The tale of retail, all told

Vinay Kamath | Updated on January 27, 2011 Published on December 22, 2010

Inside Spencer’s Hypermall in Hyderabad   -  Business Line

A practitioner recalls his journey through the growth and expansion of organised retail in the country.

This reviewer would like to make his predilections clear at the outset: that one likes articles and books that narrate anecdotal experiences and give rich examples. V. Rajesh's book The Indian reTales, Insights of an Indian Retailer, does just that. Bristling with anecdotes and numerous instances drawn from his rich and long years in retailing, the analogies he draws make for a powerful way of telling a story and making a point, rather than a dull and conceptual account of the retail story.

Having been part of the founding team of FoodWorld in 1996, which, arguably, heralded organised retailing's advent into the country, and with various stints at other mainline retailers such as the Pantaloon group and Reliance Retail, Rajesh is eminently qualified to comment on the growth of organised retail in the country.

Written in an easy style, the book traverses organised retail's journey in the country and Rajesh's own growth in the hierarchy of retail, from the experience of opening the first FoodWorld store on a prominent thoroughfare of Chennai to opening the country's first hypermarket, Giant, in Hyderabad — the latter converting two unused godowns in a prime location.

For the uninitiated youngster venturing into retail, the book will provide valuable insights into the world of retailing, demystifying it and also enabling some learning of the industry. His many anecdotes along the way of his retail journey, some hilarious, some poignant make for an interesting read and hook the reader. Some of them are from everyday experiences and which most likely we all go through, and Rajesh's writing brings these up to emphasise the points that he wants to make.

In the chapter ‘Creating Consumer Wow' Rajesh writes about the importance of building relationships with customers. He narrates an incident from a FoodWorld store where a lady, a regular customer, blows up on the counter staff when she is asked for change. However, she calms down when the store manager explains the issue of coins' shortage and how the store was trying to address the issue. After listening to her patient explanation, the lady calmed down, found some change, billed her goods and left. Later, the lady store manager conveyed to Rajesh the astonishing end to the story — the lady returned a few days later with a huge bundle of change she had with her and gave it to the store manager to “help her out”!

The key insight and learning, Rajesh writes, one should take from this instance is that when a retailer allows the customer to participate in their business, the customer derives a great sense of ownership which adds to customer loyalty. Most importantly, a customer who owns the business is more easily wowed and is ready to forgive faults soon, he adds. A key point for retailers as well as store managers with regard to increasingly fickle consumers and their relationships with brands and store brands.

The book is peppered with such anecdotes from Rajesh's experience of working across many different formats in Indian retail and in different groups, which enhances its readability, both for someone in the business as well as the casual reader who wants a broad overview of the growth of Indian retail.

The reminiscences of the ‘founding fathers' of organised Indian retail, Pradipta Mohapatra and Raghu Pillai, among others, are a fascinating account of what went on behind the scenes during the launch of the first FoodWorld store. S. Raghunandan, part of that team, writes how the store ran out of 10 kg and 20 kg rice bags at the store and they had to travel in a colleague's Fiat to load rice in the boot and restock the store.

Rajesh writes too about how he got a valuable input from Owen Price of Dairy Farm International, the RPG group's then partners, on how to get customers to shop for more at the FoodWorld stores and increase average bill sizes. Price, after a quick tour of the stores in Chennai, told Rajesh that he needed to identify the largest item in value or volume that people buy and everything else would follow. That's how FoodWorld came to have killer offers for rice, which Price had correctly described as the key. Rajesh, who has authored several articles for BrandLine on retail, said he came to realise that basic items such as rice needed to be driven by pricing and not merely by promotions.

All in all, an interesting read for the practitioner and the casual follower of the Indian retail story. The editing of the book could have been tighter but that's a small fly in the ointment for an otherwise absorbing read. The first chapter too could have brought in more of the anecdotes which have been a leitmotif through the book — while it sets the agenda for the rest of the book, it deals with retail at a conceptual and industry level which could get a reader off track.

Published on December 22, 2010

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