There is no magic answer to this question. However, one can make some educated guesses based on established best practices and how Indian conditions will modify or replace conventional wisdom. Let’s consider some of the factors that could affect the future of organized Retail in India.

Consumers – Who understands the Indian consumer the best will win in the end. What do we mean by the Indian consumer? Is it the teenager in Mumbai who commutes by local train, buys fashionable clothes from Linking Road and watches movies at the multiplex? Or is it the housewife who buys vegetables from the sabzi mandi and saves up money for chicken on Sundays. Or is it the fisherman out at sea who uses a cellphone to communicate his catch to the market on the shore? The Indian consumer is hard to pin down. As someone wisely said, the Indian consumer shifts loyalties with every 25 kilometers and with every 10 Rupees. The dimensions to deal with include class, education, language, caste and local customs in addition to the standard marketing dimensions used in the West.Merchandising – Merchandising is what retailers do. This aspect has not received much media attention in India. However, this is often what differentiates a successful retailer from a flash in the pan retailer. Examples that come to mind include Zara, 7-Eleven and Walmart. Put simply, merchandising is the art-science of deciding what to sell where, at what price and when. The retailers that understand the Indian consumers and provide the right products at the right price will beat the competition.

Talent – This is already becoming a bottleneck for several Indian retailers. Experienced corporate professionals as well as fresh talent at the store level are hard to come by. The retailers that are able to retain their talent and provide them with growth opportunities could easily gain an upper hand in running a successful operation in India.

Real Estate – This is a huge concern in India where quality real estate has become too expensive for many retailers to run a successful operation in cities. This is especially true for mass merchandise/discount retailers who operate on razor-thin margins. The acquisition of cheap leases in prime areas could decide whether a retailer becomes profitable at all or not. Another strategy is to expand in smaller towns and villages where real estate is still affordable and purchasing power is not as bad as one might think.

Supply Chain – This often quoted but not-so-often understood term basically refers to the back-end operations of a retailer. This includes the entire network of suppliers, warehouses, distribution centers and logistics operations. Effectively getting products to the right place at the right time is a lot tougher than it sounds when there are thousands of items and hundreds of stores involved. The supply chain infrastructure needs to be built from the ground up in India. This could easily affect the balance sheet of any retailer planning to start operations in India.

Policy – Although most people agree that FDI in Retail is just a matter of time, what this means is that till FDI is allowed, we will see our domestic players like The Future Group and Reliance Retail leading the way. What will happen when FDI is eventually allowed is anyone’s guess. If the examples of Brazil or China are taken into account, we will see a lot of consolidation with a few (6-8) large players remaining and several smaller niche players. Retail is a highly localized business (local preferences, local talent), so there is no guarantee that a foreign player will do better than an Indian player, as evidenced by Walmart’s failures in Germany and Korea. Surely, there are interesting times ahead!