Shweta Mulki

Brand Owner's Summit: Insights from Damodar Mall, 'The Supermarketwala'

"The customer is serial dating, but the brand believes they are married," said Damodar Mall of Reliance Retail, at afaqs!'s recently held event.

Damodar Mall, CEO, Reliance Retail, was one of the speakers at afaqs!'s recently held event Brand Owner's Summit. Over 30 minutes, he shared a few tricks of his trade.

Brand Owner's Summit: Insights from Damodar Mall, 'The Supermarketwala'
Mall started his session by talking about some of the oft-encountered clichés in his line of work, such as 'the consumer is always right' and 'the context shapes behaviour'. He also busted some common myths. For instance, consumer tastes/preferences in emerging markets, don't necessarily follow the patterns of developed markets, he insisted.

"If that were the case," he reasoned, "everyone in the US market would be thinking like the European consumer. Even a category like washing machines sees different 'loading preferences'. So, emerging markets are really 'asserting' markets."

According to Mall, India is not just a large market; it is, he opined, a "very deep market."

"As consumers, our validation comes from our family members and our surroundings. In this market, brands occupy the 'fourth seat' in the minds of the consumer," he said, adding that China, on the other hand, is not a deep market. "There, the consumer looks at brands as 'influencers'". For Mall, it is "the asserting consumer" who really shapes categories.

Mall then spoke about how behaviour is determined by the context in which it occurs. To illustrate his point, Mall took the audience through some images of the Indian 'kirana' store. The grocery store owner, he reminded the audience, is privy to details about each female shopper's household situation. For instance, he is well versed with the regular buying habits and brand preferences of all his customers.

The friendly neighbourhood 'kiranawala' knows that for his regular customer, buying a shampoo that costs more than her "usual brand" does, is unlikely because she is "wary of what people at home will think..." Consequently, "part of the 'upgrade' is all about considering a product, and then rejecting it," he explained, adding, "The traditional shopping context does not allow for 'upgrades'. For any market, the next level of consumption begins when things move into self-service, when the physical barriers of a kirana shop disappear, and when the man (the store owner) is taken out of the equation."

For the consumer, shopping in a supermarket is like "a 'swayamvar of brands'," Mall said, much to the delight of the delegates present. "The customer is serial dating, but the brand believes they are married," he joked, going on to say, "Incomes are rising, tastes are evolving... experimentation and 'flirting', on part of consumers, is a given".

Brands create aspirations, and as a 'supermarketwala', Mall creates accessibility. He either makes it look as though "everyone is buying it" or paints a it-may-be-expensive-but-today-it-has-ten-rupees-off picture.

Mall also touched upon his company's 'kitchen and refrigerator audits' that routinely help his team spot consumer trends. This insight mining exercise has helped Mall dispel a few erroneous beliefs, such as 'the busier the woman, the more simplifications she needs in the kitchen'. On the contrary, "evolved tastes," he finds, lead to more "complex kitchens."

Ready-to-eat foods are not doing particularly well, unlike booming categories like DIY restaurants and condiments, he finds.

Mall ended his session by comparing the kirana store and the supermarket space to the burgeoning e-commerce ecosystem. "Both supermarkets and e-commerce are modernising two halves of the market," he summed up.

The ninth edition of Brand Owner's Summit was held in Mumbai on December 9, 2015. The afaqs! event was powered by Amagi, with Wall Street as outdoor partner, Kairali as wellness partner, Furlenco as furniture rental partner, and GainBuzz as reach partner.