Saturday, November 24, 2012

New ways to look at old Retail

Retail Branding for India

By Harish Bijoor

My seminal contribution to the subject of branding is a simple one. A definition for a start. A definition I have been defending, traveling to the university towns of the world at large, debating, fighting and holding firm for the last eleven years.
My definition of a brand is a simple one.  The brand is a thought. A thought that lives in people’s minds. To that extent, every dominant thought in your mind is a brand. The thought of your mom therefore fights for mind-share with the thought of your wife, just as the thought of your wife fights for mind-share and top of mind status with that of your brand new Patek Phillipe you picked up in Zurich last week.

Brands live and thrive in mind-space. The mind-space of people. Never mind whether they are your consumers or not, they know your brand. The brand is therefore a thought. A powerful thought that lives in people’s minds.

Let me leave the definition there for now, planted firmly in your mind. It is indeed the start-point of understanding branding in retail.
This therefore is the start to understanding the brand. The brand is really not a promise alone. The brand is much more. A dominant thought!

My research in the Indian sub-continent, large parts of SE Asia, small sets of cities and towns in Continental Europe, and again sprinklings of small towns in North and South America, indicate a confusion and lack of understanding of the retail brand at large in several markets. And that is going to be the confusion I am attempting to clear in this piece.

Branding is a discipline on its own. It is all about the brand, collective sets of consumers, image, positioning of this image in the minds of these consumers, and creating a positive impulse for the brand at large.

Retail on the other hand, is something different, as all of us know it to be. It is that important front-face point. It is that point where the consumer actually meets the brand on the floor of the shop. It is that important meeting point. It is the point of action. It is the point of purchase.

The point of purchase today is the point of advertising, the point of marketing, the point of selling, the point of market research and more. The Point of purchase is therefore the point of everything.

While retail remains the art, science and philosophy of managing the consumer at the Point of purchase (which is the point of retail), branding remains a philosophy, art and science (in that order) of managing the image, creating the awareness, stoking the interest in the brand and leading the desire-stoked consumer to the point of retail. The two are therefore umbilical in connect. However, the important point to remember is that these two sciences of branding and retail are separate subjects in their own merit.  Combining the two to arrive at the subject of “retail branding” is possibly the most simplistic sin committed by a large many. The two are different sciences.

Therefore, note the point. The branding expert you got into your retail brand from that big FMCG corporate entity that has twenty brands with near billion dollar revenues, just did not seem to fit right. Retail branding is a different science altogether. While branding is about aggregation, retail is about disaggregation. While branding is about coagulation of intent, retail is about dissipation of intent. Branding is 1: Many. Retail is 1:1. And there lies the seminal difference. A difference few retail players recognize in their choice of people to head the discipline of retail branding.

Therefore, the mistakes get made. And the mistakes are many. You look around and see retail brands being promoted and advertised about just as toothpaste would be. The focus is on the brand name. The focus is on creating awareness, and possibly interest. The focus is on getting the largest numbers of people to look at your retail brand offering and see its merits in a rather aggregated “FMCG-kind “ of manner. The lure is the brand name, and the bait is the offer of 500gm sugar on every 5 panties you buy even!

What should the branding strategy of the retail brand be then in the Indian context? How should it be different?

Our research across 103 retail brands across the markets of India, SE Asia, UK, Hong Kong and the U. S. indicate many new ways of handling the retail brand to commercial efficacy and profitability levels. Every one of these ways is in direct contrast to the way a typical FMCG or durable brand is handled.

Here is a quick and ready peek into just one out of 32 of our research diagnostics pointers, converted into action points for the retail brand manager.

Nugget 1 of 32 then:
              Gyan: Never manage your retail brand offering as one.
Instead. Manage it as what it is. Many.

Mistake: Most retail brand owners tend to start small. Every Big Bazaar was once a small pilot offering. And every Big Bazaar dreams big.

Take Starbucks. The first outlet is just about announced to be launched at Horniman Circle in Mumbai, even as I write this. Starbucks will want to be one for a start, and many sooner than later. There is a hurry in retail roll out.  That’s normal and part of standard operating norm of a retail enterprise. But this hurry needs to be managed with care.

When your retail offering is one outlet, you nurture it with care. Local care. You customize your every offering, tailored to your local customer. You analyze your walk-ins. You interact with them carefully. You build your stock plan accordingly. You alter your shop layout accordingly. You tailor-make your customer service norms to need. You promote in the local hinterland of your outlet. You reach out to your potential customer 1: 1. You do everything local. You do everything tailored to the hinterland.

And then you open your second store. You open it basis your learning of Store 1. You are aggressive with your plans. Less tentative and more aggressive. Your learning at Store 1 has made you more solid.  You roll out. You meet with early success. You imagine your model is on the roll. You do not discount the fact that you just might be plucking the low-hanging fruit of opportunity in the new hinterland. You don’t want to get granular with the data.  Remember, retail brands do not have the time to sit back and think in India. Everyone is on a roller coaster. The deadlines are tough and the stock-inventories sourced and piled up by you need larger front-face locations in terms of numbers, to be able to be monetized. And this needs to be done quick.

And then, excited by the success of Store 2 in the new hinterland, you imagine your model is ready for rollout. You open your next ten stores in a hurry. And this is where you slip. This is where you roll out with the mindset of a big brand. You really use the mindset of an FMCG player out here. You imagine the brand is one. You imagine you have tested the offering as a pilot. You imagine your early pressure-test of the brand offering as a go-ahead for your larger rollout.

You then go out there and achieve scale. This scale is good for the back-end. It achieves supply chain efficiencies. It achieves quick windows that will liquidate held up inventories that were procured in larger numbers to get the best price advantage. Scale is the language of the retailer on the rampage.

Scale is good and scale is bad. The moment you achieve scale, you start behaving with the mindset of a large player. A large player, who primarily aggregates rather than disaggregates. It almost seems as if the small retail enterprise was waiting and fantasizing for this point of time. This is the time you let go and become the ‘big brand manager’ with the ‘big brand mindset’. In many ways, these are easier days. These are days when you can afford to say that your small pilot retail outlet is a big brand. These are days when you think big and aggregate. These are also days when you start advertising. You have scale on your side, and the effort is to build the big brand image in the minds of potential customers who will walk in.

The morph is now complete. You were once a small retail play, with efficiencies of customer management that were 1:1. Today, you are a big brand with efficiencies of scale on your side.  Today you are 1: Many. 

In my rude manner of writing, yesterday you were a retailer. Today you are a brand. Sadly, the retail-brand is really more about being a “retailer” than being a “brand”. My research numbers indicate success scores that are in the region of 92-97 percentile points when you manage a retail brand as small retail, rather than the score of 39-46 percentile points when you manage your retail outlet as a mega brand that is advertised. Advertising is a crutch. It is easy, outsourced, difficult to measure efficacy, and macro in its approach. And you get used to it. So used to it, that you think little else.

In many ways, the moment you advertise, you have grown up. You are outsourcing the micro-bits of hard work that helped create your customer profile for your Store 1, to advertising. You hope advertising will bring in customers.  You hope, you will never have to manage customers as intrusively as you had to when you just had one store.

Small is therefore beautiful in my model of retail-branding play for India. The moment you leave the mindset in retail-branding that says loud and clear through your actions that you are small and cater to small sets of customers isolated in small little islands that surround a hinterland of 1.6 Kms at maximum, you have lost your small-is-beautiful business mindset. And this in many ways is the beginning of the end of your retail-rampage in India for sure.

Retail outlets that have applied my basic evangelism of the small-is-beautiful thought pattern, even when they have grown in numbers, size and turnover, have had a better success score that rattles the 96 plus percentile number.

The point is simple. Start small in retail. Learn small in retail. Stay micro-oriented. Don’t bite into the temptation of adopting knowledge from the FMCG sector. Sack the guy you got from there. Stay focused on the constituency of 1:1. Stay local. Don’t advertise. Retail brands just cannot afford to advertise really. You must not load advertising cost onto the consumer.  Even as you expand and grow into the 1600 outlet league, manage every store as a store. Never ever aggregate the brand label as one. Manage the local hinterland.

Every Café and Super-store must have a Hinterland Manager. His/her basic role must be to manage the customers in a hinterland area of 1.6 Km in India, 0.7 Km in UK, and a very precise 1.1 km radius in Zurich. This Hinterland Manager is really the most important part of your retail-brand management toolkit. Not the least important as some would see it.

The Store specific Hinterland manager is the most vital part of the store. He looks after the store as a local shopkeeper would. He does not get besotted with the bigger picture, as he does get passionate about the small picture.  He costs little.  He brings customers in.

My research indicates a weightage of store revenue returns calculated and accrued to levels across types of individual Store managers as follows:

Chain Super-store Model

General Manager: 11
Merchandising Manager:  7
Cashier: 4
Sales: 14
Receiving: 3
Loss prevention: 1
Visual displays: 5
PR: 6
Promotions: 10
The proposed Hinterland Manager: 39

Total: 100

Fine Coffee Café Model

Store Manager: 31
Barista: 14
Shift supervisors: 4
The proposed Hinterland Manager: 51

Total: 100

Simple point. Morph your retail business to manage it as a retail business. Manage it less as a brand and more as a store. Touché!

Basis of Gyan
The above Nugget 1 is basis an active modeling study done across markets of India, Hong-Kong, UK, Dubai, Switzerland, Brazil and the USA. Sample size covered: Chain super-stores: 28 and Fine coffee Cafes: 6.

This study was conducted over a period of 30 months, concluding September 2012.

Harish Bijoor