COMMENT: Fashioning change in India's apparel sector
Indian consumers believe in-season products are overpriced
Lured by India's booming consumer market and hopes that it will soon ease its retail investment rules, more and more apparel brands see the country as an opportunity to grow their businesses. But their experiences suggest it is not as easy as it might seem. Here, Devangshu Dutta discusses the shopping habits on Indian consumers and why pricing remains a critical challenge.
The apparel retail sector worldwide thrives on change, on account of fashion as well as season.
In India, for most of the country, weather changes are less extreme, so seasonal change is not a major driver of wardrobe change. Also, more modest incomes reduce the customer's willingness to buy new clothes frequently.
We believe pricing remains a critical challenge and a barrier to growth. About five years ago, Third Eyesight evaluated the pricing of various brands in the context of the average incomes of their stated target customer group.
For a like-to-like comparison with average pricing in Europe, we came to the conclusion that branded merchandise in India should be priced 30-50% lower than it was currently.
And this is true not just of international brands that are present in India, but Indian-based companies as well. (In fact, most international brands end up targeting a customer segment in India that is more premium than they would in their home markets.)
Of course, with growing incomes and increasing exposure to fashion trends promoted through various media, larger numbers of Indian consumers are opting to buy more, and more frequently as well.
But one only has to look at the share of marked-down product, promotions and end-of-season sales to know that the Indian consumer, by and large, believes that the in-season product is overpriced.
Brands that overestimate the growth possibilities add to the problem by over-ordering - these unjustified expectations are littered across the stores at the end of each season, with big red "Sale" and "Discounted" signs.
When it comes to a game of nerves, the Indian consumer has a far stronger ability to hold on to her wallet than a brand's ability to hold on to the price line. Most consumers are prepared to wait a few extra weeks, rather than buying the product as soon as it hits the shelf.
Part of the problem, at the brands' end, could be some inflexible costs. The three big productivity issues, in my mind, are: real estate, people and advertising.
Indian retail real estate is definitely among the most expensive in the world when viewed in the context of sales that can be expected per square foot. Similarly, sales per employee rupee could also be vastly better than they are currently.
And lastly, many Indian apparel brands could possibly do better to reallocate at least part of their advertising budget to developing better product and training their sales staff; no amount of loud celebrity endorsement can compensate for disinterested automatons showing bad products at the store.
Technology can certainly be leveraged better at every step of the operation, from design through supply chain, from planogram and merchandise planning to post-sale analytics.
Also, some of the more "modern" operations are, unfortunately, modelled on business processes and merchandise calendars that are more suited to the western retail environment of the 1980s than on best-practice as needed in the Indian retail environment of 2011!
The "organised" apparel brands are weighed down by too many reviews, too many batch processes, too little merchant entrepreneurship. There is far too much time and resource wasted at each stage. Decisions are deliberately bottle-necked, under the label of "organisation" and "process-orientation."
The excitement is taken out of fashion; products become "normalised", safe, boring which the consumer doesn't really want! Shipments get delayed, missing the peaks of the season. And added cost ends in a price which the customer doesn't want to pay.
The Indian apparel industry certainly needs a transformation.
Whether this will happen through a rapid shakedown or a more gradual process over the next 10-15 years, whether it will be driven by large international multi-brand retailers when they are allowed to invest directly in the country or by domestic companies, I do believe the industry will see significant shifts in the coming years.
Devangshu Dutta is chief executive of specialist consulting firm, Third Eyesight. Third Eyesight provides business start-up, market entry and growth support to companies in the consumer products sector. More details here
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