In a landmark judgement, the Delhi High Court set aside the Singapore Tribunal’s decision to put on hold the acquisition of The Future Group’s retail business by Reliance Retail, as pleaded by Amazon. In a hotly contested three way battle – with the world’s largest retail company, Amazon, India’s largest company, the Reliance Group and India’s once upon a time pioneer of modern retail, The Future Group, the cases against one another have been going on for a year now.
In 2019, Amazon had acquired a 10% stake in one of the companies owned by the Future Group , viz., Future Coupons. In early 2021, Reliance Retail announced that it would be acquiring all retail formats of the Future Group in what was seen as a last option for the ailing retailer which was omnipresent in almost all retail formats, setting the retail expansion on fire since the early 2000s. The company was in deep debt and was sure to overcome the same, however, the Covid-19 virus dealt a severe blow to it’s recovery leading to a mass exodus of top talent, while also accruing huge payables to lenders, including Banks and private investors. That’s when Reliance decided to bail out Future.
However, Amazon has been setting a deeper business plan in India for the past 6-7 years, which it sees as among the top 5 consumer markets globally in a decade for itself. It had decided to crash the party by taking Reliance & Future to Court, saying that the acquisition violated one of the terms of the agreement with Future, that it’s consent must be taken for such an act to be performed. The rest, as they say, has been unfolding in front of us for the past several months. Instead of going to Indian courts, Amazon chose the Singapore based Court of International Arbitration which decided in favour of the US Company. The Future Group decided to appeal against the order in Indian Courts and today’s judgement has come as a sigh of relief to the company as well as and most importantly to its Lenders as they are hoping for an immediate financial resolution by the new owner, Reliance Group.
A two-judge bench led by Chief Justice D. N. Patel of the Delhi High Court agreed with Future’s arguments, putting the arbitration proceedings on hold. If the proceedings are not halted, Justice Patel said this would cause an “irreparable loss” to Future. “We hereby stay further proceedings of arbitral tribunal till next date of hearing,” said Patel, adding the court will reconvene on Feb. 1 to hear the case again.
That Amazon and Reliance would be the last 2 standing in the USD 850 billion retail market in India is no surprise. The world’s largest offline retailer, Walmart had earlier acquired Flipkart, the e-commerce company in 2015 for a whopping USD 7 bn but couldn’t manage to grow the offline business which it entered in a JV with the Bharti Group well over a decade ago. Airtel Telecom owner Bharti Retail exited all retail formats and sold the small formats business to The Future Group while the large format Best Price Retail Hypermarkets were retailed by Walmart, which is currently being powered by Flipkart in an interesting omni-channel approach. On the other hand, Reliance Retail whose non-fuel retail business alone tallies over Rs. 48,000 Cr pa is preparing for a similar, but a three-pronged approach through it’s Jio Super app connecting Brands & Manufacturers with Wholesalers as well as Customers directly.
It is to be waited and seen if Amazon will further approach the top Indian court or shall let the matter pass by, even as Reliance Retail is getting ready for some tough competition right from the neighbourhood chawls all the way up to the upper echelons of the country’s who’s who who seem to have chosen shopping online as a preferred option than visiting offline stores, in a growing trend due to the dreaded Coronavirus as well as a systemic change in shopping behaviour.