Mumbai: After the government invalidated Rs500 and Rs1,000 currency notes, the traditional wholesale channel collapsed. It has also opened new opportunities for wholesalers in the organized sector.
“We are the preferred partner for most of the companies right now for new product launches," says Arvind Mediratta, managing director and chief executive officer of Metro Cash and Carry India Pvt. Ltd, the local arm of the German retailer, in an interview. Edited excerpts:
What was the impact of demonetisation for you?
In the past, companies have relied on their distributors, sub-distributors and traditional wholesalers to service small stores. With demonetisation, the traditional wholesale channel collapsed. Manufacturers are now looking at us as their route to market for a lot of their product categories. They are planning exclusive products (stock keeping unit) for us as we have a wide reach and ability to sell a wider basket. This dialogue with companies has now gained momentum following demonetisation. We are the preferred partner for most of the companies right now for new product launches.
But didn’t your business also suffer as the retailer faced a cash crunch?
We ask our customers to pay in advance and then deliver. We don’t extend credit to our traders. Customers can buy as much and as often as they want. In the traditional system, they used to stock up for three days, a week or a fortnight, and this is not required when they buy from us. However, earlier we used to have a minimum requirement of Rs1,000 bill. Now, post-demonetisation, we have taken off this restriction, and people come to us more regularly. Small bills of Rs1,000 and below is 10% of business. One of our stores in Delhi got ransacked because people thought salt prices would go up to Rs200 per kg and we saw people ransacking sugar, salt. We had to call the police. There were rumours prices would go up. But, in fact, they crashed as farmers didn’t know how to sell.
So, what was the kind of growth did you see during the December quarter and is this continuing in January?
We saw double-digit like-to-like growth in the December quarter, it was very good for us. This is continuing in January. There have been some fundamental shifts, which is short-term. For instance, people are buying more essentials and basics. The frequency of visits have increased. People have cut back on their spends on electronics, apparel and household items.
By when do you see sales getting back to normal?
For non-food, it will take another quarter to come back to normal. For food and FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), the impact lasted only for a week, and sales are back at normal now.
What is the scope for cash and carry or modern wholesale in big cities where traditional wholesale channels are well established?
Cash and carry is nothing but modern wholesale. There are close to 10 million kirana stores in the country. Even the best of FMCG companies don’t directly reach more than 10-15% of this. So, they rely on the traditional wholesale channels to reach the other outlets. Contrary to what people say and even what’s written in the media, I personally believe that the mom-and- pop kirana stores are here to stay, at least for the next 25-30 years. The traditional food and grocery retail accounts for 97-98% of the FMCG sector’s overall sales. This includes FMCG, food, groceries, commodities and fresh—dairy, poultry, meat and seafood. In the non-food component or general merchandise, which is apparel, shoes, electronics, there, the modern trade share varies from 7-8%, but for food and groceries, modern trade is just 2-3%.
However for some large FMCG companies modern trade now accounts for 15-20% of their overall revenues.
It could be. But a large part of the consumer spends in food and groceries is on fresh, which is fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat, chicken and seafood. That is ballpark 30% of the total spend in an average Indian household.
Then, another 30-35% is spent on staples like atta (flour), chawal (rice), pulses, spices, dry fruits, sugar, salt. Another 30-35% is FMCG. So, even 15% for FMCG doesn’t necessarily mean 15% of modern trade for food and groceries. For instance, as much as 99% of commodities is bought from traditional stores and even when it comes to buying fresh, people still prefer to buy from the traditional markets.
How much do kirana stores account for your overall revenue?
Traders account for 40% of the overall business, followed by hotels, restaurants and caterers at 20%, and the rest, which is offices and institutions; these could be corporate offices or even the army, self-employed professionals, which is 40%.
So, are you saying that the traditional wholesaler could become redundant?
There is a big opportunity for us to coexist with traditional distributors as they cater to only the larger stores. We are catering to the smaller stores which are anyways largely ignored by the traditional system.
How much of the wholesale business do you see shifting to organized from unorganized?
It is difficult to predict; but with GST (goods and services tax) also coming in, we see it becoming a level playing field and becoming more favourable for modern cash and carry trade, which is abiding by all the laws.
How will you compete with local distributors and wholesalers who know the local market better?
In India, what works in the north will not work in the south, and there are also a lot of local and regional brands. We are focusing on these local and regional brands, especially in food and groceries, because people want a particular brand of spice or oil. So, for instance, when we opened a store in Gujarat, we found people were using cottonseed oil, which is not common in other parts of the country. Likewise, there are brands in the south which are specific to that region. Likewise in apparel, in Punjab, we need to stock a lot more of large sizes, whereas in Bengaluru, the large sizes don’t sell. In Amritsar, we used to stock small thalis (plates) and small bowls, but we noticed nobody was buying those. So, these are things we have to localize according to the market.
What prompted you to change your business model to equip the sales force with tablets in India?
We piloted this about six months back in Jaipur and now have this facility in six-seven stores, and are rolling it out gradually. The concept here is very simple. It is the e-commerce version of cash and carry. If people cannot come to the store, you virtually carry the store to them on the tablet with a person. A lot of kirana storeowners will not shift online. They are used to having someone visit them for placing an order; to change the behaviour, we have to have e-commerce with a human interface. We need to understand these traditional shopkeepers, we can’t expect them to suddenly change their way of doing business.
What are your plans for India?
India is a priority market. We have 23 stores and have said earlier that by 2020 we will have 50 stores. Last year, we have stepped up on our expansion, opening five stores in one year. We want to become the dominant firm in markets we are present in and also enter into more states.
What is the penetration of organized cash and carry in markets where you are present?
We feel we have plenty of headroom for growth even in markets like Bengaluru, where we have six stores. While I can’t disclose our market share numbers, all I can say is we have a significant share of the $2-billion organized wholesale cash and carry market. In Bengaluru, we have 450,000 business customers across all three segments, of which traders would be 1.2-1.5 lakh.
You have recently strengthened your top management and made operational changes. Why is that?
We are getting ready for rapid expansion and profitable growth. It took us quite some time to understand the Indian retail market. We now believe we understand it very well. Hence, we armed our sales force with tablets and are making other operational changes. Also we now believe the environment is coming together with demonetisation and GST, and that augurs very well for a modern cash and carry firm. Suddenly the stars seem to be aligned.
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