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Consumer India in the third decade

By Rama Bijapurkar
January 24, 2011 14:30 IST
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The third decade after liberalisation is likely to see aggregate consumption expenditure doubling - this could be more - but it will also see new, never-before market structures and consumer behaviour.

These changes will bring new opportunities for those who exploit them, leaving behind those who see them as the same old game, only to be played more vigorously.

Businesses must revisit their assumptions about the market and review their business-market strategies.

Some things, however, will not change. So let's first catalogue them quickly. Though the average Indian household now earns far more than it did in 1991, and will continue to earn more every successive year, India will always be a large market of modest-income consumers.

India's average per capita gross national income measure, even in purchasing power parity terms, is still about 6 per cent that of the US.

Consumer demand or consumption expenditure in India will continue to be an aggregation of many demand segments, each of which will march to the beat of its own drummer (read forces and internal responses).

Therefore, like the proverbial curate's egg, it will always be good and bad in parts. More demand segments will arise. Bihar is our newest "emerging" market, while Delhi and the National Capital Region is definitely India's leading developed market.

Then there are the young women in business suits in corporate offices who try their best to conform to the western image and the young women in small towns and villages who are inspired to break social restrictions and moulds.

We are already seeing the social class system used in marketing breaking down. The old system was based on the fact that education levels and a certain kind of occupation were highly correlated with income.

Today that simply isn't true - ask a plumber or a small real estate broker in a high-rise building in Mumbai, or the people who organise a pool of car drivers or run a domestic help agency in any big city.

One big change is the thickening of the creamy layer, the top 20 per cent of income earners. NCAER–Centre for Macro Consumer Research projections show that if we have a "business as usual" economic policy and hence no change in the pattern of who benefits from economic growth, then the top 20 per cent will have, between 2004-05 and 2014-15, increased their share of the total India household income pie by over 10 per cent - and a significantly larger pie at that.

It is a market which, in 2015, could be the size that India was a few years ago, and with a nominal per capita income of $5,000.

The ever-present "class or mass market" debate must now take a different turn. The creamy layer of Consumer India offered little joy as a standalone target market.

But it is getting thicker and creamier. It may now be possible, even advisable for some businesses, to build a mid-sized profitable premium business based on the class market alone.

This is the entry strategy that many multinationals applied in China. It is only now that the companies serving the Chinese market are looking at new income creation in the hinterland, and targeting relatively less poor customers.

However, the fact remains that the mass market will also offer big consumption growth owing to rising incomes of a large number of people.

Mass markets, like time and tide, don't sit around waiting for the "trickling down" of sophisticated consumer offerings aimed at the top end of the market.

They just find alternate solutions, whether it is in the form of retail durable brands or "imported from China" pavement specials, "raju bhai"-assembled computers, locally innovated cell phones, or small-scale, locally packaged food producers supplying to small neighbourhood stores.

Also, these are reasonably sophisticated, far more consumer-relevant offerings and breaking their stranglehold ten years from now will not be easy for a late entrant.

The second big shift is the blurring of lines between rural and urban consumer India, thanks to roads that make the nearest town next door, and also the diversification out of agriculture by most families, creating what Dipankar Gupta calls the new villager.

The NCAER-CMCR analysis shows if we were to exclude the highest quintile of urban India and the lowest quintile of rural India, which are outliers, and examine income levels across the rest, there are two nice-sized continuum markets of scale that have similar income levels.

Further, the bets that many people are placing is that there has to be a shake-out in agriculture with the exit of many small and marginal farmers driven hopefully by policies that will be forced on us by the need to bridge the increasing demand-supply gap for food, and also that urban India may finally have to pay far more to rural farmers for food. This means more change in our simple paradigm of rural=poor=backward.

The "new middle class", which doesn't predominantly comprise salaried government and public servants as it used to, is facing the new stress of living in an aspiring society with education and technology levels going up and women pushing harder to change power equations.

The writer is an independent market strategy consultant.


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