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The great Indian number trick: conditions apply

The great Indian number trick: conditions apply
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First Published: Tue, Dec 25 2007. 12 02 AM IST

Kishore Biyani
Kishore Biyani
Updated: Tue, Dec 25 2007. 12 02 AM IST
Kishore Biyani
On a recent trip to India, a foreign partner was pleasantly surprised by a hoarding put up by a newspaper claiming to be the most widely read English broadsheet in the world. The call centre boom in India is quite well known, but had India transformed into a nation where everyone speaks and reads English? I was forced to explain that even though it is the largest English broadsheet in the world, the daily doesn’t always find a place in the 10 most widely read newspapers in India.
The truth is we are far too many. A minuscule percentage of the entire population makes up a large and impressive number, when compared to most other countries in the world. Therefore, it isn’t uncommon to find more and more of these “India has the largest/second largest/eighth largest XXX in the world” statements. Attracted by the spectacular numbers and generalizations showcased during the early years of liberalization, many multinational companies entered India. Soon they realized that the on-ground realities are far different from the statistics that they were presented with.
Statistics aren’t enough to do business in India. In fact, they can be misleading to a large extent. We are not only too many, we are too many of different kinds. A statistic by nature generalizes a situation and the one thing that doesn’t work in India is generalization. To every generalization, there is a notable exception. For every similarity one finds among Indian consumers, there is a significant difference. For example, while understanding the size of the consumer market, one finds that there are more than 100 towns with a population concentration of more than 300,000. It sounds great on paper, but digging deeper, one will find that just eight cities make up around 78% of the addressable market for urban consumption in India.
There are too many Indias within one India. The economic, social and cultural diversity of Indian consumers forces marketers to view this mass of consumers not as one single market but as a “mass of niches”. The language we speak, the religions we follow, the food we consume, the fabric we wear and the festivals we celebrate change every few hundred kilometres. Multiple centuries simultaneously co-exist. In the nation’s Capital, a drive from the Red Fort area, down Daryaganj, through Lutyen’s Delhi and into Gurgaon is almost like a travel on a time machine. Not only does the architecture, cultural ethos, social outlook change with the locality, so do levels of aspiration, willingness to change, consumption patterns and wealth creation. Add to it the confusion that pervades modern Indian democracy, policies, economics, and doing business in India becomes a memorable roller-coaster ride.
A book that provides a guide to understanding the Indian market and interprets the great Indian number trick correctly is Rama Bijapurkar’s We are like that only—Understanding the Logic of Consumer India. It introduces the reader to some of the vignettes of “exotic India”, some familiar anecdotes, some not so familiar numbers, mandatory disclaimers on the Indian market, just preceded by paragraphs explaining the “huge potential” and “must be” arguments. It is a beautiful collection of facts, insights and anecdotes that will both bewilder and delight, caution and enthuse anyone interested in doing business in India.
As the book proves, logic and emotion, individual and social, poverty and affluence, capitalism and socialism, life and lifestyle, value and indulgence, and the past and the future simultaneously coexist in India. And all these paradoxes converge to make India what it is. To the external world, the harmonious coexistence of these contradictions is one of the most confusing aspects of the Indian consumer market. But it can also be interpreted as a proof of our country’s openness to change and its ability to add new dimensions without losing old ones. It opens up new and unique opportunities as well as brings forth challenges for marketers and retailers.
In order to be successful in this market, there is a unique requirement that is best explained by a word that defies translation into any language—jugaad. Improvisation, rather than generalization, is the key requirement when one tries to implement a market strategy in India. And being a jugaadu plays a critical role in this. Jugaad is about creative improvisation, a tool to somehow find a solution, ingenuity, a refusal to accept defeat, initiative, cunning and resolve. Our entrepreneurial culture rests on this platform of being the jugaadu. The ability to improvise against all odds is again something that is built into the way we grow up, and those who are able to live by it will succeed in India.
Kishore Biyani is MD of Pantaloon Retail (India) Ltd and Group CEO of Future Group
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First Published: Tue, Dec 25 2007. 12 02 AM IST