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FDI in Retail: More heat than light

November 25th, 2011 by Devangshu Dutta

(This piece appeared in the Financial Express on November 26, 2011.)

The debate on allowing more foreign investment in retail reminds me of an incandescent bulb: producing more heat than light. With a variety of agendas at play, the heat has been generated by both sides, for and against foreign investment in retail. Conflicting views have emerged not just outside but from within the government and the civil services as well.

Much time has been spent, multiple studies and consultations carried out, even as behind-the-scenes negotiations have gone on.

We can now all let out our collective breaths. The Indian Cabinet has, with some caveats, approved foreign investment up to 100% in single-brand retail operations and up to 51% in multi-brand businesses.

However, the Cabinet “yes” to 51% foreign investment in multibrand retail and 100% in single brand retail doesn’t quite mean an all-clear to accelerated development of modern retail in the country. The debate is not really over—how can it be when it remains still alive and kicking in some of the most consolidated markets in the West? The states retain the power to allow or disallow foreign-owned retail businesses from operating within their boundaries, and local and regional political parties would certainly have an impact on retailers’ expansion strategies. It also remains to be seen whether this will only affect new stores, or affect investment into existing businesses, too.

Opposition to the expansion of Big Retail is not unique to India. There are enough places within the US where the American giant Walmart has faced opposition, not just in small towns but including large cities such as Boston. Similarly, Tesco has been opposed in several locations within the UK. In fact, there was a huge uproar in the UK in the late-1990s when Walmart entered the country with its acquisition of Asda. The details of such opposition vary from location to location, but the canvas of fears is similar: predatory pricing by large retailers, depressed wages, net loss of jobs in the medium to long term with closure of local businesses, as well as low sensitivity to local social issues when operational and financial decisions are driven from distant headquarters.

Though India is labelled a slow-coach when compared to China, it is worth remembering that China took over 12 years to liberalise its FDI regime, and in stages with reversals as well. It first allowed foreign direct investment in retail in 1992 at 26%, took another 10 years to raise the limit to 49%, and allowed full foreign ownership in 2004, but only in certain cities. It even revoked some previously granted approvals, to reduce the foreign retailers’ footprint.

Anyway, the “policy flywheel” in India has finally moved and is now rolling. Certainly there will be winners and losers in its path.

The losers will include simple intermediaries and low-value wholesalers who have a diminishing role in a better-connected economy. Large suppliers, including multinationals, will gradually find power slipping from their hands. However, the fact is that most of them would anyway be losing in absolute or relative terms to the large Indian retailers over the course of the next few years; it would be naive, even dishonest, to suggest otherwise. And I suspect also that landlords who may be rejoicing the FDI decision could be tearing their hair out when they sit down to negotiate rents with the big boys.

In the other corner, the beneficiaries obviously include the foreign retailers themselves. With a direct relationship to the consumer, retail operations are the most economically valuable link in a supply chain. Foreign retailers can now have access to this with a controlling stake in one of the fastest growing markets.

The second set of winners is the large Indian retailers. In a capital-hungry business, large Indian retailers can use foreign equity and cheaper foreign debt to reduce high-interest domestic debt, and infuse more funds into growing the store footprint. For some, this also allows a potential exit from the business, whether immediate (for instance from the current 51:49 single-brand ventures) or in the future.

There would be winners among suppliers as well, including packaged and processed foods for which modern retail is a great platform to reach the “income-rich, time-poor” urban consumers, technology companies and service providers including the larger logistics companies, as well as foreign suppliers who would benefit from the trust that they enjoy with the international retailers in other markets.

The government can certainly benefit in terms of indirect and direct tax collection, from these more structured, “on-the-books” businesses.

And the consumer would be at the receiving end of a much better product choice and better shopping environments.

Where India as a whole can potentially derive the biggest benefit from foreign retailers is in developing agricultural practices and supply chains that comply with global requirements. If channelled well, this can create tremendous export possibilities (‘agricultural produce outsourcing’), and help to propel rural incomes upwards, creating a wider economic impact.

However, I think the critical things that have been debated most hotly will also be the slowest to be impacted: foreign retailers contributing to bringing prices down, and on the other hand, potentially damaging local competitors.

If the efficiency is simply a matter of scale, and if building up scale is simply a function of having deeper pockets from which to invest, it is obvious that the largest global retailers will squeeze their smaller Indian counterparts out of business, one way or the other. However, retail is not a global business or even a ‘national’ business: it is an intensely local business. Sheer financial muscle can be used to bulldoze competitors, but the consumer chooses to shop at a particular retailer for several reasons, many of which are not influenced by the size of the retailer’s balance sheet. So, local retailers have more than a fighting chance. Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco are the only three foreign retailers in China’s top-10, although two of them have been there for more than 15 years.

The growth of modern retail is an outcome of the development of the economy and a better supply chain, and a working population that is seeking food in more convenient and safe forms; it doesn’t necessarily drive supply chain improvements itself. Indeed, in India, during the last decade, modern retailers have deployed money and management more on opening stores in a drive to capture market share, than actually in supply chain improvements and operational efficiencies.

However, without investments in the supply chain, neither can the quality of products be significantly improved nor their cost significantly reduced. The new FDI policy partly addresses this issue, as it requires a minimum investment of $50 million in the ‘back-end, which cannot include land, rentals or front-end storage. While the final notification should be clearer on the exact implications, for now one can assume that this investment is envisioned in the storage, processing and transportation infrastructure. However, the impact this can have on a $450 billion retail market will be too small to be immediately meaningful.

Clearly, FDI in retail is not a panacea for growth and efficiency. There is much the government itself still needs to do.

The modernisation of retail doesn’t just lead to consolidation of sales turnover, but also enormous concentration of economic power. Therefore, a tilt towards modern retail must be accompanied by the government taking on the active role of a competition oversight body that can maintain an environment of fair competition. So far, the government has played this role mainly in consolidated industries; retail will require it to play this role in a fragmented market as well, and between buyers and suppliers also rather than only between direct competitors.

We also cannot run 21st century supply chains on dirt roads, with unpowered storage and a poorly educated workforce. The benefits of FDI in retail will remain largely unrealised for the nation overall if there is no simultaneous investment by the government in three key areas: transport infrastructure, electricity and education. The Indian government must be a ‘co-investor’ and active partner in developing and maintaining these aspects much more aggressively.

Lastly, several other regulatory changes are needed to unfetter domestic businesses, too. These include, among others, land and real estate reforms so that we are not constantly living with a mindset of scarcity and ridiculous real estate prices, rationalisation of tax structures, and simplifying the certifications and approvals needed to run business on a day-to-day basis.

Unless these aspects of governance are managed actively and consciously, Indian businesses — small or large — will not be completely free to grow and to complete effectively, and FDI could well turn out to be a Faustian bargain for India.

Posted in Apparel, Food & Grocery, Footwear, India, Lifestyle & Fashion, Marketing, Outsourcing, Product Development and Design, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Supply Chain, Textiles, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Indian Terrain looks at sourcing from the Americas

August 26th, 2011 by Devangshu Dutta

Indian Terrain Fashions’ plans to launch a ‘Made in America’ jeans brand using denim from a US mill made into jeans in Guatemala, is a move that bucks trends for brands sold in India. The move is an interesting twist in the growth story of a 10-year-old brand that was, until recently, a business division of the Chennai-based apparel manufacturer Celebrity Fashions. Celebrity’s notable customers include Gap, Nautica, Armani Jeans, Timberland, Dockers and Ann Taylor.

About five years ago, Celebrity had invested in growing its capacity by acquiring another exporter’s manufacturing facilities. However, Celebrity’s manufacturing and export business has been under pressure due to the difficult environment in its main markets, and last year Indian Terrain was demerged from its parent.

It now seems Indian Terrain is striking out on an independent path, with plans to launch a ‘Made in America’ jeans brand. Managing director Venkatesh Rajgopal says the company proposes to source the denim from an American mill and have the jeans manufactured Denimatrix in Guatemala, which also produces for brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch. According to him, Indian Terrain will use the same raw material as Abercrombie & Fitch, and “will be able to track every pair of jeans to the same cotton fields in Texas.”

The company’s competitors, both domestic and international brands operating in India, mainly buy denim products from within the country.

Denim is currently a very small part of Indian Terrain’s casualwear product mix which is largely sourced from its parent, Celebrity Fashions. The company is looking at launching the “mid-premium” priced brand in September that will not be “just about quality, but about offering a lifestyle.” Rajgopal estimates that denim has the potential to grow to 30-35% of the company’s business in three years.

The demerger of Indian Terrain from its parent company was carried out in 2010 with a view to achieving better valuation for the branded business and to provide additional liquidity to its founders and private equity investors. The company is currently present at about 80 exclusive brand stores and through 400 multi-brand retail stores, in eight cities, as well as in Singapore’s Mustafa Mall. It closed the financial year ending 31 March 2011 with sales of INR1.21bn (US$27m), and expects to grow its top line by 25% this year.

Its retail customers wait to see whether Indian Terrain will be able to effectively integrate denim into its core brand philosophy and grow to a third of the product range. However, for investors the critical question is this: after the demerger from the manufacturing parent and with product being imported from the Americas, will the brand business be able to maintain gross margins at the current levels of about 40% to 45%? Only time will tell.

Posted in Apparel, Branding, Consumer, Entrepreneurship, Footwear, India, Leadership, Lifestyle & Fashion, Marketing, Outsourcing, Product Development and Design, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Supply Chain, Textiles, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Delhi – A Growth Hub for India’s Apparel Exports

August 9th, 2010 by Chandni Jain

India’s traditional skills in textiles, intricate craftsmanship, and creativity in producing a range of design-intensive products have enticed buyers from all over the world. India retains a strong and sustainable position among the top five exporters of textiles and clothing in the world.

India’s textile exports are currently weighted in favour of raw materials and intermediate products leading to ‘value-leakage’, which is a major concern from the long-term competitiveness perspective.

Within India, Delhi holds a position of prominence and can play a significant role in capturing additional value within the country. As a sourcing destination and as a gateway to the rest of India’s textile and apparel sector, Delhi provides unique value in product development and design, and a tremendously flexible supply base.

This capability is especially critical in an unpredictable market where retailers and brands are looking to source ever-smaller quantities of product, increasingly closer to the season.

According to the Director (Merchandising) of one of the largest US retailers sourcing from India, “Delhi scores high on responsiveness, and is more enterprising. It has the capability to handle extraordinary fabrics and is strong in interpretations of artwork.”

The apparel cluster in Delhi-National Capital Region (Delhi NCR) includes locations across four states, and accounts for about twenty five percent share in the country’s current apparel exports. If Delhi’s apparel cluster were to be treated as a country, at US$ 2.6 billion (Rs. 12,000 crores) of apparel exports, it would fall within the Top-20 list, ahead of countries such as El Salvador, South Korea, Philippines, Peru and Egypt. Moreover, being a labour intensive industry, apparel cluster offers immense employment opportunities in NCR, already with current direct employment of over 1 million as per Third Eyesight’s estimate.

A study carried out by Third Eyesight has identified an additional growth opportunity of over US$ 5.5 billion (Rs. 25,000 crores) both in its current markets and products, as well as new product opportunities.

For many buyers, sourcing from Delhi NCR cluster is still restricted to beaded, sequined, and tie-dyed blouses, dresses and skirts. While Delhi remains strong in these products, it now also sells funky denim and jersey wear to young fashion brands, men’s tailored suits to American brands, and women’s undergarments to Europe.

Delhi now offers a base both to international buyers looking at buying finished products, and to Asian, European and American manufacturers looking at setting up alternative manufacturing locations that can tap international as well as the Indian market.

Going forward, the key stakeholders of the Delhi NCR apparel export cluster – individual companies, industry associations and the government need to urgently undertake adequate action steps as the competition is gearing up and the perceived strength of Delhi NCR cluster at the moment may not remain a USP of this cluster in the future.

The Delhi NCR apparel export cluster strategy report along with action steps and key implementation areas was presented at an industry seminar ‘Discovering Growth’ in New Delhi. The seminar was hosted by GTZ in partnership with Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) and Apparel Export Promotion Council (AEPC). The seminar was attended by the key stakeholders of the Delhi NCR apparel cluster including leading apparel exporters, buying agencies and retailers.

Posted in Apparel, Branding, Entrepreneurship, EVENTS, India, Lifestyle & Fashion, Market Research, Marketing, Outsourcing, Product Development and Design, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Textiles, Uncategorized | 2 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 »

Consumers against toxic products (or just a fear bubble?)

December 30th, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

There’s been a lively debate on Retailwire.com initiated by Tom Ryan (Managing Editor), and prompted by an article in the Washington Post about how consumers are literally taking matters in their own hands and testing toys and domestic items for the presence of toxic substances.

Some of the commentators feel that this is going too far and could create waves of unnecessary panic, that consumers and consumer advocacy groups do not have the necessary expertise nor a balanced judgement, that it is a job for the government agencies. Others support the move and say that such moves are absolutely in order.

In my opinion, despite good intentions on the retailer’s part and the humongous bureaucracy in the supply chain, if product safety compliance is incomplete and if consumers feel insecure, then they will provide the wake-up call any which way they can.

We may decry the paranoia, but let’s also consider the increase and concentration of risk in recent years due to factors such as:

  1. Vague responsibility for unsafe products due to the nature of the current supply chain
  2. Extreme focus on factory costs leading to corners being cut in the supply base
  3. Long lead-times between the buying decision and actual delivery, with multiple hand-offs (and sometimes, meanwhile, people changing jobs and responsibility)
  4. Significantly larger consumption and disposal volumes than earlier generations
  5. “Strategic sourcing relationships” leading to concentration of sourcing volumes–if one product line has been produced with unsafe toxins by a vendor, the likelihood of others being handled the same way are higher as well. While we all hope that more business gets concentrated to a vendor with better practices, such is not always the case.

However the industry may feel about it, I think consumer advocates have the steering wheel on this one. Unless government outlaws ‘unapproved’ testing…but I wonder how palatable that would be, politically speaking.

Here’s the original article from the Washington Post.

And the discussion on Retailwire.com is here (needs a free sign-up).

Posted in Apparel, Consumer, Food & Grocery, Footwear, Lifestyle & Fashion, Outsourcing, Product Development and Design, Soft Goods, Supply Chain, Textiles, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

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