Supply Side Sluggishness?

The Economic Times - 16 February 2004

We have watched and waited, this past decade, for the Indian consumer and for Consumer India to 'emerge'. As I have said before in this column, we have been, metaphorically speaking, waiting for Kalki, the next avatar of Vishnu, to come and rescue us. I am convinced that Kalki is already here, only we don't recognize it. One frequent 'waiting for Kalki' question is "when will the per capita income of this country get to X, which is the magic number when consumption will 'take off'. The depressing data answer to this question is that with the slow and steady income growth we will have, in about ten years, we will hit the 1000 USD per capita GDP number.

But since everything we say of India the opposite is also true, the other answer is to look at the most aggressive, "we try hardest' market of FMCG. Even as early as 1999 (NCAER analysis) the total money spent on a basket of 26 fmcg products in this country was Rs.92,000 crores, and more than one third of it was with the rural poor, and less than one fifith with the urban well heeled! The data on two wheelers shows similar patterns, though not as stark, and I would love to see what the telecom data looks like in just two years from now.

Clearly, the consumption aircraft took off un-noticed. But maybe the mental model of an aircraft 'taking off' is a misleading one. As misleading as the other mental model we have that change in Consumer India has to come from a large acceleration (Force = mass x acceleration), when, in fact, the force of change is coming from a large Mass of people moving with slow acceleration. The future is here already. The correct mental model is that of a large pond, shallowly filled with water when we last looked at it, now more than half full, as water got slowly dripped into it, from three sources.
(1) affluence as in gradual income growths.
(2) appropriate supply as in more relevant products and services, and as in better performing products at lower prices (and I am including consumer credit in this).
(3) in intrinsic consumer mind maturity and demographic shifts which favour consumption.

Another favourite Kalki question is when will the Indian consumer finally become 'global'. I don't now that I quite understand the question. But now, it begs the uncomfortable question, what or who represents the 'global' consumer of the future? The BRIC report shows that the centre of gravity of the world economic growth and demographics is slowly shifting towards developing markets (that's us too) and that everyone, whether developed or developing in origin, has to learn how to serve these economies which are collectively large, but per capita poor. We are in the navigator's seat, but are waiting for the demand structure of our market to change so that we can finally navigate our market with 'global' ways to serve the 'global' consumer. So, again a case of having to change our mental model, and join the rest of the world in writing a new book about the new global consumer.

Now, what are we offering this ready and waiting market? Just some example of what we could, and what we are not. In a country where a trillion chapattis are eaten every year, we haven't yet managed to create a ready made chapatti product at the right price and taste. It isn't the women who are hanging on for dear life to their right and privilege to be the chapatti makers of the home. They are waiting to be liberated from it. We haven't managed to give it to them. The same goes for a variety of food products. There is no nutrition product that works which is useful for the aches and pains and run down health that most women know they suffer from. With her new found self image as the chief manager of the family, she isn't saying, like my mothers generation did , "why me, I really should be the last priority in the household".

In a child centric culture, the market for toys, and baby products and children's education books and software is very small. Mere two hundred crores apiece in the organized sector, and terrible quality in the unorganized. Disposable diapers are a good ideas for many mothers, but the cost is still very high, and while it is tempting to blame consumer reticence to adopt, the fact is that it isn't true.

There are at least twenty or thirty household products ranging from humble clothes hangers to clips to DIY shelves and cases and kitchen and household organising products, which are not available at the right quality and price - all households need them, rich and poor. A home depot type retail chain as an integrator for all these little things would be a 500 to 600 crore proposition - only where is it?

Retailers have a huge opportunity to be integrators of lots of manufactured products and services, and are sitting on a big opportunity for leap frogging the classical manufactured brands era, to build retail brands. However to survive the period when they are expanding, and investing to build scale, they need the deep pockets and investors with faith. They also need to source and control a lot of small manufacturers be it in food or apparel. But is that the market and the consumer's fault or the fact that something else on the supply side is yet to 'take off'?

The air conditioner guys are waiting for kalki but the news is that in the non coastal areas where air coolers work, the home cooling market has 'taken off', providing appropriate price performance.

It really is time now to focus on the supply act, and develop the vessels that can help draw water from this consumer lake that is getting more than half full.