Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) is India’s largest Fast Moving Consumer Goods company, touching two out of three Indians with their large brand portfolio. HUL’s products are household names across the country and span a host of categories such as soaps, detergents, personal products, tea, coffee, ice cream, and culinary products. Today, there are over 7.7 million retail outlets in India with an average of 6.8 stores per thousand people – the highest store density in the world.

To maintain their market leadership, HUL pursues innovative distribution mechanisms to reach the millions of potential consumers in both urban areas and small remote villages where there is no retail distribution network, no advertising coverage, and poor roads and transport. HUL realized from the onset that its sales and distribution network gave it an edge over the competition, but that rivals would try to match it over time. To maintain their competitive advantage, HUL has aggressively extended more deeply in India, moving from large to small towns, and from urban to semi-urban areas.

The unorganized and scattered character of markets in India means sales and distribution requires a different tactic from that of more developed economies. Like Coca-Cola, HUL knew it needed to tailor its approach for the different markets.

Key Takeaway

Keep your pulse on where your customers are purchasing your products through regular market surveys. Design your distribution strategy to allow for future evolution as the market changes.

Modern Trade

Modern trade, or retail chains, is characterized by standardized store formats, air-conditioned ambiance, and a variety of goods and typically lower pricing. Global retail chains such as Walmart and Carrefour fall under this category. In India, modern trade comprises roughly 10% of all commercial transactions and is growing rapidly.

In the past, HUL’s sales forces were separated by geographies and product categories. However, this organizational structure was ill equipped to manage modern trade, as one regional team negotiating the terms of trade with an individual franchisee of a national retail chain could never be as effective as HUL entering a long-term comprehensive contract spanning all product categories and outlets of the retail chain. Today, HUL has specific account managers dedicated to large modern trade customers.

General trade

General trade consists of the thousands of independent retail and wholesale outlets across the country. Often called “mom and pop” shops, each of these stores is considered a distinct customer and has to be addressed individually. HUL services these outlets through a network of 2,900 stockists. Goods are sent to a local warehouse or carrying and forwarding agent (CFA), and are then stocked and dispatched to specific retailers upon orders from the HUL stockists. The stockists are responsible for servicing all the small retail outlets in a specific geographic area. General trade makes up the majority of HUL’s sales.

Rural Markets

While general trade encompasses both urban and rural markets, serving customers in more remote areas of India poses unique challenges. Rural markets are scattered over large areas with low per capita consumption rates. While the aggregate potential of rural markets is large, the potential of each of the 600+ dispersed markets is very low. As well, rural markets are not connected to urban centers by air or rail, with road connectivity poor at best. Accessing these markets, even when feasible, means additional logistics costs to HUL.

Despite the roadblocks, conquering the rural markets is a must for HUL. One out of every eight people on this planet lives in an Indian village. In comparison to the urban market, which consists of roughly 250 million people, the rural market is 775 million people across 638,000 villages. Within ten years, per household consumption in rural India is forecasted to equal today’s urban levels.

To penetrate the rural markets, HUL launched a unique four tier distribution system. Markets were segmented based on their accessibility and business potential.

  1. Direct Coverage: HUL appointed a common stockist to service all outlets within a town and sell a limited selection of the brand portfolio. Towns consisted of populations of under 50,000 people.
  2. Indirect Coverage: HUL targeted retailers in accessible villages close to larger urban markets. Retail stockists were assigned a permanent route to ensure that all accessible villages in the vicinity were served at least once a fortnight.
  3. Streamline: Streamline leveraged the rural wholesale channel to reach markets inaccessible by road. Star Sellers were appointed among wholesalers in a particular village. Star Sellers would purchase stock from a local distributor and then distribute stock to retailers in smaller villages using local means of transport (e.g. motorcycles, rickshaws).

4. Project Shakti: Project Shakti targeted the very small villages (<2,000) and tapped into pre-existing women’s self help groups (SHG). Underprivileged rural women were invited to become direct-to-consumer sales distributors for HUL products. Termed Shakti Ammas (literally “strength mothers”), these women represent HUL and sell its home-care, health, and hygiene products in their villages.

By the end of 2009, Project Shakti network comprised of 45,000 Shakti Ammas covering 100,000 villages across 15 states in the country, cumulatively reaching over 3 million households every month. Unilever has replicated Project Shakti’s success in other markets such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

End Notes

Barnard, Mark. Winning with Customers in Asia.  http://www.unilever.com/images/ir_Winning%20with%20Customers%20in%20Asia%20Africa_tcm13-114531.pdf

Hindustan Unilever Limited. Factsheet. http://www.hul.co.in/Images/HULFactsheet_tcm114-188694.pdf

Hindustan Unilever Limited. Investor Presentation, June 2010. http://www.hul.co.in/Images/HUL_MorganStanleyJune2010_tcm114-219373.pdf

Rangan, V. Kasturi and Rohithari Rajan. Unilever in India: Hindustan Lever’s Project Shakti – Marketing FMCG to the Rural Consumer. Harvard Business School Publishing 9-595-056 (27 June 2007).

Singh, Ashish, Booker, Mike and Sandeep Barasia. India: Strategies for consumer goods. Bain & Company (2009). http://www.bain.com/bainweb/PDFs/cms/Public/BB_India_strategies_for_consumer_goods.pdf

Srinivasan, S. Hindustan Unilever Limited: Investor Presentation ICICI India Unlimited Investor Conference. http://www.hul.co.in/Images/ICICIIndiaUnlimitedConference2008_tcm114-136595.pdf

Unilever website. India: Creating rural entrepreneurs. http://www.unilever.com/sustainability/casestudies/economic-development/creating-rural-entrepreneurs.aspx


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