In conversation with Imtiaz Abbasi, MD, Imtiaz Super Market.
AYESHA SHAIKH: When did Imtiaz’s journey start?
IMTIAZ ABBASI: Our story began in 1955. My father opened a kiryana store which was tucked away in an obscure lane in Bahadurabad. In 1978, I made a trip to Singapore and I came across the Al-Mustafa Store, which was one of the largest retail chains there; I was so impressed with their business model that I decided to replicate it for Imtiaz. On my return, we began adding more product categories to our existing assortment and thanks to the favourable customer response, after a few years, we bought the adjoining shops to expand the set-up.
AS: From a small kiryana store to Imtiaz superstores today, what underpinned this transformation?
IA: The one complaint from our customers was that our Bahadurabad store was too congested. On weekends, and in particular during the first 10 days of the month, the store would become extremely crowded. My vision was that all new outlets should have a larger covered area so we could stock more products, while leaving enough room for people to move around comfortably. What drove the creation of the department store format was the fact that customers were on the lookout for one-stop shopping solutions. When Imtiaz first started, shopping for groceries was about buying maheenay ka rashan – rice, flour, sugar, salt, cooking oil and spices. Today, this kind of shopping is not considered a chore anymore; rather, it is seen as a fun, family outing. The retail experience today is about convenience, variety, quality and affordability.
AS: Who is your primary target audience?
IA: The largest chunk of our business comes from the middle-income segment. However, since Imtiaz maintains an economy pricing strategy, our products are affordable for everyone. Discerning customers appreciate the breadth of quality brands they can choose from, while others enjoy the shopping experience.
"When Imtiaz first started, shopping for groceries was about buying maheenay ka rashan – rice, flour, sugar, salt, cooking oil and spices. Today, this kind of shopping is not considered a chore anymore; rather, it is seen as a fun, family outing."
AS: Imtiaz superstores always seem to be packed. What do you attribute this to?
IA: Providing quality products that are easy on the wallet is our hallmark. I consider this, along with exceptional customer service, to be the core reasons behind our success. In my experience, when it comes to retail, particularly groceries, people are looking for convenience, variety, quality and affordability. Although they are aware of international brands and willing to pay more, they expect value for their money, and that is our USP. Retailers that follow a premium pricing strategy will always have a limited customer footfall.
AS: How are you able to sustain economy pricing?
IA: Due to our sales volumes, we are able to buy in bulk and this gives us a cost edge over retailers with smaller set-ups who lack the cash flow to spend in lump sums on procurement. Furthermore, because we have our own rice and flourmills, as well as an extensive in-house spice grinding, cleaning and packaging facility, we are able to provide these staple commodities at substantially lower prices than the market average. Also, a principle I have followed throughout my five-decade retail journey is to give back 30% of the profits we earn to our customers in the form of discounts, giveaways and gifts. There have been times when prices were not increased in line with market trends and our profit margins took a hit. However, in the long run, this has given us an extremely loyal customer base.
"A principle I have followed throughout my five-decade retail journey is to give back 30% of the profits we earn to our customers in the form of discounts, giveaways and gifts."
AS: In addition to quality and affordability, how else are customers facilitated?
IA: A differentiating factor remains our door-to-door delivery service. We started this in the 50s and it continues to date. Initially, it was a cycle rickshaw operation (my first job was driving one of them to deliver groceries); this has now evolved into a sophisticated set-up that services thousands of households across Karachi. People place orders over the phone, email or during in-person visits to our stores. The idea is to facilitate customers by saving them the time and hassle of physically visiting an outlet, spending time searching for products and standing in a queue to make the payment. Instead, once an order has been placed, the items on the list are put together, packed and handed over to the delivery department, which ships them and collects payment on delivery. This is a service that kiryana shops like Imtiaz traditionally offered. Every neighbourhood grocery store maintained a list of monthly groceries for each household and at the designated date, the delivery would be made and payment collected. I wanted to ensure that no amount of expansion would take away this personalised service model that people associated with Imtiaz. In this regard, a competent and skilled workforce is at the heart of our operations.
AS: How large is the workforce?
IA: Initially, it was just a handful of people. However, as our retail footprint expanded with the opening of new stores in Awami Markaz, DHA, Nazimabad and Gulshan-e-Iqbal in Karachi, and in 2017, in Faisalabad and Gujranwala, Imtiaz’s employee base increased manifold and currently stands at about 8,300 people.
AS: Are there any institutions in Pakistan that offer retail training courses and certifications to equip people with the skills required to work in this sector?
IA: Unfortunately, there is a severe lack of educational and training facilities where people can acquire the competencies vital for working in retail, and by default the responsibility of training falls on the retailers. We screen and recruit applicants who are the closest match to the vacancies we want to fill; after this they undergo weeks, sometimes months, of training before they are put on the floor. Product knowledge, shelf displays and customer handling are the core areas of focus during the training.
AS: What is the future of retail in Pakistan in terms of challenges and opportunities?
IA: Lack of government support and the absence of an enabling business environment are the greatest challenges that have prevented the sector to grow to the extent it should have. However, the retail growth experienced in the last few years will continue because Pakistan has a huge, untapped retail market. What is more is that the burst of activity in retail has triggered increased production in the manufacturing sector because more retail spaces require more products to fill them. This has boosted employment and the purchasing power of people. As Pakistanis spend more on food, clothes, home appliances and lifestyle solutions, more cash will flow into the retail industry, making it a win-win situation. An important area of opportunity will be extending Imtiaz’s presence into the digital space because brick-and-mortar stores are no longer sufficient. Consumer lifestyles and purchase patterns are changing and more people are relying on e-commerce because of the hassle-free shopping experience that it offers.
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