Thursday, November 24, 2011

The disadvantages of Big Brand retail shops

No, I do not intend to make a socialist case here, which is best left to political parties and activists. Here, I intend to spell the disadvantages that big brand retail shops have for me as a consumer. This is in the back-drop of the Indian government approving 51% foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail or hypermarts, as they are known in the west. This will bring in the big guys like Wal-Mart, Carrefour, etc. The benefits are being touted as big for consumers. They will bring in money, their expertise with supply chain management, etc. to sell goods to consumers at the lowest prices.

But for this, they need infrastructure, which the government would have to provide. Large warehouses would necessitate a smooth supply of electricity, well connected roadways to connect the warehouses to manufacturing centres and the stores, etc. This is woefully missing in India, where outside big cities, a minimum 6-8 hours of load-shedding is considered normal. The success of such retail firms relies big time on the availability of such first class infrastructure. But, whether they succeed or not, they have many disadvantages for consumers.

We may not realise this, but in the quest for selling things at cheaper rates to us, these retail outlets rely more on volumes of business, compared to per unit margins. So, the brand that sells most is the one they will stock. Of course, there are a number of subtle tricks they use to entice us into buying certain brands or products, but then, that is a completely different topic. So, if you like a particular brand and fragrance of incense sticks, you might not find it in the supermarket, because they do not get good volumes on it. And you are stuck to buying from the ones available in the store. So, you tend to lose your favourite brands, if they do not fit in the strategy of the supermarket. The small shopkeeper, though, will keep a fairly diverse number of products. Smaller quantities of the less popular ones may be stocked, but nevertheless, you have a fairly high chance of finding your choice there, than the supermarket.

If a certain product is out-of-stock in the supermarket, you have no way of knowing when it will arrive. The mom-and-pop shopkeeper around the corner, will not only give you an idea of when the product will arrive but also keep it aside for you, once it is in. This personalisation of service is out of question for supermarkets! Their business model just does not have this feature.

Thirdly, the supermarkets stock only big sized products. E.g. shampoos in large bottles, toothpastes are available only in 400 gm. size or detergents in min. 1 kg stocks or buy-3-get-4th-free soaps and many more such things. A very huge number of India's people live on frugal income. For them, to spend Rs. 100 (for a shampoo) in one go is extremely difficult. That is why most of India's FMCG manufacturers have come up with small sized packs (sachets for shampoos, detergents, 50 gm. toothpastes, etc.) which cost very less and are affordable to that population. Such small sizes are not stocked by the supermarkets, as the margin is too low and their rate of sale unpredictable to justify the efforts required to stock them. So, (even if you have a high salaried job but) if you live alone, you won't be able to purchase these things. If staying alone, I wouldn't want to buy a pack of 4 soaps and be stuck with them for 6 odd months. I would rather buy a single cake of soap, which would last for well over a month and be free to choose a different soap every time. Plus, I would be left with liquid cash, free to spend it as I like, instead of being tied up in three soap cakes, which would be useful only after a month.

Such mass stocking of products also hampers the variety available and this is especially visible in the clothing sections. They will not stock premium products. E.g., here in Edmonton, people advise to get winter jackets from special shops, not from Walmart, as it doesn't stock those. These supermarkets won't stock out-of-season stuff too. E.g. no chappals or floaters are available in the supermarkets during winter. For that, you have to look out in the footwear shops only. 

This is a very simplistic analysis of what would happen to us as consumers, if big supermarkets are allowed to dominate the retail business scene. Most of it is my personal experience. In India, there is a certain social aspect associated with shopping, which will not be available in supermarkets. The shopkeeper and the shop is where the local news is exchanged. Moreover, the personal relation developed with the shopkeeper help us in many other ways. His/her network helps us access various other services. E.g., some of his relative or acquaintance might be running a travel agency, from where we would be able to rent a car. Or contract a plumber's services at discounted rates. These informal channels will not be available with supermarkets. Economic and social analyses tend to indicate contrary views, but as a consumer, will we get all that we want? I have my doubts. We might end up getting what the supermarket wants to sell to us and when they want to sell it. As consumers, if we would like to have wider choices, I think supermarkets should not have a free run in the Indian economy.
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  1. Definitely personalization is out of question of the big brand retail shop and super markets. But one can't just focus on the disadvantages. One most important advantage today in terms of big brand shops is that we can buy online whenever we want instead of spending huge amount of time moving out and shopping.

  2. Well mentioned. Quite agreeable.