India’s Reliance has ruthless Retail ambitions

Hurrying out of a Reliance grocery store, travel company clerk Pallavi Savand reaches for her mobile phone, running on Reliance’s Jio network. Back at home, she will flip open a laptop bought from Reliance Digital. Soon she might wear Reliance — she is planning her first visit to a cut-price Reliance Trends fashion store.

Billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s oil-to-data conglomerate Reliance Industries, India’s biggest single listed company by market capitalisation, profits most from its refinery, the world’s largest. But Reliance wants to embed itself in India’s towns and cities by dominating the $800bn retail market as well, from partnerships with luxury fashion houses like Balenciaga to acquiring a Coca-Cola copycat.

Despite being India’s biggest retailer by revenues, Reliance’s 16-year-old shopping unit has often been overlooked, as Ambani’s Jio mobile network stole the limelight in transforming India’s data landscape. However, it has come into focus as Ambani plots his succession, saying he wants to spin out Retail and Jio and allot their leadership to his eldest children, twins Isha and Akash.

Akash was made Jio’s chair in June and while Isha has not been elevated to the same level, a person close to the company described her role as “pivotal”, saying she was the overall head for Retail and involved in decision-making throughout the business.

Taking advantage of restrictions that hamper foreign companies’ ability to compete in India’s fragmented retail sector, still largely made up of mom and pop shops, Reliance is expanding its shopping empire at a rate of seven stores a day, using acquisitions to accelerate growth and investing around $3.6bn last financial year. It has 16,000 stores across India, while online purchases contribute 17 per cent of revenues, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

Reliance’s “starting premise is that ‘100 per cent of the market should be mine’,” said Arvind Singhal, chair of Gurugram-headquartered business consultancy Technopak Advisors. “I don’t know a single company in the world which actually has this kind of a thought process, that ‘I want everything’”.

Ambani is ploughing ahead as investor enthusiasm for the company has cooled. Its share price has fallen nearly 8 per cent from an April high of about Rs2,820, to around Rs2,600 this week.

Reporting results in late October, Ambani hailed a “record performance” for the group’s retail unit as shoppers returned to stores after coronavirus-related lockdowns ended. This contrasted with a weaker showing by the oil-to-chemicals business.

India’s tycoons have long ventured into consumer businesses, from the Tata family, once best known for steel and now also boasting jewellery stores and a joint venture with Starbucks, to industrialists like Aditya Birla, whose conglomerate includes a large fashion business.

Reliance, however, has aimed to control entire supply chains, all the way from the petrochemicals in the fibres it uses to produce textiles. “The ethos of the group is dominance,” said Devangshu Dutta, founder of Gurgaon-headquartered retail consultancy Third Eyesight. “Unless other businesses step up to the plate, their dominance is a foregone conclusion.”

In its latest potential acquisition, Retail has reportedly bid $500mn for German wholesaler Metro’s Indian business. Indian rules allow foreign companies to own 100 per cent of a cash and carry business, but only if they do not sell directly to consumers. Reliance, by contrast, could unlock value by extending the business to sell direct to shoppers through Metro’s 31 distribution centres, said a person familiar with the company’s thinking.

Reliance has also announced it will launch its own fast-moving consumer goods company by the end of this year. The person close to the company said it would look to acquire brands to build the business, akin to its August deal for Campa, a nostalgic Indian fizzy drink, as well as exploring licensing and joint ventures.

While its ecommerce business JioMart has recently tied up with WhatsApp, owned by Reliance investor Meta, to increase its online reach, Reliance further boosted its physical shop space this year. It swooped to thwart potential foreign competitor Amazon in a battle over failing shopping group Future Retail.

Reliance Retail recorded quarterly revenue of around $8bn for the three months ending September 30, earning a net profit of $283mn, a 36 per cent increase year-on-year.

Those numbers are modest compared with Reliance’s enormous oil-to-chemicals unit, which had revenues of $18bn. But the refiner’s earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation declined 5.9 per cent year-on-year to $1.5bn, after taking a $493mn hit from a windfall tax. Meanwhile, its joint venture with BP made lower profits because of the government’s cap on retail fuel prices, even as the product’s cost shot up.

Reliance Retail declined to comment for this story.

Back at Reliance’s grocery story in Mumbai, Pallavi, 37, says she visits to buy basics like food and detergents twice a week. It is close enough to her office that she can pop in on breaks and, she added, “the discounts are huge”.

Additional reporting by Andrea Rodrigues in Mumbai

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