It’s that time of the year when awards are given out of for the best things and possibly the worst things of the year. And the award for the most stupid statement of the year has to definitely go to Sushma Swaraj, the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha.
During the course of the debate on the government decision to allow foreign direct investment into multi-brand retailing or what is more popularly referred to as big retail, she said: “Will Wal-Mart care about the poor farmer’s sister’s wedding? Will Wal-Mart send his children to school? Will Wal-Mart notice his tears and hunger?”
These lines sound straight out of a bad Hindi movie of the 1980s with dialogues written by Kadar Khan. Yes, Wal-Mart will not care about the poor farmer’s sister’s wedding. Neither will it send his children to school. And nor notice his tears and hunger simply because its not meant to do thatThis is because Wal-Mart is a selfish company interested in making money and ensuring that its stock price goes up, so that its investors are rewarded.
The same stands true for every Indian company which is into big retail (be Tata, Birla, Ambani or for that matter Big Bazaar). No company, Indian or foreign, into big retail or not, is bothered about the tears of the farmer. And neither is the government.
Let’s look at some other things that Swaraj went onto say. “The remaining 70 percent of the goods sold in these supermarkets will be procured from China. Factories will open in China, traders will prosper in China while darkness will befall 12 crore people in India,” she declared.
Already a lot of what is sold in India comes from China. Around three weeks I went around several electronic shops in Delhi trying to help my mother choose a refrigerator. Almost all Indian brands had compressors which were Made in China. If one takes the compressor out of the equation what basically remains in a refrigerator is some plastic and some glass. And all that is Made in India.
My television set which is a Japanese brand is also Made in China. A leading Indian electrical company buys almost all the irons that it sells in India from China and simply stamps its brand name over it.
A lot of pitchkaris that get sold around the time of Holi and diyas and electronic lighting that get sold around the time of diwali are also Made in China. As a quote from a story that appeared in The Times of India story earlier this year went “It seems that ‘Made in China’ has researched our festivals and sensed the need of the customers. For the past 10 years, the business of local sprinklers is decreasing due to stiff competition with Chinese sprinklers. We are facing huge loss, plastic powder through which the pichkaris are prepared locally are bought at Rs 100 per kg while at the same time, there is no subsidy or relaxation on the name of festival,” shared Bihari Lal, a local manufacturer and trader of sprinklers.” Chinese made colours also available during Holi.
And none of this has been brought to India by Wal-Mart. It was brought to India largely by Indian entrepreneurs and traders, a lot of whom form the core voting base of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and also fund the party to a large extent.
Made in China has become a part of our lives whether we like it or not and it will continue to remain a part of our lives, with or without Wal-Mart. If Wal-Mart does not supply us with Made in China goods, the Indian entrepreneurs and retailers will surely do, primarily because Chinese goods are cheaper than the Indian ones. Hence, what Swaraj wants us to believe is already happening with no Wal-Mart in sight.
The other point that comes out here is the ability of Wal-Mart to source stuff from China. This is not rocket science. Indian retailers can also do the same thing. As Rajiv Lal of the Harvard Business School told me in an earlier interview “If Wal-Mart is operating in Brazil there is nothing that Wal-Mart can do in Brazil that the local Brazilian guy cannot do. If you want to procure supplies from China, you can procure supplies from China as much as Wal-Mart can procure supplies.”
Swaraj also talked about predatory pricing that Wal-Mart would resort to. “These supermarkets introduce predatory pricing. At first, they will introduce such low prices, that will finish the rest of the market. Then when the customer has no other choice, they will keep hiking prices and looting the people,” she said.
This statement is also misleading As Rohit Deshpande of the Harvard Business Schoool told me in a recent interaction that I had with him “ For a company like Wal-Mart historical strategy is fairly easy to understand. It is to make a major branded product available cheaper. So you will have a wider assortment of branded product than any of their competitors that’s the first thing. The second thing is that they have private label. They keep increasing the percentage of their private label within each of their broad categories. So the consumers get trained to come to the store because they can find an assortment of branded products. And once they become loyal to your store then they find that they can make price comparisons within the store and they end up buying your private label. And then your margin is really so much better. It’s a strategy that has worked well for Wal-Mart.”
So for this strategy to work Wal-Mart has to ensure that they stock private label goods (basically their own brands) which are cheaper than other brands. Hence, Wal-Mart might decide to stock it’s own brand of soap which is lets say cheaper than Lifebuoy. For this strategy to work their own goods will have to be cheaper than other branded goods. Hence, it can’t keep increasing prices and keep looting people as Swaraj wants us to believe. Indians aren’t exactly idiots.
Also, if you have visited any of the big retail shops over the years you would have realised that these shops have been increasing the number of private label brands that they sell. As of now this is largely to limited to things like pulses, noodles, sugar etc. The point is that big retail in India is following the same strategy that Wal-Mart does worldwide.
The other interesting point that comes up here is that Wal-Mart is able to offer low prices primarily because of two things. One is the fact that it gets its real estate cheap because it typically sets up shop outside city limits. And two is the fact is the homogeneity of the population when it comes to consumption.
A typical Wal-Mart in the United States is situated outside the city, where rents are low. But such a strategy may not work in India. “It’s not easy to open a 150,000 square feet store in India. That kind of space is not available. They can’t open these stores 50 miles away from where the population lives. People in India don’t have the conveyance to go and buy bulk goods, bring it and store it. They don’t have the conveyance and they don’t have the big houses. So it doesn’t work,” explained Lal.
This is something that marketing guru V Kumar agreed with when I interviewed him sometime back. “Even if Wal-Mart is there in every place, the way they are located is typically outside the city limits. So only people with time, motivation and a vehicle, will be able to go and buy things. And the combination of these three things is very rare.”
The other factor as to why Wal-Mart may not be able to offer very low prices in India is because there is no homogeneity when it comes to consumption behaviour leading to a situation where the company may not have the same economies of scale that it does in other parts of the world.
As Kumar told me “Does the country as a whole consume common things or there are regional biases? In a country like Brazil people eat similar foods that every retailer can sell.” In India clearly things are different. “In India between South, East, West and the North, there is so much heterogeneity that you need localised catering and marketing. So consumption behaviour varies therefore unless you are willing to carry heterogeneous products in each of the locations it is tough,” said Kumar.
The point I am trying to make is that Wal-Mart is not such a big fear that it was made out to be by Swaraj. They do make their mistakes as well. As Deshpande told me “They have had hiccups in the interest of scale and cost efficiency. They have sometimes pushed products that did not make sense for the local market. An example, I believe it was in Argentina, where Wal-Mart, around July 4(the American independence day) had a lot of American flags shipped into their stores.
Pankaj Ghemawat, the youngest person to become a full professor at Harvard Business School makes an interesting point in his book Redefining Global Strategy. As he writes “When CEO Lee Scott (who was the CEO of Wal-Mart from 2000 to 2009) was asked a few years ago about why he thought Wal-Mart could expand successfully overseas, his response was that naysayers had also questioned the company’s ability to move successfully from its home state of Arkansas to Alabama…such trivialisation of international differences greases the rails for competing exactly the same way overseas at home. This has turned out to be a recipe for losing money in markets very different from the United States: as the former head of the company’s German operations, now shut down, plaintively observed, “We didn’t realise that pillowcases are a different size in Germany.””
Wal-Mart had to pull out of South Korea as well in 2006.
Hence, Swaraj could have clearly done some better research before making one of the most important speeches of her career. She could have read the recent column that P Sainath wrote in The Hindu , where he talks about Chris Pawelski, an American farmer and the onions that he produces.
As Sainath writes “While the Walmarts, Shop Rites and other chain stores sell his (i.e. Pawelski’s) kind of onions for $1.49 to $1.89 a pound, Pawelski himself gets no more than 17 cents. And that’s an improvement. Between 1983 and 2010, the average price he got stayed around 12 cents a pound. “All our input costs rose,” he points out. “Fertiliser, pesticide, just about everything went up. Except the price we got.” Which was about $6 a 50-pound bag. Retail prices though, soared in the same period. Distances are not the cause. The same chains sell cheap imports from Peru and China, driving down prices.”
The other interesting point that Sainath makes it that companies even dictate the size of the onions he produces. As Sainath writes “Pawelski held up the onion. “They want this size because they know you won’t use more than half of one of these in cooking a meal. And you’ll throw away the other half. The more you waste, the more you’ll buy.” The stores know this. So wastage is a strategy, not a by-product.”
Such examples on Wal-Mart and other big retail chains are not hard to find. A Google search throws up plenty of them. A speech against the negative effects of big retail should have been full of such examples instead of saying things like whether Wal-Mart will be bothered by farmer’s sister’s wedding.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 5, 2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])
Does the American president Barack Obama have the foot-in-the-mouth disease or is India just overreacting? In an interview to PTI Obama said “In too many sectors, such as retail, India limits or prohibits the foreign investment that is necessary to create jobs in both our countries, and which is necessary for India to continue to grow.” He also cited concerns over the deteriorating investment climate in India and endorsed another ‘wave’ of economic reforms.
Predictably this has led to a series of terse reactions from across the political spectrum in India. Indian politicians have gotten together and asked Obama to mind his own business. “If Obama wants FDI in retail and India does not want, then it won’t come just because he is demanding it,” said former finance minister and senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha. The left parties were equally critical of Obama’s statement.
Veerapa Moily, the minister for corporate affairs said “Certain international lobbies like Vodafone are spreading this kind of a story and Obama was not properly informed about the things that are happening, particularly when India’s economic fundamentals are strong.” Moily clearly wasn’t joking. The corporates were also quick to criticise Obama’s statement.
But for a moment let’s keep aside the fact that India does not need any advice from the President of the biggest economy in the world and try and understand Obama’s statement in a little more detail.
What did Obama essentially mean by what he said? He was basically pitching for Wal-Mart, the biggest retailer in the world, to be allowed to do business in India. Wal-Mart is headquartered out of Bentonville in the American state of Arkansas. It currently has a marginal presence in India through a joint venture with Bharti.
Such is the fear of Wal-Mart entering India and destroying other businesses both small and large, that politicians from across the political spectrum have used it as an excuse for not allowing foreign direct investment in the retail sector in India. This fear comes from the Wal-Mart experience in the United States.
As Anthony Bianco writes in The Bully of Bentonville – How the High Cost of Wal-Mart’s Everyday Low Prices is Hurting America “It (Wal-Mart) grows by wrestling businesses away from other retailers large and small. In hundreds of towns and cities, Wal-Mart’s entry put ailing …shopping districts into intensive care and then ripped out the life-support-system.”
But that’s just one part of the story. The question to ask here is, whether what is true for America is also true for the rest of the world? And the answer is no.
Pankaj Ghemawat, who has the distinction of becoming the youngest full professor at the Harvard Business School, in his book Redefining Global Strategy, points out a very interesting story. “When CEO Lee Scott (who was the CEO of Wal-Mart from 2000 to 2009) was asked a few years ago about why he thought Wal-Mart could expand successfully overseas, his response was that naysayers had also questioned the company’s ability to move successfully from its home state of Arkansas to Alabama…such trivialisation of international differences greases the rails for competing exactly the same way overseas at home. This has turned out to be a recipe for losing money in markets very different from the United States: as the former head of the company’s German operations, now shut down, plaintively observed, “We didn’t realise that pillowcases are a different size in Germany.””
Given this the countries that Wal-Mart has achieved success in are countries which are the closest to the United States. As Ghemawat writes “Unsurprisingly, the foreign markets in which Wal-Mart has achieved profitability-Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom are the ones culturally, administratively and geographically closest to the United States.”
Wal-Mart and other big retailers have had a tough time in emerging markets. As Rajiv Lal, a professor at the Harvard Business School told me in an interview I did for the Daily News and Analysis(DNA) “There is not even a single emerging market that I know where a foreign entrant is the number one retailer. In Brazil it is Pão de Açúcar, in China you have the local Beijing Bailian. In most markets even when there are foreign entrants the dominant retailer in the organised sector is still the local retailer.”
And there are several reasons for the same. The local retailers are very price competitive. “If Wal-Mart is operating in Brazil there is nothing that Wal-Mart can do in Brazil that the local Brazilian guy cannot do. If you want to procure supplies from China, you can procure supplies from China as much as Wal-Mart can procure supplies,” said Lal.
Also the local guys understand the market better. This is because they have a better understanding of the customers. “On top of that they have local merchants that they know they can source from and Wal-Mart may not,” said Lal.
The other big fear about the likes of Wal-Mart being allowed into India is that it will destroy the business of the local kirana store. This is a highly specious argument at best because it is not easy to compete with kirana stores. As Lal explained to me “Just because you are a big guy with a lot of money, it doesn’t mean that you can compete. Kirana stores have a lot of benefits that established retailers don’t have. First of all location. What rents do they pay versus what established companies have to pay? Employees, same story. On the consumer side they can deliver services, in terms of somebody calls them and asks can you deliver six eggs? The guy runs and delivers six eggs. That’s not something that the big established firms can provide.”
A Wal-Mart in the US is typically established outside the city where rents are low. But such a strategy may not work in India. “It’s not easy to open a 150,000 square feet store in India. That kind of space is not available. They can’t open these stores 50 miles away from where the population lives. People in India don’t have the conveyance to go and buy bulk goods, bring it and store it. They don’t have the conveyance and they don’t have the big houses. So it doesn’t work,” explained Lal.
The kirana stores also provide goods on interest free credit to their customers something that no big retailer can afford to do. Also as the economy grows the chances are that the kirana stores will grow faster than big retailers. “So think about in five years, where will organised retailing be as a market share. Maybe it’s less than 1% now, and maybe it will become 3% or 5% of total retailing. It will not be more than that. In five years organised retail grows from one percent to five percent, the economy would have grown by another 50 percent. If they grow from one to five percent and the economy grows by 50%, virtually it means that the number of kirana stores and mom and pop stores are actually growing. They are not reducing by any means,” said Lal.
Allowing foreign investment in the retail sector is also expected to bring down food inflation. As Satish Y Deodhar writes in Day to Day Economics “Allowing private players – including multi-brand retailers who bring in foreign direct investment – to deal in retail and wholesale markets will reduce trader margins. An empirical study on domestic and imported apples sold in India shows that there are a number of middlemen in the farm-to-finger supply chain: out of the final rupee spent by a consumer on apples, about 50 percent goes for trader margins…More competition through private players will reduce the margins for the middlemen and lower the prices for consumers.”
Allowing foreign retailers into India is thus likely to bring down food inflation. Also as explained earlier the kirana store has not much to fear from the likes of Wal-Mart and other foreign retailers. But the same cannot be said about the companies which are the organised retail sector. Wal-Mart does take time to get its act right, but eventually it does. As Lal put it “The people who should be more afraid should be people who are in the organised retailing sector and not the mom and pop stores.”
And that’s where the real story about all the opposition in allowing foreign retailers entering the country, might lie.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on July 16,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/business/should-india-fear-wal-mart-the-bully-of-bentonville-378330.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])