing the density through kiosks and improving the quality of beverage dispensed could possibly do more for the brand across the board.
The biggest advantage for CCD is that India is a nascent market for cafés. The café culture has not even scratched the surface in the smaller markets and in travel-related locations. The challenge for CCD is to act as an aggressive leader in newer locations, while becoming more sophisticated in its positioning in large cities. It certainly needs to allocate capex on both fronts but larger cities need more frequent refreshment of the menu and retraining of staff.
An anonymous Turkish poet wrote: “Not the coffee, nor the coffeehouse is the longing of the soul. A friend is what the soul longs for, coffee is just the excuse.” There are still many millions of friends in India for whom the coffee-house remains unexplored territory, whom CCD could bring together.