But Indian consumers won't be able to partake of Wal-Mart's everyday low prices. India's restrictive commercial laws prohibit most foreign companies from setting up shop to compete with domestic retailers. So Wal-Mart's debut outlet, which will open in the city of Amritsar in northern India later this month, is a wholesale-only operation that will sell mainly to vegetable vendors, hospitals, hotels, restaurants and other companies. The Amritsar outlet won't even carry the familiar Wal-Mart brand. To deflect the attention of politicians and activists who oppose the entry of foreign multi-brand retailers, the Bentonville, Ark., company has named its Indian outlets BestPrice Modern Wholesale. (See pictures of a company making biodegradeable dishes in India.)
Despite the stealth approach, industry experts expect Wal-Mart, known for squeezing efficiencies out of suppliers and supply chains, to have an impact on India's $375 billion retail market, which is dominated by mom-and-pop businesses and outmoded distribution networks. "We can learn the science of retailing, how to build scale and efficiencies," says Kishore Biyani, chairman of Pantaloon Retail, India's largest homegrown retailer with 114 hypermarkets.
The world's largest retailer isn't new to India. For the past decade, the country has been an important Wal-Mart supplier of textiles, apparel, home products and jewelry. But in anticipation of its India launch, Wal-Mart for the last three years has been developing a network of suppliers to stock its stores with fresh produce and staples like lentils, wheat and rice all with an appreciation for variations in local cultures and tastes. "India is not a homogenous market, so ours is not a cookie-cutter approach from the U.S.," says Raj Jain, president of Wal-Mart India.
Its wholesale operations in India are under a joint venture with New Delhi-based Bharti Enterprises. The U.S. company's retail presence is restricted to providing back-end support for Bharti's chain of 25 Easy Day grocery stores that opened last year. (Read how Microsoft is following in Wal-Mart's footsteps.)
Although other foreign hypermarket chains are entering the country British retail group Tesco has a joint venture with India's giant Tata conglomerate, while France's Carrefour is said to be in talks with Reliance Jain says Wal-Mart is in no hurry to unfurl the Wal-Mart flag nationally. "The easiest thing is to roll out stores, but the most difficult is to sustain and feed them," he says.
Indeed, Indian mass-merchandisers over the last several years expanded frenetically, trying to get a jump on foreign chains should Indian politicians eventually decide to open up the market to direct competition from overseas. Reliance Industries built 940 stores across the country in 18 months. Aditya Birla group has opened 548 stores since 2007. Today, with India's economy slowing and with losses piling up, the domestic retailers have shut some outlets and laid off employees, partly because of difficulties in keeping large chains supplied with goods. "When you start opening stores and then work backwards, even we get scared," says Mahadeo Pawar, a vegetable grower from Karjat, 31 miles (50 kms) north of Mumbai.
Caution in India may be a watchword considering the global recession and Wal-Mart's blemished track record overseas. In 2006, the company pulled out of Germany and South Korea in the face of stiff competition and poor sales. Still, Wal-Mart has been weathering the economic crisis better than most. The company on May 14 announced it earned $3.02 billion in the three months ended April 30, about equal to the profit it made in the same period in 2008. Revenue fell 0.6% to $93.47 billion from $94.04 billion a year earlier. Highlighting the growing importance of markets such as India, nearly one-fourth of Wal-Mart's sales for the quarter 22.7% came from its international division.