Thursday, June 28, 2018

A Tale of Two Retailers

A 3in1 phone-lens at Miniso - solid Value for Money

"Oh, Miniso?", said the sales-person at Muji, "You could call them our 'poor cousins'. Our prices are higher because we sell high quality products".

We have all heard this quality spiel before. Every fruit vendor in Delhi uses that line to sell his wares. At Muji, apart from sounding contrived and utterly unconvincing, it also presumes that the Indian customer is a fool.

Miniso and Muji are two retail brands with a lot in common. Both proclaim their Japanese pedegree in design aesthetics and quality while getting most of their products manufactured in China; both have 'affordable quality' as their USP, and both represent the changing face of Japanese FDI in India which is trying to diversify from its hitherto narrow focus on the automobile sector.

In their approach to the Indian market, however, Muji and Miniso could not be more different. 

Muji @DLF Mall of India, NOIDA

Muji is a company that started in the early 1980s in Japan. It is 
positioned as a "reasonably priced" brand, keeping the retail prices of its 'no-brand' products "lower than usual" by the materials it selected, streamlining its manufacturing processes, and minimising packaging. However, in India, it has chosen to tie-up with the Reliance conglomerate and positioned itself as an upmarket brand. 

Miniso, on the other hand, is a relatively young company, started in 2011 by Miyake Junya, a Japanese designer, and a Chinese entrepreneur, Ye Guofo. Unlike Muji, its sells quality products at prices that are actually reasonable by Indian standards.

The difference between the two retailers is quite telling at the DLF Mall of India, in NOIDA. Here, Muji has take up a large space on the first floor ('International Boulevard') while the Miniso outlet is about a fourth in size on the lower ground floor, at the same level as other budget shops, BigBazaar and Store99. While the Muji store exudes a lavish sense of space and luxury, Miniso is cramped with overflowing shelves and narrow aisles. 

Perhaps the biggest difference is that while Miniso is full of customers stuffing their baskets and lining up at the payment counters, Muji remains desolate in comparison. A handful of people saunter in as though they are visiting a museum, and most of them walk out without making a purchase.

Miniso @ Mall of India, NOIDA
What expains this difference? The price-tag could be one. In India, Muji's products have drifted far from their motto of being "reasonably priced". Most of the products in fact come with a two price-tags, and, amazingly, the Japanese JPY price is less than the equivalent INR price! For instance, a simple ruler carries a Japan price of JPY150 (INR93)and its India price is INR150! 

It is when I asked the Muji guys about this that I got the Miniso-is-our-poor-cousin comment. When I ask them about the rush in Miniso stores compared to Muji, their answer was - "Oh, that must be because this is NOIDA, where people cannot afford Muji quality!". 

Having lived in Japan for two years, and interacted with the impeccably polite and tactful staff at Muji stores at Tokyo and Tsukuba, one thing is certain: For all the investments they are making in India, staff training in India is far below Muji standards.

This summer, while Muji tries to weave a snooty cocoon for itself and attempts to attract customers with "upto 50% discount", Miniso, the 'poor cousin', has already expanded to 19 stores in NCR Delhi alone, and is laughing all the way to the bank.


* (2017) - How Miniso became a mega success -

* (2017) ET - Japan's investments in India is getting diverse -

Friday, June 22, 2018

Delhi Metro: DAR vs. LUD

How does one calculate a ride on the Delhi Metro?

A recent article in the Indian Express was hinged on this question, and it came up with a politically charged conclusion from a minister in the Delhi Government who said it was "Extremely worrying" to see a 17% drop ridership in the months of March, April and May, as compared to 2017.

So, what exactly is ridership? 

Ridership here refers to "Daily Average Ridership (DAR)", a metric used by Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) across its six corridors — Yellow, Blue, Red, Green, Violet, and Magenta. 

An RTI filed by the newspaper came up with the following data on DAR for three months in 2017 and 2018 for five corridors (Yellow, Blue, Red, Green, and Violet):

  • March 2017 - 2.76 million; March 2018 - 2.2 million 
  • April 2017 - 2.75 million; April 2018 - 2.26 million
  • May 2017 - 2.65 million; May 2018 - 2.25 million
This alleged drop in ridership is important because DMRC had brought in a sharp increase in fares in October 2017, a politically charged decision that was strongly opposed by AAP, the ruling party in Delhi Government, which is also a stakeholder in Delhi Metro. DMRC has been clamoring for a fare review for more than a decade in order to cut dependence on government subsidies, and to be at least operationally viable.

On 29 May, 2018, a day after opening the entire Magenta Line (Botanical Garden to Janakpuri West), DMRC stopped using the DAR metric and started a new one called "Line Utilization Data (LUD)". 

Unlike DAR which was calculated based on the entry and exit made by a passenger at the automatic fare collection (AFC) gates, LUD logs only overall utilization data. Double-counting is avoided and a passenger moving from one corridor to another is counted as a single trip only. For instance, a trip from Noida to Gurgaon across the blue-line and yellow-line would count as one trip, not two.

It is unclear when exactly the LUD metric started getting used. If it started after the fare hike, this could easily explain the alleged drop in ridership in March-April-May 2018. 

Strangely, while the Financial Express says one thing, its sister concern, the IndianExpress reports the opposite. On 30 May 2018, FE reported "Delhi Metro had posted a steady rise in the average ridership, with nearly 27 lakh (2.7m) commuters taking the rapid transit network daily in February this year". Three weeks later, IE tells us that for the very same month - Feb., 2018 - ridership was 22.18 lakhs (2.2m)!

As expected, AAP, the ruling party in Delhi, is highlighting the latter to prove that the fare hike is driving people away from the metro. 

Regular metro users like me find it extremely difficult to believe this. Far from seeing a drop in commuters I see crowded trains even during off-peak hours. In fact, within a month of opening the Magenta line, it has become impossible to find car parking at the nearest OBS Metro station!


* (30May18), FE -

* (21Jun18) IE - Metro ridership plummets 5 lakh -

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Bicycles for the Last Mile

I am a Delhi Metro fanboy. Over the past few months, with the opening of the new Magenta Line, I have found it a lot more convenient to use the metro instead of driving a car.  The rising cost of petrol and parking charges, combined with the daily hassle of crawling through the traffic are factors that make public transport a more attractive option. However, one problem remains - last mile connectivity.

In my case the 'last mile' is about 5km (3.1 miles). So far, I have been covering this distance using buses, autos or the app-cabs (Uber/Ola). Recently, an interesting new option turned up on the horizon.

A few weeks ago, I exited the Okhla Bird Sanctuary (OBS) Metro station to see an array of bright green bicycles lined up in the parking lot. An attendant at the car-parking lot looked blank when I asked him about the bicycles. There were no boards either to explain why ~20 bicyles were lined up there. 

Just as I was about to leave, a lady rode in, left the bicycle in the vicinity, checked something on her mobile and hurried into the station. This is when it occured to me that I was seeing the first batch of dockless, IOT-enabled "smart bikes" in NCR Delhi, from a company named Mobycy

A quick search on the internet tells you that Mobycy is a venture launched last year by Akash Gupta, the former vice president and marketing head of digital wallet firm Mobikwik. The smart-bikes are currently available in select areas of Delhi-NCR region, including Noida, Gurugram, Faridabad and Chandigarh.

Surprisingly, India is a late entrant into the dockless bicycle renting business. It seems the early bird was a German company called Deutsche Bahn which developed the first remote locking systems in 1998. A lot has happened since then:  over 30 companies operate in China, where Ofo, Mobike and oBike have become the world's largest bike share operators with millions of bikes spread over 100 cities. Ofo has 200 million users in 250 countries, Mobike has a similar number in 180 cities, and they are funded by Chinese tech giants Tencent and Alibaba respectively.

The going has been tough for many companies. Gobee - the first dockless bike operator in Paris - has decided to quit after more than a thousand bikes had been stolen or “privatised” and around 3,400 more had been vandalised. City councils in Lisbon and Melbourne have started removing their fleet of oBikes after they were found to be parked carelessly and obstructing roads, subways and staircases.

Mobycy, by launching its operations in the scrappy North Indian cities, seems to have decided to take the bull by its horns. It has made a cautious beginning by creating 'Parking Circles' - designated points where bicycles can be parked, and charging a 'convenience fee' for those that are parked outside these circles. 

This is a great new service and I really hope it succeeds. It remains to be seen if Mobycy has learnt the right lessons from the failure of Gobee and oBikes in other countries.

As for me, I am waiting for a 'parking circle' to appear closer to Sec-105 in Noida. Until then it makes more sense to depend on UberShare and UPSRTC for my last mile connectivity. 

PostScript - User Experience - 19 June 2018

Last Friday, I tried out a Mobycy bicycle for the first time. I walked across to the Parking Circle outside HCL office, and amidst the hundreds of motorbikes and cars parked by the roadside, found two Mobycy's.

It took less than a minute for me to access the app, scan the QR code and open the locks. After quickly adjusting the seat-height, I set off towards the OBS metro station 4km away. The ride was quite smooth - the bicycle feels sturdy and reliable, the tyres are tubeless and puncture resistant/proof, the front basket is useful for keeping stuff but it takes a bit of getting used to, and the bicycle has a neat mechanical bell built into handlebar.

Once the ride was over it took me a few minutes to lock and exit because internet connection here was a bit iffy. This may also explain why so many bikes (~30) remain unused on the racks. Since the ride was completed in less than 30 minutes, it cost me just Rs.4.15 on Paytm, after a 15% "Summer Discount".

Overall its a great convenience, and I look forward to seeing more Mobycy parking-circles in the city! 

Lots of dockless-bikes - I hope more people start using them!



* (05Dec17) -
- Mobycy, has raised $500,000 (Rs 3.2 crore) in a seed round from a US-based angel investor

* (Mar2018) -

* 25Feb2018) -

* Bicycle sharing system -

* Deutsche Bahn, Germany -

Sunday, June 03, 2018

One Day in the Gulag

A hot summer evening in NCR Delhi, sitting on the terrace with a mug of hot coffee, a bowl of banana-chips, and a book: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

What could be be more incongruous?

The book describes a world quite difficult to imagine  - especially on a day when the temprature touched +46C! Bleak life within the Gulag - prison camps set in the barren, icy wastelands where the teperature dips to -41C; where the inmates are mostly those who offended the Soviet politial system, and are condemned to spend 10 to 20 years of their lives.   

It is appaling to even imagine a system that destroyed the lives of more than 10 million citizens for the most whimsical reasons. Many were prisoners of war who managed to escape Hitler's invading armies and return home only to be suspected of being counter-revolutionaries or spies. One man was sent as a military attache to Western Europe. After he returned back home, his patriotism and loyalty became suspect after he received a Christmas greeting from an aquaintance. This greeting landed him for 10 years in the Gulag.

The life of the protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Sukhov, is perhaps based that of the author himself who, as a young man, was arrested on the charges of 'making derogatory remarks about Stalin', and spent the next 8 years in labour camps: first in 'general' camps (Ust-Izhma?) with common criminals, and then later in Beria's 'special' camps for long-term prisoners. This book is set in one such camp in the region of Karaganda in Northern Kazakhstan.

Most prisoners did not survive their terms, and perished in the freezing labor camps. Chances of surviving aparently depended a lot on the team-leader of your unit:

"You've only to show a whip to a beaten dog. The frost was severe, but not as severe as the team leader...More depended on the work-report than on the work itself. A clever team-leader was the one who concentrated on the work-report. That is what kept the men fed. He had to prove that work which hadn't been done had been done, to turn jobs that were rated low to ones that were rated high. For this a team-leader had to have his head screwed on, and to be on the right side of the checkers. Their palms had to be greased too.."

Not an easy world to imagine while munching banana chips...  :(


* Book -

Saturday, June 02, 2018

A Closer Look at Eyecare: Lenskart vs. Titan Eye+

I needed a new pair of spectacles desperately. The one I have been using for the past three years was in bad shape - both lenses were badly scratched, an arm was broken, and I felt my eyes had now reached the dreaded zone of bifocals or progressive lenses.

Having used spectacles for over 30 years, I thought I had a clear picture of what I needed: A sturdy pair of glasses that I could wear comfortably, both outdoors (mostly distance running or trekking) and while working at my laptop, one that was easy to fold-away and access while travelling; anti-glare lenses would be a useful feature while driving, and above all, the pair had to be Value For Money. 

My search began in Kolkata early this year. At Himalaya Opticals on near the Dhakuria flyover, I was greeted by salesmen wearing starched formals and fake smiles. Within a few minutes they figured out that I was not looking for expensive frames or fancy brands with 15 coatings, and their attitude changed. Fake smiles gave way to sneers, . I realised their 'target market' was different and that this was not the shop for me.

Back in NCR Delhi I decided to focus on the options available in Noida. At the bustling Sector-18 market  there were at least 10 optical shops that cover the whole spectrum. Just on the street leading to the metro station there were four - Himalaya, Spectica, Titan Eye+ and Lenskart. 

Thanks to that experience at Kolkata, I skipped Himalaya Opticals and headed first to Spectica. I had been to Spectica earlier and had found them to be a local business run by an elderly, avuncular gentleman. It is the kind of neighborhood shop that sends you New Year greetings, where the owner sits at a counter by the door with the fragrance of puja-agarbatti wafting all around. 

Today they were saving on the air-conditioning. At a tiny room on the first floor the saleman patiently explained available options: Frames starting from INR790, two broad options for lenses - CR39 and Polycarbonate (PC) - in three brands (R?, Trio, Crisal) with 
prices ranging from INR1450 to INR4100+. The prices of PC lenses were about 50% higher 
than CR39 which it seems were also less durable.

The Titan Eye+ was fancy and spacious. A Tata brand had keep up some standards -  brightly lit walls and shelves lined with frames, lens promos all over and lots of staff in blue uniforms. The gound floor was was only for shades and branded sunglasses while the basement was for prescription glasses, with an optermetrist on stand-by. 

For all the investment that had gone into Eye+ the shop did not offer many choices. Even those that were available seemed rather expensive compared to Spectica - a wire-frame that cost INR790 was priced here at INR3200! Of course they gave me the usual spiel about 'real titanium' and 'top quality'.

I got my eyes tested. The optermetrist examined my eyes through an Autorefractor through which I saw a colorful air baloon turn from a blur into sharp focus, and within a few minutes a print emerged from the machine with the test results - a confirmation that I had a near-vision problem as well. Now came the bit about lenses. Over here, CR39 with a narrow 'corridor' was priced at INR4750/lens and a one at INR8750/lens. PC lenses were about 50% more expensive and if I were to choose Crisal lenses they cost much more than the Eye+ brand. So, at the very least, it would cost about INR12,000 to get one pair of glasses. If you had deeper pockets you could opt for a custom made lens that would cost over INR29,000. Not my cup of tea.

Final stop: Lenskart. Located a few meters away from Eye+ this outlet was much smaller but the space was designed much better - plenty of choices with additional options shown on tabs, and a better equipped optermetrist. Unlike Spectica and Eye+ this place was also teeming with customers, most of whom had come here after checking out the Lenskart website. Also unlike any of the outlets I had seen so far the staff was better trained - much better on customer focus, with excellent coordination within the team.  

I was guided through available options, and to my delight they had quite a range within my budget and a "buy one, get one" option to boot. I selected two pairs and headed for my second eye-test of the day. Surprisingly, the autorefractor here gave a different set of readings though it did reconfirm that I needed bifocals/progressives. Now came the second surprise - the cost of two pairs of spectacles, one with progressive lenses (Kodak, wide transition) and the other one PC (Tokai Lutina), was less than the cost of a single pair at Eye+!

Lenskart did leave me puzzled though with items in the final bill. It had listed a 'Gold Membership'  fees (I never asked for one) for INR500 which was cancelled out by a 'Gift Voucher' of the same amount. It also takes much longer to deliver - the bills says 14 days but the sales team said it would arrive within a week.

On the whole Lenskart seemed to offer much better 'customer experience' and value for money, compared to its main competitor Titan Eye+ as well as the local opticals. Now lets see if the quality of the final products lives up to expectations... 


* (9Dec17) - Lenskart news - 
* Machines with the Optermetrist 
* EndMyopia on CR39 lenses -