I am one of the people who grew up knowing People’s Trading Centre (PTC)—with its brand promise ‘We Try Harder’—and Kandodo as the only self-service supermarket outlets in Malawi.
The dawn of economic liberalisation in the 1990s brought on board the likes of Chitawira Superette and Iponga before South African giant retailer Shoprite joined the fray at the turn of the millennium and redefined shopping. Since then, there have been a variety of supermarkets in the country with Chipiku Plus, Sana and many others.
Kandodo closed shop with the fall of its parent company Import & Export that also owned Chipiku Stores as a wholesale outlet. PTC, a subsidiary of conglomerate Press Corporation Limited (PCL), limped on and survived the storm that came with economic liberalisation.
With time, PTC rebranded to ‘Peoples’. However, it is one thing to change a name and a different ball game altogether to change a business model. What’s in a name anyway?
Despite changing its name and automating pay points, there are several areas where Peoples shops have failed to entice today’s trendy customers. Personally, I still see Peoples shops retaining the “grocery shop” mentality in terms of merchandise display. There is simply no ambience in Peoples shops. The environment is mediocre, dull with below par noisy radios blaring in-store.
In some cases, I have wondered whether Peoples undertakes market research before opening a shop. This is why I was not surprised to learn that the PCL baby is closing 20 of its 85 shops nationwide due to poor performance that was negatively impacting on the company’s profits.
However, I am surprised with some of the shops they closed such as Ntcheu, Luchenza in Thyolo, Ekwendeni in Mzimba and Monkey Bay in Mangochi. In major urban centres, Peoples faces stiff competition from more customer-oriented supermarkets, but if the brand can still fail to tick in areas such as the ones highlighted above, where they literally compete with “corner shops”, then the problem is bigger.
Back to whether Peoples undertakes market research before opening shops. In 2014, I questioned Peoples management’s rationale in opening a shop along the Masauko Chipembere Highway at Maselema in Blantyre, a stone’s throw away from its other existing outlet. The new shop was hardly patronised and was closed faster than it was opened.
Peoples needs to go back to the drawing board regarding its business strategy. Such a review should start with computerising its stock for ease of accountability. Perhaps this would provide a clue to the losses whose “cause could not be identified” as PCL group chief executive officer Matthews Chikaonda wrote in the PCL 2014 Annual Report on PTC performance.
Product display and general outlook in Peoples shops, including hygiene (ukhondo) to clear those rats, is another area worth addressing if the shops are to be attractive.
Many times I meet some top managers of PCL and PTC itself happily pushing trolleys in rival shops such as Chipiku Plus at Ginnery Corner in Blantyre. They should use their shopping errands to gather market intelligence, what is it that their rival is doing better, where are they failing and what customers like in those shops that Peoples does not offer?
Much as the top managers of PCL and PTC have a right to shop where they want other than Peoples outlets, it does not send good signals. In fact, very few people would trust a chef that does not eat what s/he prepares.
During a news conference announcing the closure of the shops, PTC chief executive officer Ken Mthunzi said Peoples will open shops it believes will give easy access to customers in more strategic areas and giving customers services they have never obtained before. Really? Did the company have to wait for a loss to realise some shops were not strategically located?
Peoples should reposition itself to a modern supermarket brand, not a sole-trader owned township minishop, in ambience and service.
PCL has in its corporate logo a fish eagle, that majestic bird that takes advantage of its environment. When there is a storm, the fish eagle is always focused and uses the turbulence to gain greater height. Peoples should learn from the spirit of the fish eagle.