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FDI debate: Why Sushma should get the stupid-statement award

It's that time of the year when awards are given out for the best things and possibly the worst things too. And the award for the most stupid statement of the year has to definitely go to Sushma Swaraj, the leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha.

During the course of the debate on the government decision to allow foreign direct investment in multi-brand retailing or what is more popularly referred to as big retail, she said: "Will Wal-Mart care about the poor farmer's sister's wedding? Will Wal-Mart send his children to school? Will Wal-Mart notice his tears and hunger?"

These lines sound straight out of a bad Hindi movie of the 1980s with dialogues written by Kadar Khan. Yes, Wal-Mart will not care about the poor farmer's sister's wedding. Neither will it send his children to school. And nor notice his tears and hunger simply because its not meant to do that.

This is because Wal-Mart is a selfish company interested in making money and ensuring that its stock price goes up, so that its investors are rewarded.

The same stands true for every Indian company which is into big retail (be Tata, Birla, Ambani or for that matter Big Bazaar). No company, Indian or foreign, into big retail or not, is bothered about the tears of the farmer. And neither is the government.

Let's look at some other things that Swaraj went onto say.

"The remaining 70 percent of the goods sold in these supermarkets will be procured from China. Factories will open in China, traders will prosper in China while darkness will befall 12 crore people in India," she declared.

Already a lot of what is sold in India comes from China. Around three weeks ago I went around several electronic shops in Delhi trying to help my mother choose a refrigerator. Almost all Indian brands had compressors which were made in China. If one takes the compressor out of the equation what basically remains in a refrigerator is some plastic and glass. And all that is Made in India.

My television set, which is a Japanese brand, is also Made in China. A leading Indian electrical company buys almost all the irons that it sells in India from China and simply stamps its brand name over it.

A lot of pitchkaris that get sold around the time of Holi and diyas and electronic lighting that get sold around the time of Diwali are also Made in China.

Swaraj could have clearly done some better research before making one of the most important speeches of her career. PTI

As a quote from a story that appeared in The Times of India earlier this year went ,"It seems that 'Made in China' has researched our festivals and sensed the need of the customers. For the past 10 years, the business of local sprinklers is decreasing due to stiff competition with Chinese sprinklers. We are facing huge loss, plastic powder through which the pichkaris are prepared locally are bought at Rs 100 per kg while at the same time, there is no subsidy or relaxation on the name of festival," shared Bihari Lal, a local manufacturer and trader of sprinklers." Chinese made colours are also available during Holi.

And none of this has been brought to India by Wal-Mart. It was brought to India largely by Indian entrepreneurs and traders, a lot of whom form the core voting base of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and also fund the party to a large extent.

Made in China has become a part of our lives whether we like it or not and it will continue to remain a part of our lives, with or without Wal-Mart. If Wal-Mart does not supply us with Made in China goods, the Indian entrepreneurs and retailers will surely do, primarily because Chinese goods are cheaper than the Indian ones. Hence, what Swaraj wants us to believe is already happening with no Wal-Mart in sight.

The other point that comes out here is the ability of Wal-Mart to source stuff from China. This is not rocket science. Indian retailers can also do the same thing.

As Rajiv Lal of the Harvard Business School told me in an earlier interview "If Wal-Mart is operating in Brazil there is nothing that Wal-Mart can do in Brazil that the local Brazilian guy cannot do. If you want to procure supplies from China, you can procure supplies from China as much as Wal-Mart can procure supplies."

Swaraj also talked about predatory pricing that Wal-Mart would resort to.

"These supermarkets introduce predatory pricing. At first, they will introduce such low prices, that will finish the rest of the market. Then when the customer has no other choice, they will keep hiking prices and looting the people," she said.

This statement is also misleading. As Rohit Deshpande of the Harvard Business Schoool told me in a recent interaction that I had with him " For a company like Wal-Mart historical strategy is fairly easy to understand. It is to make a major branded product available cheaper. So you will have a wider assortment of branded product than any of their competitors. T hat's the first thing. The second thing is that they have private label. They keep increasing the percentage of their private label within each of their broad categories. So the consumers get trained to come to the store because they can find an assortment of branded products. And once they become loyal to your store then they find that they can make price comparisons within the store and they end up buying your private label. And then your margin is really so much better. It's a strategy that has worked well for Wal-Mart."

Wal-Mart is a selfish company interested in making money and ensuring that its stock price goes up, so that its investors are rewarded. Reuters

So for this strategy to work Wal-Mart has to ensure that they stock private label goods (basically their own brands) which are cheaper than other brands.

Hence, Wal-Mart might decide to stock its own brand of soap which is lets say cheaper than Lifebuoy. For this strategy to work their own goods will have to be cheaper than other branded goods. Hence, it can't keep increasing prices and keep looting people as Swaraj wants us to believe. Indians aren't exactly idiots.

Also, if you have visited any of the big retail shops over the years you would have realised that these shops have been increasing the number of private label brands that they sell. As of now this is largely too limited to things like pulses, noodles, sugar etc. The point is that big retail in India is following the same strategy that Wal-Mart does worldwide.

The other interesting point that comes up here is that Wal-Mart is able to offer low prices primarily because of two things. One is that it gets its real estate cheap because it typically sets up shop outside city limits. And two is the homogeneity of the population when it comes to consumption.

A typical Wal-Mart in the United States is situated outside the city, where rents are low. But such a strategy may not work in India. "It's not easy to open a 150,000 square feet store in India. That kind of space is not available. They can't open these stores 50 miles away from where the population lives. People in India don't have the conveyance to go and buy bulk goods, bring it and store it. They don't have the conveyance and they don't have the big houses. So it doesn't work," explained Lal.

This is something that marketing guru V Kumar agreed with when I interviewed him sometime back.

"Even if Wal-Mart is there in every place, the way they are located is typically outside the city limits. So only people with time, motivation and a vehicle, will be able to go and buy things. And the combination of these three things is very rare."

The other factor as to why Wal-Mart may not be able to offer very low prices in India is because there is no homogeneity when it comes to consumption behaviour leading to a situation where the company may not have the same economies of scale that it does in other parts of the world.

As Kumar told me "Does the country as a whole consume common things or there are regional biases? In a country like Brazil people eat similar foods that every retailer can sell." In India clearly things are different. "In India between South, East, West and the North, there is so much heterogeneity that you need localised catering and marketing. So consumption behaviour varies therefore unless you are willing to carry heterogeneous products in each of the locations it is tough".

The point I am trying to make is that Wal-Mart is not such a big fear that it was made out to be by Swaraj. They do make their mistakes as well. As Deshpande told me "They have had hiccups in the interest of scale and cost efficiency. They have sometimes pushed products that did not make sense for the local market. An example, I believe it was in Argentina, where Wal-Mart, around July 4(the American independence day) had a lot of American flags shipped into their stores."

Pankaj Ghemawat , the youngest person to become a full professor at Harvard Business School makes an interesting point in his book Redefining Global Strategy. As he writes "When CEO Lee Scott (who was the CEO of Wal-Mart from 2000 to 2009) was asked a few years ago about why he thought Wal-Mart could expand successfully overseas, his response was that naysayers had also questioned the company's ability to move successfully from its home state of Arkansas to Alabama...such trivialisation of international differences greases the rails for competing exactly the same way overseas at home. This has turned out to be a recipe for losing money in markets very different from the United States: as the former head of the company's German operations, now shut down, plaintively observed, "We didn't realise that pillowcases are a different size in Germany."

Wal-Mart had to pull out of South Korea as well in 2006.

Hence, Swaraj could have clearly done some better research before making one of the most important speeches of her career. She could have read the recent column that P Sainath wrote in The Hindu , where he talks about Chris Pawelski, an American farmer and the onions that he produces.

As Sainath writes "While the Walmarts, Shop Rites and other chain stores sell his (i.e. Pawelski's) kind of onions for $1.49 to $1.89 a pound, Pawelski himself gets no more than 17 cents. And that's an improvement. Between 1983 and 2010, the average price he got stayed around 12 cents a pound. "All our input costs rose," he points out. "Fertiliser, pesticide, just about everything went up. Except the price we got." Which was about $6 a 50-pound bag. Retail prices though, soared in the same period. Distances are not the cause. The same chains sell cheap imports from Peru and China, driving down prices."

The other interesting point that Sainath makes it that companies even dictate the size of the onions he produces. As Sainath writes "Pawelski held up the onion. "They want this size because they know you won't use more than half of one of these in cooking a meal. And you'll throw away the other half. The more you waste, the more you'll buy." The stores know this. So wastage is a strategy, not a by-product."

Such examples on Wal-Mart and other big retail chains are not hard to find. A Google search throws up plenty of them. A speech against the negative effects of big retail should have been full of such examples instead of saying things like whether Wal-Mart will care about a farmer's sister's wedding.

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com)