By Devangshu Dutta
Do you have this feeling that 2018 went by a little too quickly? Well, however quick it seemed, it was certainly momentous for retail in India.
If 2016 was marked by the shock of demonetisation, and 2017 by the pains of GST implementation, 2018 highlighted two threads — the obvious convergence of the online and offline world that had been ignored for far too long, and the interest of foreign capital in India’s consumer world.
Walmart bought India’s loss-making e-commerce leader (Flipkart) for an eye-popping $20.8 billion valuation, while e-commerce giant Amazon injected equity into Shoppers Stop, bought Aditya Birla’s More grocery chain (49% through a back-end entity) and held discussions with Future Group to acquire 9.5% in Future Retail. There were rumours of a mega joint venture between Reliance Retail and China’s Alibaba, and also reports that Japan’s SoftBank is looking at ploughing $200 million into FirstCry. Rivals Amazon and Alibaba were both reported to be looking at Spencer’s, one of India’s oldest retail chains currently owned by the RP-Sanjiv Goenka group.
Videos of the crush of curious crowds at India’s first, much anticipated Ikea store went viral, and the company said it planned to open in 40 locations over the next few years, upping its earlier projection of 25. Chinese retailer Miniso came out of nowhere and claimed to have clocked `700 crore worth of sales in the very first year in India.
But, along with these cross-border ‘big bangs’ we saw domestic confidence also quietly resurging. Indian retailers are not cowering before large foreign retailers and expensive e-commerce advertising splashes; today, they are less defensive about their own prospects than they were two years ago. There is also a growing interest among entrepreneurs and corporates to create new retail businesses, which augurs well for the diversity of competition and freshness of offerings in the market.
Going into 2019, one thing I can say with certainty is that the weather, economic and political — both in India and elsewhere — will be unpredictable, and might even turn stormy. Retailers should ‘expect the unexpected’. To ensure that the business remains on track, however rough it gets, retailers must centre all major strategies and decisions on the customer. Although this theme has been around for centuries, it is surprising how much it gets ignored in the most customer-facing business.
Make a connection
Retailers tend to divide customers into rigid segments. My suggestion would be to look at customers through the behaviour and experience lens.
It is often emphasised that Indian consumers are ‘deal seeking’. I don’t think we should treat this as a uniquely Indian thing: all consumers look for value reassurance in unpredictable times. Also, remember that even in value seeking, experience still rules. Retailers and brands that are solely focussing on price or price and feature comparisons are turning their business into a commodity. They are missing the long game: of defining the customer’s experience from the first moment of brand contact to the purchase and beyond.
In 2019, if you want to focus on a single competitive strategy, it should be this: for stickiness and sustainability, think about the customer’s experience, and actively design it in every environment where the customer connects with you.
Lastly, technology is transformative, but tends to get restricted to being the contrast between e-commerce and physical retail. Indian retailers need to embrace technology in all forms, from using the zillions of transactions within the business and with the customer for developing actionable knowledge, to automating processes.
Make customer-interfacing technology as invisible or intuitive as possible. When in doubt, learn from one of the leaders in the sector, Amazon: its 1-click ordering patent 20 years ago gave it a huge advantage over competitors. It is now aiming to replicate the same seamless, friction-free behaviour physically with its Dash button. Or pick cues from younger fashion businesses like Rebecca Minkoff, whose focus is on ease and convenience. The key reason for adopting technology is to remove friction for the customer.
I have no doubt that 2019 will be eventful. Let the customer experience be the guiding light to keep our businesses afloat and off the rocks.
The author is chief executive, Third Eyesight, and managing partner, PVC Partners