Monday, February 18, 2013

Lessons for Retail Giants Hoping to Enter India

First published in Business Standard: __________________________________________________________________
After a quiet period, intense lobbying for opening up multi-brand retail once again seems to be hotting up. On May 24, Carrefour’s India head, Jean-Noel Bironneau, met Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, and his counterparts from Wal-Mart, Tesco and Costco will no doubt follow soon.
 Ever since the government announced its decision to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail trade, and then backtracked, there have been a flurry of articles on the pros and cons of such a move.
There is no clear answer and those in favour and against FDI have expressed ample views. So, another attempt to do so would be futile, although it must be stressed that allowing FDI does not mean that the global retail giants will automatically wind up capturing the market.
 Take their experience in South Korea, home to one of Asia’s most dynamic and largest retail markets, ranking fourth behind Japan, China and India, with a relatively wealthy population. Wal-Mart and Carrefour have had to beat a retreat after struggling for years to increase market share. Tesco is the only successful foreign retailer, going from strength to strength.
 The varying success of these three retail giants in South Korea has become must-read case studies for all potential foreign investors. It also holds lessons for them in the Indian market, given the high complexities in terms of a wide geographic spread and distinct regional consumer preferences. Historically, South Korea kept its major retailing operations closed to foreign ownership. It was only in 1988 that the government began a series of three-year plans designed to improve the efficiency and productivity of the retail and distribution industry.
The first stage of this process occurred in 1989 when regulations on the establishment of foreign companies’ subsidiaries and the inflow of FDI were eased. Then, foreign retailers were permitted to establish stores at a maximum size of 1,000 sq m, as prescribed by the second stage of the open-up policy. The regulations on the number and size of retail outlets of foreign companies were further relaxed in the third stage of the programme beginning in 1993, when foreign companies were allowed to open up to 20 stores with each store not exceeding 3,000 sq m.
 It was not until 1996 that FDI in the Korean retail market was completely liberalised and foreign retailing companies began expanding there in earnest. Sensing huge opportunities, Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco entered the country around the same time, but adopted different strategies.
 Wal-Mart attempted to penetrate the Korean market by building stores in distant areas where land prices were low, replicating the US strategy of smaller-city store build-up. It had only 16 stores in all of Korea with just one in the Seoul metropolitan area and could not achieve economies of scale.
The company expected the Korean consumers to drive to its stores for price shopping as American consumers do. However, this location strategy did not match well with the Korean consumers’ lifestyle and shopping habits. They prefer to buy smaller units on a more frequent basis and to have accessibility to a store within walking distance.
 As a result, Wal-Mart faced serious challenges in implementing its core competence in South Korea. Moreover, it could not enjoy its buyer power in the local vendor market and had no control over its Korean supply chain and procurement. Eventually, it packed its bags in 2006.
 Carrefour had a similar story. Despite its experience elsewhere, the company failed to localise its stores to a sufficient extent. Instead, it tried to introduce its global practices and strategies in the country. Its store layout, ambience, products and location failed to attract customers. The company wanted to attract customers by providing them high-quality products in bulk at low prices. Its stores were styled like warehouses and were simple in appearance compared to the stores of its competitors. Initially, customers were enthusiastic, but most of them were not bulk purchasers.
 Also, unlike other markets, Korean customers prefer a clean and sophisticated atmosphere along with low prices. At the time of its exit in 2006, Carrefour was the fourth-largest retailer in the country, with 32 hypermarkets. The company had invested $1.5 billion, making it the largest foreign investor in the Korean market, but that was not enough to guarantee it success.
 In contrast, Tesco had an effective “localisation” strategy for downstream activities. It entered the market by forming a joint venture with a major local partner, Samsung, leveraging its knowledge and expertise of the local market. Tesco devoted considerable attention to transferring its core capabilities to this new market, but did not attempt to iterate the British version of its retail format.
It gradually increased its stake in the company to 95 per cent, but continued to localise its 450 stores, consisting of both large hypermarkets and small Express stores. Also, of Tesco’s 27,000 staff in Korea, only four are expatriates. As a result, it became one of Tesco’s biggest success stories, generating a third of its overseas sales.
 One key factor that contributed to Tesco’s success was its ability to create “value” that is suitable for the Korean tastes and preference. While other foreign brands like Wal-Mart and Carrefour have failed, Tesco’s Korean brand, Homeplus, is moving from strength to strength, as it closes the gap with the market leader E-mart.
It also has leveraged Korean’s love for high-tech, having just launched innovative virtual stores in subway and bus stops where customers can use their smartphones to buy products that are delivered right to their homes.
 These stories contain valuable lessons for the global retail companies who now wish to expand their presence in India, whenever the law permits. Their multi-brand retail strategy has to be different from their wholesale cash and carry stores. Moreover, it is important to heavily localise operations keeping Indian tastes in mind, with or without a domestic partner. Blindly applying western business models for the Indian market will not work.