The Impact Of Foreign Direct Investment In The Retail Sector

Sankalp Shanker Srivastav

Editor’s Note: India is witnessing strong growth prospects in organized retailing with foreign retail players willing to make investment in the sub continent. India, being the country with the second most-population, has immense scope for retail expansion as along with time, urbanization and consumerism has also been increasing. AT Kearney’s 2005 Global Retail Development Index termed India as “The most compelling opportunity for retailers.1” Further, India‘s GDP has also been growing at fast rate as it continued to be the second fastest growing economy in the world after China and as the income of the country increases, demand for goods also increases because there is positive relation between demand and income. Initially, India was conservative regarding FDI; it imposed restriction on foreign companies to limit their share in equity capital of their Indian subsidiaries but over the time Government of India gradually liberalized foreign investment in various sectors. Recently in 2011, India permitted 100% FDI in single brand retail and in 2012, 51% FDI permitted in multi brand retail. In this paper, the author will analyze the impact of such decisions on the Retail sector in India with special emphasis on the activities of Wal-Mart in the retail sector.


The Indian Parliament, in December 2012, took a significant step regarding Foreign Direct Investment (hereinafter referred to as FDI), when it approved of the Central government’s decision which allowed FDI in multi-brand retailing. This paved the way for foreign retailers to set up retail stores with 51% ownership in major cities to sell a large variety of products together under one roof[2]. It is to be noted that foreign capital was already allowed in single-brand retailing and this was, therefore, an extension of that policy to multi-brand retailing. Furthermore, several indirect channels, such as franchise agreements, cash and carry wholesale agreements, strategic licensing agreements, manufacturing, and wholly owned subsidiaries have existed prior to the Parliament’s assent to FDI, through which foreign companies including large retailers have already had access to the Indian market[3].

Notwithstanding the earlier forays of foreign retailers in the Indian markets, the debate over FDI in retailing has been going on for quite some time. The vociferous opposition to foreign capital in this sector was a major factor why the bill was delayed in the parliament. Speculation has been rife on its potential benefits and costs and therefore, depending on their socio-political-economic ideologies; various commentators have positioned themselves either backed or criticized this policy.

Objective Assessment of Potential Benefits

However, an objective assessment of potential benefits and costs of FDI in retail is difficult for several reasons in my opinion.

  • Firstly, since retailing in India has largely been taking place in the unorganized sector, most data available is unreliable and cannot be said to be definite. Most of the studies and reports which are published rely on estimates based on strong assumptions and ‘smart’ guesses.
  • Secondly, although FDI has been present in the retail sector in similarly developing countries of Southeast Asia and Latin America and we can study their experiences, the wide variations in their experiments and outcomes have not made it feasible.
  • Also, India being the unique land that it is with all it’s typical problems and society, a comparison with any country would at best, give us a rough idea of the results. It can also be argued in this respect that for some countries, not much time has elapsed since they allowed foreign capital in retailing, and therefore, a long-term impact assessment is not possible.
  • Lastly, I believe that retailing is a service whose provision depends on a number of noneconomic factors which are difficult to factor in and go on to make an objective assessment of the potential benefits and costs.

My primary objective in this article is to provide an overview of retailing in India and a discussion of potential benefits and costs of FDI in the retail sector. The rest of the article is organized as follows. In the next section, I discuss the economics of retailing which would cover the concept of retailing as a service and its place in the supply chain. Following this, I would put forward a brief discussion on India’s retail sector highlighting its special features that need to be considered in a comprehensive assessment of the potential benefits of FDI in this sector. Further, I would present the case of Wal-Mart to understand the possible effects of allowing global players into the Indian retail sector. Lastly, the final section will have the concluding remarks.

What is Retailing?

According to a definition attributed to Philip Kotler, retailing includes “all the activities involved in selling goods or services directly to the final consumers for personal, non-business use.”[4] Although selling goods or services directly to the final consumers constitutes the primary activity in retailing, a number of auxiliary activities are also associated with it. Figure 1 illustrates a scenario where the retailers are involved in the distribution phase of an integrated supply chain and are, therefore, in direct interface with the consumers[5].

Retailers directly sell goods or services to consumers at the front-end of such chains. However, at the backend of the same, they are also heavily involved in procuring (also called sourcing), storing, and transporting the products which they retail besides being involved in processing and packaging as well in some cases. The logistics of retailing is primarily dependant on transportation, communication, and storage infrastructure[6].

Over time, retailing has been organized in many different ways and, as a result, one can see several different formats of retail trading. The format which is relevant to my paper is multi brand (multi-product) retailing. In cases of multi brand retailing, the retailer offers a wide range of products that are produced by diverse producers who are presumably in geographically dispersed locations and unconnected otherwise.

Therefore, this format of retailing potentially generates several benefits to the two sides of the market as it provides a link between a large number of producers and a large number of consumers. However, the logistics for such multi-brand or multi-product retailing are not as simple as shown in the figure but actually, quite complicated. In each stage of this supply chain, value is added and the total value addition determines the price of the product which is paid at the last stage by the final consumer. At the retail stage, the value addition depends on the cost of retail logistics which is, as shown above, depends on transportation, communication, and storage infrastructure, and the profit margin for undertaking the retail enterprise. In the next section, I would describe the retail sector in India and the potential effects of FDI in the country.

The Retail Sector in India

Retailing has always been an important service industry in India. Particularly, with the faster growth of the economy in recent years, higher disposable incomes, and rapid urbanization, this sector’s growth has seen acceleration. In fact, it has been identified as an industry with enormous future growth potential in India[7].
Fig. 2
I have discerned four stages in the evolution of retailing in India which I’ve represented in Figure 2. Historically, retailing was germinated in village fairs or ‘melas’- primarily a source of entertainment rather than an outlet which focused on well-conceived economic activity[8]. Later on, with the expansion of the consumer base, some forms of retailing started shaping up and thereafter evolved into the traditional neighborhood shops (kiranas, convenience stores etc.). In rural areas, these kinds of kirana shop-owners cam about to wield tremendous market power which left the consumers to face the wrath of a number of unfair practices[9].

Since, a proper distribution network did not exist and within an economy having geographically dispersed production locations, the unethical and exploiting profiteering activities of these retail shops continued unabated. It was in the face of these problems that the government stepped in with the object to ensure that the distribution of basic items was at a fair and competitive price and that further a regulated public distribution system (PDS) was established. The government intervention also helped remove major distributional bottlenecks which in turn, ensured availability and fair price.

The economic reforms and liberalization of the economy in the 1990s was a watershed moment for the entry of foreign brands in India. Due to the rise in disposable income and the growth of a strong and rich urban middle class, the household consumption basket got expanded to include items which consumers in India did not typically purchase until then. The entry of foreign goods contributed to the rising trend by expanding the choice set available to the consumers. These developments created ground and an environment which was and still is conducive to the introduction of modern retailing which includes exclusive brand outlets (EBOs), supermarkets, departmental stores, and shopping malls. It is my opinion that it is not a coincidence that almost all major Indian private corporate groups (The Tatas, The Reliance, The Birlas) have also entered the retail sector in one way or another.

Although the gradual evolution of India’s retail sector saw the ushering in of modern forms of retailing, it is interesting to note that the entry of these modern retail giants in the Indian market has not wiped out the other forms of retailing which were seen in the earlier stages of the evolution process coexist. In fact, the potential changes in the relative balance of power among these various formats and their direct beneficiaries in the advent of large foreign retailers are at the core of the ongoing debate.

Finally, the potential for growth of India’s retail sector is enormous. During the last two decades, the middle class has grown significantly and its average income has increased and its consumer aspirations. With the improvement in transportation and communication infrastructure, there has been a convergence of consumer tastes. Furthermore, since India has a relatively young population, (The median age being about 26 years) it is not only a source of very large future demand but also since their tastes and preferences are likely to be less rigid than they were before, the market in India has unprecedented potential to grow. I’ll now examine how FDI can tap into this potential and consequently, the benefits that I feel would arise out of it.

The Potential Benefits of FDI in India’s Retail Sector

In this section, I will briefly discuss some of the potential benefits of FDI in India’s retail sector[10]. Generally, FDI helps build the stock of physical capital in whichever sector in which investment might take place. Particularly, in developing countries where the stock of physical capital is low and there is a shortage of domestic funds to finance investment, FDI can go a long way in increasing the physical capital stock and productivity. I will discuss some of the pertinent issues which I feel are important in realizing the benefits in my opinion.

Infusion of Capital

As I discussed above, retailing depends on supply chain logistics. I feel that an efficient logistics – which would largely be based upon well-developed networks of transportation, communication, and storage infrastructure – would not only provide us with timely and uninterrupted market access to the producers but also ensure that quality and lower prices are also afforded to the consumers. An example that I can envisage is that of the farmers who, without the development of appropriate storage infrastructure, cannot have access to an efficient market system that will pay fair prices and therefore, fall prey to unscrupulous middlemen.

Furthermore, since a significant portion of the produces are destroyed in the process of being transported from the farmers to the retailers and ultimately to the consumers, the consumers have to pay higher prices for relatively low-quality products. In India, primarily due to the unorganized and fragmented nature of the retail sector, there is a severe shortage of funds for investment in the basic infrastructure required mainly for back-end retail logistics. The retailers are too small to make such large investments. Although the government has stepped in, the infrastructure built by the government has not been adequate. Allowing FDI in retail is expected to go a long way in alleviating this situation because the large retailers would build the necessary infrastructure to create an integrated back-end supply chain for efficiency.

Technology Transfer

In addition to augmenting physical capital stock, FDI in developing countries will also act as a conduit of technology transfer. Foreign capital brings along advanced technology from developed countries that increases productivity. In retailing, advanced technologies will tremendously improve processing, grading, handling and packaging of goods. An example of this could be the use of cold-storage facilities, refrigerated vans, pre-cooling chambers which will reduce wastage and thus, help maintain product quality. These efficiency gains will lower price and improve quality for the consumers.

Higher Consumer Wellbeing

The entry of foreign retailers will provide the customers, particularly in the organized retail sector, the opportunity to choose from a wide variety of brands and products. A market with more choice and consequently, more competition would improve upon the consumer wellbeing besides making the manufacturers strive towards more quality. In addition, larger space for product display, a hygienic environment in the shopping area, availability of a large number of products under one roof, and better customer care will increase customer satisfaction. I discern this from various studies which show shopping in large malls and departments also go a long way in providing entertainment to the customers.

Competition and Inflation Control

The advent of multinational retailers will increase competition that will benefit consumers. There will be special offers and various free or discounted services that will accompany the products. This competition will also keep prices low that in turn will be a check on inflation. As discussed above, lower prices are expected because of more efficient supply chain logistics that reduces the cost of moving goods from the producers or wholesalers to the retailers and ultimately to consumers. The development of transportation and storage infrastructure also helps reduce the volatility of prices, particularly of agricultural products.

Benefits to the Farmers, Local Suppliers, and Domestic Manufacturers

Supporters of FDI in the retail sectors argue that the farmers will benefit immensely from the entry of multinational retailers. Primarily through an extensive backward integration and superior technical and operational expertise, I’m of the opinion that these retailers will be able to provide stability and economies of scale. The construction of storage facilities and improved transportation will reduce the losses to the farmers due to the easily perishable nature of their products and will provide a larger market. The farmers will receive better/fair prices by directly selling to organized retailers. They will be able to get away from excessive reliability on intermediaries who often pay lower prices. Furthermore, local suppliers and domestic manufacturers will gain access to larger, and potentially to global markets as the multinational retailers will establish extensive forward and backward linkages that will spread beyond national boundaries.

Employment and Revenue Generation

I expect that the growth of the organized retail sector because of FDI should create jobs not only in frontend retailing but also in activities which are related to it at the back-end of retailing[11]. Since these jobs will be in the organized sector, the laws that protect the interests of the workers will be applicable to the retail sector which should, in turn, ensure the quality of jobs which are on offer in the organized retail sector. Higher wages and better work conditions will improve the standard of living for those who find employment in the organized retail sector.

Another more obvious benefit of would be that of revenue generation. Since most retail outlets in India are in the unorganized sector, they hardly pay any taxes to the government and are evasive which leads to tax leakages via under-invoicing or non-reporting of sales. As FDI in the retail sector helps the organized sector grow, it will generate revenue for the government due to the retailers being on the record.

The Case of Wal-Mart

I will now take the case of Wal-Mart whose model of retailing I will set as a benchmark to examine the possible effects of allowing entry of large foreign retail firms in India. To start with, let us examine the advantages of Wal-Mart in the USA and other countries, and whether these advantages can be translated in India and if so, what could be the possible effects in terms of net benefit or losses for different stakeholders here.

Wal-Mart, the largest retail corporation in the world, was set up in 1962 and has an annual turnover of $400 million and employs about two million people. The basic strategy of the owners was simple- enter small towns with a population of 5000 to 25000- towns which were not served by large retailers and therefore, derive a scale advantage in relation to the size of small-town markets and consequently, eliminate the smaller players which might be present there. This was similar to a natural monopoly in which, due to the size of the market, one large player with global economies of scale serves the market much more efficiently than a large number of small players would.

I have demonstrated the outcome of this strategy with a simple partial equilibrium theory. In Figure 3, D is the demand curve of one such small town. The linear addition of ‘U’ shaped cost curves of the smaller firms have been represented by LACs and LMCs- which are the ‘long-run average cost’ and ‘long run marginal cost’ respectively. With these costs, the equilibrium market price is P and the quantity served is OQ. Now, when a large player with global economies of scale enters the market, the cost curves of whom are LACl and LMCl, and it charges a market price of P1 which is equal to long-run average cost, the supply increases from Q to Q1.

The decline in the market price might cause the exit of small firms. The question raised is whether it would result in unemployment as the smaller firms employ more labor per unit of output produced than the single large firm with economies of scale? The increase in output supplied from Q to Q1 will, in my opinion, absorb some of the labor which would be released by the exit of some of the smaller firms. Given that the costs of the supply chain infrastructure remain more or less fixed, the constant and positive marginal cost can be treated as the goods turnover and labor costs.

Also, the decline in price from P to P1 would increase the consumer surplus to the extent of PabP1 and real incomes. The increase in real incomes will increase expenditure and the savings so made could, in turn, generate employment in other activities. Therefore, after realizing the cost advantage of expansion in small towns, Wal-Mart translated its operations in larger cities with an aggressive cost and price cutting and consequently, grew at a rapid pace.

One can argue that a large firm could act as a monopolist after it drives out the small firms and produce at a point where the marginal revenue for D intersects LMC1, which may imply a price higher than the small firms (P). However, Wal-Mart has not been guilty of this till now as this would be primarily against the whole pricing strategy- keeping costs and prices as low as possible and realize high turnover with thin margins. The following provides the different processes of the cost advantage.

Brea-Solis et al (2010) have identified six choices or a set of choices which define Wal-Mart’s business model which is setting low prices, investing in technology besides having specific human resource policies and developing a Wal-Mart Culture[12]. From its very beginning, Wal-Mart has always focused on increasing the volume of customers that visit it to realize economies of scale[13]. By keeping the prices low, it increases sales by such a margin that the decrease in the markup is more than compensated for. It has been seen that when Wal-Mart enters a market, the prices if general commodities decrease by 8% in rural areas and 5% in urban areas[14]. This unrelenting drive to attract a large number of customers by keeping the prices low puts pressure on all the major stakeholders- workers, managers, and suppliers. Thus, Wal-Mart competes with the establishment in a wide array of sectors both directly and indirectly[15].

Wal-Mart has derived the competitive advantage that it holds in numerous countries by the adoption of a highly efficient logistics and distribution system which was and is leveraged by new technologies, eg. adoption of a vertically integrated distribution system.

Fishman observes “The Wal-Mart effect is the suburbanization of shopping; the downward pressure on wages at all kinds of stores trying to compete with Wal-Mart; the consolidation of consumer product companies trying to compete with Wal-Mart’s scale; the relentless scrutiny of unnecessary costs that allows companies to survive on thinner profits; the success of a large business at the expense of its rivals and the way in which that succeeds builds on itself… In the same decade that Wal-Mart has come to dominate the grocery business in the United States, 31 supermarket chains have sought bankruptcy protection; 27 of these chains cite competition from Wal-Mart as a factor. That too is the Wal-Mart effect.”[16]

As far as employment effect of Wal-Mart is concerned, Basker found that “…immediately after entry, retail employment in the country increases by approximately 100 jobs; this figure declines by half over the next five years as some small and medium-size retail establishments close. Wholesale employment declines by approximately 20 jobs over five years.”[17]

As a counter to this analysis, Ghemawat and Mark[18] argue that Wal-Mart has “grown the economic pie available to be divided among its various stakeholders instead of slicing up a fixed pie…” in a way that favors one group over another. Given that the prices of Wal-Mart are 8% lower than its competitors, the US consumers save on the order of $18 billion per year. For each job lost through the Wal-Mart effect as mentioned above by Fishman, consumers saved more than $ 7 million per year.

This, in my opinion, implies that in terms of net effects more jobs were created through an increase in incomes and expenditure than those of direct losses. Therefore, it can be safely said that the above discussion shows that Wal-Mart derived a sustainable advantage with respect to competitors in the US which had net positive effects on the economy as a whole.

The following issue is whether Wal-Mart has been or would be able to translate its success in its operations in foreign countries. The theory of multinational firms is that a firm would be considered a multinational if it has an intangible asset advantage in technology, brand name, and organization[19].

Multinational firms have to take into account the diverse economic, political and social institutions of different countries when they make their entry, governance and management decisions in a particular country[20]. For example, Wal-Mart proved to be a success when it entered Canada and the U.K. However, conversely, it failed in South Korea and Germany and still struggles in countries like Japan and Russia. Particularly for Germany, Wal-Mart management was not able to understand and comprehend Germany’s regulatory and institutional conditions and consumer preference for value rather than service and therefore, failed miserably.

Similarly, in the case of South Korea, where consumers preferred to buy small and fresh quantities and the Korean competitors attracted consumers away from Wal-Mart with marketing strategies which invoked nationalistic feelings.

In the case of Mexico and other Latin American countries which are geographically close to the U.S., Wal-Mart has been comparatively successful. Wal-Mart entered Mexico in 1991, starting off with a joint venture with Aurrera, the largest Mexican firm. Thereafter, it adapted to Mexican conditions like ‘Bodega Aurrera’ stores and austere versions of supermarkets were designed specially to meet the small town needs which consequently, allowed it to target different customers with different purchasing power. Similarly, Wal-Mart entered China in 1996 and has subsequently been able to cater to the rapidly growing Chinese market at around 18 percent annually. Thirty percent of Chinese exports are accounted for by Wal-Mart[21].

Schell observes “Just as China is providing Walmart with the lifeblood of its commercial growth, Walmart is helping the Chinese state not just to satisfy the escalating demands of its consumers but to extend Beijing’s regulatory writ. Together, they are engaging in a bold experiment in consumer behavior modification, market economies, and environmental stewardship….how Walmart and China interact with each other over the next decade will be critical to the fate of the planet’s environment.”[22]

Now, coming on to the case of Bharati Wal-Mart in India whose entry in the country has had significant implications, although its presence at present is small due to various policy restrictions. Wal-Mart put forth a joint venture with the Indian firm Bharati to circumnavigate India’s FDI rules. Wal-Mart, in Mexico, had similarly entered the country with one such joint venture with a local retail firm and had, later on, bought it off after establishing itself in the country. However, in the case of India, Bharati did not have prior retail business. It itself wanted to enter the organized retail market using Wal-Mart’s expertise. Interestingly, the partnership was a non-exclusive partnership, i.e. Wal-Mart can forge other alliances in India. Thus, in this case, both the partners are essentially using each others’ advantages with the lingering expectation of breaking off in the future and become competitors.

Personally, I believe that this means that once Bharati has acquired Wal-Mart’s expertise with regards to warehousing and the supply chain, it would be rational for it to break-up as it would own the stores which would be strategically placed across the country. By doing this, Wal-Mart would gain the institutional knowledge of the Indian economy and get to know how to adapt its American model of retailing in India.

However, now that Wal-Mart is allowed to enter India without any policy restrictions, the first issue that would come up in my opinion would be its ability to adapt and modify its low cost and price model to India’s institutional and infrastructure conditions and overtime how its’ operations change the landscape of the retail industry in India. India is more densely populated than the USA, China or any other country which Wal-Mart has ventured into. The high density could play out to be an advantage and also a disadvantage for such large retailers. I feel it would be so as once a large retailer predominantly occupies the real estate in a high-density area, it would be ideally placed to be able to realize economies of scale of serving a large number of customers.

Secondly, I feel that the consumer preferences and consumption patterns, (a typical example is a vegetarian and non-vegetarian food) which are more diverse across different regions in India, than in countries such as the USA, would mean that a set standardized supply chain across the entire country would not work. Furthermore, the presence of large barriers for inter-state trade within the country along with the different tax regime of the states and infrastructure conditions would create further obstacles in retailers such as Wal-Mart’s path. The fact that it is easier to bring apples from Australia to Bangalore than getting them from the Himachal Pradesh state further reiterates the point I’ve made. Thus, Wal-Mart will have to adapt and plan different supply chains for the different regions of the country and in some cases, even states, rather than just adopting one for the whole country.

Another important issue which I feel is important is to create linkages with a large number of Indian manufacturers and farmers who are spread and might just be isolated across the country. Wal-Mart has to invest a significant amount of resources in cultivating long term relationship with the suppliers and helping them in quality and delivery control mechanism. One of the criticisms of Wal-Mart’s practices is that it drives supplier firms to be cost-effective especially if the suppliers become dependent on the large buyer.

On the other hand, if supplier firms in India learn from Wal-Mart in improving production and delivery practices, they could improve their bargaining by diversifying their sales to other large retailers or even by selling in the international markets. If Wal-Mart is able to adapt its supply chain to Indian conditions, it could benefit both large and relatively small Indian retailers by expanding the market through improving know-how of a large number of vendors in the country. This was what happened in the auto-component industry in India especially in regard to the first-tier producers as a result of the entry of TNCs in the automobile industry[23].

Lastly, there are some critics of Wal-Mart or the people who supposedly ‘represent’ the Indian retailers’ special interests who make an argument that Wal-Mart should be kept out of retailing but that their outsourcing and the supply chain activities that they undergo for exporting Indian manufacturers should be encouraged. I feel that this argument is unfounded simply because it is essential to allow such foreign players to operate in Indian markets to make markets contestable and competitive, for a realization of externalities and benefit consumers and suppliers especially farmers.


Through this paper, I’ve tried to give an overview of retail trade in India and the mechanisms of foreign funds in the retail sector. I conclude by adding that the economic dynamics and the political process of India will play an important role in determining the outcome of the move to allow FDI in the retail sector and that it will ultimately determine the effects on various stakeholders. Though, FDI approval in India has seen opposition, considering the various studies and the available literature on the issue, it appears to be beneficial to the economy. Considering its advantages and benefits to farmers and persons who are engaged in trading of the agricultural products, consumers of India should stand amongst the most benefited as they would be getting lifestyle products in Indian market at a comparatively better price.


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