Business Standard

Volume IconWhy is the Indian market a hard nut to crack for foreign retailers?

Metro AG decided to exit India after 19 years. Is Indian market a hard nut to crack for international retail giants? Or India's business model is tilted in favour of local firms? Let us understand

ImageBhaswar Kumar New Delhi

Those in the know say that the process of engaging with an investor will take a while.


The battle for dominance in India’s physical retail space has seen many casualties. Even the likes of Aditya Birla Group and Godrej Group, which are among the country’s largest conglomerates, had to pack the bags and leave.

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In 2018, the Aditya Birla Group sold its More supermarket chain to Samara Capital and Amazon. Then, in 2019, the Godrej Group offloaded its grocery outlets under the Nature’s Basket brand to Spencer’s Retail.


Let us take one more recent example. With more than 1,500 stores, Future Retail was once India’s second-largest retailer. Now, Future Retail, along with other group companies, is being taken to the National Company Law Tribunal as lenders seek to recover their dues under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code.

This leaves Reliance Retail and Avenue Supermarts-run DMart as India's top retailers.

However, the going has been just as tough, if not more, for foreign firms. According to a recent report by one financial daily, Amazon, Reliance Retail, Avenue Supermarts, Tata Group, Lulu Group, and Samara Capital are among those looking to buy German retailer Metro AG's Indian cash-and-carry operations for anywhere between $1.5-1.75 billion.

Metro has been running a chain of 31 cash-and-carry stores across India since 2003. According to the report, the decision to cash out came after intense competition and the large investments needed to sustain operations forced the company to carry out a detailed business review.  


In 2020, Reuters reported that Walmart Inc, the world’s largest retailer, had fired 56 of its executives in India. The move, agency said that, underscored the challenges Walmart was facing in expanding its wholesale business in India.

Carrefour, one of the largest retail chains in the world, had also exited India in 2014, less than four years after it had opened its first store in the country.


According to a report from March this year, a top official at the American retail giant Walmart said that the company was not keen on opening direct-to-consumer physical stores in India. Instead, it would focus on growing its acquisitions -- which are online marketplace Flipkart and payments major PhonePe.


In 2019, Amazon invested close to rs 1,500 crore for a 49% stake in Future Retail’s promoter entity Future Coupons. Thus, indirectly gaining a 4.8% stake in the former. Amazon's aim was to expand its foothold in India’s retail market. But it didn’t happen.

As a previous Morning Show story had explained, companies like Amazon face more hurdles when it comes to tapping India’s retail consumer base. This is because foreign investment in offline multi-brand retail is tightly controlled. India allows 51% FDI in multi-brand retail under the government route. But, this is subject to the investor fulfilling several conditions. Meanwhile, the states can also decide whether to allow foreign-owned multi-brand stores or not.

Under Indian rules, 100% foreign investment is allowed in wholesale and cash-and-carry operations.

There’s a growing realisation that retail, whether B2B and cash-and-carry or directly reaching the consumers, requires a local model, where local considerations outweigh everything else. For example, cash-and-carry can be a complex proposition because of the low-margin nature of the business. Add to that the steep real estate prices in India. In some cases, intricacies, like zeroing in on the right store size, can prove to be a challenge and a wrong call can be disastrous in this hyper-competitive market. Then, there is the nature of the Indian buyer, for whom discounts are a primary expectation.

So, why has India been a challenging market for foreign retail giants?


Speaking to Business Standard, Lloyd Mathias, business strategist & independent director says Metro’s exit is due to the current state of competition. Also, Reliance has proved to be especially disruptive in the domain. Mathias saus tough competition, headwinds from regulations and small retail lobbies, pricing pressure and rise of e-commece have made business challenging for global retail wholesale players in India  

Accoring to him, Reliance’s triple strategic advantage in retail includes last-mile connectivity with its telecom customers and JioMart, investments in wholesale centres across the country, and 10 million merchant partners to be onboarded in next three years.
A roadblock for global retailers operating in India is Reliance’s capability of dealing with regulatory challenges 

Also, what do their future options look like?


Mathias says, global wholesalers in India on a backfoot due to pricing pressure, single-digit or negative EBITDAs, tough regulatory frameworks, facing supplychain market disruptions on the ground and the rise of e-commerce.


According to Forrester Research, India’s retail market was worth 883 billion dollars in 2020. The market size is expected to grow to 1.3 trillion dollars by 2024. It is an attractive market, but one which requires deep pockets and the ability to fight stiff competition from behemoths like Reliance.  


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First Published: May 23 2022 | 7:00 AM IST

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