Retail needs therapy: Future and fortunes of a business after coronavirus

Modern, organised retail is bleeding as the coronavirus pandemic keeps India indoors and shuttered. A sharp fall in growth will have a significant impact on what India consumes in the next six or eight quarters as purchasing power diminishes. This will influence the fortunes of the retail sector across all types of channels and formats. Organised brick-and-mortar retailers are likely to be hurt the most and e-commerce players won’t be spared either. Traditional mom & pop stores will be spared, but they are not big employers. The retail sector’s critical importance to India’s economy cannot be overstated. Arvind Singhal explains what it will take to get this business back on its feet.

Arvind Singhal, Business Standard
14th April

India’s economy slowed down in March, but it is projected to have managed a gross domestic product (GDP) growth of about $3,000 billion at the end of FY20. Private consumption accounts for about 58 per cent of GDP (around $1,700 billion). Of such consumption, about 48 per cent (or about $825 billion) is consumer spending on merchandise (the size of India’s retail sector) and the remaining $875 billion is spent on a range of services (and small savings).

Traditional mom & pop retail accounts for the largest share and will continue to do so, despite the Cassandras crying for the last 15 years that large (physical and digital) businesses will decimate them. India has an estimated 17 million independent retailers and their number is likely to increase to 20 million by 2025, despite the growth of modern, organised retail (brick and e-commerce).

India’s economy was expected to grow by about 3 per cent in FY21 and by 4.5 per cent in FY22 before returning to 6 per cent growth from 2023. A sharp fall in growth will have a significant impact on what India consumes in the next six or eight quarters as purchasing power diminishes. Accordingly, this will influence the fortunes of the retail sector across all types of channels and formats.

Food and grocery accounts for about $550 billion of the $825 billion consumer spending on merchandise. This spending is likely to see the least impact, either in terms of volume consumed across different sub-segments, or on retail channels selling food and grocery.

Textile and apparel, at about $65 billion, is the next big category in consumer spending on merchandise, and it may suffer the most from the coronavirus. Just about every textile and clothing manufacturer (including those in exports) is likely to have stocks of raw material and semi-finished or finished goods. With textile and apparel stores shut, their stocks run the risk of becoming slow-moving as summer goes. After the nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus ends, it is quite likely that spending on clothing (and accessories) would not be a priority for most consumers in various income strata. Clothing and fashion retailers may face tough times well into 2022.

The consumer electronics and durables segment — worth about $50 billion in consumer spending — will probably see the least impact, through some summer-specific categories such as air-conditioners may face a significant loss in sales on extended lockdown. Consumer electronics is likely to be among the first businesses to see demand returning from September-October 2020 and hence the impact on their retailers will be limited to six months.

Retailers for home-and-living, other than those selling premium-priced goods, are likely have a relatively easy FY21 as consumers look at value but consumption by volume doesn’t decline drastically when seen over the entire April 2020-March 2021 period. Another such segment will be footwear.

Bruised by the coronavirus crisis, the finances of just about every type of big retail business will be stressed in FY21 and well into FY22. Of the three major channels, traditional and independent retailers are likely to be least affected because of the lockdown and then its aftermath for the rest of the year. Such retailers typically own their stores (so they do not have to pay rent); they have few employees (with owners and family members running the business), and they can quickly recalibrate their inventories to align with consumer demand or preference. Food and grocery retailers may have, in any case, not suffered much during the lockdown and some may have actually gained when consumers stocked up for the lockdown

Organised brick-and-mortar retailers are likely to be hurt the most after the coronavirus crisis. Most of them had to shut down or hardly got footfalls (even if they were selling groceries) due to restrictions on the movement of people. These businesses carry high fixed costs by way of rentals and common area maintenance charges if they are located in malls or large mixed-use complexes. They have to pay salaries at retail front end, head-office staff, and utilities. Organised retailers carry more inventory, not only in their outlets but also in warehouses and distribution centres. In case of private labels, they will have inventory at the warehouses of their vendors, too. In the next six-eight quarters, most of these organised retailers will see reduced “monthly sales per square foot of retail space” but will still have to incur the same (or nearly the same) monthly fixed costs. They may also have to face margin erosion when they are compelled to liquidate some of their inventory through aggressive discounts.

The situation is not likely to be much better for e-commerce players, either. Consumer sentiment is likely to be depressed for months to come, affecting companies' monthly gross merchandise value (GMV), and hence their monthly gross margin intake, even as their fixed costs remain nearly the same.

The retail sector’s critical importance to India’s economy (and its more than 250 million households) cannot be overstated. It is, therefore, absolutely essential for the government to allow 100 per cent foreign direct investment in all formats and all channels of retail without attaching any onerous and impractical riders. There is already a very high (financial) morbidity in many large organised brick & mortar and e-retail businesses. Government policy should not come in the way of Indian retail as it works to raise capital from anywhere in the world or tries to merge/sell businesses within India or anywhere else.

The author is chairman of Technopak, a management consulting firm

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