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Interview: James Munson, Head of Retail & Marketing, Marks & Spencer Reliance India

“We don’t change what we stand for, but we adapt our model to the local market”

Neha Saraiya | Delhi | December 19, 2011

Recently, Marks & Spencer celebrated its 10th anniversary in India with a high-end fashion do. Present on the occasion was James Munson, Head of Retail and Marketing, Marks & Spencer Reliance India.

Munson, who came on board of the company in February 2011, is a seasoned retail professional with over 14 years of retail and marketing experience. He joined Marks & Spencer UK in 1997 and has held various roles ranging from Commercial Manager in both foods and general merchandise to most recently as Premier Store Manager of Camberley, UK’s second largest M&S store with 1,000 employees. In India, Munson is responsible for all retail, marketing, corporate communication and CSR initiatives of the company.

In an exclusive conversation with Best Media Info, Munson talks about how the company, which established its footprint in the country in 2001, has traversed over this period and the highs and lows. Excerpts:

On the completion of ten years in India how do you view the experience?

I would say interesting. We entered India around 10 years ago in a franchise model and then around 2008 we wanted to accelerate our growth. That is the time we went for a JV with Reliance. That kind of enabled us to move the brand forward and getting a better position in terms of store size. We also tweaked our catalogue as we had to make sure that we position the prices correctly for the local market. And the journey has continued from there. Today, we have 23 stores and we will be opening four more stores by the end of this financial year. In fact, we have just opened a store last week in Pune. We have realised over the last 2-3 years of our partnership that we have to kind of push the brand harder and introduce more fashion elements to our brand.

In a way, Marks & Spencer has had two innings -- one before the JV with Reliance in 2008 and the second post the partnership. What has been the difference between the two stages?

The key difference between the two has been immense. Between 2001 and 2008 under our franchise model, we predominantly had smaller units which were importing merchandise from the UK catalogues. What Reliance has enabled us to do by investing more money is that we have been able to open bigger shops. Also, another big advantage was that we were able to move into local sourcing. Today, 52 per cent of what we sell is locally sourced from Bangalore. That has made us change the UK catalogue and tailor it. Be it producing more colours, adding pockets to the shirt or longer necklines, we have been able to tailor the product to be more appealing to Indian consumers. Also, we have been able to position our prices and bring them down significantly in the last two years.

How has the change in your pricing strategy helped establish a stronger foothold in the Indian market, considering the fact that it is highly price sensitive?

In terms of positioning, what M&S is famous for doing in the UK is making aspirational quality accessible to all. So, what we try to do is make high quality stylish products within accessible pricing. Thus, it would be incorrect to say that we are pushing back to premium. What we are trying to do is make sure that we have a wide range on offer that appeals to different sets of consumers. So, we have shirts available at a price point of Rs 799 and Rs 299. Be it a shirt for office or evening wear, we cater to all.

What is the current status of your positioning in India?

In India I think the status would be similar to that in the UK. We appeal to the SEC A & B consumer base. We are not positioned in the premium segment. What we are doing is to offer that level of quality at an affordable price through scale of volumes. We are able to leverage that because of the size of our business.

How important is Indian market really for M&S’s global operations?

The Indian market is becomingly hugely important for us in terms potential because of the size of the market. It’s a key international market among the markets we are investing in. in terms of numbers, the Indian market contributes 6 per cent of our total global sales.

In the UK you sell seven-pack socks while in India it is only three pairs. What is the kind of research that made you decide on this?

How we localise in local markets is hugely important. When we started selling seven-pack socks, it was a real challenge for us. After adopting the smaller pack size for socks, we realised that customers get a chance to try out our products and later come back and buy in volumes. More people have started to explore our brand given the price points, and appreciate the quality that we offer.

The organised retail market in India is just 5 per cent of the entire pie. Is that a hurdle to expansion?

That is a challenge in terms of making sure that we are able to differentiate ourselves. We have to make sure that our stores offer a great shopping environment, are visually appealing and give consumers a wide spectrum of choice. It’s also about identifying the right locations and where to position ourselves as there are no clear destinations necessarily as the market is evolving. From an opportunity point of view, it is vast. The number may be 5 per cent today but it’s becoming bigger and bigger each year.

In these 10 years, what changes has M&S undergone as a brand?

In terms of positioning, the big change is that we have been able to position our prices correctly. The biggest learning is that you can’t pick a UK store for India, you have to adapt to the local market.

What’s your current marketing strategy?

One of biggest challenges that we had to deal with is brand awareness. We are pushing hard to raise awareness and we use PR in a big way. We also use online media, have a virtual website and we have a significant loyalty database that we reach to gain information to market to our customers. Local magazines are also one of our biggest mediums.

What’s the plan ahead for brand M&S?

We would continue to open large stores to make sure that we focus on the availability of fashionable products. We will also focus on visual merchandising and shopping experience. This strategy we have adopted in the last two years, and will continue to drive it.

One key learning from these ten years…

We don’t change what we stand for, but we adapt our model to the local market.

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