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.

Cash on delivery

One of the big problems in the Indian e-commerce industry is that a lot of business happens through the “Cash on delivery” model, where the customer pays for the goods upon receiving it rather than at the time of ordering. According to sources, nearly three fourth of e-commerce in India is paid for using this model.

The problem with Cash On Delivery (COD) is that it leads to higher product returns and non-deliveries, since the recipient is not pre-committed to accepting it. While e-commerce vendors might try methods such as blacklisting customers in order to cut their losses, there is no clear solution in sight. COD is also a massive source of fraud, especially given that currently e-commerce platforms are more likely to subsidise rather than take a cut of transactions on their platforms.

One of the reasons given for the development of the COD model is the low credit card penetration in India (compared to other markets), and Indians’ unease with transmitting money online. Research (which I can’t be bothered to find and link to right now) shows that the Indian e-commerce industry actually took off once CoD was introduced.

Given that India is developing some new and innovative payment systems (the Immediate Payment System (IMPS) is one. There is a Unified Payments Interface (UPI) which is even better which is coming up), it will be interesting to see how the e-commerce industry in India shapes up from a payment standpoint.

There are two factors that drive CoD – one is the ease of payment transaction – you just hand over the cash to the courier when the goods are delivered. This is not seamless, of course, since it could involve problems involving change, and handling of large amounts of hard currency which makes it unsafe.

The other factor is trust – Indians don’t seem to trust vendors enough to pay for their goods before they receive them. While not prepaying gives the option to change mind at a later date, this can lead to significant friction in the system resulting in costs that are likely to get added to the customer (this doesn’t happen right now since platforms are still in heavy subsidy mode).

By paying for goods on delivery, the customer hedges against fraud by the vendor, and the transaction is smoother from the customer’s perspective.

While the industry claims that CoD is primarily due to lack of credit card penetration, my hypothesis is that it is more due to the trust factor. So far there has been no method (apart from possibly surveys which are internal to e-commerce platforms and which will never get disclosed) to understand which of the two it is.

With the development of new and innovative payment platforms, and the ability for a large number of people in India to transact online (willingness is another matter), this hypothesis can be tested. Once people have access to mobile apps that let them make instant and secure inter-bank payments (we are already on our way there), the low credit card penetration is unlikely to be a constraint against pre-payment for goods. If my hypothesis is true, the proportion of CoD will not fall despite the growth of these new payment methods.

There are flies in the ointment of course – platforms, driven by losses, are investing in moving customers away from CoD, so the data might not be very clear. Also, over time, people may develop more trust in e-commerce companies and start pre-paying, which will not tell us anything about their confidence levels right now.

We are in for interesting times!

PS: Like telecommunications (where most of India skipped the landline) and retail (where India skipped the “walmart step”), the payments industry in India is also likely to “leapfrog”, with a large part of the country set to bypass credit cards altogether.

Why restaurant food delivery is more sustainable than grocery delivery

I’ve ranted a fair bit about both grocery and restaurant delivery on this blog. I’ve criticised the former on grounds that it incurs both inventory and retail transportation costs, and the latter because availability of inventory information is a challenge.

In terms of performance, grocery delivery companies seem to be doing just fine while the restaurant delivery business is getting decimated. Delyver was acquired by BigBasket (a grocery delivery company). JustEat.in was eaten by Foodpanda. Foodpanda, as this Mint story shows, is in deep trouble. TinyOwl had to shut some offices leading to scary scenes. Swiggy is in a way last man standing.

Yet, from a fundamentals perspective, I’m more bullish on the restaurant delivery business than the grocery delivery business, and that has to do with cost structure.

There are two fundamental constraints that drive restaurant capacity – the capacity of the kitchen and the capacity of the seating space. The amount of sales a restaurant can do is the lower of these two capacities. If kitchen capacity is the constraints, there is not much the restaurant can do, apart from perhaps expanding the kitchen or getting rid of some seating space. If seating capacity is the constraint, however, there is easy recourse – delivery.

By delivering food to a customer’s location, the restaurant is swapping cost of providing real estate for the customer to consume the food to the cost of delivery. Apart from the high cost of real estate, seating capacity also results in massive overheads for restaurants, in terms of furniture maintenance, wait staff, cleaning, reservations, etc. Cutting seating space (or even eliminating it altogether, like in places like Veena Stores) can thus save significant overheads for the restaurant.

Thus, a restaurant whose seating capacity determines its overall capacity (and hence sales) will not mind offering a discount on takeaways and deliveries – such sales only affect the company kitchen capacity (currently not a constraint) resulting in lower costs compared to in-house sales. Some of these savings in costs can be used for delivery, while still possibly offering the customer a discount. And restaurant delivery companies such as Swiggy can be used by restaurants to avoid fixed costs on delivery.

Grocery retailers again have a similar pair of constraints – inventory capacity of their shops and counter/checkout capacity for serving customers. If the checkout capacity exceeds inventory capacity, there is not much the shop can do. If the inventory capacity exceeds checkout capacity, attempts should be made to sell without involving the checkout counter.

The problem with services such as Grofers or PepperTap, however, is that their “executives” who pick up the order from the stores need to go through the same checkout process as “normal” customers. In other words, in the current process, the capacity of the retailer is not getting enhanced by means of offering third-party delivery. In other words, there is no direct cost saving for the retailer that can be used to cover for delivery costs. Grocery retail being a lower margin business than restaurants doesn’t help.

One way to get around this is by processing delivery orders in lean times when checkout counters are free, but that prevents “on demand” delivery. Another way is for tighter integration between grocer and shipper (which sidesteps use of scarce checkout counters), but that leads to limited partnerships and shrinks the market.

 

It is interesting that the restaurant delivery market is imploding before the grocery delivery one. Based on economic logic, it should be the other way round!

Restaurants, deliveries and data

Delivery aggregators are moving customer data away from the retailer, who now has less knowledge about his customer. 

Ever since data collection and analysis became cheap (with cloud-based on-demand web servers and MapReduce), there have been attempts to collect as much data as possible and use it to do better business. I must admit to being part of this racket, too, as I try to convince potential clients to hire me so that I can tell them what to do with their data and how.

And one of the more popular areas where people have been trying to use data is in getting to “know their customer”. This is not a particularly new exercise – supermarkets, for example, have been offering loyalty cards so that they can correlate purchases across visits and get to know you better (as part of a consulting assignment, I once sat with my clients looking at a few supermarket bills. It was incredible how much we humans could infer about the customers by looking at those bills).

The recent tradition (after it has become possible to analyse large amounts of data) is to capture “loyalties” across several stores or brands, so that affinities can be tracked across them and customer can be understood better. Given data privacy issues, this has typically been done by third party agents, who then sell back the insights to the companies whose data they collect. An early example of this is Payback, which links activities on your ICICI Bank account with other products (telecom providers, retailers, etc.) to gain superior insights on what you are like.

Nowadays, with cookie farming on the web, this is more common, and you have sites that track your web cookies to figure out correlations between your activities, and thus infer your lifestyle, so that better advertisements can be targeted at you.

In the last two or three years, significant investments have been made by restaurants and retailers to install devices to get to know their customers better. Traditional retailers are being fitted with point-of-sale devices (provision of these devices is a highly fragmented market). Restaurants are trying to introduce loyalty schemes (again a highly fragmented market). This is all an attempt to better get to know the customer. Except that middlemen are ruining it.

I’ve written a fair bit on middleman apps such as Grofers or Swiggy. They are basically delivery apps, which pick up goods for you from a store and deliver it to your place. A useful service, though as I suggest in my posts linked above, probably overvalued. As the share of a restaurant or store’s business goes to such intermediaries, though, there is another threat to the restaurant – lack of customer data.

When Grofers buys my groceries from my nearby store, it is unlikely to tell the store who it is buying for. Similarly when Swiggy buys my food from a restaurant. This means loyalty schemes of these sellers will go for a toss. Of course not offering the same loyalty program to delivery companies is a no-brainer. But what the sellers are also missing out on is the customer data that they would have otherwise captured (had they sold directly to the customer).

A good thing about Grofers or Swiggy is that they’ve hit the market at a time when sellers are yet to fully realise the benefits of capturing customer data, so they may be able to capture such data for cheap, and maybe sell it back to their seller clients. Yet, if you are a retailer who is selling to such aggregators and you value your customer data, make sure you get your pound of flesh from these guys.

Hyperlocal and inventory intelligence

The number of potential learnings from today’s story in Mint (disclosure: I write regularly for that paper) on Foodpanda are immense. I’ll focus on only one of them in this blog post. This is a quote from the beginning of the piece:

 But just as he placed the order, one of the men realized the restaurant had shut down sometime back. In fact, he knew for sure that it had wound up. Then, how come it was still live on Foodpanda? The order had gone through. Foodpanda had accepted it. He wondered and waited.

After about 10 minutes, he received a call. From the Foodpanda call centre. The guy at the other end was apologetic:

“I am sorry, sir, but your order cannot be processed because of a technical issue.”

“What do you mean technical issue?” the man said. “Let me tell you something, the restaurant has shut down. Okay.”

I had a similar issue three Sundays back with Swiggy, which is a competitor of Foodpanda. Relatives had come home and we decided to order in. Someone was craving Bisibelebath, and I logged on to Swiggy. Sure enough, the nearby Vasudev Adigas was listed, it said they had Bisibelebath. And so I ordered.

Only to get a call from my “concierge” ten minutes later saying he was at the restaurant and they hadn’t made Bisibelebath that day. I ended up cancelling the order (to their credit, Swiggy refunded my money the same day), and we had to make do with pulao from a nearby restaurant, and some disappointment on having not got the Bisibelebath.

The cancelled order not only caused inconvenience to us, but also to Swiggy because they had needlessly sent a concierge to deliver an impossible order. All because they didn’t have intelligence on the inventory situation.

All this buildup is to make a simple point – that inventory intelligence is important for on-demand hyperlocal startups. Inventory intelligence is a core feature of startups such as Uber or Ola, where availability of nearby cabs is communicated before a booking is accepted. It is the key feature for something like AirBnb, too.

If you don’t know whether what you promise can be delivered or not, you are not only spending for a futile delivery, but also losing the customer’s trust, and this can mean lost future sales.

Keeping track of inventory is not an easy business. It is one thing for an Uber or AirBnB where each service provider has only one product which is mostly sold through you. It is the reason why someone like Practo is selling appointment booking systems to software – it also helps them keep track of appointment inventory, and raise barriers to entry for someone else who wants the same doctor’s inventory.

The challenge is for companies such as Grofers or Swiggy, where each of their sellers have several products. Currently it appears that they are proceeding with “shallow integration”, where they simply have a partnership, but don’t keep track of inventory – and it leads to fiascos like mentioned above.

This is one reason so many people are trying to build billing systems for traditional retailers – currently most of them do their books manually and without technology. While it might still be okay for their business to continue doing that (considering they’ve operated that way for a while now), it makes it impossible for them to share information on inventory. I’m told there is intense competition in this sector, and my money is on a third-party provider of infrastructure who might expose the inventory API to Grofers, PepperTap and any other competitor – for it simply makes no sense for a retailer to get locked in to one delivery company’s infrastructure.

Yet, the problem is easier for the grocery store than it is for the restaurant. For the grocery store, incoming inventory is not hard to track. For a restaurant, it is a problem. Most traditional restaurants are not used to keeping precise track of food that they prepare, and the portion sizes also have some variation in them. And while this might seem like a small problem, the difference between one plate of kesari bhath and zero plates of kesari bhaths is real.

Chew on it!

Grofers, BigBasket and the Lack of Systems Thinking

Last week I wrote this post about why Grofers is not a sustainable and scalable business. The basic point was that goods they sell undergo both high inventory cost (having been stored in a retail store) and high transport cost (delivery).

The most common response to the post was that my claim was wrong because “Grofers doesn’t store any inventory but only delivers”. And it was not unintelligent people who said this – I counted at least three IIM graduates who made this claim on Twitter (ok if that statement gives the impression that I think that all IIM graduates are intelligent, so be it. I don’t disagree).

While their claim is correct, that Grofers doesn’t store any inventory but only delivers, the problem with their line of attack is that they are looking at it from a very localised perspective and not looking at the bigger picture.

A similar problem can be seen in this post on TechCrunch announcing BigBasket’s latest round of funding. Relevant section here (hat tip: Rohin Dharmakumar):

Challenges faced by BigBasket include the grocery industry’s low margins, the cost of adding new delivery staff, and the fact that it carries its own inventory. This allows BigBasket to offer a large selection, but also means it has more overhead than hyperlocal services that partner with existing merchants and needs to more time to prepare before expanding into new cities. (emphasis added)

Catherine Shu, who wrote that piece, might be right in claiming that Bigbasket carries its own inventory. But she is wrong in claiming that it is a problem, for Bigbasket is in a completely different business compared to those hyperlocal services, and in my opinion in a superior business. The carrying of inventory is a feature rather than a bug.

What the twitter comments on my post on Grofers and this piece on BigBasket illustrate is the lack of “systems thinking”. People are great at looking at localised problems, and localised “point solutions” to these local problems. What is not so intuitive is to look at a particular problem as part of a bigger picture and in a more holistic fashion.

Grofers itself may not carry inventory, but the goods it ships would have been part of inventory of some retailer. So while Grofers may not directly incur this high inventory cost, someone along the chain (the retailer in this case) does, and that means there is less money for Grofers to play around with and make a margin.

BigBasket, on the other hand, carries its own inventory and this inventory is aggregated at a much higher than retail level. This implies that the inventory costs for BigBasket are significantly lower than any retailer (since aggregation leads to lower inventory costs). And this inventory cost thus saved can help BigBasket make higher margins. It also allows them to serve the “long tail” to the customer cheaply, something Grofers may not be able to do if no shops in the customer’s vicinity stock such products.

The problem with localised thinking is that it leads to localised solutions, and local optimisation. Optimising locally at different points in a chain makes it harder to optimise at a system level.

How Long Tail affects pricing

My late mother never shopped for fruits and vegetables in the Gandhi Bazaar market. She found that the market was in general consistently overpriced, and if we look at the items that she would buy, it is still the case. For “normal” stuff, you are better off going to nearby “downmarkets” like the one at NR Colony, or even Jayanagar Fourth Block.

So why is the Gandhi Bazaar market overpriced? The answer lies in the long tail. In the book of the same name, Chris Anderson talks about products that are not the most popular, but which has a niche demand. In that he talks about companies such as Amazon or Netflix which are successful not because they do a better job of selling the “bestsellers” but because they are able to service well the “long tail” – items that are not found elsewhere thanks to the high cost of selling.

In other words, it is a liquidity story. If the neighbourhood kirana, for example, wants to sell olives, his costs are going to be high as the rate at which he sells olive bottles is going to be so low that his inventory costs are going to increase, and the risks of ageing and spoilage of inventory also goes up. And he has to spend that much more manpower and effort in managing this extra item, so he decides to not sell this item at all (he will have to charge such a high premium to sell such goods that it doesn’t make sense for the customer to buy it).

Yesterday I bought an “imam pasand” mango in Gandhi Bazaar. Now, this is not one of the “standard” mango varieties that are available in Bangalore. In fact, I had never in my life eaten this variety of mango until yesterday, for the simple reason that it is not generally available in Bangalore. The fruit stall in Gandhi Bazaar, however, stocked it. A neighbouring fruit stall was where I used to source the Dashehri mangoes (common in North India but rare in Bangalore) a couple of mango seasons back. Avocados, which are generally hard to find in “traditional” retailers in Bangalore were also available in every fruit stall in Gandhi Bazaar, as were other not-so-common fruits.

So why did my mother find Gandhi Bazaar expensive? The answer is that the fruit sellers at Gandhi Bazaar stock the “long tail” because of which their general costs of inventory are high compared to competitors who don’t. Thanks to the range, they will have a large number of customers who come to them to buy specifically these “long tail” items. And while they are at it (buying the long tail items), they also end up buying some “normal” items. Customers who come seeking the long tail are usually those that are willing to pay a premium, and thus the shops in Gandhi Bazaar are able to charge a premium for the non long tail items also.

 

Thus, if you purely look at rates of “common” items, Gandhi Bazaar, a market which offers the “long tail” will always be more expensive than other markets. Anecdotally, along with the Imam Pasand yesterday, I also bought a kilo of “vanilla” Raspuri mangoes, at the rate of Rs. 100 per kg. At the shop down the road, Raspuri was available for Rs. 90 per kg. The shop down the road, however, doesn’t stock Imam Pasand, which means that the price of Imam Pasand in that shop is infinity.

So if you are only looking to buy Raspuri, you are better off going to the shop down the road. If you either want only Imam Pasand, or both Imam Pasand and Raspuri, though, you should go to Gandhi Bazaar! In other words, the “range” that the fruit seller in Gandhi Bazaar offers implies that he can get away without discounting. Theoretically speaking, though, we can say that the fruit seller in Gandhi Bazaar actually discounts on the long tail items by the sheer act of stocking them (thus dropping their price from infinity to a finite number), and he is using this discount to sell his “normal” goods at “full price”. Ruminate on it, while I go off to devour a mango!