IT IS a quiet morning on the outskirts of Mumbai, the air still mild. Dusty streets are dappled with sunlight, a stray dog rummages through some rubbish, the shutters are lifted on a few tiny shops. A man pushes a cart bearing a pyramid of oranges. And a delivery boy named Anil is already racing along his route on a motor bike borrowed from his uncle, his delivery backpack as large as he is. He has been up for hours, planning his route and carefully filling his bag with the packages to be dropped off first stacked near the top.
Anil enters a block of flats, squeezes his backpack into a narrow lift and delivers a shirt to a 21-year-old taxi driver. In a neighbouring tower he hands a smartphone case to a 16-year-old who uses several apps to do the shopping for his family. A short ride away, a 78-year-old grandmother is a particularly pleased customer—with help from her grandson, she has bought some clay pickling jars that she couldn’t find elsewhere and some high-quality saris at a knock-down price. For Anil, it is gruelling work. But he is betting that e-commerce in India has nowhere to go but up, and he wants to ride up with it.
In the next 15 years India will see more people come online than any other country. Last year e-commerce sales were about $16 billion; by 2020, according to Morgan Stanley, a bank, the online retail market could be more than seven times larger. Such sales are expected to grow faster in India than in any other market. This has attracted a flood of investment in e-commerce firms, the impact of which may go far beyond just displacing offline retail.
India’s small businesses have limited access to loans; most of its consumers do not have credit cards, or for that matter credit. The e-commerce companies are investing in logistics, helping merchants borrow and giving consumers new tools to pay for goods. Amit Agarwal, who runs Amazon.in, holds out the hope that “We could actually be a catalyst to transform India: how India buys, how India sells, and even transform lives.”
The jewel in the crown
Amazon wants to make India its second-biggest market, after America. For the time being, though, with just 12% of the market, it lags behind the home-grown successes, Flipkart (45%) and Snapdeal (26%). All three, as well as some smaller competitors, are spending at a blistering rate. As global markets dip and Silicon Valley unicorns stumble, the international funding that makes this possible may dry up. Doubts about the sustainability of the companies’ present plans were underlined when, on February 26th, one of Morgan Stanley’s mutual funds marked down the value of its stake in Flipkart by 27%. If the prospect of changing India a billion deliveries at a time is a beguiling one, it is not for the faint-hearted.
India’s visionaries keep their spirits up by remembering the example of China. Chinese e-commerce grew by nearly 600% between 2010 and 2014, making the country the biggest e-commerce market in the world today. It managed this largely through the growth of indigenous companies: mighty Amazon merely nips at the heels of home-grown giants Alibaba and JD.com; eBay has all but left the stage. And in the process China’s top e-commerce firms came to offer an astonishing range of services.
Alibaba, founded by Jack Ma in 1999 and now valued at $184 billion, provides the best illustration. To calm anxieties about buying online Alibaba created Alipay, which holds a shopper’s payment in escrow until he receives his order. The tool has evolved into a financial-services company, Ant Financial, which last year serviced more than 400m Alipay accounts and made over 2m loans to small businesses and entrepreneurs. To provide Chinese consumers with access to foreign goods the firm’s services include not just online listings but marketing, shipping and help with customs.
Alibaba is now building service centres in remote areas where shoppers can order, pick up and sell goods, as well as pay their bills. It is a further step in its attempts not merely to benefit from the growth in Chinese consumption, but to shape and accelerate it. The degree to which it has succeeded suggests that the earlier an e-commerce company arrives in a country’s development, the wider its role might be.
India is in many ways a tougher market for e-commerce than China. Its population is poorer and its infrastructure worse. But its prospects look remarkable. Income per person, which in 2014 was $1,570, could be twice that by 2025. Two-thirds of Indians are younger than 35, and their phones give a huge number of them access to the internet. In December 2014 smartphones accounted for one in five Indian mobiles, according to Goldman Sachs. Just six months later, they accounted for one in four (see chart 1). Morgan Stanley expects internet penetration to rise from 32% in 2015 to 59% in 2020. By 2030, India is projected to be a one-billion-person digital market.
The prospect of a second market growing to a near-Chinese size attracts those who made a packet the first time round. Bob van Dijk, the chief executive of Naspers, a South African firm that backed JD.com and Tencent, China’s largest social-media company, says he looks for countries with big populations, rising smartphone use and few retail chains. India, where malls, supermarkets and branded chains, or what analysts call “organised retail”, account for just 10% or so of the total market, fits the bill perfectly.
Naspers owns a 17% stake in Flipkart; other JD.com investors, including Tiger Global Management, in New York, and DST Global, a Russian fund, have also backed the company. Japan’s SoftBank, a big investor in Alibaba, has backed Snapdeal since 2013, and Alibaba itself followed suit last August. Meanwhile Alibaba’s Ant Financial owns a 20% stake in India’s Paytm, which began as a mobile-wallet company and now competes with Snapdeal and Flipkart as an online marketplace. The three firms have a combined valuation of almost $25 billion.
In contrast to those investors trying to recapitulate their Chinese success, Amazon is seeking to make up for its failure. Reduced last year to the ignominy of having to open a shop on Alibaba’s Tmall site, Jeff Bezos is determined that this time, with more experience and in a more open market, things will be different.
When Flipkart was founded, in 2007, Amazon was obviously its model. The company began as a bookseller; the two engineers who started it, Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal (not related), had worked for Amazon. Mr Bezos, though, is of the opinion that if anyone if going to be the Amazon of India, it should be Amazon. In 2014, shortly after Flipkart announced a $1 billion round of funding, Mr Bezos donned Indian clothes in Bangalore, hopped aboard a rainbow-coloured truck and handed Mr Agarwal a $2 billion cheque. A firm which earned over $100 billion in 2015 and has shareholders content to see more or less nothing by way of profits can afford such largesse.
Neither Flipkart, Amazon, nor any of the other big competitors are following the retail strategy that led to Amazon’s success in the West. Indian regulations bar foreign-backed e-commerce firms from owning inventory, and so acting as a straightforward retailer is not an option. As a result India’s top e-commerce companies look much more like Alibaba. Flipkart has become a marketplace where sellers offer everything from mobile phones to washing machines to handbags. Snapdeal, Amazon and Paytm run marketplaces too. The firms compete feverishly on price, offering discounts that chomp away their own margins. In the long term, they must differentiate themselves by honing services for sellers and shoppers alike, and offering a better, broader range of products to more Indians than would have them otherwise.
The first step to that goal is to boost the number of sellers on the company’s platform—it is the sellers, after all, who pay commissions and shipping fees. So companies offer a range of services to lure businesses to their sites. Flipkart’s programmes range from teaching sellers how to manage peak sales during diwali to advising fashion brands on trends and production. In February Amazon announced a travelling studio-on-wheels, offering training, photography and other services to help shop-owners come online.
But the most important help they offer is in easing access to credit. Small businesses, given their scarce financial statements and limited credit history, have long had trouble obtaining loans from India’s banks. They often rely on expensive loans from neighbours or family. The e-commerce companies have strong incentives to make them better offers—and because they have access to online-sales data they are in a privileged position from which to help lenders judge credit risk.
Take Sumit Agarwal (no relation to Amazon’s Mr Agarwal), a young entrepreneur who started an online shoe business in 2011. In his warehouse in New Delhi workers pack and scan shipments among towers of shoeboxes. The early days were uncertain; his family’s reaction when the firm started, he says, was “What the hell is this guy doing?” Now it is easier for such entrepreneurs to find the capital with which to grow. When Mr Agarwal logs into his seller’s account on Amazon.in his screen offers a column of short-term loans, their rates calculated using data from his transactions. Other e-commerce firms have similar schemes. In January Snapdeal announced that the State Bank of India would approve loans of up to $37,000 instantly if it liked the look of the data that Snapdeal provided on the borrower.
Once a site has sellers, the second challenge is to help consumers buy their wares. Anil carries a clunky credit-card reader with him on his rounds, but most people pay cash. The e-commerce sites want to change that. Paytm lets customers add money to a digital wallet that can then be used to shop online, top up a mobile phone, lend money to a friend, pay a bill or use a service such as an Uber taxi. It has 120m digital-wallet accounts, nearly six times India’s number of credit cards. Snapdeal bought its own mobile payments company in April. Amazon purchased an online-payments service in February.
A fine balance
If a consumer does buy a product, the next task is delivering it. Delivery itself is nothing new. Indians have long been able to have a delivery boy from the local kirana—the cornershops that dominate Indian retail—bring them a stick of butter. But being able to deliver on a larger scale is a challenge. The country’s mail service, India Post, is ill-equipped to wait while a shopper tries on a kurta and ponders returning it. So newcomers are building networks. But India’s traffic is hellish and its addresses vague.
A startup named Delhivery has hired more than 15,000 staff, from developers to executives poached from Facebook and posh consultancies. Its headquarters in Gurgaon are so packed that engineers spill onto an outdoor porch, tapping their keyboards furiously. Delhivery, which works with a number of e-commerce firms, is using machine learning to subdivide India’s postcodes, the better to map idiosyncratic descriptions. “We’ll know the house with the yellow door next to the temple,” says Sandeep Barasia, the managing director. The company moves goods to 700 or so small distribution centres overnight to avoid congested main roads during business hours. Thousands of delivery boys then dash to and from the distribution centres throughout the day, bearing more than 20 kilos on their bikes.
E-commerce companies are devising their own solutions, too. Some investments, such as warehouses, are straightforward. Others are less so. Flipkart last year began using Mumbai’s famous network of dabbawallas, or lunch-delivery men, to drop off packages when they picked up customers’ lunch tins. Amazon has a pilot programme that lets customers order groceries online and have them delivered from the nearest kirana.
Together, e-commerce firms say, these experiments could create a new truly national marketplace. Neelkanth Mishra of Credit Suisse, a bank, points out that road construction, electrification and mobile phones have stoked big increases in rural wages, and thus demand for goods (see chart 2). Flipkart says that about half its sales come from outside India’s big cities. Snapdeal claims more than 60%. It recently launched seven regional-language versions of its website.
As they build out their markets the firms trumpet their assistance to small businesses. “Some of the big sellers on Amazon only had a shop in a corner of Bangalore; they were happy selling to five kilometres around each shop,” declares Amazon’s Mr Agarwal. “Now they are shipping orders to Kashmir and eastern India.” Amazon is helping more than 6,000 Indian businesses export, as well. Snapdeal’s Kunal Bahl is equally expansive: “Our ambition is to be a great social, economic and geographic equaliser for the small businesses of India as they scale up.”
All these bold plans are clouded by two obstinate facts. First, spending on discounts, marketing campaigns and new hires means none of the companies has yet made money. Visit any firm’s lobby and you will meet herds of job applicants. Delivery boys like Anil are in hot demand—a top performer in his branch, he earns about 14,000 rupees ($200) each month.
Amazon is, predictably, outspending its competitors. Last year its sales were two-thirds the size of its losses. Mr Agarwal is not bothered by a lack of profit. “The priority is growth,” he explains. Ankit Nagori, Flipkart’s chief business officer, says that the most important metrics for his company are not margins but the number of new customers, how often they shop, how much they buy and the speed of delivery. “If you solve for these four things,” he contends, “then the top line and bottom line will fall in place.”
A billion deliveries more
The second problem is regulatory. Forbidding foreign-backed firms from owning inventory has costs. Companies have limited control over the quality of products on their sites, points out Morgan Stanley’s Parag Gupta, and they can do little to streamline the country’s fragmented supply chain. Flipkart has become a tangle of interlinked entities, including a holding company in Singapore, in an attempt to obey India’s rules while maximising profits.
India’s government may nonetheless come under protectionist pressure. Traditional retailers allege that the online marketplaces flout rules against foreign direct investment. Facebook’s recently scuttled plan to offer Indians free internet services, including its own, sparked a furore over the risks of “digital colonialism”.
Offline retailers are watching all this intently. Kiranas are relatively protected, thanks to meagre tax bills and limited carrying costs (they store little). Big shops and malls are another story (see chart 3). “What is remarkable for me is that in a very short time, e-commerce has become half of what the organised market is,” says Abheek Singhi of the Boston Consulting Group. “Two years down the line, three years down the line, the e-commerce market could be larger.”
Big foreign retailers—such as Ikea, a Swedish furniture company, which after years of kerfuffle may finally be opening an Indian store—cannot sell directly online. Matters are simpler for Indian retailers, but their course remains cloudy. Reliance Industries, a conglomerate with over 1m square metres of shop floor, is planning its own e-commerce venture. Future Group, which pioneered hypermarkets in the country, is outfitting small shop-owners and entrepreneurs with digital catalogues so that consumers can order Future Group products in places where there will never be a store. However the firm has scaled back some of its more ambitious plans for e-commerce. “The more sales you do, the more money you lose,” muses Kishore Biyani, Future Group’s founder. “You need to have continuous funding and someone to back you.”
For the time being, the big companies in the sector are having those needs met. “You have at least three, potentially four large players with deep enough pockets,” says Mr Singhi. “It’s going to play out at a very high cost.” Companies like Alibaba and Amazon see that cost as worth paying in part because, just as they applied what they learned in China to India, so they will use their Indian experience in the next markets they move into. Alibaba, not content to back Paytm and Snapdeal, is also courting Indian businesses directly. In December it said it would help Indian firms with financing and logistics so they might use Alibaba’s platforms to export to China and beyond. Eventually, Mr Ma likes to say, any consumer should be able to buy from any seller, anywhere in the world. The more of those purchases go through one of his firms, the better.
And everywhere these giants go, home-grown entrepreneurs will be hoping that their local acumen will give them an edge and looking for overseas investors to back them. Many of them will fail: India does not yet offer an example of how to make a profit, and it may be a long time before it does. But as long as some of these efforts survive, they will serve to speed progress, and innovation, in developing markets. As Amazon’s Mr Agarwal says, “If millions of small, medium enterprises out there, manufacturers and retailers, can...sell their product anywhere in the world—that’s transformational.”
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Today, the market place is flooded with several e-commerce options for shoppers to choose from. A variety of innovative products and services are being offered spoiling customers for choice. Online shopping is no more a privilege enjoyed by your friends and family living in the US or UK. Today, it is a reality in India. In the last couple of years, the growth of e-commerce industry in India has been phenomenal as more shoppers have started discovering the benefits of using this platform. There is enough scope for online businesses in the future if they understand the Indian shopper’s psyche and cater to their needs.
Changing the game
Indian e-commerce industry has evolved over a period of time with innovations that have changed the rules of the game globally. Cash on delivery (COD) is one such example. In a country where credit card penetration is much lower than other developed markets and where e-commerce companies are still working hard to build trust among shoppers, introducing cash on delivery has been one of the key factors for the success of the segment. At present, COD is the preferred payment mode for close to 55-60% of all online transactions in the fashion and lifestyle segment in India.
COD is here to stay owing to its convenience and its cultural affinity and will be a major part of payment mechanisms for at least the next four to five years. Executing COD efficiently and painlessly for the customer is critical to the success of any e-commerce player in the country.
Besides COD, e-commerce players need to focus on customer experience as a means to build trust and confidence. Customer experience encompasses every interaction a customer has with your service from placing an order to interacting with your customer service team, to the actual delivery experience.
Providing a great delivery experience is one of the core aspects to delighting customers. This doesn’t necessarily mean constantly pushing the frontier on faster deliveries. Being a day behind the fastest in the market isn’t a big deal, but trust, consistency and reliability are more important. The more faith the customer has in your delivery service, the more likely he is to buy again. Delivering a good experience is critical not only to ensure repeat purchase from a customer, but also for building a good brand image and word-of-mouth publicity.
Growing the base
Online shopping has seen a lot of traction in the last 12-18 months. India has almost 130 million online users at present, out of which as many as 10% are engaging in online transactions. The online user base is expected to cross 300 million in the next 2 – 3 years and a larger percentage of people are expected to transact online by 2015. This large base will provide vast scope for e-commerce businesses to establish themselves in India.
Cities beyond metros are in the limelight for all the good reasons. On an average, almost 50 – 55% of our business come from tier 2 and tier 3 cities and I believe this ratio is similar across other ecommerce companies in the country. With metro markets reaching saturation, I believe tier 2 and 3 cities are going to be the biggest drivers for ecommerce businesses in India in the not so distant future. Building a robust supply chain is critical to efficiently fulfilling orders from these cities and tapping their full market potential.
The e-commerce industry is growing at a rapid pace and changing the dynamics of the retail industry. In the coming years, e-commerce is expected to contribute close to 8-10% of the total retail segment in India. This growth is bound to continue provided e-commerce companies focus on innovating, building strong technology infrastructure and delivering the best customer experience.
(Mukesh Bansal founded Myntra.com in February 2007 with a vision of creating India’s largest on-demand personalization portal. Having grown consistently, the company expanded into fashion and lifestyle retailing in December 2010. He has over 14 years of experience in multiple early stage start-ups in Silicon Valley [NexTag, eWanted, Centrata, newScale] where he has held various senior management positions in Product Management, Marketing and Product development.)
Meet Mukesh Bansal at Internet Retail Expo 2013
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