Trend setter in Modern Retail – Kumar De Silva, COO of SPAR Sri Lanka

Hailing from St Peter’s College Colombo, Kumar De Silva, the Chief Operating Officer of SPAR Sri Lanka, has a passion for the Food Industry, and his experience and exposure in the Hospitality industry has greatly aided him and SPAR, like quality food, both ‘Ready-to-Eat’ and ‘Grab & Go’, is one of their key offerings to their customers. He tends to appreciate the range and research on what can be done in this space given that consumers are now looking for convenience and food on the go, with busy schedules. He believes in quality and consistency because customers will only return if they are satisfied, and the staff only has one chance to get it right – “Get it right the first time” is his philosophy. To our advantage SPAR staff are extremely passionate in what they do which is one of our SPAR values”.

Having gained his MBA in London, Kumar embarked on his Retail journey in one of the largest conglomerates in Sri Lanka. There he gained 14 years of significant exposure and experience, having played key roles in the organization such as Head of Operations and Category Management, having specialized in the function covering range/space management and pioneering retail planograms with software-driven solutions in-store, and as COO of the organization, mastering customer decisions in-store, thereby optimizing returns to both retailer and brand owners whilst satisfying customer needs.

Kumar’s love for the Food industry prompted him to join Fonterra, one of the world’s largest dairy exporters based in New Zealand, as Associate Director of Fonterra Brands Lanka, providing leadership to the Foodservice Division for Sri Lanka and the Indian subcontinent. He was instrumental in launching the brand in new markets such as India and Pakistan whilst also driving the Fonterra business in Mauritius, Maldives, and Seychelles, in both consumer and Foodservice businesses.

Speaking about the ‘Ready-to-Eat’ concept at supermarkets, Kumar refers to it as an opportunity to attract and retain customers. With SPAR present in 48 countries, there is a huge knowledge and experience pool that can be used and adapted to the local needs.  “The price plays a major role when selling Ready-to-Eat food in supermarkets as it isn’t a 5-star hotel. Hygiene and high-quality ingredients are equally important, and this influences the customer’s decision. Given the abundance of options available to customers, it is critical to stay ahead of their needs and trends at all times. Consumers are more concerned than ever before about the ingredients, how and where they are sourced, and what materials are used for packaging.

Explaining how the Consumer Goods and Retail industry fared in the year 2020, Kumar stated, “The first quarter of 2020 was flat, however with the impact of COVID-19 commencing the second quarter, there was an initial growth with panic buying and then a temporary dip that was corrected with online and other modes of grocery delivery to households, overall, there was a growth in 2020 with consumers purchasing their daily needs and being prepared for any unexpected situations.

“There was a cautious buying trend. It was evident in our product mix sold during challenging times; consumers did spend more on basics. However, there was a trend of consumers visiting supermarkets to purchase items other than the essentials that were not available through home delivery options.”

Moreover, the industry expert stated that it became absolutely necessary to switch their business model online during the period. “As we discovered that switching to online and WhatsApp orders was absolutely necessary to cater to our consumers, which was a challenge because we had to have a platform done in 2-3 days because we didn’t have an online solution at the time. However, despite having no prior experience in this space, we rose to the challenge immediately and adapted the business accordingly.”

With Sri Lanka’s high dependency on imported goods and a weak domestic economic growth during periods immediately preceding the COVID-19 crisis, the challenges posed by the global pandemic are manifold. Adding to the same, Kumar said that import restrictions have had an impact on SPAR’s range and options for consumers. “However, this has increased the number of opportunities for local manufacturers and entrepreneurs to innovate and enter this space. Many local entrepreneurs approached us and SPAR has supported them and will continue to do so.” This also aligns well with our strategic intent of SPAR Sri Lanka which is to support small and medium modern trade operators.

When questioned about hypermarkets in Sri Lanka, Kumar mentioned, “Hypermarkets exist, albeit not on the scale of other countries; however, given the market size and investment required, such models may be limited to key cities only. Hypermarkets must provide a broader range of products as well as enough activity and space to be considered a “destination” to drive to. Due to the scarcity of space in major cities, this could also be located in suburbs.”

In conclusion, the COO affirmed that ‘business agility will be critical for any organization in the future, particularly in the Retail industry, where consumer behavior is changing. SPAR will continue to differentiate their stores and provide a range of products that cater to all segments of customers – from basic commodity products at great prices to unique/gourmet products, warm friendly staff, quality fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, and meats including Ready-to-Eat and Grab & Go bakery and hot food – for which reasons a customer would prefer SPAR over others.

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