Research Question: Why is the informal retail sector so persistent and resilient?

retail2Retailing in India is currently estimated to be a USD 200 billion industry, of which organised retailing makes up 3% or USD 6.4 billion. By 2010, organized retail is projected to reach USD 23 billion and in terms of market share it is expected to rise by 20 to 25%. (Sinha et all, 2007)

These claims of projected growth were made based on a 2005 KPMG report on the Indian Consumer market, while the chart itself with it’s aspirational forecast is from the IBEF website. I have been watching and waiting for more than ten years for India’s retail revolution to take place.

The consistent message from the beginning of the retail boom has been that since the organized retail sector (what we would call the formal) has only been ~2% of the total retail trade in India (the balance is informal retail) there was ample opportunity for growth in modern retail.

Yet if you look at the data from 2015, you’ll see that the forecasts were far too ambitious (or, perhaps, aspirational, in the push for modernization driving India’s recently opened markets) – formal retail has only reached 8% penetration in the past 10 years. Nowhere close to the 25% expected by 2010. Mind you, these were all the management consultancy reports bandying the numbers around.

I bring this up because I’m seeing the same kinds of projections happening right now for the African consumer market by the very same firms. And with very few exceptions, the majority of the SSA markets tend towards the same kind of proportions of organized vs unorganized retail  (formal vs informal, modern vs traditional et al are all variations on this theme with minor differences in definition).

And, even as the retail real estate development investments are booming, we are already seeing the very first signs of the same challenge that India faced – over capacity, low footfalls, and empty malls. Just yesterday, the news from Ghana – a firm favourite of the investment forecasters –  has this to say:

Ghana’s economic woes have translated into a variety of challenges for formal retailers who are competing for sales alongsidethe dominant and deep-rooted informal shopping sector. According to a recent report by African commercial property services group Broll – titled Ghana, Retail Barometer Q2, 2016 – overall sales in most modern shopping malls are well below historic averages, despite garnering sufficient foot traffic.
[…]
“International players are also looking at the market and re-adjusting their product/pricing mix to cater for the real middle class, whereby we are talking more in terms of value products rather than high-end products.”

And, retail developers are turning their attention to secondary cities such as Kumasi and Takoradi, as Accra reaches saturation point. The exact same pattern as we have been seeing in India. You would think people might pause a moment to take a look at similar markets and operating environments to assess patterns of market creation development.

This pattern is what gave rise to the research question I would like to frame – why has the informal retail sector been so persistent and resilient? What does this mean for modern trade? And, what are the implications for urban development and planning?

The trajectories of the Indian and the Ghanaian economies have taken different turns, thus, while one might point to these factors as the reasons for the challenges facing the mall owners and the retail brands, the big picture over the past twenty years points to something more fundamental in these operating environments common to the developing world.

That is what I would like to find out.

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