In a rather poignant scene in Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, the character played by Farhan Akhtar is sitting face-to-face with his biological father, played by Naseeruddin Shah (in a brilliant cameo). As the story goes, Shah had abandoned Akhtar’s mother (played by Deepti Naval) after getting her pregnant and moved on to becoming a famous painter in Europe.
Akhtar finally calls up Shah, when, on a holiday in Spain, he and his two friends get involved in a drunken brawl and land up in jail. Shah comes and bails them out. After this, Akhtar asks Shah for the true reason behind abandoning his mother. To which Shah replies “Sach hota kya hai. . . sach ka har ek ka apna apna version hota hai!” (What is truth? Everybody has their own version of it).
This line written by Farhan Akhtar is at the heart of the current debate on allowing foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retailing.
Those in favour of the decision have their own version of truth. And those against it have another version. Those in favour of the decision believe that allowing foreign investment will create jobs, build supply chains and overall help economic growth. Those against it firmly believe that it will destroy the neighbourhood kirana shop, as you, I and everybody else hop onto Wal-Mart to buy stuff. I have my own version of truth which is somewhere between the two extremes.
The kirana store will survive: A lot of hue and cry has been made on this. Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar, believes that the aam aadmi will suffer because of FDI in retail and hence he won’t allow it in Bihar. The fact of the matter is that it is not easy to compete with the neigbourhood kirana store. My kirana guy even goes to the extent of delivering things that he does not sell, like eggs and medicine, to ensure that I keep giving him business. As Rajiv Lal, a professor at Harvard Business School, told me in an interview I did for Daily News and Analysis (DNA): “Kirana stores have a lot of benefits that established retailers don’t have. First of all location. What rents do they pay versus what established companies have to pay? Employees, same story. On the consumer side, they can deliver services, in terms of somebody calls them and asks can you deliver six eggs? The guy runs and delivers six eggs. That’s not something that the big established firms can provide.” (You can read the complete interview here).
No homogeneity across India: An important factor for big retail to be successful is the homogeneity of the population in consumption behaviour. This gives them economies of scale. As marketing guru V Kumar told me another recent interview I did for DNA: “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,” said Kumar. (You can read the complete interview here). This is a challenge that foreign retailers will have to deal with.
The real estate conundrum: 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 1,50,000 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 Kumar agreed with. “Even if Wal-Mart is there in every place, the way they are located is typically outside 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 kirana stores also provide goods on interest-free credit to their customers – something that no big retailer can afford to do.
The fear of Wal-Mart and others of its ilk is overdone: It is widely believed that wherever Wal-Mart goes it destroys the local business. As Anthony Bianco writes in The Bully of Bentonville – How the High Cost of Wal-Mart’s Everyday Low Prices is Hurting America: “It (Wal-Mart) grows by wrestling businesses away from other retailers large and small. In hundreds of towns and cities, Wal-Mart’s entry put ailing …shopping districts into intensive care and then ripped out the life-support-system.”
But that is truer for markets like Canada, Mexico and United Kingdom, which are culturally and geographically closer to the United States. The Wal-Mart formula doesn’t always work everywhere. Pankaj Ghemawat, who has the distinction of being appointed the youngest full professor at the Harvard Business School, writes about this in his book Redefining Global Strategy, “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.’”
What is the experience from other emerging markets? Big retail has got some traction in countries like China and Brazil. As Kumar put it “If you look at evidence from China, organised retailing has got more traction. That’s because they did not have many mom-and-pop stores to begin with. They were cultivating their own things which was locally community-based. But with more cities coming up, and migration of people from rural areas to cities, (it) gives more scope for organised retailing in China. Also space is not an issue in China. In India space is a constraint. Look at China and India. China is much bigger than India but the population is pretty much similar. Look at Brazil, it is as much bigger than India but the population is maybe one-sixth that of India. So they also have space.” Whereas space remains a key constraint for big retail stores like Wal-Mart, Tesco and Carrefour in India.
Also, in almost all emerging markets a local company is number one. As Lal told me, “There is not a single emerging market that I know where a foreign entrant is the number one retailer. In Brazil it is Pão de Açúcar, in China you have the local Beijing Bailian. In most markets, even when there are foreign entrants, the dominant retailer in the organised sector is still the local retailer.”
And there are several reasons for the same. The local retailers are very price competitive. “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. On top of that they have local merchants that they know they can source from and Wal-Mart may not,” said Lal.
Will foreign players be able to crack the market, when most of the Indian retailers are bleeding? The biggest Indian business groups have tried to crack organised retailing over the last decade. The Tatas, the Birlas, the Ambanis, all have a significant presence in the sector. But despite that organised retailing remains a small part of the overall retail business. As Sreenivasan Jain writes in the DNA: “For starters, India has had big or organised retail for about 15 years now, not a small stretch of time. Some of the biggest Indian corporates are in this space, like Reliance, the Birlas, Godrej, RPG (Sanjeev Goenka Group) and Kishore Biyani’s Future Group. Despite this, organised retail is only 5 percent of the Indian retail market. The remaining 95 percent is still unorganised.” (You can read the complete column here).
And all these big players are losing money hand over fist. “Last year, Reliance Fresh posted a loss of Rs 247 crore, Bharti posted a loss of Rs 266 crore, and Aditya Birla group, which runs the chain of More supermarkets, posted a loss of Rs 423 crore. Some retail chains have actually shut down, like Subhiksha, which at one time had almost 1,500 outlets,” writes Jain.
It is in the interest of these firms that foreign investment is allowed in the sector, so that they can sell a part of the equity to foreign firms. Those in favour are of the opinion that these firms do not have the necessary expertise which the foreigners will bring in. This argument does not really work. Bharti Enterprises, which runs Easy Day stores, has a back-end and cash-and-carry partnership with Wal-Mart. Star Bazaar, run by the Tata group, is offered back-end support by Tesco. So the big retail giants are in a way already operating in India.
Another point put forward by those in favour of foreign investment in retail is that it will help build reliable supply chains across the country. Theoretically yes, but the trouble is supply chains cannot be built if it’s left to the states to decide whether they allow foreign retail or not. Supply chains need to be seamless, they cannot be built if one state allows foreign retail and the neighbouring state does not.
So what is the future going to be like? It is difficult to predict what the future of the likes of Wal-Mart, Tesco and Carrefour in India is going to be. But one thing is for sure. They won’t find it easy. As far as Wal-Mart goes, Kumar had this to say, “There will be a market if they are content at not being the largest retailer. If they say in India I am one among many, they will have a presence. Maybe at some point in the future, things might change, like Wal-Mart buying other retailers and that’s the way they can expand. Their specialty is supply chain and turning the inventory over multiple times than other retailers. They cannot turn it over multiple times here. Each time, if they make a 1 percent margin, they get a higher margin due to turning the inventory over multiple times. Here I don’t see them turning it over as many times as in other markets. It’s very difficult to do that.”
Kumar also predicts that over a period of time the likes of Wal-Mart will be forced to buy the smaller kiranas in order to expand. “My prediction is this that mom-and-pop stores, or kiranas as we call them, will become more and more sophisticated. Today the store owners know people by their names; as their number will grow they will have to start building a database, but they don’t have the capabilities. So organised retailing will start buying mom-and-pop stores individually. And then they will put all of them under one banner. It will be like how Tesco is operating in the UK with different store formats.. You have Tesco supermarket, convenience store, street corner store, express, etc. So that is the way in India. You will be see this evolving because otherwise there is no growth for them,” said Kumar.
So my version of truth is somewhere in between those who support foreign investment in multi-brand retailing as it’s called, and those who don’t. Big retail will not be the panacea it’s being made out to be. Neither will it destroy the smaller shops as is being claimed. It will have to create its own space. And that will only happen over a period of time.
Vivek Kaul is a writer and he can be reached at email@example.com