• Could distribution be Patanjali’s Achilles heel?

    Around December’15, Chitra Karthik, a Mumbai resident and a corporate tax consultant, paid a visit to her uncle’s house in Kerala. Her uncle had just started a Patanjali franchise on the first floor of his house. It had an array of Patanjali products of which she bought stuff worth Rs 1000 in one go. Unfortunately, she couldn’t buy a lifetime’s supply of goods so once they were over, she set out to buy them from her nearest grocery store in Mumbai. “For weeks I looked for Patanjali’s toothpaste ‘Dant Kanti’ in retail outlets near my house in Chembur. Finally I gave up and bought Himalaya’s toothpaste instead. Dant Kanti was great, my mother-in-law loved it too. But we don’t have time to hunt for toothpastes,” she says.

    She’s not alone. Soudamini Pani, 50, a fitness trainer, has similar woes even when one Patanjali Chikitsalaya (medical centre) is a stone’s throw away from her house. “They show a lot of ads for atta (wheat f lour), sugar, and pulses but when you go to the store, you find these things out of stock all the time. Biscuits and juices are usually available. But it’s the former they heavily advertise. Why put ads when you can’t meet the demand,” she questions.

    Patanjali’s Distribution Muscle There is a huge gap between demand and supply, admits Acharya Balkrishna, MD of Patanjali Ayurved, who’s recently been in the news for his 94% stake in the organisation. (A development touted as a strategic move to take the limelight off Baba Ramdev who has been the face of the company all this while). Balkrishna tells us that besides 1200 Patanjali Chikitsalayas, 2500 Aarogya Kendras, 7000 open stores in villages, and 5600 marketing vehicles, his team is working on launching 250 mega stores in tier-1,2 cities.

    In addition to that, Patanjali has modern trade tie ups with Big Bazaar and the likes of Reliance Retail, Hypercity, Star Bazaar (Tata Group), D-Mart, Spencer Retail, More (Aditya Birla Retail), Apollo Pharmacy, which allows it to cover over 4500 stores across India. Not to mention now you can order Patanjali products via e-comm sites/apps like Amazon, Big Basket, and Grofers. But here’s the thing: Modern trade only forms ~10% of the FMCG sales pie, says Vijay Udasi, SVP – sales effectiveness practice at Nielsen India.

    And from his interactions with marketers, he concludes that not more than 1% of Indian consumers buy FMCG through ecommerce. “Traditional trade (meaning the universe of kirana stores) constitutes 90% of the FMCG business. Especially for a new brand, how rapidly you penetrate traditional trade becomes crucial from a ‘make or break’ standpoint,” he adds.

    Failing to Crack the Kirana Code?
    According to industry estimates, Patanjali products are currently available in 2 lakh traditional retail outlets popularly called as kirana shops. That’s 1/30th the presence of Hindustan Unilever in the kirana universe (over 60 lakh outlets) the market leader in FMCG space who Patanjali has reportedly been giving sleepless nights to. As for Colgate and Nestle players Baba Ramdev took a direct dig at and threatened to oust within a year the numbers are 47 lakh and 35 lakh, respectively. Now, we understand it’s taken these players decades to reach these numbers and we should give Patanjali some time to bridge the gap between demand and supply. But none of these players claimed to ‘shut the gate in Colgate’ or ’cause the bird in Nestle’s logo to fly away,’ all while their loyalists were clamouring for their products. Patanjali did.

    What’s wrong with making lofty claims when consumers love your product?
    Here’s what: According to Nielsen reports: ‘Availability of the product’ is the single largest driver of FMCG sales (33%). And its shopper research suggests that 30%-40% consumers shift preference if their favourite brand is not available at the store. Chitra Karthik is perhaps one among the 40% who are likely to shift to other swadeshi products when they don’t find Patanjali close by.

    One may think North India will have a better distribution network of Patanjali than the west, south or east, simply because Patanjali is headquartered in Haridwar and has a wider following in that belt. But we found consumers from that zone highlighting similar issues. Kriti Sharma (@ KritiKSharma19), a law student from Chandigarh, tells us (via twitter) that she finds Patanjali stores in every second sector (residential division) but not in small next-to-the-house kirana shops. “That’s still an issue,” she says, adding that the Patanjali website also delivers products but it takes a little longer than usual. And perhaps a lot longer than what traditional FMCG procurement time ought to be.

    Retailer’s Side of the Story
    Lala Prasad, a retailer running Hari Om Super Market (a kirana shop in suburban Mumbai), says he gets enough customer queries for Patanjali but he won’t keep its stock. “The margin you get on Patanjali products is 5%-6%. At the most you make 10% on some products but the store’s maintenance requires 15%. I keep HUL products because the entire range gives me a cumulative of 50% margin. If I keep Patanjali, I incur losses. Mostly, customers choose a substitute they’ve been buying for years when they don’t find Patanjali in the store. Why should I worry,” he says.

    Not everyone is as dismissive as Prasad. Seema Chaudhary, who runs Sawla Provision Store in Goregaon (Mumbai), has been trying to search for Patanjali distributors online. “I can assure them their stock will be bought at the snap of fingers, but no distributor delivers Patanjali stock in this entire area,” she says. There were at least 18 kirana shops we spotted within 500 metres of Sawla Provision Store all of them stocked some or the other HUL, Colgate, Dabur, Nestle product. None of them had a single Patanjali product. Most of them were willing to stock them despite low margins, but were struggling to find distributors willing to sell the same to them.

    Distributor’s word
    Margins are low and they can be better, says Gaurav Kanodia, who’s been a Patanjali distributor for the past three years now. But FMCG as a category has low margins, he clarifies. He admits there’s high demand and shortage of products. “I get queries from retailers but if I start supplying and then stop midway because of paucity of stock on my end, I lose my goodwill in the market,” he explains. Patanjali is aware of its weaknesses in the traditional trade format and is working to make things right in the next one year, he tells us. Acharya Balkrishna says things will be streamlined within the next three months only.

    Three months or Three Years?
    Analysts are circumspect of the timelines though. “90% of India buys FMCG from kirana stores and that’s a reasonable bottleneck for Patanjali,” says Abneesh Roy, assistant director at Edelweiss Capital. “It’ll take them two to three years to overcome that. They won’t reach the scale of Colgate or HUL unless they put their feet on the ground,” he adds. Clearly Patanjali knows it well since the ads (meant for the consumers) are also inviting distributors to become a part of the Swadeshi movement. “Maybe margins are lower but scale is higher for Patanjali. In every business category, such a model can exist,” notes Roy.

    Will Patanjali Change Consumers Instead?
    Patanjali is not an impulse buy, like rest of the FMCG, notes Ashok Lalla, independent digital and marketing advisor. “It’s a thought-through buy. So, when you’re disciplined to want it, you’ll get it off your palm,” he says. Maybe it’s not right to measure its distribution strength against conventional FMCG wisdom, he suggests. Nielsen’s Udasi says national leadership in FMCG is only possible on the back of solid distribution unless it’s an aspirational brand. That said, one can certainly not rule out the possibility of Baba Ramdev meeting his claims in the next two years Patanjali did clock sales worth `5000 crore in the year ending March 2016.

    But the growth rate will slow down now, Roy predicts. And the pressure to scale up will increase. In such circumstances, Patanjali will do well to invest heavily in distribution and then perhaps come up with advertising to the effect of ‘Your favourite Patanjali product is BACK in the store.’

    After all, you don’t become the leader by taking away the biggie’s share only to give it away to smaller swadeshi players mushrooming on the sidelines. Jose Iglesias Authentic Jersey

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