A few weeks ago I was at a get-together with a diverse group of people who met each other for the first time. The pre-dinner conversation was veering dangerously towards the mundane, and “nice to meet you” was the most commonly heard phrase. Just when the party was being dismissed into the dustbin of boring get-togethers, a turn-around happened…

While dinner was being laid on the table, a seemingly–terribly-bored-lady in the group quipped- “Dum Aloo!! –a dash of dahi can do wonders to the aloo when it's being fried”. That phrase elevated the mood of the party. The dreary discussion became a charming chat, what with: “how the royal chefs made meat kebabs, delicously soft enough for the toothless nawabs to gulp them” to “we use bamboo shoots in our pickles” with the occasional “the best sushi in Mumbai is at ….”

Food, as always, demonstrated its infallible power to “start - and sustain - a conversation". It's not surprising nowadays for (many of us as retailers to experience) living room discussions turn into feedback sessions on their favourite brand of cooking oil not being available in the supermarket or how the cash counter queues have become longer on Sundays. In a country which has always made “roti” precede 'kapda and makaan', food and grocery occupies 60% of the retailing basket, making it the country's most popular category. On a lighter note even the other national favourite -Bollywood has been unsparing with food in their titles (Cheeni Kum, Bheja Fry, Garam Masaala being a few recent examples)

I wasn't prepared for the next round of conversations that made the “party”. From food the pondering turned into schooling: How difficult (and expensive) is to get a seat in an school! In these times, education is possibly one of those rare fields which is recession free. With better education of the child a much higher priority over investment in a house, the new phrase for India would (should be!) be "Roti, Kapada, KITAB and Makan”.

When Welbound Times asked me to pen a few words on these 'times', I thought, as food retailers and book printers, we have something common to deal with: “a recession free commodity”. Whatever may be the inflation level, people will eat rice and biscuits ; they also buy text books and notebooks for their children.

These are definitely tough times for some; but these are times of opportunities and challenges too. Its how you perceive the situation and react that will make the difference. I have tabled a few “conventional” reactions to the difficult situation; these are then countered with alternative behaviour of a leader. Many of these are part of  the “retail experience” and I have tried to make them as relevant as possible to the reader of Welbound Times.

Conventional reactions during tough times

Alternative behaviour of the leader
Start randomly cutting in on cash flow - the lesser the better Cash becomes a critical weapon in your armoury - you roll a coin and see how it reaches its goal without going here and there. Deploy funds exactly where the need is.
Start firing people, manpower cuts are essential That's the last measure - Start expecting more, talk and challenge people on productivity. If done this way staff affinity & loyalty in good times is assured.
Negotiate , Negotiate-  these are times all suppliers are in trouble , hence strip them bare on costs Partner on efficiency and productivity – they will have a longer impact
Keep all assets idle, including the personal ideas and thoughts. There is no better option The better option is to “sharpen the blade when the knife is not being used”. So do maintenance, explore upgradation. Acquire new skills, adjacent businesses.
Maintain status quo-“jaisa chalta hai chalne do” Innovate- communicate to customers, staff. Maybe some innovative ideas will come through.
Getting better money realization has become tough- so let me add some complexity e.g  super built up to carpet while buying a flat Getting better money realization has become tough- so let me add some complexity e.g  super built up to carpet while buying a flat
The “sentiment” is so dull – how could I possibly take tough measures on efficiency now, everyone will revolt Every stakeholder is “feeling” the pinch-they will be in a very receptive state to hear to process changes etc.
Stop all investments on promotions, advertising and brand building. It's a waste. Who is doing it anyway? Exactly the reverse. This is the time to consolidate positions. Be seen, be noted, when no one is prominent. Also promotions and advertising will be cheaper in these times.
The only point to think is “how should I gain more share from competition- the more they lose the better for me, since anyway the industry is shrinking Industry shrinking is bad news for all the strong players. This is the time to only grow the market. And the only competition will be the self.

Some well wishers with whom I have bounced the above thoughts have challenged me on who a “leader” is. In the context of retail, the simple answer is: “An ordinary retailer thinks that he is running a rectangular shop, stocking food and grocery and makes business and money through this. A leader is a person who raises the bar and feels truly responsible in influencing the food value chain in the life of a consumer. (that he also makes business and money from this is taken for granted – he leaves behind circumstances to energize the generations to come!)

Similarly in the graphic art industry, “an ordinary book printer collates paper, prints, folds and binds to produce books. A true leader in this industry owns up to the transformation in education that India is embracing and slowly yet steadily upgrades, builds capabilities to catalyse and celebrate the change”

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