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Multinationals ignore India’s bottom billion at their peril

Nov. 7th, 2016   07:27     Source: FT Chinese

I rose before dawn in Mumbai recently to watch the city’s newspaper vendors get ready for their rounds. Scores of men were squatting under the arches near the historic railway station, sorting thousands of papers in some 20 languages into teetering metre-high stacks, for distribution by bicycle. The sellers commit each complex order to memory, not a computer algorithm in sight.

For anyone who started in print journalism, as I did, it is an exciting scene. But as a first-time visitor to the country, I also felt that the order-out-of-chaos underlined the challenge for foreign multinationals seeking to profit from India’s fabulous, fragmented, far-flung consumer market. As one consultant I met said: “The company that comes to India and is waiting for India to fix things is going to fail. The company that comes and marvels about how India has survived is going to do much better.”

Such acts of tolerance and flexibility are hard for some big companies to carry off. For years, many have glibly summed up their strategy by touting versions of the “think global, act local” mantra. Only a few have made it work, among them Nokia, until it started concentrating too much power at its headquarters, and Nestlé, whose Maggi noodles were successful enough to attract Indian food inspectors’ unwelcome attention last year.

As the complexity of newspaper distribution suggests, with its extraordinary logistical challenges (think of doing this job in a monsoon), “acting local” is not as simple as it sounds. For a start, which “local”?

“There’s so little standardisation: every region has something that defines it,” Amit Agarwal, who heads Amazon India, told me. “It’s like 25 different countries.”

Amazon — locked in combat with Indian competitors Flipkart and Snapdeal — is confident its wide selection will open Indian consumers’ wallets. Mr Agarwal boasts he has brought guinea-pig food to small towns without pet stores (raising the question: what were India’s guinea pigs eating until now?). You can order online a dozen varieties of cow dung (for religious rituals), local food delicacies and the specialised grinders and mixers for preparing them.
Small food suppliers’ ability to deal directly with faraway customers through online platforms means India might even “miss the processed food revolution altogether”, speculates Rama Bijapurkar, who advises companies on the consumer economy.

On the same morning I visited the newspaper sellers I toured Mumbai’s fruit, vegetable, flower and fish markets. Their distribution system is literally run off the backs of workers earning 10 rupees — about 12p — per sack to manhandle produce. Multinationals rightly balk at trying to replace or tinker with that system. Companies working with a technology platform — Amazon, with its Amazon Now service, or Grofers, a homegrown start-up — piggyback on local stores that are already in the supply chain.

Fear of complexity may be one reason some multinationals shy away from or misread India. But in one sense, they are not misreading it at all. The top fifth of India’s 1.3bn citizens earn as much as the next 60 per cent, although the disposable income of the top 20 per cent is nearly four times as great.

In short, it is perfectly rational for multinationals not to bother acting local for the bottom billion. The megabrand strategy that works well for them in developed markets can cream off the sort of high-spending consumers targeted by the house-sized advertising hoardings that lord it over Mumbai’s stall-cluttered streets.

“If you ask ‘What’s the market [if I] sweat my existing model and assets,’ you still have a fairly large number,” Ms Bijapurkar points out.

Tailoring strategy to local conditions is also hard and potentially costly work. Bhavish Aggarwal, founder of Ola, the local ride-hailing company fighting Uber, says you need to “build the infrastructure of your industry” — which is why Ola is buying cars and training drivers. “In India, you can’t be a disrupter because nothing exists: we have to be a creator,” he says, in a jab at his notoriously disruptive US rival.

By not adapting, however, foreign companies risk missing a very large trick. Data collected by Ms Bijapurkar suggest that over the 10 years to 2013-14, the income of the poorest 20 per cent of Indian households grew annually at more than triple the rate of the richest fifth and will continue to grow almost as fast in the years ahead.

Poorer consumers will always aspire to dearer brands. Some will start buying them. But the opportunity is such that local companies and Chinese suppliers are already expanding by appealing to Indian customers ignored by multinationals and by serving their local tastes better. By the time haughtier multinationals wake up to the rest of India, it could be too late.