Pret A Manger-Reliance tie-up to force Indian café chains to smell the coffee

Brand’s positioning may be just below Starbucks

Pret A Manger-Reliance tie-up to force Indian café chains to smell the coffee
It is against this background that Reliance Brands (RBL) announced its strategic partnership with global fresh food and organic coffee chain, Pret A Manger (PAM).

By Alokananda Chakraborty

India may boast of the presence of several marquee international coffee chains, but none of them, with the possible exception of Starbucks, have been able to make much of an impact. The reasons are obvious; for one, India is largely a tea-drinking market, with coffee penetration still at just about 11%. Coffee remains largely an in-home consumption drink. Then there are the usual challenges of getting prime real estate at a reasonable cost and consumers’ capacity to pay. The pandemic, which disrupted food supply chains and the overall demand, delivered a body blow, leading to shutdown of around 8% of the outlets during 2021.

It is against this background that Reliance Brands (RBL) announced its strategic partnership with global fresh food and organic coffee chain, Pret A Manger (PAM). The first store will open by the end of this financial year. While RBL is tight-lipped about the pricing or positioning strategy, experts say PAM’s biggest advantage is its association with Reliance.

“PAM is a late entrant and would have been at a huge disadvantage if it went alone,” says Anthony Dsouza, executive director & country service line leader, innovation, Ipsos India.

So what does Reliance brings to the table? “Significant investment capability, real estate strength and know-how of retail. These could lead to a much higher scalability and access to the right locations,” says Angshuman Bhattacharya, national leader, consumer product and retail sector, EY India. “However, running a café chain also involves building out the right supply chains across the country, which the brand would need to build,” he adds.

Bhattacharya is bang on. The success of an F&B franchise business depends on getting real estate at the right price. Reliance can offer a tremendous advantage here to PAM. Not only does it run a very large retail business, it also owns malls.

Experts say a lot would also depend on the right pricing. Pramod Damodaran, who had relaunched Costa Coffee India in his earlier stint as COO for that firm, and is now CEO of Wagh Bakri Tea Lounge, says, “There’s a big space between the 240 and170 for a cup of cappuccino, that is, just below the Starbucks/Costa Coffees of the world.”

PAM will probably occupy that window – it is unlikely to be a premium offering for two reasons. One, PAM is primarily a sandwich chain in the UK and it’s not clear how much premium it can command for a pre-made sandwich. Two, if PAM were to take advantage of the retail footprint of Reliance and were to follow a shop-in-shop format, say, in a Reliance Trends store, it can’t afford to be premium. The positioning would be a consequence of that captive audience.

In other words, the store location will, to a large extent, determine both the pricing and positioning of PAM. Agrees Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight, a specialist management consulting firm: “At the end of the day, PAM is more a quick service outlet than a cafe. (Pret A Manger means “ready to eat” in French). And the consistency of its offering comes from what is called the pre-prep.”

All PAM outlets in the UK follow the concept of “freshness of ingredients” and “quickness of service”. The hero product – the sandwich in this case – is still a convenience food, a grab-and-go item. It is prepared by a central commissary or multiple commissaries and is at the most heated or packaged at the counter. “So it is not a restaurant and it can’t charge a restaurant price,” says Dutta.

In a sense, Domino’s has perfected this model with a lot of pre-prep done at the commissary end but the actual pizza is prepared “at location” or in the store. “In this case (PAM), you are not doing that volume of work at the consumer-facing counter,” Dutta adds. And if that is the model RBL plans to replicate in the country, the positioning, by default, is mass.

“The PAM-Reliance combination is likely to be a mass market offer, with value pricing and highly localised strategy,” Dsouza of Ipsos says.

But mass or premium positioning, PAM’s entry will no doubt roil the waters. “Incumbents have to up the food game if they want to take on the might of Reliance,” says an executive with a rival brand. Beverages form a dominant part of the café industry sales. Besides food and beverages, merchandising, which is employed largely for branding, is rapidly becoming a source of additional revenue. About 60-65% of café sales come from beverages, followed by food which forms about 20-25% and about 10% from merchandise.

For one, Tata Starbucks, which witnessed a 76% growth and logged `636 crore revenue in FY22, has been working at its food menu and delivery for some time. In a recent interview to FE BrandWagon, Sushant Dash, CEO, Tata Starbucks, had said that the brand had to “re-prioritise” because of the pandemic, with innovation becoming more important to keep the brand relevant. Starbucks innovated with the menu to keep the interest level up among customers and introduced new food items and gave the existing food items an Indian twist,” he had said.

Earlier this month, Starbucks added masala chai, filter coffee and an array of bite-sized snacks and sandwiches to its menu card. Its new milkshakes will be priced starting at 275, while masala chai and filter coffee will start from190. It also introduced the ‘Picco’ – meaning ‘small’ in Italian – starting at `185.

Will that be enough? Given PAM’s strong presence in the food space, there is no denying that existing café chains in India have to tweak their food menu considerably. In other words, they will have to get out of their comfort zones.

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