Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Is Online Sales all about Discounts?

Sale upto 51% off - Shop Now

Early this week, I received a mailer on my inbox – that screamed a 51% Discount – just that I was confused if it was at their physical stores or on their website. While Shoppers Stop’s online avatar has been around for over three years now, all of a sudden there seems to be a high decibel discounts’ driven campaign. Not just this retailer which is India’s largest with over 40 stores across 20 cities and attracts over 5 million customers every year, but a quick look at most of the online e-tailers confirms that they have all been offering rather steep discounts of 30-70% on their  offering. Rather, the assumption is that higher discounts would attract more shoppers. In my opinion, this is a rather disastrous move. And here are my observations;

Pricing and Discounts

Most of the online retailers (or mere web companies) do not have the background of traditional retailers. If predatory pricing was the best way to attract shoppers, then the whole world would only have Discount Retailers selling everything on discounts all through the year! But this is not the case. Discounts  are a way of getting rid of older stocks and also a way to attract new shoppers into the stores (or websites). While this “P” can be played with once in a while, it is dangerous to keep it as a hook all the time. There should be a stronger reason for shoppers to shop online, than just discounts and price-offs. 

Image Courtesy: shopperstop.com

Merchandise offering

It’s myth that online retailers and their ilk propose a wider range of products (Read: Depth of categories and the number of SKUs) than physical stores – this is more a proposition than reality. By showcasing a wider range, the e-tailers are committing to the fact that they have a wider range, which more often than not is not the reality. I was looking for a famous auto-bio of a Retail business leader a few days ago for gifting my classmate. Since there wasn’t a “Crossword” or a “Odyssey” book store close to where I stay, I preferred to shop online. Tough luck. One e-tailer didn’t have the stock; another had it but would take 7-10 days to deliver; and yet another showed a “http syntax error!”. I gave up on my search and proceeded to the closest store to buy it. A famous fashion e-tailer who sends exciting emailers everyday had a bigger surprise in store. Most of the products they had advertised was out of stock! Insult to injury is that no one (internally) had even bothered to remove the images or those products temporarily (if stocks were awaited) or permanently if the stock wouldn’t return. On the section which boasts “Luxury Lounge”, there is a sleek note which says that the sales would return and the user would be informed. Bizarre!

Image Courtesy: fashionandyou.com

In my humble opinion, Online shopping is, and should be an experience. Let’s not forget that India has over 12 million retailers – across various formats and sizes, though mostly unorganized while the Organized Retailers contribute for less than 10% of the estimated business size of INR 200,000 Crores. Online Retail is a single-digit contribution to this, but is expected to reach a significant number over the next five years. If a potential consumer has to shop online, here are a few points why they would;

Convenience

First and foremost, its the convenience of shopping online from a preferred device – it could be a desktop, laptop, tablet, mobile phone, etc. The entire process should be quick and efficient. Although most e-tailers insist on the customer to create a user log-in, the transaction time and check-out should be faster, ideally lesser than the 2-3 minutes it takes at a physical store. Also, the web-pages should have limited graphics and high-end visuals – while the idea could be to present the site in a glamorous way, let’s not forget the dismal internet speed (could be worse if its on GPRS or even 3G) unless the user is using high bandwidth Broadband services. Therefore, simple JPEGs could be a better idea.

Ambience

The good-old grid layout is so boring! Almost all e-tailers are using this format because the most recent entrant used it. If physical stores could have various shapes and sizes, colours and backgrounds, then why not online? In fact online e-tailers could do even better since they have the opportunity to change as often as possible, usually at minimal or no cost. While the usual moments of truth that a customer experiences at the physical store cannot be provided online, what can be offered is the simplicity in approach. There are different ways of doing it, and it’s up to the company to decide depending on their user base.

Depth Vs. Width

A raging debate, even for offline Retailers, its quite tricky which is better. To have, say for example – 50 brands of shirts with fewer stock options or just 5 brands but will all options (including colour and size). Again, there is no correct way – just that the retailer need to position itself accordingly to attract relevant audience and footfalls (should we say fingerfalls!). Similar to various kinds of “offline shoppers”, online shoppers too would choose their preferred retailers accordingly.

Friends: The Complete Series Boxset DVD

Image Courtesy: shopping.indiatimes.com

Customer Service

This point is, in my opinion more important online than anything else. Reason: In physical retail, the customer sees a person, interacts with him or her and there is a “touch and feel” during the entire transaction. In this case, there is none. Even after the payments are done, there is no assurance that the product would be delivered safely and on time as was promised. Most importantly, in case of a query, there should be someone whom the Customer should be able to reach out to. This is of utmost importance. If the “web” doesn’t have day or night, if the “internet” world never sleeps, then how can a Call Centre (of the online Retailer) work selectively?

On-time Delivery

This is one major area that most e-tailers are focussing on, apparently. And quite obviously. Unlike a physical retail store where the customer not just gets to see the product while buying, but also gets to carry it themselves, in this case, there is a wait time – from 1 working day leading up to a week or maybe more. And when the product arrives at the doorstep, it’s all about packaging and safe-delivery. It would be better to have a reasonable shipping time, rather than delay the delivery time. But having said that, it is important to stick to timelines and be reasonable about it. To take a week to ship a Book is not done! However, it’s better to “Under Promise, Over Deliver”.

Payment & Security

I was reading recently that most shoppers are more comfortable to shop when there is a trusted gateway. Indeed. Frauds can happen more often offline than on the Net – we have recently come across cases where ATM Debit cards have been masked in Mumbai, waiters photo copying Credit cards and CVV number to use them later on, etc. So, the risk element exists and this is a reality. Online Retailers should have comforting information about online security policies and may even want to have an Insurance Company to be roped in – after all, what a better product to sell online!

Secured by thawtes, Secured by MasterCard SecureCode, VERIFIED by VISA

At the end of it, “Price” is not just the one factor that the shopper is looking forward to, while shopping online. It’s a wholesome experience. From a transactional activity to an experiential activity, it’s going to take some effort and time for e-tailers to entice shoppers to be active online. But I am sure, this would happen sooner than later. Watch this space.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Music Launches and footfalls!

Photo courtesy: krishmall.blogspot.com

One of the biggest blockbusters in tamil cinema, “Mankatha” featuring Ajith Kumar and Trisha Krishnan is expected to release shortly. The movie which is the 50th film of the ace actor and a landmark accomplishment has been under production for over a year now, and is expected to be no less a thriller with the actor playing a dark role (something that's unusual in commercial cinema). The same actors previous movie “Asal” (which was basking under the glory of the previous super hit release “Billa”) was a damp squib despite the hype that was generated before the film’s release. However, the crew has done an excellent job this time around and has kept the curiosity high over the past few months. It was the first time that a “single” – one song in the film’s soundtrack (which also happens to be the title track) was released three months ago. Something that’s not a done thing otherwise. The CD was priced at Rs. 55 (a little over 1 USD), comprised of a personally autographed poster by the actor and also included other hits of the same music Director Yuvan Shankar Raja, son of Music Maestro Illayaraja. A few days ago, the latest CD including 6 songs and a remix version of the title track was released for a magic price of Rs. 99/- Needless to say, the album has been dominating the list of Chartbusters for the past 2 weeks. And just now, another version of the CD priced at Rs. 149/- is out on the stands – the CD includes a sticker of the game based on which the film is named. Once the film release, the sales of audio CDs is expected to surge once again. The official trailer was released a few days back and needless to say, it looks “chic” to say the least.

Mankatha–Official Trailer, courtesy youtube.com

The first project that I undertook as a Management Trainee after joining Musicworld at Kolkata a decade ago was to measure the impact of Airplay, if any. While the results were indeed exciting, what was more intriguing me was the expectation of sales staff of an upcoming Sales surge. And the reason – Amitabh Bacchhan, Shah Rukh Khan multi-starrer “Kabhi kushi Kabhie gham” was about to be released shortly. So? I wondered. The staff who had been working in the business for a few years before I joined explained how the launch of the music album would increase footfalls by two-three fold and hence, purchases across other categories would increase. You must be kidding, I felt. But they were right. After all, the love of Bengalis to the Big B, also endeared collectively as the regions’ son-in-law is extremely touching. On the first day of the music launch, the store sold over 300 cassettes and 100 CDs while the footfalls simply doubled – in my opinion, that was a miracle! SONY Music had timed it well, just around the weekend which ensured the store achieved its target by by more than 100%. And many new shoppers walked into the store for the first time, and a few were even imagining it to a notional store like how it would be in London, Paris or New York. But the good thing was many of them repeated their visits over the ensuing months. And spent more money thereafter. Upgraded from Cassettes to CDs. Even today, this particular store attracts one of the most number of footfalls as a standalone music store anywhere in India! Proud to have been part of this iconic store. To my surprise, I personally experienced the illustration above. And when I walked out of the Musicworld store – this time on MG Road, Kochi after buying the “Mankatha” audio CD, I was smiling – thinking about the power of such launches. And how they drive footfalls and how such footfalls spend more than what they walked into the store for! Four times, in my case.

Photo Courtesy: Cinebuzz.in

With digital music all over the place, do physical CDs have any shelf space worthiness at Retail stores? Of course, they do. The penetration of smart devices such as iPods and other similar personal music players, music on mobile phones and tablets etc. is still very low when compared to the spread of Music players (at home). Also, the enjoyment of hearing music on a personal headphone or earphone cannot be comparable to the one while hearing on a Home Theatre system or even in a Car stereo. Needless to say, consumers are already listening to their favourite music across various gadgets, but that doesn’t mean the end of physical audio. When FM Radio was opened up a decade ago in India, the Music Industry feared severe sales arbitrage. Yes, it did some damage. But the industry didn’t get wiped out, as was expected. This market is huge, and its all about how the consumer is served, across various avenues. The good old LP Player and the iconic Sony Walkman™ took many decades to get discontinued. Audio Music Cassettes still have a market opportunity and so do Music CDs. I fear no wipe-out of these media – just that they would become far cheaper in cost, thanks to technology involved in production as well as alternative options for consumers. So, shoppers would keep coming to the stores to buy their favourite music off the shelves for a long time to come.

For now, am back to listening my favourite sound track these days. Waiting to play the game – Mankatha! In real life too, soon. More in my next.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Spicejet and Indigo will help Retailers grow!

 

Photo courtesy: campaonindia.in

It was heartening to read that two of India’s low-cost airlines, Spicejet and IndiGo have ordered new aircraft. My former colleague and boss at BIAL Stephan Widrig, currently the Chief Commercial Officer at Zurich Airport used to say that world over, Aviation grows twice at the rate of national GDP. And rightfully so. Except for 2008-09 when India’s aviation landscape saw a slowdown, which was mostly a perceived threat to future incomes than any direct effect on current earnings, I guess we have been flying happily. The flight I just took, a Jet Lite from Delhi to Bangalore (low-cost identity of India’s premier airline Jet Aiways) was almost full,. When my ticket was booked a week ago, the return fare was around Rs. 11,000 (USD 230). Not bad, I would say. And almost all airlines are running full during the peak hours and the load factor on an average seems to be over 80% (no of seats filled per craft).

Spicejet was recently acquired by media baron Kalanithi Maran, who runs the Sun television network across the country. Though media and aviation have nothing much to do (atleast directly to spur each other’s growth), he would be the only person who would know the reason and logic behind entering a rather unknown industry. Having said that, he has been an excellent entrepreneur in his own right and has created a niche for himself in the media industry, in which his company controls over 70% of channels and viewership in Tamil Nadu, especially in South India. While he is known to be a media-shy person, he is also known for his aggressiveness in his business approach. So, when Spicejet announced expansion plans by acquiring new aircraft and applying for international routes, industry observes are not surprised. But his team and he are doing something rather differently. Instead of buying an Airbus or a Boeing, they have chosen to buy Bombardier aircraft. Except those in the industry, many wouldn’t know that aircraft which have lesser than 80 seats are exempt from various aviation and airport taxes in India. Most importantly, they don’t have to pay landing and parking charges at these airports. Since they have smaller aircraft sizes, they can easily land in smaller landing strips of 2,000 – 3,500 metres (Delhi has 4,200 metre long runway which is capable of handling the Airbus 380, the largest passenger plane currently). Many years back, Captain Gopinath, the pioneer of low-cost flying used the same to his advantage when he launched Air Deccan, India’s first low-cost airline by operating mostly ATRs to fly regional short-haul (less than 2 hour) routes. Similarly, Paramount Airways (which is now defunct and has severe debts) used Embraer aircraft and reaped benefits until such time they were alive. Sadly, both companies couldn’t sustain for too long due to investments and cash flows. Maran, hopefully shouldn’t have that issue.

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Now, how does that help Retailers? Indeed, it does. Indigo and Spicejet have announced plans for International expansion. While Spicejet has chosen Hyderabad Airport as its hub, Indigo will use Delhi  for expanding its base. Thanks to low-cost operations, both these airlines are expected to penetrate into Tier II towns. Smaller airports such as Raipur, Ranchi and Patna have demonstrated double-digit passenger growth over the past two years. Thanks to employment opportunities, youth from these cities are living and working in bigger cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore and fly down to their home-towns when required rather than spending days together in trains like in the good old times. Now – more the number of passengers, more the opportunity for commercial establishments. And that’s where Retailers are expected to benefit. For example, after successfully operating at Bangalore and Hyderabad airports for the past three years, HMSHost,  the $8 Billion F&B Retailer has recently won 10 year contracts at Chandigarh and Lucknow! While their bid was aggressive and raised eyebrows among the Industry, the company seems to be unfazed, After all, they operate at most number of airport locations in the world as a company, and should know better than anyone else. With their knowledge and expertise, not only would they set the standard in these airports, but would also fulfil the passenger requirements to the best possible. TFS, a newly launched company 2 years ago now operates F&B concessions at Mumbai and Delhi airports (the two airports account for over 45% of aviation in India). Chennai and Kolkata airports which are undergoing modernisation by the state-owned Airports Authority of India are also expected to go the master concessionaire way!

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Regional Airports like Trichy, Coimbatore, Mangalore, Nagpur, Pune, Ahmedabad, Bhubaneshwar and many more are expected to propel aviation growth over the nest few years. Not only would they feed domestic traffic, they would also encourage the ever-aspiring  middle class to undertake their first foreign jaunts. Indigo is offering a return fare of Rs. 9,999 to Dubai or Singapore from Delhi. Add on another Rs. 5,000 or so from anywhere in India for a connecting Indigo flight and a foreign trip for a couple at less than Rs. 30,000 (excluding cost of stay which works out to be very cheap if one avails package deals). These low-cost carriers are indeed growing the market and this would only help Retail and F&B players who are currently operating, as well as intend to operate at airports. The F&B spend per pax is currently less than a dollar across Indian Airports – compare that with a pax spend (on F&B) across major airports in the world such as Dubai, Singapore, Heathrow, Zurich which ranges from $5 – $15. More so, the low-cost airlines do not provide F&B on-board, so that is another opportunity that the F&B Retailers can capture.

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Indeed, there is a long way to go for Travel Retailers in India and yes, it is expected to be a bumpy ride, thanks partially to lack of basic infrastructure requirements and trained manpower, but atleast there is a start that’s in the anvil. It’s up to the Retailers to identify and chase the opportunities and the to make the most out of them.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Borders–A book in itself to read for Indian Retailers!

To keep up with time is one of the biggest challenges, whether it is for individuals or for organizations. For Retailers, the challenge is two pronged; while keeping up with its tradition and background, it is equally important to keep pace, if not be ahead of its own time. A classic example is this regard is the recent announcement of liquidation of Borders, one of the most respected and well known book retailers in the world. Actually, Borders was a book store in Ann Arbor selling used books when it was started by brothers Tom & Louis Borders in 1971. Two years later, they moved to a larger location, thus pioneering the big box retail concept for book stores along with Barnes & Noble, another book retailer that is much known for its large format outlets. While the smaller, stand-alone book retailers were carrying around 20,000 – 30,000 titles, the two big retailers offered between 100,000 – 200,000 titles as well as other interesting adds-on such as comfortable seating and attractive lighting, not to forget the air-conditioned environments with coffee shops! Unfortunately, none of it has come to the rescue of Borders which would be liquidating its 399 stores soon, mainly due to its $40 million debt to creditors more than the total value of its assets. Barnes & Noble on the other hand has $900 million in assets alone and its Sales seems to be growing, especially online. B&N also has its own e-book reader – the Nook, up and against Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad, which was among the Top 10 Gadgets of 2010 on Time. 

Wall Street firm Credit Suisse estimates that B&N would take more than 50% of Borders’ business due to it store closure, although in the short-term, Borders would see higher turnover because of its liquidation sales. The most concerned due to the closure of Borders stores seems to be its loyal customers, who feel they will miss the neighbourhood stores where they have been shopping for long. Much has been debated about the Borders story, online and offline by Retail enthusiasts, strategists, customers, et al. Some say that Borders couldn’t keep pace with the Technology shift – while people were moving from hard copy books to digital, the Book Retailer was still grapping with its plans.Though it did start offering digitised versions for sale, it was a tad too slow, a little late for its times.

Thirukkural – an ancient tamil script

Back home, the story is a bit different. In India, reading habits are very different than those in the West. In a country where English as a medium of teaching is restricted to the metro cities and probably a fewer towns, regional writing (and thereby reading) is big. This leads to optimum merchandising by the book stores who often struggle with the right quantities / titles that they should carry. Large Retailers in India such as Odyssey, Crossword, Landmark, Time-Out (from Reliance Retail), etc. have focussed mostly on English titles – tried and tested with the markets that they operate in. With regards to size – almost every size has been experimented, I would say. From small 900 sqft outlets (mostly a shop-inside-a-shop or simply, shop-in-shop) to 20,000 sqft so-called flagship stores, Book Retailers in India have them all in their kitty. Books still contribute not more than 60% of their sales and about 70% of store usage. The rest of its sales and space allotment is through various other categories such as Greeting Cards, Music & Movies’ CDs, DVDs, Game consoles such as X-Box, PSP, and in some cases even perfumes and cosmetics, not to mention coffee shops such as Cafe Coffee Day in some of their stores. With a very small quantity of e-book readers being sold in the market today, digital reading is not yet as big as it is in Western countries. Experts have differentiated opinions about the growth of such devices; with cheaper imports from China and Taiwan flooding the markets, one would obviously find a higher off-take over the months to come. But having a digital reader is just the first step; the user has to subscribe reading materials online or have to buy books to read them on their readers. For which e-commerce has to be enabled and empowered. For which the user should be convinced about the safety of using their e-wallets. Well, yes long way to go.

DSC00075Crossword Book store with a Cafe Coffee day

Having said that, are Indian consumers ready to go digital? Not yet.

Satya Rao, a Mumbai resident and an automotive consultant to a large US Conglomerate who has been an avid reader of books since his childhood across various categories says he would still walk into a Retail store to buy books, although he uses his iPad for various purposes other than reading online. Manish Malhotra, a Retail professional for over 15 years and a book-freak browses online these days to zero in on a relevant subset of books which he would later explore at a book store. Anjali, a HR professional working for an IT giant that makes life easier for Retailers worldwide by providing processes and solutions however feels the store visits are more about the exposure to a large range which is limited online. Raman Kalia, a marketing professional who has built an airline and an airport over the past 8 years feels being amongst books has a charm which cannot be replicated by online book retailers / websites since one is generally limited to what they know while browsing online while a physical book store opens up even more.

I personally remember (and so would many erstwhile Madrasis, a book store by the name “Seetharaman & Co.” – a one-stop shop which would house all forms of educational reading materials. The store was vertically graded and students from all across Madras would visit the store. It was quite rare that the Retailers (who was actually a distributor) would run out of stock. And if the store didn’t have what the customer wanted, it would be made available within a certain time frame. During the late 90s, a relatively larger, modern book store opened at Nungambakkam high road in Chennai. The store, which was located in the basement of a commercial complex was a haven for all kinds of books and was one of the first of its kind which allowed enthusiasts to read books endlessly, without compelling them to buy. Founder Hemu Ramiah later sold her stake in the book store to TATA’s Retail arm and the book store is none other than Landmark - A small neighbourhood book store that grew nationally to become one of the biggest and most respected Retailer of its kind in India over the years. M Madhu, the former Head of Merchandising of Landmark is reported to have recently moved on to head Amazon’s India operations – after all, who would know better than him how to entice readers by providing what they want.

Photo Courtesy: The Hindu

So, what’s in store for Indian Book Retailers? Does the store size and titles that they carry will have an impact on the consumer’s requirements? Does providing amenities such as wide aisles, relaxed seating within air-conditioned precincts and a cafe here and there would be a strong hook to increase footfalls to the store? Do loyalty programs such as Crossword Reward programs or Landmark Fellowship to retain existing customers and increase their spends visit after visit? Well, while there are not too many clear answers for such questions, what’s sure is that Book Retailing is here to stay in India for quite some time to come. Reading is a habit, and is best to build such a habit from childhood. Many retailers have weekend activities targeting children – idea is to first bring them to the store; they would grow up reading themselves. On Digital – as mentioned before, India has its own constraints of e-commerce, starting from points of access to payment gateways. While things have improved a lot over the years, online security (or rather insecurity) is a looming factor that needs to be addressed by Retailers.

Online shopping or not, the charm of book stores would remain. For some its the romance of books and book-shelves, and for many its the enlightenment that they perceive they would get while browsing, buying and reading books. And for many, its just a customary visit every week to pick up magazines. Whichever way, Book stores are here to stay – just that the Retailers have to pull their act better, and yes NOW.

Been there, Seen that...