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Future Group’s ambitious reboot

Samar Srivastava, Forbes India

Mumbai, 31 March 2015

At the age of 54, Kishore Biyani is ready for change. The founder and CEO of Future Group, one of India’s largest retail conglomerates, is dramatically altering the way he does business. “By 2020, we need to transform Future Group into a technology company. We will be more of an analytics company than a retail one,” he tells Forbes India. This doesn’t mean that he has lost sight of his customer. Just the opposite: Biyani wants to know more about each and every person who visits his stores, including 38-year-old Chandrakant Dhawan (name changed).

Every month, Dhawan and his family visit the Big Bazaar outlet in Mumbai’s Vile Parle to stock up on groceries and other household commodities. During the festive season, his shopping basket includes a few gifts, and at the start of the academic year, he buys stationery for his children. In all, he spends about Rs 60,000 a year at Big Bazaar, which is owned by the Future Group. Biyani, however, is not satisfied with Dhawan’s spends. He wants more.

He’s determined to get the one crore loyal customers—whom he already has—to spend at least Rs 1 lakh annually in either one or across all 14 retail formats that the Future Group owns. If he succeeds, he would end up making revenues of Rs 1 lakh crore, a more than six-fold jump from what his retail businesses earn today.

Biyani spent the last two decades building a sprawling empire across India with millions of square feet of retail space. Through his Big Bazaar format, he has created the country’s best-known hypermarket, and has enjoyed success with affordable apparel labels like Pantaloons (since sold) and Central. The group has also developed smaller brands that retail everything from electronics (eZone) to furniture (Home Town).

Now, he is seeking to take his company in a direction that many traditional international retailers like American giant Target and Tesco in the UK have already adopted: First, using customer analytics to predict what consumers want even before they realise it themselves. And second, taking a bite out of the ecommerce pie.

Both moves, say experts, is a natural step in the conglomerate’s evolution to stay on the top. Biyani’s vision for the Future Group as an analytics company is hardly surprising; he has continuously upended the rules of the game and challenged conventional wisdom. In the early 2000s, for instance, he started the Sabse Sasta Din campaign, which promised the lowest prices in all Big Bazaar outlets across the country for three days around January 26 (Republic Day) and August 15 (Independence Day). They became, and remain to date, some of the most important sales days in the country.

The question is whether the Future Group will be able to build on the highs of the previous decade. Can it replicate this success across all its formats and not just Big Bazaar? If he accomplishes what he has set out to do, Biyani will be able to widen the narrowing gap with one its biggest competitors, Reliance Retail, a subsidiary of Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL). Last year, Reliance Retail reported revenues of Rs 14,496 crore. The Future Group with Rs 15,500 crore in revenues has managed to retain its lead, but only by a whisker. (RIL owns Network 18 which publishes Forbes India.)

Industry experts point out that data alone will not guarantee increased sales.

“The Future Group is not the first to adopt this strategy, but it certainly has the most ambitious target,” says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive officer of retail consultancy Third Eyesight.

(Smaller retailers like Shoppers Stop are already using data analytics to boost sales.)

According to Dutta, to have a team running analytics solutions is the relatively easier part. “What is harder is getting the organisation to react to the insights. If there is a short-term opportunity, but the retailer is unable to source the goods from the supplier, it is as good as not having the data,” he says.

Manoj Agarwal, chief information officer at Future Group, while aware of the pitfalls, is excited about the direction the company is taking. “It’s a journey that will take us from brick to click,” he says.

Tailor-made for a customer

The first step in this journey is to strengthen the group’s loyalty programme. And the core of Biyani’s plan is the confluence of real-time analytics, real-time personalisation and real-time shopping. At a lab in his Vikhroli office, Forbes India gets a peek into the granularity of the data the company has been able to collect. It is now able to get very specific information about a customer, and based on past consumption patterns, can predict future buying trends. How many bars of soap will a particular customer buy in a year? Is a family taking advantage of the deals on vegetables? Is a person buying larger pack sizes more frequently or does he/she prefer smaller sizes?

It’s called predictive data. “What this does is allow us to specifically tailor deals and discounts for individual customers. This is something we couldn’t have done before,” says Dupindera Sandhu, who runs the Future Group’s loyalty programme, which, incidentally, has already been revamped. Customers can now use one card to avail of discounts and rewards across all the 12 brands, including Food Bazaar, Planet Sports, Central, Home Town, eZone, Brand Factory and Future Bazaar.

In addition, Future Group has tied up with Payback, a multi-brand loyalty programme, which allows a customer to avail of offers from services outside the Future Group. While this benefits consumers, it also gives the company access to a rich trove of data on a person’s travel habits, dining preferences and so on. The lab has also developed a new set of tools to create a social media profile of a customer based on information he or she has publicly shared online on sites such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and so on.

And from this information, Biyani knows that Dhawan from Vile Parle, who shops at Big Bazaar, likes hiking, prefers Samsung to Apple, and takes one international vacation every year. Agarwal says all this data is now easily available, and it is in “the slicing and dicing of information” that retailers have their task cut out. If done efficiently, a retailer can meet an individual customer’s needs. For instance, in Dhawan’s case, when he is due for a phone upgrade, the company can send him a discount coupon from eZone. When social media chatter picks up that he is planning a hiking trip, he could be enticed to purchase some outdoor gear that Planet Sports can offer at a discount.

Biyani has budgeted Rs 100 crore for this analytics overhaul, but it’s not money which is the issue as much as it is rewiring the organisation to think and function in a manner that prioritises data. The advantage of such an initiative is that after the initial investment and installation of computers and software, they cost little to run. But the benefits can be disproportionate. “The moment Dhawan buys a single phone costing Rs 30,000 from me, he is that much closer to spending Rs 1 lakh a year,” says Biyani.

And while he’s convinced that this is the new face of retail, he acknowledges that there is a fine line between using data for marketing purposes and invading a customer’s privacy. The solution is to ensure that consumers have the power to decide how much information they’d like retailers to have.

To sweeten the pot, Biyani has also made sure to up his offerings with excellent results. His electronics store, eZone, was a format that had been hit hard by competition. Online players had taken away the mobile phone market and nimbler rivals like Croma with stronger private labels had managed to grab a larger market share. “We have now managed to make this a Rs 2,000-crore business from Rs 800 crore [a couple of years ago],” says Rajan Malhotra, president eZone. He claims to have done this by offering customers assured buyback plans and service contracts. But there’s no denying that Future Group has been hit by the etailers.

Tackling the ecommerce threat

The market is a very different place from 2001, the year Biyani launched Big Bazaar. With 230 stores across the country, it is India’s largest hypermarket, but gone are the days when a retailer can count on physical footfalls to do the job. With competition from ecommerce rising, the Future Group is fighting to retain customers. It doesn’t help that the ecommerce industry, which is flush with private equity and venture capital funds, can afford to lose money while acquiring new consumers. Meanwhile, traditional retail has seen valuations plummet. Future Group is no exception: Its share price on the Bombay Stock Exchange has dropped from Rs 480 in 2010 to Rs 102 as of March 9, 2015.

“Discounting below price is not an option,” says Biyani, referring to the low prices that many ecommerce platforms are offering to grab customers. He believes that this trend of selling goods at very low prices will settle down in 12-18 months when private equity players stop funding losses. “At this point, my physical stores will be at an advantage.”

At the same time, the Future Group is getting ready to grab a bite of the ecommerce pie. In six months, most of Future Group’s brands will be available online. For instance, customers will be able to order online on Bigbazaar.com and have the products they buy delivered to their homes. Those dissatisfied can return them to the nearest physical store and get their refund immediately. This will significantly cut down return costs that are the bane of online retailers.

Biyani calls this initiative the Omni channel (online and offline) push. With a network of stores in 102 cities, he knows that he has a huge advantage over online retailers: A well-developed and efficient logistics arm. Goods ordered online need not be shipped to a customer from a warehouse in a distant location. Instead they can be shipped to stores, after which the company can tie up with a local partner for the last mile—from the store to the consumer. Think of Biyani as an online retailer with a significant offline presence.

His pan-India delivery network will allow him to save significantly on logistics costs. His nephew Vivek Biyani, who is director of Future Group and is leading the online push, adds: “Our trucks, in any case, deliver across the country. It shouldn’t be too hard adding specific customer orders to that.” Future Group is also making a big bet on in-store kiosks, which will allow customers on the store floor to order products that are not in stock. These will be delivered directly to the person’s home. Even small measures like these will go a long way in reducing the inventory a store needs to keep. At a Big Bazaar outlet in Mumbai, a customer used a kiosk to order a tea set online. Products like mugs and dinnerware are also offered with a small 10 percent discount. These kiosks will be rolled out in Big Bazaar outlets all through the year.

The precedent for Biyani’s ‘Omni push’ has been set by international brands such as Wal-Mart which, along with a physical presence, has an ecommerce platform that contributes about $12.5 billion in sales every year, according to a company press release. This is about 2.5 percent of the retail giant’s annual sales. While these initiatives have not been roaring successes—it is best to describe them as work in progress—they have contributed to that bump in top-line for traditional retailers.

In remaking the Future Group to compete effectively with his online rivals, Biyani has shown that he is a retailer who is thinking of the future. And as always, he’s made a big audacious bet. Global rivals have had a tough time pulling it off and there is no doubt that his journey will be equally challenging.

In 1997, when he rolled out his first Pantaloons store in Kolkata, the odds were stacked against him. He was an unknown player with very little capital. He built the brand into a household name before selling it to the Aditya Birla Group in 2012. In 2001, his first Big Bazaar changed the way Indians shopped. Now, once again, Biyani has shown that he’s capable of thinking big. The future of his company may well depend on this.

(Published in Forbes India.)

Jawed Habib to launch hair cosmetics range, two new salon brands

Varun Jain, The Economic Times

New Delhi, 30 March 2015

Jawed Habib Hair and Beauty Pvt. Ltd, which runs a chain of 480 salons in India, has licensed Jawed Habib brand name to launch hair cosmetic products. The company is also looking to introduce two salon brands this year, according to its founder, taking the brands tally to seven.

The company runs Jawed Habib Academy and salon and parlour brands Bevels, Hair Yoga, Jawed Habib Hair & Beauty and Hair Xpresso.

The licence for the hair cosmetic range, which will be known as "Jawed Habib Hair Yoga products", has been given to a retail company, Urban Life. The initial range would include a shampoo, conditioner, hair mask, serum and henna (mehendi), said Jawed Habib, founder of Jawed Habib Hair and Beauty.

The company is in the pre-production process and is expected to launch the products, which are likely to be in the Rs 350-500 price range, by May this year, he added.

Habib, who was once associated with Sunsilk as its brand ambassador, feels it is the right time to launch the hair cosmetics range.

"All Jawed Habib business models have received high consumer traffic, following which we thought of introducing something from our own label into cosmetic products", Habib said, adding that daily interaction with customers at the company’s salons has provided valuable inputs on what clients expect.

All of Jawed Habib Hair Yoga products will initially target salons, but in the second phase, they will be available at retail outlets, either through marketing offices or strategic tie-ups, Habib said.

The company is also looking to launch two new salon brands this year, which, according to Habib, could help the company reach 5,000 outlets in the next five years. For expansion, the company will have state-wise franchisees in the country, the founder added.

We are going to launch "Jawed Habib Beauty Parlour" and "Jawed Habib Barber Shop," this year, Habib said.

These two brands will be the neighbourhood beauty parlours and barber shops which will be converted into "Jawed Habib Beauty Parlour and Jawed Habib Barber Shop."

"Our study says there are 5 lakh unorganised salons in the country. Out of which, 3 lakh would be the barber shops and 2 lakh would be beauty parlours. Our research says that they are looking to be associated with a brand, but have no money. We are approaching these 5 lakh salons and asking if they are interested in becoming a part of Jawed Habib," the founder said.

The franchisee fee for this conversion model will be Rs 49,000 and it will be a one-year contract. Salon owners wanting to join will have to complete eight training sessions in order to renew the contract.

Sounding optimistic about the new venture, Habib said, "Though we are talking to convert 5,000 salons to Jawed Habib’s salon in five years, I am sure that this number is going to be much higher. And that is going to change the whole hair dressing scenario in the country."

Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of retail consultancy at Third Eyesight, said that launching hair cosmetic products will allow the company to penetrate the brand into customer’s home, as the product will not be limited to salons. He said the Indian market has a lot of growth opportunities for existing as well as new and upcoming brands.

"The market is growing and we are at a stage where sometimes availability drives consumption and growth. We are not in a mature-state economy where every growth opportunity has been pretty much taken. Due to the fact that our per capita consumption of most products are significantly lower than most of the markets around the world, I feel there is room for new brands to do well and create their own identity," Dutta added.

The company also plans to launch a range of hair care appliances, including hair dryers, hair straightening rods and scissors, among others. The range is expected to make its debut in the market by the first quarter of next year.

(Published in The Economic Times.)

Exec Summary – India-Opportunities & Challenges for Dutch Processed Food Companies

The Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural and food products in the world. The processed food sector has grown about 35 per cent over the last 10 years, with investments in research growing 75 per cent. The sector’s share in total production value is 21 per cent making it largest industrial sector in the Netherlands.

In spite of this, the share of Dutch processed food products in total imports in this sector India is limited. Keeping the immense growth potential of the Indian market in mind, the Embassy of the Netherlands commissioned a study of the processed food market in India.

As stated by Mr. Wouter Verhey, agricultural counsellor of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in India, in his Foreword to the report: “Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural and food products in the world. For decades, the Dutch agriculture sector has succeeded in maintaining its lead over international competitors through continual investment in innovation in agri-food value chains. In May 2012 an extensive Indo-Dutch Agriculture Action-plan was signed between the Central Government of India and Government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Within this broad agreement, several areas of cooperation in the agriculture/food sector are defined. This study is a tool in implementing the projects being identified in the processing sector under the Action Plan.”

The report was commissioned in order to develop an understanding of India as a market for processed food products and uncover opportunities for Dutch companies. The report provides an overview of the economic growth in India, the consumer base and its key characteristics, the food retail and services environment, market structure of various food product categories, their growth potential and areas of opportunity for imported products within these categories, the regulatory framework governing imports and domestic production and possible routes to the market for the Dutch organisations.

India is the largest democracy on the globe, the second largest country by population, one of the top-10 when measured by the size of its GDP, and one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity of India’s 29 states and 7 Union Territories makes it more like the diversity of the European Union than like that of any other single nation-state. And yet, in political and legal terms, these diversities are managed within one constitutional framework, which possibly makes India unique among the nations around the world.

India has wide variations in the income and tastes which are important for consumer product companies to understand if they are looking to cater to mainstream meal habits. India is the second largest populated country in the world with almost two third of the population living in the villages. The urban population has dramatically been growing from last two decades. Though average income of the urban is higher than the rural average income but there exists a rural rich section who is consumers of premium branded products.

India with the youngest population in the world and a large urban population in the age group 20-34 years of age has observed changes in the consumption pattern. India has been consuming products from multinationals for several decades now and with the growing young population who is well educated and travelled across the globe; the tastes and the choices have been changing.

The number of middle class households is rising and approaching 30 million households or over 150 million individuals, with increasing numbers of nuclear families and double income households. This also is creating a socio-economic class across the country, especially in the larger cities, which has some commonality in consumption patterns irrespective of the city the family has originated from or is now staying in. This is the group of consumers who are driving the consumption growth of processed and semi-processed food products.

As Mr. Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight, states in his introduction to the report: “On the demand side, as Indian consumer households and lifestyles change from the traditional joint- family structure, consumers’ needs as well as the means at their disposal have changed dramatically. With nuclear households, less time is available for both shopping as well as preparation, leading consumers to consider a whole range of processed and semi-processed food options. Therefore, both Indian and international companies can be beneficiaries as Indian consumers are “outsourcing” their food preparation and cooking activities. It is also worth mentioning a key advantage of the Indian market: that the already significant base of consumers is also growing rapidly. This is true regardless of whether you are targeting a consumer base of 5 million or 500 million. Companies that work with the consumer sector are as yet at the early stages of an expanding opportunity, as incomes grow and lifestyles change. Therefore, any company looking at addressing the Indian market must view it as a long-term opportunity, rather than a short-term win.”

Some major trends which aid the development of processed, semi-prepared and packaged food options include new consumption occasions, growth in dining out opportunities, the willingness to experiment with unfamiliar cuisines, the growth of convenience options and the need for predictability (quality as well as hygiene).

The evolution of food retail and services is playing a significant role in the growth in consumption of the processed food products.

The retail sector in India comprises of a large majority of traditional retail formats and a small (but growing) slice of modern retail formats. The share of modern retail is estimated to be less than 2 per cent in food and grocery. Both, traditional retail stores as well as modern store formats such as supermarket, hypermarket ad convenience stores chains are growing, and both are platforms for launching and growing processed food products in the Indian market. The Hotels, Restaurant and Catering sector is also a major driver of food processing in the country, due to its need for significant consistency of products, predictability of supplies, and larger-scale requirements.

Although India is an abundant producer of dairy products, meat products, fruits and vegetables and sugar, the value-added processed products in all these categories present a growing market. India is also growing as a market for new products such as breakfast cereals, pasta, infant food, bakery products, foreign liquor and different types of oils and sauces. Many international organisations have engaged with the India market by setting up manufacturing infrastructure here itself and understanding the market in depth. This approach has not only enabled them to offer their international range of products at competitive prices and but also became very powerful brands in India. Others are taking a more cautious, trading-led approach to the market. This report presentsthe opportunities and challenges in 20 selected product sectors, and also an assessment of different routes to market.

Although imports account for a relatively small share of the total consumption of food products, in some products such as dairy like cheese and whey, processed fruits and vegetables especially processed potatoes, poultry and swine meat, beer, infant food and sauces, Netherland occupies an important position as a source of import.

Regulations are an intrinsic part of the food industry anywhere in the world, and India is no different. Due to the stress placed on domestic production, import duties are fairly high for finished products. A specific agency related to Food Safety and Standards has also been established by the government in 2006, which consolidates various acts and orders for food-related issues previously handled by various Ministries and Departments. The report describes some of the key regulatory aspects related to imports and distribution of food products in India.

It is important to note that the government has introduced several schemes favouring domestic production in the food processing sector such as providing financial assistance in the form of grants and subsidies for the setting up and modernization of food processing units, the creation of infrastructure, support for research and development and human resource development as well as other promotional measures to encourage growth within the processed food sector. In order to promote faster establishment of food processing industries in the country, the government provides various tax and other incentives to businesses which have been detailed in the report.

To conclude, the market for processed and semi-processed food products is growing in India, and there is significant opportunity for value-added and differentiated products. We hope this report will present a well-rounded view of the market, and serve as a first step for Dutch organisations to productively engage with the Indian industry and Indian customers.

About Third Eyesight

Third Eyesight is a consulting and management solutions firm focussed on sectors retailer to retail and consumer products. Clients who have benefited from our experience and expertise include retailers, brands and manufacturers, technology suppliers, private equity & venture investors, educational institutions and organisations servicing the consumer products and retail sectors.

Third Eyesight has worked with companies that are market leaders (with sizes up to USD 80 billion in annual sales) to early-stage and start-up businesses, on engagements of strategic significance to the top management.

Strategy and operations support provided by Third Eyesight include: identifying and evaluating new business areas, market and industry research, business strategy and business plan development, development of sales and distribution networks, including support with acquiring key client relationships, business due diligence, partner evaluation, strategic alliances, mergers & acquisitions, sourcing and supply chain strategy, merchandising support, operational audits & assessment and a variety of other operational support.

India-Opportunities & Challenges for Dutch Processed Food Companies

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Are India’s e-commerce valuations a bubble?

Manu Balachandran, Madhura Karnik, Quartz India
Mumbai, 20 March 2015

On March 18, one of India’s most celebrated startups received a huge blow.
Alibaba Group Holding, promoted by Jack Ma, China’s third-richest man, backed off from buying a stake in Snapdeal, one of India’s largest online marketplaces.
This would have been the Chinese e-commerce giant’s first direct investment in India.
The deal stalled after Snapdeal apparently sought a valuation of between $6 billion and $7 billion (Rs37,500 crore-Rs43,800 crore) while Alibaba was looking at valuing the company at under $5 billion (Rs31,200 crore).

The breakdown in negotiations has raised questions about the huge valuations of India’s e-commerce giants—essentially, are these massive numbers justified and sustainable?

Alongside that, there is an even bigger question: Why exactly are investors still drawn to these firms?

“Of recent, the valuation game has turned into a ‘black magic art’ more than a science,” Ravi Gururaj, chairman of India’s National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom) product council, told Quartz. Nasscom is a trade association representing the Indian software industry.

Founders and investors, felt Gururaj, are rationalising and defending these extraordinary valuations by arguing that they see some exceptional promise in these startups. “The more grounded among us read that as ample evidence of a frothy bubble-like environment,” he said.

High, higher, highest

In all, the Indian startup sector received more than $5 billion (Rs25,000 crore) in funding in 2014, compared to $1.6 billion (Rs10,000 crore) in 2013 and $760 million (Rs4,755 crore) in 2012.

Of this, in 2014, Flipkart raised some $1.9 billion(Rs11,900 crore), while Snapdeal found about $1 billion (Rs6,257 crore) in funding, including a deal with SoftBank for $627 million. And most of this money came from a few big investors including Accel Partners, Tiger Global, SoftBank and Helion Venture Partners.

Now, as these firms head out to raise even more money, valuations are going through the roof. Flipkart, for instance, is valued at about $11 billion, and Snapdeal could be at least worth $5 billion.

Together, these two online shopping firms are now valued much, much higher than the total market capitalisation of India’s major brick-and-mortar retailers, which have dozens or even hundreds of physical shops.

The phenomenal valuations for India’s e-commerce companies are based on the premise that Asia’s third-largest economy presents a vast opportunity for online retailers. Economic growth looks to be back, the country’s middle-class is steadily expanding and, powered by a smartphone revolution, the number of internet users is skyrocketing.

“The e-commerce sector has created new markets, and since many of these are addressing a large untapped potential, investors think they can grow at a rapid pace,” Ashish Basil, partner at consulting firm EY, told Quartz.

Some argue that offline retailers in India do not have the bandwidth to expand as much—and as quickly—as online retailers.
And this in itself is a huge opportunity for online companies to reach areas that modern retailers cannot. Brick-and-mortar retail chains have also been facing stiff competition from the local kirana, or mom-and-pop stores, especially in the hinterland.

“Due to fragmentation, infrastructure challenges and high real estate costs, offline retail will never be able to achieve the scale that e-commerce can,” explained Sandeep Murthy, a partner at Lightbox Ventures, an early stage venture capital fund. “Entrepreneurs and investors have recognised this and believe that they are playing in a game with a massive prize for the winner.”

Investor trap

Still, the prospects of a massive, unexplored marketplace doesn’t quite explain the hyper valuations that Indian e-commerce companies are landing.

After all, India’s e-tail channels are forecast to account for about 10% of the overall retail market in 2025.

“I frankly do not understand the basis of these valuations,” Arvind Singhal, chairman of Technopak, a retail consultancy, said last year. “It defies logic. Looking at potential is fine, but valuations have to be sane.”

There are two big reasons for this seeming insanity.

One, investors are lining up before e-commerce firms influenced by their competitors; and two, fundamental problems in the business models of these companies are being overshadowed as the industry blindly chases growth.

“Investors tend to behave like a herd and since e-commerce is the flavour of the day, many investors are rushing there,”
Santosh Kanekar, an independent consultant who advises financial firms on investing in Indian companies, said last year.
Most of the e-commerce valuations in India, argued Kanekar, are driven by investor demand rather than by a significant improvement in the e-tailer’s financial performance. “The reality is that there’s a lot of froth in the global M&A (mergers and acquisitions) market in general, and emerging markets, particularly India, are no different,” he said.

And he isn’t alone.

“Nobody looks at the fundamentals of valuations anymore,” Karthik Reddy, managing partner of Blume Ventures, a venture capital firm, told Quartz. “Three or four big players have emerged in India and most of the other startups now feed off that eco-system. But there is an inflexion point that is going to come soon.”

Where’s the money?

Although these are early days for a fast-growing industry, the combined losses of India’s e-tailing companies now stand at almost (pdf) Rs1,000 crore.

Much of this is because of the discounting strategies that these firms use to lure consumers. These discounts—along with massive advertising and marketing campaigns—are bank-rolled by the investors, who are now beginning to worry.

Since the last year, there is growing pressure on Indian e-commerce companies to to cut down on discounts—and concentrate on making profits. But this isn’t going to be easy.

“E-commerce has not reached a stable level where it can become sustainable by itself,” Praveen Sinha, founder of Jabong, an online fashion retailer, said earlier this month. “So, if the whole margin is 10% and the market operates at 15%
discount, e-commerce companies can never become profitable.”

In the past, industry observers like venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy had also publicly expressed their disapproval about the business models.

“I don’t hate Flipkart,” Murthy wrote in 2013. “I just don’t think it’s the right way to build a business. My preference is always for a new business to start with a clear, sustainable competitive benefit to consumers, differentiate sharply, grow organically from the ground up, take money if needed to grow—not survive, and build a real business, that makes more money than it spends.”

Murthy is not the only one to complain about the business models of Indian e-commerce companies.

“If a company is losing money on every transaction, then the business model is not sustainable,” Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight, a retail consulting firm, told Quartz.

And it doesn’t help that companies aren’t putting out strong statements on their business models, Dutta added, because there is a need to bolster confidence about these business eventually turning profitable.

Perception and sentiment aside, India’s e-commerce firms have to stop bleeding money for other reasons. In the next five years, the industry will need to spend anywhere between $950 million and $1.9 billion on logistics and warehousing as it expands.

Sure, that isn’t a lot of money compared to what the likes of Flipkart and Snapdeal are being able raise currently, but the fight for funds is also likely to get tougher. By 2020, India’s tech startup ecosystem will have some 11,000 firms, more than three times the current number.

The focus, therefore, needs to shift from rapid expansion and capturing market share to building sustainable businesses.

And while that may take some time, for now everybody seems happy about the massive amounts of money pouring into India’s e-commerce industry.

(Published in Quartz India.)

Deepti Chaudhary, Shravan Bhat, Debojyoti Ghosh, Sohini Mitter, Forbes India
Mumbai, 17 March 2015

BookMyShow
Funds raised: Rs 300 crore
What does it do: BookMyShow is India’s biggest online movies and events ticketing company and occupies 85 to 90 percent of the online entertainment-ticketing market; 70 percent of its sales comes from movie tickets and the remaining from sports, plays and live events. At present, sports accounts for almost 20 percent of its revenues and is seen as a future growth area. BookMyShow reaches about 800 to 900 cinemas in 200 cities and towns. About 60 percent of its transactions take place via its mobile app which, say experts, is the most successful mobile ecommerce app in the country.

Its USP: “Discovery of entertainment events-based information, curation and smooth fulfilment makes BookMyShow different from others [like Kyazoonga, Ticketgenie]. Its focus on customer experience, ability to offer a consistently good booking experience, and its knowledge of changing consumption patterns hold the key to its dominance,” says Prashanth Prakash, partner, Accel Partners, an investor in the company.

How niche BookMyShow’s focus has always been ticket bookings, but it now intends to go deeper into content around movies and events. It has started offering reviews and consumers are lapping it up. It will soon integrate social interactions on events in its services. “We have expanded to tier II and tier III cities too and want to go even more local. Payments continue to be a problem and we would like to focus on that. It is the next thing to solve,” says Ashish Hemrajani, founder-CEO, BookMyShow.

Why it will survive: One of the key realisations for BookMyShow is the role that content can play. It is therefore working at beefing up its content offerings. “The recent acquisition of Bangalore-based social media analytics firm Eventifier is a step in that direction. BookMyShow is well-poised to becoming a billion-dollar company. I don’t see too many roadblocks,” says Prakash.

Paytm
Funds raised $575 million (committed)
What does it do: Paytm is a unique web-cum-mobile platform. It has taken a big leap towards mobile commerce, trying to cash in on the wide mobile handset penetration, and is today India’s largest mobile commerce company. It started by offering mobile recharge and utility bill payments, and now offers a full marketplace to consumers on its mobile apps. It has over 20 million registered users and has in a short span of time scaled to more than 15 million orders per month.

Its USP: It is a mobile marketplace in the making—one that can compete with ecommerce sites such as Flipkart, Amazon and Snapdeal. It has got commitments from deep-pocketed investors, including Alibaba (China’s ecommerce giant) and SAIF Partners, among others. The funds will be used to expand Paytm services with a view to dominating the online payment business that is expected to grow rapidly in the next few years in India.

How niche Paytm is already a leading firm in the electronic payment space. The long-term goal of Paytm is to be a financial services company for India’s unbanked population (41 percent of the total). The company intends to be the first gateway for paying bills and transferring money.

Why it will survive: A unique, well-accepted model and deep pockets will certainly help Paytm grow into a larger firm. “Payments are natural monopoly… The world has three large credit card companies; there would not be more than two large firms out of India in this space,” says Mukul Gulati, India head, Zephyr Peacock, an India-focussed private equity firm.

Pepperfry
Funds raised: Rs 164 crore
What does it do: Pepperfry is India’s largest online furniture, home and living marketplace with over a million customers. It offers more than 45,000 products across categories like furniture, home décor, lamps and lighting, bath and body, kitchen, home appliances, housekeeping and pet supplies. Started in 2012, its managed marketplace model allows small and medium businesses to sell their merchandise to millions beyond their geographical reach. It has over 250,000 registered customers and has grown 350 percent year-on-year.

Its USP: Reach and range. It delivers to customers’ doorsteps in 150 cities. It plans to have 380 trucks by year-end, becoming one of the largest logistics companies. Its overall catalogue size is 80,000 listings (of which 10 percent are furniture), which is eight times the size of the next player, claims Ashish Shah, COO and co-founder of Pepperfry.

How niche It will remain loyal to its niche of furniture and furnishings, though it plans to go deeper into these segments by increasing product categories. About 55 percent of its business comes from repeat customers.

Why it will survive: Pepperfry’s current USP is reach, says Srikanth Iyer, founder and chief executive, Homelane. “They are in more locations than any competitor. They are far quicker than others in terms of delivery to remote locations. Pepperfry also stands out because it is the only one that is trying a mix of marketing: Not only online but also brick-and-mortar in airports etc. They are trying to build a brand which has the touch-and-feel element.”

Lenskart
Funds raised: Rs 200 crore
What does it do: India’s largest online optical store, Lenskart, makes, prescribes, delivers and services eyewear to over 1,000 customers per day. Nearly half of its customers live in tier III and IV towns, such as Coimbatore, Puri, Mangalore and Agartala. Though Lenskart sells high-end products like Ray-Ban, most of its revenues come from mass-focussed in-house brands like Vincent Chase and John Jacobs. It has also rolled out 60 physical stores, mostly in tier III towns, to conduct free eye check-ups. Lenskart does about 500 home check-ups every day.

Its USP: Over a third of Indians need corrective eyewear, and only a quarter of them have access to it. That’s the problem Lenskart is seeking to solve. Also, it has a first-mover advantage and is being backed by deep-pocketed investors. Physical stores will also add to its customer base and visibility.

How niche Lenskart has decided to focus on eyesight solutions in India. “It will not start selling shoes,” says founder Peyush Bansal. It already sells contact lenses, and ships products to countries like Australia, the UK and the US.

Why it will survive: Lenskart is trying to bring variety, says Pragya Singh, associate vice president, retail, consumer products and e-tailing at Technopak. “They have identified a space dominated by large regional chains with few national players. It’s about value and convenience. Eyewear needs a high service element. It’s a working model. What drives traction is multiple pairs—it becomes a fashion accessory. It’s easy to sell sunglasses but prescription eyewear has many other elements. They have a first-mover advantage too,” she says.

CarTrade
Funds raised: $44 million, one more undisclosed round
What does it do: CarTrade is India’s leading auto classifieds platform with a focus on used cars. It offers vehicle listings, price information and car certification. For those interested in buying new cars, there are reviews, on-road prices, comparisons with other models and latest news from the industry. It also operates a B2B auction portal called CarTradeExchange, which is used by banks and other institutions to sell cars in bulk. “We have about 1.45 lakh listings on the site, four times that of any competition,” says promoter-CEO Vinay Sanghi.

Its USP: It is the first company to offer consumer certification and repair estimates. There are 110 engineers in CarTrade who are responsible for a 125-point check about the car. They also produce the certification report. “We were the first ones to enable inter-city buying of cars. We got down to collating and bringing dealers from across the country on the platform,” says Sanghi.

How niche CarTrade will remain focussed on cars. Its main objective is to help consumers buy and sell cars using the internet. Its B2B exchange became the largest car auctioning site in the country.

Why it will survive: The automobile classifieds segment is being identified as the next billion-dollar opportunity, says Alok Mittal, ex-MD at Canaan Partners, who led the investments in CarTrade. “If you take any geography in the world which has more internet users than India, for instance the UK, the US and China, there are multimillion dollar companies in the used car space,” he says.

Ola
Funds raised: Over Rs 1,300 crore
What does it do: Olacabs.com is a marketplace for all kinds of cabs and cars which can be booked on its online platform as well as through mobile apps. The Bangalore-based company has a fleet of over 1 lakh vehicles (an aggregated model as opposed to ownership) operating across 67 cities. Ola says that it is India’s largest aggregator of cabs, taxis and autos.

Its USP: It commands a market share of over 60 percent in the fleet cab-services industry in India. “Along with the mobile app, the cashless payment options [through Ola Money] and mobile technology for driver-partners, we have also localised offerings through a 24×7 call centre, cash payments and dedicated driver support systems,” says Bhavish Aggarwal, founder, Ola.

How niche At present, Ola plans to operate in the transportation space and expand its services across multiple categories (mini, sedan, prime and pink for women) within the cabs. “Our vision is to revolutionise personal transportation in India by making transportation available as a service on-demand without having the need to own a car,” says Aggarwal. Its current network has about 35,000 auto rickshaws as well.

Why it will survive: The main differentiator for Ola is the quality of the entrepreneur, reckons Avnish Bajaj, managing director, Matrix Partners India. Matrix is a series B investor in Ola. “Bhavish’s desire to win is par excellence and it shows in the aggression in execution. He is also the rare breed who has learnt quickly on the job and added strategic clarity to complement the executional excellence, which is a potent combination,” says Bajaj.

Housing
Funds raised: $121 million
What does it do: Housing.com is a real estate portal which allows users to search for apartments for rent or for sale through virtual tours of each room, using photographs and authenticated details. Late last year, Tata Value Homes tied up with it to sell apartments online, putting up an inventory of 150 homes across four projects in Pune, Bangalore and Chennai on the site. Housing.com sold 115 homes worth Rs 60 crore in five days, and has now tied up with Tata Housing to sell properties in eight projects.

Its USP: Giving clients a near-perfect sense of properties and delivering realistic leads to brokers. Its proprietary 3D rendering platform, Slice View, helps customers check the building plans and floor plan for each home through a 3D model of the structure. It also uses data analytics to weed out listings that may have expired.

How niche Housing.com will always be in the real estate space, but within that, it is mulling over a precise business model for ecommerce, allowing end-to-end buying and selling of properties. Right now, it is into rentals, resale, land and new projects. It is about to launch serviced apartments, which would give it presence across all housing categories.

Why it will survive: “If you’re only depending on the integrity of online listings, platforms are open to misuse. You need to have verification and validation and that’s what Housing.com has done well. Realistic photographs are a huge plus,” says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight, a consulting firm.

Caratlane
Funds raised: $50 million
What does it do CaratLane is an online jewellery retailer with a network of over 4,000 global vendors. It offers the largest collection of diamonds and diamond jewellery in the country. It has over 100,000 stock keeping units (SKUs) for solitaires. CaratLane sells only diamonds certified by international laboratories like GIA, AGS, IGI and HRD. Every gold product of CaratLane is hallmarked. While CaratLane offers products in over 150 cities and towns in the country, it also offers home trials for up to five jewellery items across more than 20 cities.

Its USP: CaratLane, with its largest collection of diamonds, solitaires, unique and updated designs, has already established a name for itself among customers. Free trials called ‘try at home’ and no questions asked returns, along with authenticity guarantee certificates have further added to the comfort of customers.

How niche It will always be jewellery for CaratLane, which was originally into solitaires and later expanded into diamond jewellery and everyday wear. Now, it has launched evening wear. “It’s a function of us designing and moving up the ladder,” says Mithun Sacheti, founder.

Why it will survive: People might still buy traditional jewellery in-store but for gifting, everyday wear, online could occupy a nice niche, says Pragya Singh of Technopak. “CaratLane has bridged the gap between online/offline through ‘try-at-home’. The first few times you have to give customers this feeling you’re choosing the right product. They have also successfully established a niche,” she says.

BigBasket
Funds Raised: $60 million
What does it do: BigBasket.com is the first comprehensive online grocery store operating in Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune. It has over 10,000 distinct SKUs and more than 1,000 brands in its list. No other e-grocery has managed to raise money in a business where margins are wafer-thin. Fruits and vegetables are procured only on order, which reduces loss of stock by 3 to 4 percent.

Its USP: It has the first-mover advantage as well as a pan-India presence. BigBasket has access to large capital, its founders have domain expertise in grocery management, and its emphasis on the use of technology and analytics distinguishes it from others. It also has the ability to supply and source products directly from farms and mills. Therefore, its perishable products have no warehousing, no storage and no preservatives.

How niche It will remain loyal to grocery etailing, but within that, it will add as many products as possible to cater to all household needs.

Why it will survive: Grocery shopping is a big pain in India, with heavy traffic, lack of parking space, long queues at payment counters and difficulty in carrying the products home, says K Ganesh, promoter, BigBasket. “We have grocery and tech domain expertise and the ability to scale and have a presence at multiple locations at low margins.”

PolicyBazaar
Funds raised: $37 million
What does it do: Policybazaar, co-founded by Yashish Dahiya helps consumers compare products like term insurance, health insurance, motor insurance and investment plans. It provides a neutral comparison from all major insurance companies. Its online systems and integration help consumers analyse products and provide them a hassle-free gateway to buy online.

Its USP Unlike its competitors who tend to highlight the selling propositions of a plan, but hide its fine print, Policybazaar first understands the needs of the consumer and then suggests options to choose from. It is the single largest insurance distributor (online or offline) in India outside of banks, with over 30 million unique visitors each year.

How niche In early 2014, it launched a new platform called Paisabazaar.com to offer financial advisory services. Under this, it provides comparisons of non-insurance products, including different types of loans and credit cards. It will be further expanding its product offering by introducing financial instruments such as mutual funds and corporate deposits this year.

Why it will survive: The insurance sector is expected to get a major boost from the Reserve Bank of India as the central bank is looking at ways of financial inclusion, says Harminder Sahni, founder and managing director, Wazir Advisors, a consulting firm. “Insurance retail has a lifetime value; the customers are acquired for a lifetime. It has far more stickiness than brands,” Sahni says.

HOW THEY WERE CHOSEN
Forbes India spoke to a cross-section of experts in the ecommerce space, including investment bankers, private equity investors, venture capital firms and angel investors, besides analysts from various industry verticals to arrive at this list. The companies were selected on the basis of having a well-accepted product or service, funds already raised and the potential for future growth.

(Published in Forbes India issue dated 20 March 2015.)

Why focus is the name of the ecommerce game

Deepti Chaudhary, Shravan Bhat, Debojyoti Ghosh, Sohini Mitter, Forbes India
Mumbai, 16 March 2015

When Mithun Sacheti received a LinkedIn request from Tiger Global in the first half of 2011, he didn’t even blink. It was probably one of the many that came in every day, he thought. Turns out, the chief executive and founder of CaratLane, India’s largest online jewellery store, had never heard of the international investment firm. (To be fair, Tiger Global does not have a website even today.)

A few days later, Sacheti learnt about Tiger Global’s credentials as an investment firm known for backing fast-growing local businesses worldwide. He did not waste a minute. A conference call was soon fixed up. But, put it down to happenstance and the busy life of an ecommerce honcho, Sacheti “forgot” to take the call.

Fortunately, the investment firm still didn’t give up on Sacheti and a meeting was set up with Lee Fixel, the media-shy partner at Tiger Global Management in New Delhi.

Two hours later, Sacheti left with a term sheet in his hand. And a month later (in June 2011), nearly $6 million were transferred to CaratLane’s bank account. The first investment by Tiger Global in CaratLane was in place. And last month, the startup announced that it had raised $31 million from Tiger Global, the fourth capital infusion by the fund in as many years.

Even a few years ago, this story might have sparked a gasp or two.

Not today.

The pursuit of Indian startups by global investors is no longer an exception, but rather the rule. And the more focussed the ecommerce vertical, the faster the chase. Just like Tiger Global first identified a category—jewellery—and, then, a company that was dealing in it exclusively—CaratLane. “People cannot discover the product in a giant website (a horizontal). Secondly, it (horizontal) doesn’t allow you to customise products,” says Sacheti, explaining why an investor like Tiger Global would prefer to back an independent online jewellery retailer instead of adding it as a category to the long product list of its large portfolio of horizontal ecommerce firms.

It is increasingly evident that investors in India have warmed up to ecommerce ventures that typically stick to a sharp vertical: Eyewear, grocery, aggregators for taxi and ticket services, financial products and so on. In 2014, 35 verticals were funded by investors who put in a total of $261 million into such firms, estimates VCCEdge, which tracks investment activity in the country. These niches are a far cry from horizontals (or marketplaces like Flipkart and Amazon), which engage in multiple categories and are generalist retailers.

Experts call this a step in the evolution of ecommerce in India.

There are currently three heavyweight horizontals—Amazon, Flipkart and Snapdeal—slugging it out for the top slot. They are all burning cash fast, have not yet reached profitability, have either deep pockets (like Amazon) or are backed by loaded investors and have left almost no space for a fourth undifferentiated, horizontal player.

But entrepreneurs have quickly realised that online retail is about more than the multi-product category play. The Indian ecommerce industry is likely to clock a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 35 percent and cross the $100-billion mark in value in five years, a study conducted by The Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India (Assocham) with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has said. According to the study, the Indian ecommerce industry is currently valued at $17 billion.

This expansion also means that, like those in other developed markets, Indian customers will scout for specialised offerings.

Investors, too, are keen on backing these ventures as they have better margins unlike the horizontals which are grappling with profitability issues. Also, many missed the ecommerce bus a few years ago as they either didn’t believe in the online retail business model or simply didn’t move fast enough. And now, valuations of existing big-ticket ventures have become too high for them to enter or compete against.

“Right now, one cannot get funding by competing against Snapdeal or Flipkart. It is not so simple to beat horizontals,” says Sasha Mirchandani, founder and managing director at Kae Capital, an investment firm, which has invested in HealthKart, an online health products store. “If you look at the US market, verticals have scaled up… take Zappos (a shoes etailer) or Diaper.com, for instance,” he says.

Verticals and horizontals tend to have different economics. Niche players need lower capital than a marketplace model does to scale up the business. Verticals also tend to burn less cash than their marketplace counterparts. “Verticals are interesting as margins are significantly better than horizontals,” says Niren Shah, managing director, NVP India, an investment firm which has invested in startups like FashionandYou and Pepperfry. “These companies are not much into discounts and, more often than not, these categories are inherently structured to support high margins; some of the gross margins are as high as 50 percent,” he says.

Verticals don’t have the scale of horizontals and not many of them will transform into multibillion dollar businesses but “they tend to become cash flow positive much faster”, says Shah, adding that furniture, home décor and grocery are the niches to look out for in the future.

Take Yepme, which retails its own brands online, and is looking at breaking even this year. “We operate after discount and coupons at a 48 percent margin because we are only private labels,” says Vivek Gaur, CEO and co-founder, Yepme.com, which started in 2011. The firm is now planning to take its offerings overseas.

The advantages notwithstanding, unlike for a horizontal, where a customer will find something of interest while browsing the site, the biggest challenge for a vertical is to identify an area which caters to a real customer need and is a real hook.

In the same context, creating entry barriers against cash-flush horizontals is a challenge for verticals as well. A few firms have, however, chalked out a thus-far effective strategy to combat the Goliaths. Lenskart, for example, not only ships spectacles, but also offers a number of features like home eye check-up programmes, a try-before-you-buy service, a virtual studio, new lenses in old frames as well as an exchange programme. The company also has 60 offline stores in the country. “Offline stores that do free check-ups are small outlets and mostly in tier-III towns. We believe the combination of stores and try-at-home initiatives complements our existing web platform. We are doing 500 home check-ups every day all over India,” says Peyush Bansal, founder, Lenskart.

Similarly, Pepperfry has planned an execution strategy that, he says, can’t be easily replicated by a horizontal. “Horizontals have built businesses on mobiles and fashion [categories]. They can create catalogues easily because the product exists and the brands are well known. For furniture, creating a catalogue is a mammoth task,” says Ashish Shah, CEO and co-founder of Pepperfry, an online furniture retailer.

The good news is that investors are optimistic: They say verticals are here to stay as the purchasing power of the Indian customer is on the rise. Aspirations, ease of multiple shopping options, free home delivery are further fuelling the demand. “Verticals require a critical mass and a certain purchasing power of consumers. The market needs to mature beyond staples… India is getting there. Brands are being built in the space,” says Prashanth Prakash, partner at Accel Partners, a venture capital firm that has invested in firms like Flipkart (horizontal) and verticals like Babyoye (baby products), Bluestone (online jewelry), BookMyShow (movie and event tickets), Myntra (fashion, apparel) and Urbantouch (cosmetics). Prakash, however, has a word of caution. “A player’s ability to give a meaningful experience to the customer is most important,” he says.

This is particularly relevant as verticals in India are not just about products. Services have also emerged as a strong focus, both online and on the mobile. Aggregators like Ola (cab services), Housing.com (real estate), BookMyShow, CarTrade (automobile classifieds) and Policybazaar (insurance) have emerged as front-runners in their categories.

“There was a time when horizontal classifieds gained traction and most dealers concentrated on getting listed. Now in the second phase, verticals are gaining traction. Companies are building deep services. That is bringing more people to their sites,” says Alok Mittal, ex-MD at Canaan Partners, who led the investments in CarTrade and also sits on its board. According to him, the automobile classifieds segment is being identified as the next billion-dollar opportunity. “The used car market is growing faster than the new car market. The margins on used cars are about 5 percent, while on new cars they are zero.”

For verticals, the saying ‘what a needle can do, a sword can’t’ is most appropriate. But, at the same time, if a company’s definition of niche is too broad, it becomes a generalist. And if the definition is too narrow, there is a fear that it may not have an optimally-sized market to cater to. For example, in the furniture space, companies are also offering home furnishing, home décor and kitchen goods—areas within their purview of offering home solutions. Just offering furniture may not be enough —customers buy two to three pieces of furniture a year but need around seven to eight bed sheets annually.

“These are the reasons for my customers to come back to my site. Margins tend to be 30 to 40 percent,” says Ashish Shah of Pepperfry. “Horizontals build on ‘search’. We are built on ‘browse’. I don’t expect customers to enter an exact item in the search bar,” he says. Shah can afford to sound confident. In the US and Europe, home and furniture account for 15-17 percent of overall ecommerce businesses.

Shah says it is imperative for his kind of company to engage with customers on an ongoing basis. One mode of engagement for Pepperfry is through product trials—think cleaning chemicals, housekeeping items, ladders, and light bulbs, among others. These are products that people need on a daily basis and there are high chances of an impulse purchase when they are browsing through the site. “They bring customers to me every month: Fifty-five percent of business happens from repeat customers, 50 percent of traffic is organic,” he says.

Constant upgradation of their offerings, adapting to customer needs and some lucrative surprises will help build brand stickiness. “I think if we don’t spend over 70 percent of our time, effort, mind space on products, two years later, nobody is going to remember us,” says Ashish Goel, founder, Urban Ladder, an online furniture store.

Not surprisingly, verticals—thanks to their niche offerings and positive gross margins—tend to attract acquirers. Globally, Amazon has acquired niche business like Zappos and Diaper.com, two very large verticals. Closer home, Flipkart acquired Myntra to strengthen its position as a fashion retailer. In February, Mahindra & Mahindra, which owns Mom & Me, one of the country’s largest chains of offline stores for baby and infant products, acquired Nest Childcare Services, which runs ecommerce site Babyoye.com.

Two weeks ago, online marketplace Snapdeal acquired Exclusively.com, an online retailer of premium and luxury fashion, for an undisclosed amount. Snapdeal is looking to touch $2 billion in gross merchandise value in the fashion category this year.

There are multiple acquirers present now, says Shah of NVP India. Global firms like Alibaba and Amazon are keenly looking at options here as well, he adds.

In India, ecommerce has largely seen consolidation through mergers between common VC-backed ventures—and typically in the same line of business. “You can’t have three grocery chains online,” says Rahul Chowdhri, partner, Helion Venture Partners, a VC firm. “People will remember only one name. And consolidation of the ‘Myntra getting acquired by Flipkart’ kind will take a few more years. All category leaders are still scaling up.”

K Ganesh, serial entrepreneur and promoter-founder of Portea Medical and BigBasket.com, says verticals do have the potential of going public but Indian regulations regarding profitability may come in the way. “IPOs are still about five years away. In the meantime, you will see a lot of trade sales and mergers and acquisitions at great valuations,” he says. Ganesh says in the next three years, India will see 20 companies in the $1 billion range and 100 companies in the $200 million to $1 billion range. “It’s absolutely possible.”

While the economics of verticals make sense, these companies have their own issues. Over the last 18 months, the play in ecommerce product retail has been all about marketing and customer acquisition. “The cost of acquiring customers has ballooned and stickiness is quite low, so most of the previous customers have to be re-acquired like the new ones. With an average acquisition costing about Rs 500-1,000 per customer, you’re losing money on every transaction in low-value products,” says Devangshu Dutta, CEO, Third Eyesight, a retail consultancy.

Also, a few companies like Bluegape, an online merchandise portal, and Koolkart shut shop as they did not get enough traction. Access to capital is also often an issue.

For BookMyShow, payments continue to be a problem and it is planning to focus on that. “Talent acquisition is another area that we are looking at,” says founder and CEO Ashish Hemrajani. To that end, BookMyShow did a talent drive in association with Accel Partners at the IIMs, ISB and other B-schools.

All said and done, the lure of the verticals and aggregators is here to stay. As Anil Joshi, partner, Unicorn India Venture, an investment fund, puts it, “For smaller investors, verticals are the only option.”

(Published in Forbes India.)

E-commerce to See More M&As in Coming Days, say Experts

Saran Poovanna, The New Indian Express
Bengaluru, 6 March 2015

The turbocharged e-commerce in India may be staring at its second round of consolidation with heightened Mergers & Acquisition (M&A) activity in this space. According to experts, the trend of M&A is set to grow by leaps and bounds.
“Any acquisition or merger will continue to remain good for the ecosystem if it creates significant value. Together, with distinct focus segments on supply and demand, we can continue to grow the market faster,” Anand Subramanian, Director, Marketing Communications at Ola Cabs told Express.
Ola acquired TaxiForSure for over $200 million in March 2015.
In the ‘first round’ of consolidation, homegrown Flipkart bought fashion e-tailer Myntra for around `2,000 crore. Since then there have been many such acquisitions by e-commerce players. Even big companies like Infosys are looking for a piece of the startup pie.

Global consultancy firm PwC has estimated that the sector is expected to grow from $16.4 billion today to over $22 billion by 2015.

The Economic Survey 2014-15 pegged this sector’s growth at 50 per cent in the next 5 years.

“Consolidation is part of the sector and we will see more in the coming days,” said Sangeeta Gupta, Senior Vice-President, Nasscom.

“Consolidation or acquisition by bigger players would help smaller companies with scale,” she said adding this would facilitate a mature market.

E-commerce companies have raised over $4 billion private funding, which have been used for expanding presence and scope and even acquisitions.

Stating that there are two main factors responsible for this, Devangshu Dutta, CEO of retail consultancy, Third Eyesight said that one is that of a push from investors and the other is of acquiring differential capabilities.

“Its faster to acquire a company with a specific capability,” he said and added that if a company waits to build capability organically, then visibility and market opportunity can start to decline.

“Growth can be organic or inorganic,” Anand said and added, “ Inorganic growth in such cases helps leverage strengths that have been built by brands over time.”

On if niche product or technology companies can continue to work without being acquired, Dutta said that this was possible in the long term only.

“In the short term, the environment is tough for niche products companies to sustain themselves,” he said.

(Published in The New Indian Express.)

RIL set for big e-commerce foray to support Reliance Jio, seeks shareholders’ nod

Sagar Malviya, The Economic Times

Mumbai, 5 March 2015

Reliance Industries (RIL) has sought shareholders’ approval to make major forays into the online retail space to cash in on the boom in the country’s e-commerce market that is expected to grow four-fold to almost $70 billion by 2019.

The Mukesh Ambani-run firm included a clause of "operating, establishing, providing and managing e-commerce and m-commerce websites, direct-to-home and mail order services for all categories of products and services, and dealing in all kinds of goods, materials and items in India or in any other part of the world" in a recent notice to its shareholders.

A Reliance Industries spokesman said the activities are closely related to the firm’s initiatives in retailing and digital services which are being implemented through substantial subsidiaries. "This will facilitate creation of value for Reliance shareholders by expanding the scope and breadth of offerings from these two businesses," he said.

The move is part of company chairman Mukesh Ambani’s wider strategy of placing its telecom venture Reliance Jio Infocomm, which is set to launch its 4G mobile and data services this year, at the intersection of "telecom, web and digital commerce" as he mentioned at the company’s AGM last month.

It comes at a time when e-commerce business is growing at a rapid pace in India, with players such as Flipkart, Amazon and Snapdeal luring Indian consumers by offering heavy discounts across products.

According to a joint report by Boston Consulting Group and Retailers Association of India, e-commerce market in the country is expected to quadruple to $60-70 billion, or about 3,72,000-4,34,000 crore, over the next five years. Increasing Internet access through affordable smartphones and efforts by online retailers to develop payment channels such as cash on delivery, mobile wallets and streamlined logistics infrastructure are expected to boost e-commerce growth in the country.

To shore up its nascent e-commerce business, Reliance is expected to reshuffle jobs within the group and not necessarily bring all outsiders. Recently, the group moved Anupama Ahluwalia from Reliance Jio into an expanded role in its retail arm Reliance Retail as chief marketing officer.

At present, Reliance Retail’s online presence is restricted to Reliance Fresh Direct that sells fruits and vegetables and home and personal care products through a virtual store. The company – which operates 2,285 stores across fashion, lifestyle, digital and food segment – dislodged Future Group as the country’s largest retailer by revenues earlier this year.

Experts say its deep pockets and existing retail logistics infrastructure will help Reliance in the e-commerce space.

"While online is a potentially large market, whether Reliance entry could be disruptive is still a question," said Devangshu Dutta, chief executive at retail consultancy Third Eyesight. "The e-commerce sector itself is getting cautious in spending money on marketing and discounting. While the stakes and capital requirement has increased, Reliance has an advantage of having a deep pocket," he said.

Though many retailers in India are struggling with falling store traffic as shoppers make more purchases online, food and grocery retailing still remains predominately insulated.

Yet, several retailers including Future Group and Aditya Birla Retail have either entered or plan to enter e-commerce space, especially when their stores network and warehouse could come handy to cut logistics costs and delivery time.

(Published in The Economic Times.)

To entice buyers, online grocers target the taste buds

Varun Jain, The Economic Times

New Delhi, 2 March 2015

Want to cook an exotic dish just the way Sanjeev Kapoor does it? Gurgaon-based online grocer Meragrocer.com, which launched operations recently and is endorsed by the celebrity chef, will soon start offering a solution: you can order chef special recipe packs that contain all the ingredients in the same quantity that Kapoor uses, along with detailed cooking instructions.

Online grocers such as Meragrocer.com, BigBasket.com and LocalBanya.com are showcasing food recipes and blogs on their websites and selling all-in-one, do-it-yourself kits to engage the customer. They help the consumer pick the right ingredients at the right quantity at one go, to make their favourite food.

"These initiatives are more about sharing knowledge, ensuring consumer loyalty and creating a high brand recall," says Saurabh Chadha, co-founder and COO of meragrocer.com.

Bengaluru-based BigBasket.com is working on the same lines, too.

The way groceries are consumed have changed, says co-founder Vipul Parekh. Today there is a lot of interest in people wanting to try out new cuisine – once they know the recipe, they want to figure out how to cook it and start looking for ingredients. "We are servicing this need of our customers wherein they can see the recipe and then can buy the whole recipe on our site, instead of buying all the ingredients individually which is a difficult task," he says. "The idea is to give everything in the single box."

The importance of putting up recipes is to give the customers another way of shopping for grocery. According to Parekh, this is a channel which e-grocers are looking to exploit, and he is looking to build a full-fledged business around it. This trend is fueled also by cooking shows and food channels that are becoming increasingly popular, he says.

Godrej Nature’s Basket, the premium food retailer owned by the Godrej Group which has reportedly acquired online grocer ekstop.com, has a detailed recipe and food blog section. According to chief executive Mohit Khattar, the food blog and food facts section empowers consumers to learn about ingredients from the best in the business, while the recipe section not just shares easy recipes to recreate world food, but also enables customers to order all the ingredients simultaneously.

Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of retail consultancy firm Third Eyesight, says in India grocery is a category that the customer is willing to explore and experiment with. So any retailer, physical or virtual, that can present new product suggestions frequently can also avoid price-based competition and can look at sustaining better margins, he says. "A great vehicle to do this is to present recipe ideas, especially of cuisines that are unfamiliar, that is from other parts of the country, or from other countries. This can help the retailer side-step commoditisation of their product and service offer."

LocalBanya.com relies more on food blogs than recipes to engage with customers. It has also put up content on the website explaining the use of various ingredients which are not common to Indian households. "While we are selling a lot of rare ingredients which many our customers might not have heard of or maybe they do not know their use or the health benefits associated with them, we thought we have the opportunity to create content around them and educate people and at the same time drive our sales," says co-founder and chief operating officer Rashi Choudhary.

(Published in The Economic Times.)