Voice assistants and traditional retail

Traditionally, retail was an over-the-counter activity. There was a physical counter between the buyer and the seller, and the buyer would demand what he wanted, and the shopkeeper would hand it over to him. This form of retail gave greater power to the shopkeeper, which meant that brands could practice what can be described as “push marketing”.

Most of the marketing effort would be spent in selling to the shopkeeper and then providing him sufficient incentives to sell it on to the customer. In most cases the customer didn’t have that much of a choice. She would ask for “salt”, for example, and the shopkeeper would give her the brand of salt that benefited him the most to sell.

Sometimes some brands would provide sufficient incentives to the shopkeeper to ensure that similar products from competing brands wouldn’t be stocked at all, ensuring that the customer faced a higher cost of getting those products (going to another shops) if they desired it. Occasionally, such strategies would backfire (a client with extremely strong brand preferences would eschew the shopkeeper who wouldn’t stock these brands). Mostly they worked.

The invention of the supermarket (sometime in the late 1800s, if I remember my research for my book correctly – it followed the concept of set prices) changed the dynamics a little bit. In this scenario, while the retailer continues to do the “shortlisting”, the ultimate decision is in the hands of the customer, who will pick her favourite among the brands on display.

This increases the significance of branding in the minds of the customer. The strongest incentives to retailers won’t work (unless they result in competing brands being wiped out from the shelves – but that comes with a risk) if the customer has a preference for a competing product. At best the retailer can offer these higher-incentive brands better shelf space (eye level as opposed to ankle level, for example).

However, even in traditional over-the-counter retail, branding matters to an extent when there is choice (as I had detailed in an earlier post written several years ago). This is in the instance where the shopkeeper asks the customer which brand she wants, and the customer has to make the choice “blind” without knowing what exactly is available.

I’m reminded of this issue of branding and traditional retail as I try to navigate the Alexa voice assistant. Nowadays there are two ways in which I play music using Spotify – one is the “direct method” from the phone or computer, where I search for a song, a list gets thrown up and I can select which one to play. The other is through Alexa, where I ask for a song and the assistant immediately starts playing it.

With popular songs where there exists a dominant version, using the phone and Alexa give identical results (though there are exceptions to this as well – when I ask Alexa to play Black Sabbath’s Iron Man, it plays the live version which is a bit off). However, when you are looking for songs that have multiple interpretations, you implicitly let Alexa make the decision for you, like a shopkeeper in traditional retail.

So, for example, most popular nursery rhymes have been covered by several groups. Some do the job well, singing the rhymes in the most dominant tunes, and using the most popular versions of the lyrics. Other mangle the tunes, and even the lyrics (like this Indian YouTube channel called Chuchu TV has changed the story of Jack and Jill, to give a “moral” to the story. I’m sure as a teenager you had changed the lyrics of Jack and Jill as well :P).

And in this situation you want more control over which version is played. For most songs I prefer the Little Baby Bum version, while for some others I prefer the Nursery Rhymes 123 version, but there is no “rule”. And this makes it complicate to order songs via Alexa.

More importantly, if you are a music publisher, the usage of Alexa to play on Spotify means that you might be willing to give Spotify greater incentives so that your version of a song comes up on top when a user searches for it.

And when you factor in advertising and concepts such as “paid search” into the picture, the fact that the voice assistants dictate your choices makes the situation very complicated indeed.

I wonder if there’s a good solution to this problem.

Vacation Shopping

This is yet another of those questions whose answer seems rather obvious to everyone, and to me in full hindsight, but which has taken me a long time to appreciate

For a long time I never understood why people shop during vacations, when both time and luggage space are precious commodities. With global trade, I reasoned that most clothes should be available at reasonably comparable prices worldwide, and barring some special needs (such as a certain kind of shoes, for example), there was no real need to shop on vacations.

The last day of our trip to Munich in June convinced me otherwise. That was the only day on the trip that the wife was free from work, and we could go out together before our afternoon flight. The only place we ended up going out to turned out to be a clothing store, where the wife freaked out shopping.

It didn’t make sense to me – she was shopping at a chain store which I was pretty certain that I had seen in London as well. So why did she shop while travelling? And she shopped far more than she does in a normal shopping trip in London.

In hindsight, the answer is rather simple – diversity. While the same stores might exist in various countries or cities, each is adapted to local tastes and prevailing fashions. And while everyone watches the same “runways” in Milan and Los Angeles, there is always a subtle difference in prevailing styles in different places. And clothes in the stores in the respective places are tailored (no pun intended) to these styles.

And it can happen that the local prevailing styles are not something that you particularly agree with. For example, for years together in Bangalore I struggled to find plain “non-faded” jeans – most people there seemed to demand faced or torn jeans, and stores responded to serve that demand (interestingly, jeans shopping in my last Bangalore trip was brilliantly simple, so I guess things have changed).

Similarly, the wife finds it hard to appreciate most dresses in the shops in London (and I appreciate why she doesn’t appreciate them – most of the dresses are a bit weird to put it mildly), and as a result hasn’t been able to shop as much in recent times. She had taken to claim that “they don’t seem to be making normal clothes any more”.

But the styles in London aren’t correlated with the styles in Munich (or elsewhere), with the result that in that one chain store in Munich, she found more nice dresses than she had in some 20 shopping trips over a year in London.

Fashion suffers from the “tyranny of the majority“. It makes eminent sense for retailers to only stock those styles and models that have a reasonably high demand (or be compensated for stocking low-demand items with a high enough margin – I have a chapter on this in my book). So if your styles don’t match with those of people around you, you are out of luck.  But when you travel, you have the chance to align yourself to another majority. And if that alignment happens, you’re in luck!

PS: On a separate note, I’m quite disappointed with the quality of clothes in London. Across brands, they seem to wear much faster than those bought in continental Europe or even in India.

A Dying Complex

During a walk through Jayanagar Fourth Block last evening, I happened to walk through the shopping complex. Now, this isn’t something I do normally – while my usual Jayanagar walking route goes along one side of the complex, I seldom cut across it.

As it happened, my wife had asked me to buy coffee powder from a specific shop (from where I’d last bought coffee powder twenty years ago), and the easiest way to get to it after I had remembered to buy coffee was to cut across the Shopping Complex.

And it was dead. In my childhood, I spent most evenings “putting beat” around Jayanagar 4th Block with my parents, and we would invariably go to the shopping complex. The complex was then full of respectable stores, including a HMV outlet, a fairly high end tailoring outlet (called Khanate) and the shop where I bought my first ten pairs of spectacles. It was then natural that a shopping trip to 4th block included a visit to the shopping complex.

Not any more, for the shopping complex is dying, if not dead already. The walls look the same, the shop structures are the same, but most respectable businesses seem to have made their exit from the shopping complex. In their place you have stores selling cheap footwear, cheap clothes, possibly counterfeit goods and suchlike. There aren’t too many “respectable shoppers” in the complex as well.

On the other hand, the area immediately around the now-dying shopping complex has emerged as a brilliant retail destination. You can find large-ish outlets of most major brands, a wide selection of restaurants and stalls, fresh vegetables, hardware stores and yes – shops selling coffee powder! Just that the shopping complex has pretty much died, and faded into insignificance.

Quickly walking through the shopping complex last evening (it didn’t appear that safe), I mulled over why it had died, while the surrounding area had flourished. I have one hypothesis.

Basically the shopping complex is owned by the government, and the rents in the complex didn’t rise along with the market. This meant that businesses that were not exactly flourishing (or sustainable) continued to do business in the complex (low rents meant businesses could afford to be there even when they weren’t doing well). This reduced footfalls, and reduced business for the relatively healthy businesses. Which again didn’t move out because they could still make the rent.

And so the shopping complex went through a downward spiral until the point when businesses that had chosen to remain got crowded out by less respectable ones, and figured it was time to move out even if the rent wasn’t much. And so you have some of the prime real estate in Jayanagar being squatted upon by sellers of cheap footwear and cheap clothes and electronics of suspect make.

Patanjali going online

Mint has a piece on Baba Ramdev-led FMCG company Patanjali going online to further its sales.

Some may have seen the irony in Patanjali Ayurved Ltd tying up with foreign-owned/funded e-commerce companies, even as it swears to end the reign of foreign-owned consumer brands in the market.

Patanjali is only being pragmatic in doing what’s good for its own business, of being available where the consumers are. Its decision is one more pointer to the growing importance of e-commerce as a distribution channel for packaged consumer goods.

I have an entire chapter in my book dedicated to this – about the internet has revolutionised distribution and retail. In that I talk about Dollar Shave Club, pickle sellers from Sringeri and mobile manufacturers such as Xiaomi who have pioneered the “flash sale” concept. In another part of the book, I’ve written about how Amazon has revolutionised bookselling, first by selling online and then by pioneering e-books.

Whenever a new consumer goods company wants to set up shop, one of the hardest tasks is in establishing a distribution network. Conventional distribution networks are typically several layers deep, and in order to get to the customer, each layer of the distribution network needs to be adequately compensated.

Apart from the monetary cost, there is also the transaction cost of convincing each layer that it is worthwhile carrying the new seller’s goods. The other factor to be considered is that distributors at various levels are in a sense loyal to incumbent sellers (since they are responsible for a large portion of the current business), making it harder for new seller to break through.

The advantage with online retailers is that they compress the supply chain, with one entity replacing a whole network of distributors. This may not necessarily be cost-effective from the money perspective, since the online retailers will seek to capture all the value that all the layers of the current distribution chain are capturing. However, in terms of transaction costs it is significantly easier since there is only one layer to get past, and online retailers seldom have loyalty or exclusive relationships.

In fact, the size and bargaining power of online retailers (vis-a-vis offline distributors) means that if there is an exclusive relationship, it is the retailer who holds the exclusive rights and not the seller.

In Patanjali’s case, they have already established a wide offline network with exclusive stores and partnerships, but my sense is that they seem to be hitting the limits of distribution. Thanks to Baba Ramdev’s popularity as a yoga guru, Patanjali enjoys strong brand recall, and it appears as if their distribution is unable to keep pace with their brand.

From this perspective, going online (through Amazon/Flipkart) is a rational strategy for them since with one deal they get significantly higher distribution power. Moreover, being a new brand, they don’t have legacy distributors who might get pissed off if they go online (this is a problem that the Unilevers of the world face).

So it is indeed a pragmatic decision by Patanjali to take the online route. And after all, in the end, sheer commerce can trump nationalist tendencies and xenophobia.

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!

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.

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!