Categorisation and tagging

Tagging offers an efficient method to both searching and for identifying customer preferences on the axis most appropriate for the customer

The traditional way to organise a retail catalogue is by means of hierarchical categorisation. If you’re selling clothes, for example, you first divide it into men’s and women’s, then into formal and casual, and then into different items of clothing and so on. With a good categorisation, each SKU will have a unique “path” down the category tree. For traditional management purposes, this kind of categorisation might be useful, but it doesn’t lend itself well to both searching and pattern recognition.

To take a personal example (note that I’m going into anecdata territory here), I’m in the market for a hooded sweatshirt, and it has been extremely hard to find. Having given up on a number of “traditional retail” stores in the “High Street” (11th Main Road, 4th Block, Jayanagar, Bangalore) close to where I stay, I decided to check online sources and they’ve left me disappointed, too.

To be more precise, I’m looking for a grey sweatshirt made with a mix of cotton and wool (“traditional sweatshirt material”) with a zipper down the front, pockets large enough to keep my hands and a hood. Of size 42. This description is as specific as it gets and I don’t imagine any brand having more than a small number of SKUs that fit this specification.

In case I were shopping offline in a well-stocked store (perhaps a “well stocked offline store” is entering mythical territory nowadays), I would  repeat the above paragraph to a store attendant (good store attendants are also very hard to find nowadays) and he/she would pick out the sweatshirts that would conform to these specifications and I would buy one of them. The question is how one can replicate this experience in online shopping.

In other words, how can we set up our online customer catalog such that it becomes easy for shoppers to search specifically for what they’re looking for. Currently, most online stores follow a “categorisation” format, where you step into two or three levels of categorisation, where you’re shown a large assortment. This, however, doesn’t allow for efficient search. Let me illustrate by my own experience this morning.

1. : I hit “hoodies” in the search bar, and got shown a large assortment of hoodies. I can drill deeper in terms of sleeve length, material, colour and brand. My choice of material (which I’m particular about) is not there in the given list. There are too many colour choices and I can’t simply say “grey” and be shown all greys. There is no option to say i want a zip-open front, or a cotton-wool mix. My search ends there.

2. Jabong (rumoured to be bought by Amazon shortly): I hover over “Men’s”, click on “winter wear” and then on “hoodies”. There is a large assortment of both material (cotton-wool mix not here) and brand. There are several colours available, but no way for me to tell the system I’m looking for a zip-down hoodie. I can set my price-range and size, though. Search ends at a point when there’s too much choice.

3. Flipkart: Hover over “men’s”, click “winter wear” and then sweatshirt. Price, size and brand are the only axes on which I can drill down further. The least impressive of all the sites I’ve seen. Too much choice again at a point when I end search.

4. Myntra (recently bought by Flipkart, but not yet merged): The most impressive of all sites. I hover over “Men’s” and click on sweaters and sweatshirts (one less click than Jabong or Flipkart). After I click on “sweatshirts” it gives me a “closure” option (this is the part that impresses me) where I can say I want a zippered front. No option to indicate hood or material, though.

In each of the above, it seems like the catalog has been thought up in a hierarchical format, with little attention paid to tagging. There might be some tags attached such as “brand” but these are tags that are available to every item. The key to tagging is that not all tags need to be applicable for all items. For example, “closure” (zippered or buttoned or open) is applicable only to sweatshirts. Sleeve length is applicable only to tops.

In addition to search (as illustrated above), the purpose of tagging is to identify patterns in purchases and know more about customers. The basic idea is that people’s preferences could be along several axes, and at the time of segmentation and bucketing you are not sure which axis describes the person’s preferences best. So by having a large number of tags that you assign to each SKU (this sadly is a highly manual process), you give yourself a much superior chance of getting to know the customer.

In terms of technological capability, things have advanced much in terms of getting to know the customer. For example, it is now really quick to do a Market Basket Analysis based on large numbers of bills, which helps you identify patterns in purchase. With the technology bit being easy, the key to learning more about your customers is the framework you employ to “encase” the technology. And without efficient tagging, you are giving yourself a lesser chance of categorising the customer on the right axis.

Of course for someone used to relational databases, tagging requires non-trivial methods of storage. Firstly the number of tags varies widely by item. Secondly, tags can themselves have a hierarchy, and items might not necessarily be associated with the lowest level of tag. Thirdly, tagging is useless without efficient searching, at various levels, and it is a non-trivial technological problem to solve. But while the problems are non-trivial, the solutions are well-known and advantages large enough that whether to use tags or not is a no-brainer for an organisation that wants to use data in its decision-making.


Impact of online retail on offline retail

The other day we had to buy a couple of electronics items, and we went to this long line of electronic stores close to home. Since what we were looking for was closer to the long tail, we eschewed the small “standalone” stores and went to the chain stores. And the service at each store was simply underwhelming.

Sales staff seemed extremely demotivated, and seemed to have no incentive to make a sale. There seemed to be no senior sales staff around who would guide these staff to serve us well. They just stood by standing around, and the only thing they did was to pull out the item that we requested, and then look at the price tag and tell us the price.

With the coming of online retail, one reason for people to shop offline is service. When we had to buy a refrigerator recently, we wanted some human help in determining the pros and cons of various brands, and which are the faster selling ones. And off we went to the nearby (standalone, non-chain) “white goods store”. And we had booked a refrigerator on our way out!

What online sales is doing is to set a higher bar for salesmanship in offline stores, and stores need to recognize this. Just standing around when a customer shops and showing him price tags will not cut it any more – what offline stores need to figure out is what service they can offer that online stores don’t. And provide that aggressively, in order to not lose business to the e-retailers.

Another advantage for offline stores is in terms of letting the customer touch and feel the goods – a refrigerator or a washing machine or a television, for example. The downside is that inventory costs can be prohibitive and there are only so many models that the retailer can put on display – but then based on sales patterns they can choose which models to actually put on display (the top selling ones).

One reason mobile phone sales have so easily moved online (Moto and Xiaomi, for example) is that even at an offline retailer you don’t have much opportunity to touch and feel a mobile phone – in a large number of cases it’s dummy models that are stuck there rather than working ones, and that doesn’t particularly add value to the customer in terms of purchase decision.

Finally, based on my limited sampling of “white goods” stores on 10th Main, Jayanagar 1st Block, Bangalore, I think the coming of online retail is not going to affect the standalone family businesses (that the BJP seeks to protect) as much as it is going to affect the chain stores. The former are agile and able to adapt to customer needs. It is the latter that are sluggish and seek protection.

Available only on flipkart

This mornings mint has a full page advertisement on the front page announcing the launch of the moto x phone in India. The ad mentions that the phone is available in India exclusively on flipkart the online retailer. The question is if this is a good idea.

While it is true that online retail offers the best costs and prices – thanks largely in part to the massive savings on real estate and inventory costs, I’m not sure if we are still thee at a stage where retail can be online only. In fact people like to touch and feel the stuff that they’re buying. Especially when it comes to big ticket purchases such as a phone. Without giving people the opportunity to do so – shops won’t carry the dummy model unless they’re also selling it, at a good margin – I’m not sure how many will want to make the jump and buy.

On a related note I saw a report last week, again in mint, talking about pushback from offline retailers and malls to the online retail phenomenon. This brings into focus how retail will evolve going forward since people now have a low cost (low inventory, zero real estate) option for making their purchases. We’re already seeing some “progress” in that direction where people go to malls and high streets to browse and get a touch and feel and then buy online where the prices are lower.

This points to one direction in which retail might evolve – soon stores in malls and high streets might be set up with the primary purpose of building the brand and letting customers get a touch and feel. Any sales from these stores for the brands will only be a bonus – the primary purpose being to let people know what is out there and to let them touch and feel and experience it.

If this were tO happen we can expect malls and high streets to move to more brand stores and less multi brand stores – unless the latter can somehow either match the cost and price structure of online or get paid for purely providing the experience to the customers.

Either ways we can expect the overall demand for retail real estate space to come down in the next few years. If there are any malls or retail real estate firms which are listed its time to short them. Or by hedging against them by going long on online retail.


Is TripAdvisor killing Expedia?

The coming of the internet has led to one round of disintermediation in the travel market, and I hypothesize that review websites such as TripAdvisor are going to lead to another. Let me explain.

In the “good old days” if you wanted to travel there was no option but to reach out to the neighbourhood travel agent who would give you options of a few airlines and hotels. The best you could do to figure out if you were being taken for a ride was to check across multiple agents, but even then the only thing you could compare was price. It was impossible to compare hotels in terms of quality and you would take the word of the travel agent.

And then the internet happened.

Now, with sites such as Expedia or Travelocity, you got more transparency in pricing – especially when it came to airline ticketing. The travel agent could no longer take you for a ride when it came to the air fares – you could cross check online and bypass the agent if he wasn’t offering you a good deal (of course some things such as flexible schedules were best booked via agents, and they continue to hold sway in the corporate segment for that reason). Simultaneously airlines started selling tickets direct, via their own websites (this was led in part by “low cost carriers” who saw this as a good way of saving cost by cutting out agent fees).

This was the  first round of disintermediation in the travel industry. Airlines selling tickets direct and customers being able to book directly online meant the overall business of travel agents reduced. Some of them were cut out completely while others were replaced by large-scale technology enabled agents such as Expedia or Travelocity. Those that survived either have corporate clients (who need flexible schedules and have little time to book online) or have resorted to packages – where they arrange for flights, accommodation and cars, and quote you a consolidated fee – in which there are margins to be made.

The move to large-scale technology-enabled agents meant that some of these agents were now large-scale aggregators. This gave them significant bargaining power vis-a-vis hotels and this allowed them to bargain for deep discounts. While earlier conventional wisdom was that “travel agents” could get you “good deals”, now these large online aggregators were the ones providing the “best deals”. Thus it made eminent sense to book via these aggregators.

Simultaneously most hotels also started direct booking on their own websites. However, the problem was that the hotels themselves did not have the technological capability to implement good revenue management practices on their own websites. They also did not have the technological capability to offer a seamless and smooth booking experience. Thus, large online agents such as and Agoda prospered.

There are two functions that a travel agent performs – helping customers discover hotels and then actually executing the booking. In the traditional model, agents don’t charge for the discovery process. That service is instead cross-subsidized by the fees they make on the actual booking process. The first level of disintermediation in the travel agency (which we’ve seen above) has chipped away at this model, however. What do I, a travel agent, have to gain if I put in painstaking research and find you a hotel, only for you to find that you can book it for a lower price online? Agents, however, have not figured out a way to charge for the discovery process.

However, it is unlikely that they need to. For you now have websites such as TripAdvisor which have user-generated reviews and ratings for a large number of hotels, and which rank hotels in each city by type and user ratings. TripAdvisor has become so ubiquitous for user-generated ratings for hotels that nowadays travel agents add links to TripAdvisor profiles of hotels that they are recommending. Thus, we can see that the hotel discovery process can exist independently of travel agents.

What of the bookings itself? Don’t we need travel agents for that? Note that irrespective of whether a travel agent is online or offline, the hotel has to pay them a commission for selling their inventory. In the past given their size, hotels (unlike airlines) were unable to effectively sell rooms on their own websites and thus resorted to paying travel agents. However, advances in technology now mean that it is easy for a hotel to adopt a third-party software to effectively manage their inventory and sell tickets on their own website, and at a fraction of the cost they need to pay travel agents.

So, if TripAdvisor helps you discover hotels and then you can book hotels directly through their own websites, who needs travel agents? For now, most large online aggregators have a price matching policy and thus match the prices that hotels quote on their own websites. However, in order to save booking fees (rumoured to be of the order of 17% of the total booking value) hotels are trying to innovate and add freebies to their offering.

For example, a hotel in Cambodia I stayed in last week offered a free massage to guests who had booked through their own website (unfortunately I booked via Agoda and couldn’t avail of this offer). The Bangkok hotel I stayed in last week offered a 10% discount on payments made via American Express on their own website (again we discovered this after we had booked on Agoda, using an AmEx. To their credit, Agoda gave us a refund to the extent of the discount we would have got on the hotel website).

Essentially hotels have figured that with the growing popularity of platforms such as TripAdvisor, they don’t really need travel agents, small or large. As TripAdvisor gets more popular and third party hotel booking softwares gain traction, we are likely to see the decline of large travel aggregators such as Expedia, Travelocity and Agoda.

In essence, the growth of TripAdvisor is going to lead to the partial downfall of its erstwhile parent Expedia.

Tata Sky’s Revenue Management (or the lack of it)

Last week Direct To Home (DTH)  television provider Tata Sky launched a new channel called “Star World Premiere HD”. As the name suggests it is a high definition channel, and it broadcasts TV shows from the United States simultaneously in India (as opposed to the usual lag of about a year before a show goes on air in India). The business case for this channel itself is particularly strong – for people are nowadays unwilling to wait for a TV series’ release in India and instead download it from illegal torrents. The availability of the TV Series now through a legal channel will discourage torrents, and also allow the producers to make some money via selling advertisements.

The problem, though, is with the pricing. With great fanfare, Tata Sky had launched this “Mega Pack” a few years ago, where for a fixed annual fee (of the order of Rs. 6000) you would get all channels for an entire year. Built in to this plan was the promise that any channels launched during the year would be available for free for all Mega Pack subscribers. It was like the subscribers were paying a premium for the option of not having to pay for any newly introduced channels.

For the last few years, this plan has been going well. Numbers are not available publicly but based on a small sample of people I know, I know that the Mega Pack has a large number of subscribers (Disclosure: I too subscribe to this). Given the “bundled pricing” (which is what the Mega Pack essentially is), Tata Sky is making more money than it would have with subscribers picking only the channels they wanted.

Unfortunately their handling of Star World Premiere HD is likely to change this. With this channel, they have reneged on their promise to provide any new channels for free to Mega Pack subscribers and have asked subscribers to pay Rs. 60 per month for the channel. Over the course of the last week, there has been considerable outrage on Twitter about this. There are reports of people (Mega Pack subscribers) calling up the call centre and talking of failed promises and getting the channel for free. There are other reports of subscribers who last updated their Mega Pack after February 1st 2013 getting this channel free for the remainder of their current Mega Pack subscription period. Tata Sky CEO Harit Nagpal has been on Twitter, and has explained that he wasn’t able to offer the channel for free due to some fee arrangements with the broadcaster (Star TV India). In all, the entire handling of the launch of this new channel has been a mess.

So far, there has been a cozy relationship between Tata Sky and Mega Pack subscribers. Subscribers pay up once a year, no questions asked. In return, they get all channels for free. So far, the renewal process has been fairly mindless – given the seamless experience customers are renewing without much thought.

What this mis-handling of the Star World Premiere HD launch by Tata Sky will do is to get the customers thinking. With this one breakage of promise on the part of the distributor, customers whose Mega Packs come up for renewal will soon start asking themselves if Tata Sky will not renege on their promise with respect to other channels also. While porting across DTH operators is still not easy, what is likely to happen is that customers will critically evaluate whether they need all the channels they are paying for, and opt for a package which only includes channels they need (after a regulatory change last year, all channels have to be offered a la carte).

In short, Tata Sky’s mishandling of this episode is likely to reduce the number of their Mega Pack subscribers, and thus a decrease in their overall revenue. The additional amount they are charging for Star World Premiere HD is Rs. 720 per subscriber per year. The price gap between the price of a Mega Pack and any other pack is much more than that. In short, it has been a process of extremely bad revenue management by Tata Sky.

PS: We would be interested in offering revenue management consulting to Tata Sky or any of its competitors. If you are from any of these companies, get in touch with us through the contact form in the Contact page.

Would you want a free membership card?

Last weekend I was at Cafe Coffee Day on MG Road, waiting to meet a prospective client, when one of the store staff walked up to me with a card. “This is a free loyalty card, Sir”, he said, going on to tell me that if I were to buy three coffees using the card I would stand to get a free additional coffee. Considering that Cafe Coffee Day is my favourite meeting room, I thought it might make sense to use the card.

You might have noticed this in supermarkets, too. Invariably you get asked if you want a free membership card. In case you tell them that you had taken a card but are not carrying it, they offer to find your card number for you based on your phone number. Given that it probably costs the store to issue these cards (cost of cards, maintenance, staff time, cost of rewards), there must be a good reason that they are so eager to give it to you for free.

What separates traditional retail from modern is that in the latter, there are way too many customers who visit a store, and way too many store staff who attend to them. Consequently, it is hard for store staff to know who is a regular, and what the regular customers want. You might go up to your regular “single store” bar, and the barman might start mixing your favourite drink as soon as he sees you pop in. In a chain such as Cafe Coffee Day, however, such information is not forthcoming.

What loyalty cards enable stores to do is to track repeat purchases. You might be buying a kilo of rice every week at the neighbourhood supermarket, but in most cases there is no way for the supermarket to know it is you who bought the rice each time. Once you have a card and your sales are logged to that each week, the store knows how often you visit and what kind of items you are likely to buy together. Loyalty cards allow the store to “profile” you and thus hope to serve you better. The cost of the card is small compared to the value of the information the store gets about you.

A new trend in loyalty cards is “third party cards” that work across stores. These cards are issued by independent third party vendors and multiple stores subscribe to them. The advantage with these cards is that the third party has information about the customer across retailers. So for example, it makes it possible for the vendor to know the brand of formal shirts that people who buy Levi’s Jeans buy.

While this is a dream from an analyst’s viewpoint, the uptake of such cards so far has been low. I know of at least one company in this area that folded up and another that is not doing too well. Hopefully this trend will reverse soon and we will find one player who manages to scale up and issue cards at lots of retailers.

Levi’s Price Discrimination

So I’ve never managed to buy jeans on discount. Let me explain. Unlike most other people (if you go by what the store assistants tell you), I don’t like to wear faded jeans. It is perhaps an inherited hangover since my father used to consider jeans to be inherently dirty and would make me discard jeans as soon as they faded a little bit. It could also be more practical – since I sometimes like to wear jeans to official meetings, I want to wear jeans that look neat.

Now I’ve managed to drive my wife crazy with my shopping (and we’ve known each other for barely four years, shopped together for three maybe). She thinks I’m way too fussy about clothes, and can’t make up my mind easily. I’ve explained earlier on this blog why I take a long time over shoes (my sandals are now wearing out, so I’m getting ready for another ordeal). But the more fundamental differences that my wife and I have is with respect to jeans.

The problem is that we fundamentally disagree on what purpose jeans serve. I have traditionally looked at jeans as comfort wear. Trousers I’m absolutely comfortable in (I sometimes even sleep in my jeans), which I don’t need to wash too frequently, and which can be worn even after they get torn in non-strategic places. I’ve always bought “comfort fit” jeans, and after I graduated to branded jeans towards the end of my teens, my staple had been the comfort-fit Lee Chicago.

The problem is that my wife thinks of jeans as fashion-wear – things you need to necessarily look good in. Some of the jeans she owns are so skinny that sometimes she takes a really long time to change. She looks great in them, no doubt, but the problem is that she expects that I too wear such jeans. And so after some ten years, I have given up my loyalty towards Lee Chicago, and instead have to try out various skinny fits (as things stand now, I own only one pair of Lee Chicago, bought in 2009).

Ok all this is besides the point of this post (and the point of another post which I never wrote). Coming back to the point of this post, the deal is that nowadays I find it extremely hard to shop for jeans. Of course it doesn’t help that I don’t live in Kathriguppe (with its dozens of factory outlets) any more, and that in my part of town (Malleswaram-Rajajinagar) the only place you can find decent branded clothes is in malls, which are a pain. The bigger problem, though, is that it is very hard to find stores that stock my kind of jeans.

In the last couple of years, our strategy for shopping clothes has been to visit a multi-brand outlet in one of the two malls near our place, so that we have a wide variety of choice. Except that I have no choice. Because stores such as Lifestyle or Shopper’s Stop or Westside (which now mostly stocks private labels) or Central don’t stock my kind of jeans. At all. If you happen to locate a store clerk and ask him for “mid blue straight cut non-faded jeans” he will look at you as if you have just landed from another planet. He can be excused for giving you those looks, for his store simply doesn’t stock non-faded jeans, because of which he has never sold them!

So I happened to be on Brigade road over the weekend, and I had a small gap of about half an hour between two meetings, and thought I should visit the Levi’s flagship store there. I must mention that the salespeople there were definitely significantly more polite than I’ve ever seen at a multi=brand store. However, as soon as I repeated my mantra (mid blue straight cut non-faded jeans), the first thing the salesperson who approached me told me  was “oh Sir, but there’s not discount on that!”.

It’s clever price discrimination by Levi’s, to not sell non-faded jeans on discount. For they know that people who buy non-faded jeans tend to be older (hey I’m only thirty), or will be buying them for office wear, and they are less price elastic than the typical college kid who buys faded stuff. So while the college kid needs discounts to be attracted during the “discount season”, the “formal jeans” buyer needs no such attractions, and will pay full price for his stuff.

It is interesting to note, however, that companies that make formal clothes (not Levi’s) also offer massive discounts during the “discount seassons” (one of which is on now). That, though, can be explained by the fact that most people need a few sets of formal clothes (even those that normally wear faded jeans), and discounts are necessary to attract customers.

Now I’m beginning to think that the market for “formal jeans” in India is extremely niche, and if I”m acting above my age because I prefer such jeans. I half-expect my wife to call me an “uncle” be cause of this.