While the UK was basking in the recent heat wave, I decided to visit monsoon-soaked Mumbai to tour stores and meet those ‘in the know’.

While the UK was basking in the recent heat wave, I decided to visit monsoon-soaked Mumbai to tour stores and meet those ‘in the know’.

A lot has changed since I last visited India about seven years ago. Then, big players such as Reliance were only just starting out - the retail conglomerate now has about 1,500 outlets varying from supermarkets and clothing stores to jewellery shops and bookshops.

The standard of retailing has improved considerably as the market has matured. Concepts such as Reliance Digital’s Xpress electronics store are not just best-in-class for India, but show how Indian retailers are not afraid to import the latest ideas from around the world. With its focus on customer service and the latest innovations, Xpress wouldn’t have looked out of place in the UK or US.

This highlights the amazing progress local players have made in a relatively short time.

Many of the leading companies, such as Reliance, Tata or Bharti, had no previous retailing experience before they started to plough millions into the sector. I take my hat off to these retailers for diving into the deep end and not looking back. Imagine getting into retail from scratch and within a couple of years having more than 10 distinct different chains.

One thing that has not changed is the hot topic of global grocers entering the Indian marketplace, despite foreign direct investment (FDI) regulations preventing them from opening their own stores in the country.

Almost everyone I met had an opinion. Some believed that FDI restrictions will be relaxed next year after elections, and foreign grocery chains will follow. Others were unsure, thinking change will happen further in the future and warning that foreign companies will fail as they don’t understand the Indian consumer.

Most agreed, however, that the entry of Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour is needed to bring investment and expertise to improve the country’s logistics and food supply chain.

The local players have already created an amazing story, but it seems like the rest of the book remains still to
be written.

  • Rob Gregory, Global research director, Planet Retail