British retail strategy

Right under where I currently live, there’s a Waitrose. Next door, there’s a Tesco Express. And a little down the road, there’s a Sainsbury Local. The day I got here, a week ago, I drove myself nuts trying to figure out which of these stores is the cheapest.

And after one week of random primary research, I think I have the classic economist’s answer – it depends. On what I’m looking to buy that is.

Each of these chains has built a reputation of sourcing excellent products and selling them to customers at a cheap price. The only thing is that each of them does it on a different kind of products. So there is a set of products that Tesco is easily the cheapest at, but the chain compensates for this by selling other products for a higher rate. It is similar with the other chains.

Some research I read a year or two back showed that while Amazon was easily the cheapest retailer in the US for big-ticket purchases, their prices for other less price-sensitive items was not as competitive. In other words, Amazon let go of the margin on high-publicity goods, and made up for it on goods where customers didn’t notice as much.

It’s the same with British retailers – each of their claims of being the cheapest is true, but that applies only to a section of the products. And by sacrificing the margin on these products, they manage to attract a sufficient number of customers to their stores, who also buy other stuff that is not as competitively priced!

Now, it is possible for an intelligent customer to conduct deep research and figure out the cheapest shop for each stock keeping unit. The lack of quick patterns of who is cheap for what, however, means that the cost of such research and visiting multiple shops usually far exceeds the benefits of buying everything from the cheapest source.

I must mention that this approach may not apply in online retail where at the point of browsing a customer is not “stuck” to any particular shop (unlike in offline where a customer is at a physical store location while browsing).

Variable pricing need not be boring at all!

Pizza from dominos – good and bad

Last night we decided we wanted pizza from dominos for dinner. Having been used to Swiggy, I instinctively googled for dominos and tried to place the order online.

There is one major fuckup with the dominos website – it asks you to pick the retail outlet closest to you, rather than taking your location and picking it yourself. And so it happened that we picked an outlet not closest to us.

I quickly got a call from the guy at the outlet where my order had gone, expressing his inability to deliver it, and saying he’ll cancel my order. I gave him a mouthful – it’s 2016, and why couldn’t he have simply transferred the order to the outlet that is supposed to service me?

I was considering cancelling the order and not ordering again (a self-injurious move, since we wanted Dominos pizza, not just pizza), when the guy from the outlet in whose coverage area I fell called. He explained the situation once again, saying my original order was to be cancelled, and he would have to take a new order.

Again – it wasn’t just a fuckup in the payment in the Dominos system, in which case they could’ve simply transferred my order to this new guy. So I had to repeat my entire order once again to this guy (not so much of a problem since I was only getting one pizza) and my address as well (it’s a long address which I prefer filling online).

Then there was the small matter of payment – one reason I’d ordered online was that I could pay electronically (I used PayTM). When I asked him if I could pay online for the new order he said I had to repeat the entire process of online ordering – there was no order ID against which I could simply logon and pay.

I played my trump card at this time – asked him to make sure the delivery guy had change for Rs. 2000 (I’d lined up at a bank 2 weeks back and withdrawn a month’s worth of cash, only that it was all in Rs. 2000 notes). He instantly agreed. Half an hour later, the pizza, along with change for Rs. 2000 was at my door.

The good thing about the experience was that the delivery process was smooth, and more importantly, the outlet where my order reached had taken initiative in communicating it to the outlet under whose coverage my house fell – the salespersons weren’t willing to take a chance to miss a sale that had fallen at their door.

The bad thing is that Jubilant Foodworks’ technology sucks, big time. Thanks to the heavily funded and highly unprofitable startups we usually order from, we’re used to a high level of technology from the food delivery kind of businesses. Given that Jubilant is a highly profitable company it shouldn’t be too hard for them to license the software of one of these new so-called “foodtech” companies to further enhance the experience.

No clue why they haven’t done it yet!

PS: I realise I’ve written this blogpost in the style I used to write in over a decade ago. Some habits die hard.

Buying, Trying and Sizing

The traditional paradigm of apparel purchase has been to try and then buy. You visit a retail store, pick what you like, try them out in the store’s dressing rooms and then buy a subset. In this paradigm, it is okay for sizing to not be standardised, since how the garment actually fits on you plays a larger part in your decision making than how it is supposed to fit on you.

With the coming of online retail, however, this paradigm is being reversed, since here you first buy, and then try, and then return the garment if it doesn’t fit properly. This time, the transaction cost of returning a garment is much higher than in the offline retail case.

So I hope that with online retail gaining currency in apparel purchase, manufacturers will start paying more attention to standardised sizing, and make sure that a garment’s dimensions are exactly what is mentioned on the online retailer’s site.

The question is who should take the lead on enforcing this. It cannot be the manufacturer, for had they been concerned already about standardised sizing, they would’ve implemented it already. So far the retailer has only been an intermediary (a “pipe”, as Sangeet would put it).

However, with the transaction cost of failed transactions being borne by the retailers, and these transaction costs being rather high in online retail, I expect the likes of Amazon and Myntra to take the lead in ensuring that sizing is standardised, perhaps by pushing up the ease of search of garments from manufacturers who already practice such sizing (these retailers have sufficient data to measure this easily).

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Given history, I don’t expect retailers to collaborate in coming up this a standard. So assuming each major online retailer comes up with its own standard, the question is if it will start off being uniform or if it will converge to a common standard over time.

I also wonder if the lead in standardising sizes will be taken by private brands of the online retailers, since they have the most skin in the game in terms of costs, before other manufacturers will follow suit.

In any case, I trust that soon (how “soon” that soon is is questionable) I’ll be able to just look at the stated sizing on a garment and buy it (if it’s of my liking) without wondering how well it’ll fit me.

Shopping offline can be underwhelming

Maybe to compensate for the amount I’ve been buying on Amazon over the last few days (mostly baby stuff), I set off on Sunday to buy some stuff offline. And it was a most disappointing experience.

The biggest problem was the lack of choice and availability and inventory. I first went to a Levi’s showroom to buy a pair of jeans, having ripped three of them in the course of the last year (thanks to squatting I’m guessing).

I asked for comfort fit jeans and was shown a pair. Was rather underwhelming and I asked for more. Turned out that was the only pair of comfort fit jeans in the store.

And then I was looking to buy a pair of shorts. At least three stores on Jayanagar 11th Main Road were visited, only to be told none of them stocked shorts (Levi’s, Wills Lifestyle, Woodlands). I might have cribbed about lack of effective categorisation in online shopping but it’s a more acute problem offline, given the transaction cost of going to a store.

On Jayanagar 11th Main Road, for example, you have brand stores of every conceivable brand, but few stores have chosen to differentiate themselves by what they sell, rather than what brand. So you lack stores that specialise in shorts, or T-shirts, and so on.

For a while now I’ve been looking for a new pair of spectacles (hate my current frame, so I end up wearing contact lenses even when I don’t want to). GKB offered some choice, but nothing spectacular. SR Gopal Rao said they didn’t have large size frames, and had no clue when they’d arrive.

And there ended my shopping trip. The only things I’d been successful buying was a packet of freshly made rusks from a bakery (feel damn lucky most bakeries in Bangalore have in-house kitchen where they bake stuff fresh) and some medicines.

When your demands run into the so-called “long tail”, I guess nowadays online is the best bet. So I’ll possibly buy another pair of jeans online, having bought one pair from Korra and returned a pair to Amazon. I don’t normally buy clothes online, but on other tabs of my browser I’m checking out shorts on Amazon.

Oh, and I must mention Lenskart, who might end up getting an order for a pair of spectacles. They’ve set up what I call “experience centres” where you can check out their range of frames and try them on. Orders are fulfilled through their online store, since prescription glasses cannot be sold over the counter anyway (since the glasses need to be ground). I strongly believe that this is how retail will shape out in the future.

Sweetshop optimisation on festival days

As I mentioned in my earlier post, while Varamahalakshmi Vrata is considered rather minor in my family, it is a rather big deal in my wife’s house. So I headed to a nearby sweetshop called Mane hOLige to fetch sweets for today’s lunch.

Now, this is not a generic sweetshop. As the name suggests, the shop specialises in making hOLige, also known as obbaTT, which is a kind of sweet stuffed flatbread popular in Karnataka and surrounding areas. And as the menu above suggests, this shop makes hOLige (I’ll use that word since the shop uses it, though I’m normally use to calling it “obbaTT”).

I had been to the shop last Sunday to pick up hOLige for a family gettogether, and since I asked for the rather esoteric “50-50 hOLige”, I had to wait for about 30 minutes before it was freshly made and handed over (Sunday also happened to be yet another minor festival called “naagar panchami”).

Perhaps learning from that experience, when heightened demands led to long wait times for customers, the sweetshop decided to modify its operations a little bit today, which I’m impressed enough to blog about.

Now, as the subtitle on the board above says, the shop specialises in “hot live hOLige”. They are presumably not taking VC funding, else I’d imagine they’d call it “on demand hOLige”. You place an order, and the hOLige is made “to order” and then handed to you (either in a paper plate or in an aluminium foil bag, if you’re taking it away). There is one large griddle on which the hOliges are panfried, and I presume the capacity of that griddle has been determined by keeping in mind the average “live” demand.

On a day like Sunday (naagar panchami), though, their calculations all went awry, in the wake of high demand. A serious backlog built up, leading to a crowded shopfront and irate customers (their normal rate of sale doesn’t warrant the setting up of a formal queue). With a bigger festival on today (as I mentioned earlier, Varamahalakshmi Vrata is big enough to be a school holiday. Naagar panchami doesn’t even merit that), the supply chain would get even more messed up if they had not changed their operations for the day.

So, for starters, they decided to cut variety. Rather than offer the 20 different kinds of hOLige they normally offer, they decided to react to the higher demand by restricting choice to two varieties (coconut and dal, the the most popular, and “normal” varieties of hOLige). This meant that demand for each variety got aggregated, and reduced volatility, which meant that…

They could maintain inventory. In the wake of the festival, and consequent high demand, today, they dispensed with the “hot, live” part of their description, and started making the hOLiges to stock (they basically figured out that availability and quick turnaround time were more important than the ‘live’ part today).

And the way they managed the stock was also intelligent. As I had mentioned earlier, some customers prefer to eat the hOLige on the footpath in front of the store, while others (a large majority) prefer to take it away. The store basically decided that it was important to serve fresh hot hOLige to those that were consuming it right there, but there was no such compulsion for the takeaway – after all the hOLige would cool down by the time the latter customers went home.

And so, as I handed over my token and waited (there was still a small wait), I saw people who had asked for hOLige on a plate getting it straight off the griddle. Mine was put into two aluminium foil bags somewhere in the back of the store – presumably stock they’d made earlier that morning.

Rather simple stuff overall, I know, but I’m impressed enough with the ops for it to merit mention on this blog!

Oh, and the hOLige was excellent today, as usual I must say! (my personal favourite there is 50-50 hOLige, if you want to know)

The Economics of Shakespeare and Company

During my vacation, I finished reading Salil Tripathi’s Detours, an enhanced collection of his columns in Mint Lounge of the same name. I quite liked the book. In fact, I liked it much more than his columns in Mint Lounge. I think the lack of word limit constraints meant he could add depth when necessary making it a steady and pleasing read (read Sarah Farooqui’s formal review of the book here).

In one of the chapters, he describes Paris in the way Hemingway saw it (literature and art are constant figures in this book, and the fact that I could connect to it (the book) despite my general lack of interest in these topics speaks volumes about the quality of the book). More specifically, this is about the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris where Hemingway occasionally lived, and wrote his books.

George Whitman, a US army veteran who settled down in Paris after the Second World War, bought the store and ran it until his death. During these years, he hosted writers who wanted to visit Paris in an upstairs room, allowing them to basically live in the store as they wrote. There were frequent readings organised in the store where writers could connect with their readers, and writers and other regular patrons were frequently allowed to use the bookshop as a library – to simply read rather than buy books.

There was an occasion when Whitman’s store license ran out and he got into a dispute with the municipal authorities who refused to renew it, to which he responded by stopping the sale of books and running the shop as a library until the license was ultimately renewed.

While Salil describes this as a measure of Whitman’s commitment to good literature and helping authors, it was hard for me to read this chapter without wondering about Whitman’s finances, for none of the above is cheap. One of the biggest costs to running a bookshop is the cost of real estate, and if Whitman had an upstairs room for writers to live and write in, and could redeploy his shop as a library, it came at a significant cost of real estate. While readings might help sell additional books (most readers who attend buy at least a copy of the book that is being discussed), it can disrupt the regular flow of business in the store, and affect sales. The question that I couldn’t escape while reading the book was about the store’s finances and how Whitman managed all these activities.

One hypothesis is that he had alternate sources of funding (patrons of literature’s contributions, or family funds, for example) that allowed him to spend in writer welfare. The other is that margins from the book selling business were fat enough to allow Whitman to spend on writer welfare, and this spending paid him back by way of improving overall sales from his store. Back in the day when you could only buy books from shops, shops that curated well or stocked rare books could afford to charge a premium, and make significant margins which could go into activities such as writer promotion and welfare.

If this hypothesis is correct, it could explain why the traditional literature industry, including authors, are so incensed by Amazon’s rise, even if it leads to significantly better revenues. What Amazon allowed, by its initial print book mailing model, was for readers to access the “long tail” of books which they could purchase at a reasonable cost (they weren’t beholden to curator-bookseller any more). While the more passionate readers remained loyal to their curator-bookseller, the mass moved to the cheaper option.

While this created value for readers (in terms of lower prices for their books), it had the effect of cutting retail margins for books by a significant amount. Several bookshops became unprofitable under this new regime, and with the new margins not compensating for increasing real estate costs, many of them (including chains such as Borders) closed down. Writers weren’t directly affected economically – for readers who would have earlier purchased in such shops could now simply purchase the same books at Amazon for a lower price, but the dropping profitability of conventional bookstores affected them in other ways.

As Salil’s chapter on Shakespeare & Co illustrates, independent bookshops performed a social function far higher than curating and selling books – they provided an author a platform to connect with readers and enabled authors to meet and exchange ideas. They organised events for authors which raised their profile, and helped sell more books.

Their replacement by low-cost retailing models has cut out this additional social function they performed (without direct rewards). Without independent bookshops organising readings and offering writing spaces, writers have lost something they had access to earlier (though they’ve been monetarily compensated for this by means of higher sales driven by lower prices on Amazon). Hence it’s no surprise that writers have taken sides with their publishers in the battle against Amazon, online retailing and e-books.

In this context, this old piece by Matthew Yglesias in Vox is worth reading, where it talks about why Amazon is performing a socially useful function by curtailing the book publishing industry. Yglesias writes:

My best guess is that this is too pessimistic about the financial logic behind giving advances. It is not, after all, just a loan that you may or may not pay back. An advance is bundled with a royalty agreement in which a majority of the sales revenue is allocated to someone other than the author of the book. In its role as venture capitalist, the publisher is effectively issuing what’s called convertible debt in corporate finance circles — a risky loan that becomes an ownership stake in the project if it succeeds.

 

Maximum Retail Price is a conspiracy by FMCG companies

A few months back, Anupam Manur, a colleague at the Takshashila Institution, had written an Op-Ed in The Hindu that the Maximum Retail Price (MRP) mechanism is archaic and needs to be shelved.

Introduced in 1990 by the Department of Civil Supplies, this regulation governs that the maximum price at which packed goods can be sold be printed on the packet, and makes any transactions at a price higher than this price illegal. This was intended to be a mechanism to protect consumers from usurious shopkeepers (remember this was introduced just before economic reforms were launched), and Anupam’s piece also treats the intention as such.

Having now briefly lived in a country with no such regulations (Spain), I must say that my entire perspective of how retail works has been turned upside down (and this, having spent a year consulting for a major retail chain in India).

The existence of the MRP in India means you tend to look at everything in retail from that perspective – the manufacturer/packager, for example, can set margins (a percentage of the MRP) that each segment of the supply chain can earn. As a consequence, players in the chain have little leverage on what prices to charge – at best, they can forego a part of their (usually tiny) margins in order to drive sales.

Without the existence of MRP, however, the (power) equation is turned upside down. Two supermarkets close to my home in Barcelona (about 200m from each other), for example, charge €0,79 and €0,96 respectively for identical cartons of milk (of the same brand, etc.). This price difference (17% or 21% the way you look at it) of a retail commodity between two nearby stores would be impossible to see in India.

Given the broad similarity in these two supermarkets, it is unlikely that there’s too much difference in what they would have paid to procure these cartons of milk. In other words, one supermarket makes a far higher margin selling this milk (which is possibly compensated by the other’s higher sales).

In other words, in a market without MRP, the manufacturer/brand loses control over the pricing once he has sold products down the chain – it is up to the respective player in the chain to determine what he will charge for from his buyers, and thus manage his own revenues. While free markets mean that prices of products broadly converge across stores, the manufacturer/brand can do little in order to dictate them beyond a point.

With this kind of pricing power missing from retailers in a market like India (with MRP), the retailer is at a greater mercy of the manufacturer. The manufacturer can allow the retailer some leeway in pricing, for example, by setting an artificially high MRP, but the question is whether the manufacturer wants the retailer to have this leeway.

Under the current system (MRP), the retailer is mostly at the mercy of the manufacturer. The manufacturer has bargaining power over how much stocks to distribute to the retailer and when, and there is little leeway for the retailer to manage his stocks intelligently. In fact, for some products, manufacturers even control discounts and don’t allow retailers to sell below a particular price (threatening to stop supplies in case they do so). Without the MRP, this kind of coercion on behalf of manufacturers will be significantly reduced.

In this context, it is useful to look at the MRP as a tool that shifts the balance of power in the packaged goods supply chain in favour of the manufacturers/brands and away from the retailers. As Anupam has established in his piece, customers don’t necessarily benefit from this regulation. They are merely an excuse for manufacturers of packaged goods to exert bargaining power over the retailers.

In other words, the MRP is a conspiracy by the FMCG companies, who stand to benefit most from such regulations (at the cost of retailers and customers).

With the current union government supposedly enjoying support of the trading community, there is no better opportunity for this MRP regulation to go.