Shambhavi Anand, Economic Times
New Delhi, May 24, 2023
Retailers and shopkeepers will soon not be allowed to seek phone numbers of their customers while generating bills, according to a diktat by the department of consumer affairs, a senior government official said.
Taking the numbers of customers without their “express consent” is a breach and encroachment of privacy, said the official, without wanting to be identified.
The official added that such a move will be classified as an unfair trading practice defined as any business practice or act that is deceptive, fraudulent, or causes injury to a consumer.
Most large retailers mandatorily take down buyers’ phone numbers while generating the bill for their purchases and use them for loyalty programmes or sending push messages.
The move has come after the department received several complaints from consumers about retailers insisting on getting their phone numbers. This will be communicated to all retailers through industry bodies representing retailers soon, the official added.
While the implementation of these new rules may require some adjustments and initial costs for retailers, it is seen as a necessary step towards protecting consumer privacy and ensuring fair business practices in the retail sector, said experts.
While retailers will have to rework their systems in case this becomes a regulation, this won’t stop them from asking for phone numbers of consumers as their loyalty programmes run on these numbers, said Devangshu Dutta, founder of Third Eyesight, a retail consultancy firm.
He added that retailers also use numbers for sending e-invoices and so this could have a cost impact and environmental impact.
(Published in Economic Times)
Written By Akanksha Nagar
Urban Company aims to bring quality, innovation and affordability to the unorganised beauty services market
As the pandemic started hammering the business, a sizeable number of beauty professionals who worked at salons jumped onto the up and coming tech-enabled home services marketplaces.
The bulk of the Indian beauty services industry remains unorganised and fragmented, dominated by expensive salon brands or small players that offer dubious products, inconsistent service and unsolicited advice. With a push from the pandemic-led restrictions, there has been a sudden rise of a clutch of organised, on-demand players that offer professional beauty care services in situ. Urban Company, for one, has witnessed a big rise in service calls in recent months, driven by rising aspiration levels and disposable income, and the growing demand for standardised and safe in-home services. The segment contributes over 40% of the total revenue for the company already. As per published documents, the firm posted a 13.8% increase in revenue from operations to `239 crore in FY21 compared to `210 crore in FY20.
According to Expert Market Research report, the Indian beauty and personal care industry attained a value of `54,558 crore in 2020, and is set to grow at a CAGR of 11% in the 2022-27 period. Of this, the Indian salon market, which stood at `55,000 crore in FY20, is expected to touch a whopping `2 trillion in FY25, at a CAGR of 28%.
Numbers aside, the spread of the Covid pandemic forced the industry to switch to reverse gear as many salons shut down permanently or closed down unviable outlets just to stay afloat. Enrich Beauty which had salons in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Ahmedabad, for instance, shut down five salons since 2020, bringing the total count down to 83.
As the pandemic started hammering the business, a sizeable number of beauty professionals who worked at salons jumped onto the up and coming tech-enabled home services marketplaces. Says Anand Ramanathan, partner, Deloitte India, “Service aggregator marketplaces have helped increase organisation and bring standardisation in delivery.” It was a win-win for both the customer and the brand. Brands could directly engage with the end consumers and the customer was assured quality—of both the products used and the services rendered.
Mukund Kulashekaran, chief business officer, Urban Company, says the fundamental shift in the beauty service market has been in terms of improved quality. As long as the market remained fragmented, there was zero investment in training or upgradation of services, or in product innovation. None of the small regional players really had the wherewithal to take that leap.
Focus on quality
Urban Company devoted a lot of time and attention to training the service providers while also pursuing innovations to raise the standard of the products on offer. While it uses a number of high-end brands, it has also begun to develop its own to make its services more accessible and compete on a larger scale. It operates three levels of salons: the luxury (average ticket size `2,500), the mid-mass premium (`1,200), and the classic, which is at the economy end of the spectrum (`750) and uses proprietary products for the classic and mid-mass premium segments.
Quality is assured by continuous testing and keeping a sharp eye on customer feedback. There is also significant investment in training and automation. It currently has an in-house team of over 200 full-time trainers across 50 cities. It is stepping up investments in technology to both improve product quality and to act promptly on feedback.
The firm had introduced in-home hair and nail services for women amid the pandemic, which, Kulashekaran says, has scaled quite well. Demand for men’s salon services, launched right before the pandemic, has increased from 20,000 transactions pre-pandemic to as high as 150,000 transactions per month. It launched a Skin Clinic for laser and advanced facials in seven cities and has signed on more than two million clients already.
In terms of geographical spread, while the top ten cities account for more than 80% of its revenue, non-metros are rising fast in terms of revenue share.
The company prioritises brand-related communication rather than performance-related. The focus is more on the video medium than the click-through media. So the focus area is TV, but YouTube in case of a targeted campaign.
In the next stage of expansion its communication strategy will be key. Jagdeep Kapoor, founder, chairman and MD, Samsika Marketing Consultants, says that while expanding beyond metros the brand has to be less urban in terms of perception and imagery and take into account the culture and taboos, and the differing definition of beauty.
Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting, says to keep up the pace of growth the brand has to invest in its service providers, and not just its customers. This is a business model that will not be difficult to replicate. The trick will be to incentivise the beauty care technicians so that they are able to offer high-quality services to the customer and have little reason to join a rival brand. The thing to remember: Like most other service businesses, beauticians too can bypass the company and establish direct relationships with customers — a phenomenon that has plagued the ride hailing and ride share services in India.
BOX: Staying on track (Insights from Devangshu Dutta, CEO, Third Eyesight)
Three factors that will determine success
• The customer sees the aggregation platform as the “provider” of service, rather than a listing agency. So the company needs to totally own the customer experience, end-to-end.
• Ensuring quality of service consistently is the biggest enabler for growth.
• Over time, UC has moved to this “ownership” of the experience, which does mean additional investment, but also pays off in the end.
Three factors that might undo the good work:
• If it doesn’t keep working on customer experience ownership, it could slip
• Margins/commissions need to be reasonable, otherwise, service professionals may abandon the platform
• Given the high customer acquisition costs, it has to drive repeats rather than one-time or low-frequency purchases.
Written By Mihir Dalal
(From left to right) Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart, which owns Flipkart; Mukesh Ambani, chairman and MD of RIL; Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon
BENGALURU : Last month, Nimit Jain, an entrepreneur, ordered biscuits, shampoo, toothpaste and other items for his family in Kota. He used JioMart—the new online shopping app by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited—lured by its low prices and freebies.
JioMart was to deliver the order within two days, but Jain’s family didn’t receive the items on time and JioMart didn’t inform Jain about the delay. The delivery was done four days after he had placed the order, a few hours after Jain had complained to the firm via email and Twitter.
A few products were missing, Jain’s parents informed him. It took time to figure out the missing items because the details of the order weren’t available on the app. Jain had paid online and asked JioMart for a partial refund. Instead of receiving an acknowledgement for his refund request, he received a response for his previous email about the delay in delivery. Five days later, Jain got a refund.
Mumbai-based Jain, a computer science graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, usually orders groceries from BigBasket and sometimes from Dunzo. He said that he doesn’t plan to use JioMart again.
“A couple of my friends and relatives (in Mumbai and Kota) have also had similarly bad experiences. It doesn’t look like JioMart is ready for online groceries. Their operations and customer care teams weren’t in sync,” Jain said.
Since JioMart expanded to more than 200 cities this summer, scores of customers like Jain have complained about missing products, delayed deliveries and generally poor service. Still, industry executives say that while its service levels have been inconsistent, JioMart is registering similar order volumes to BigBasket, the largest e-grocer, on the back of aggressive marketing and discounts.
These volumes still comprise a small fraction of the overall business of Amazon India and Walmart-owned Flipkart, the two dominant online retailers. But that’s because JioMart is only selling groceries now; it plans to sell other products like fashion and electronics soon. It’s clear that after many years of talk and hype, Reliance, which owns India’s largest offline retail chain, is finally becoming a serious challenger to Amazon and Flipkart, as well as BigBasket and Grofers.
Still, industry executives, logistics firms, consultants and analysts that Mint spoke with said that Reliance will find it tough to break the dominance of Amazon-Flipkart in e-commerce, similar to how Walmart is struggling to challenge Amazon in digital sales in the US even as its stores continue to prosper. Amazon and Flipkart both have deep pockets, proven expertise in e-commerce, popular brands and good knowledge of the Indian market.
“Reliance has the financial muscle, but Walmart (Flipkart) and Amazon are no pushovers,” said Harminder Sahni, managing director, Wazir Advisors, a consultancy. “Today, most people who want to shop online are happy with Flipkart and Amazon. These companies have achieved significant scale and have very few weaknesses. As a latecomer, it will be very difficult for Reliance to make a big dent in the market.”
Reliance did not respond to an emailed questionnaire seeking comment.
Local internet powerhouse
During the pandemic, Reliance has not only moved fast to make inroads into the e-commerce market, it has also consolidated its leadership in organized offline retail. Last month, Reliance bought most of the businesses of Future Group for about $3.4 billion in a deal that will take its retail footprint to nearly 14,000 stores—by far, the largest in India.
In the past six months, Reliance has raised more than $21 billion for its digital unit Jio Platforms. This month, Reliance kickstarted a separate fund-raising spree for its retail unit, Reliance Retail, bagging about $1.8 billion from private equity firms Silver Lake and KKR, two of the investors in Jio. Several more investment firms, including other shareholders in Jio, are expected to join them.
These moves are part of Reliance’s efforts to transform itself into a 21stcentury digital behemoth. It is positioning itself as India’s answer to Amazon, Facebook, Google, Alibaba and other world-class digital giants, and unlike local startups like Flipkart, Ola and Paytm that have or had similar ambitions, Reliance enjoys some unparalleled advantages.
It is now accepted wisdom among politicians and regulators that India needs a ‘local’ internet powerhouse to counter the dominance of America’s Big Tech and the growing influence of Chinese firms, partly because of sovereignty concerns. Reliance’s mastery in lobbying and its political clout makes the firm best-placed to exploit this urgent establishment need to find a domestic internet powerhouse.
Amazon, Flipkart, Facebook and others face many policy-related restrictions that not only serve as obstacles to them but pave the way for domestic firms led by Reliance to enter the fray. For instance, foreign investment rules prevent Amazon and Flipkart from owning inventory or selling private labels (though critics say that these firms do it anyway using clever legal workarounds), while Reliance has no such constraints. Apart from a supportive policy environment and huge capital resources, on the business front, too, Reliance has an enviable digital distribution network and reservoir of customer data on account of Jio.
But despite these formidable advantages, Reliance has yet to prove that it has the chops to realise its ambitious vision.
The war among Reliance and Flipkart and Amazon and other internet firms is also not restricted to retail, but will extend to other sectors like financial services, content and business-to-business commerce. The technology-centric nature of the battle is more suited to the internet companies than to Reliance. There’s little doubt that Reliance will be a major player in the digital business, but the jury’s out on how much value the firm can corner. Its foray in e-commerce and B2B will provide early answers to this question.
After JioMart began testing its service late last year, media reports said that the company would deliver products to customers from local kirana stores. After Facebook invested in Jio in April in a deal that included a business partnership between JioMart and WhatsApp, Ambani said that JioMart would soon connect some 3 crore kirana stores with their neighbourhood customers.
Many analysts, too, expect the partnership with WhatsApp, the most popular app in India, to be a game-changer. In July, Goldman Sachs estimated that Reliance’s entry will help expand the online grocery market by 20 times to about $29 billion by 2024. Reliance’s partnership with Facebook could help the firm become the leader in e-grocery and garner a market share of more than 50% by 2024, Goldman said.
But Mint learns that Reliance is sourcing a majority of orders on JioMart in many cities through Reliance Retail’s supply chain; only a small number of orders are served through kirana stores. JioMart is signing up a few thousand kirana stores every month, but its expansion is happening at a slower rate than many analysts expect. Two industry executives said that JioMart’s average order value is lower than that of other e-grocers, which means that Reliance is losing larger amounts of money on every order.
According to one e-commerce executive, for BigBasket and Grofers, the delivery cost is about 3-4% of the average order value, which exceeds ₹1000. For Reliance, the delivery cost is presently much higher because its order value is below ₹800. The lower order value is partly because most of JioMart’s 200 city-markets are non-metros. BigBasket and others generate an overwhelming majority of their business from the metros. Reliance is betting on expanding the e-grocery market rather, than taking market share from incumbents, which generate an overwhelming majority of their sales from 10-15 cities. But while Reliance may be able to attract customers in smaller cities initially with discounts, profitability will be tough.
“The economics of serving metros are very different from the rest of India. In the mass market, bill values are much, much lower. Right now, Reliance’s main focus is to scale JioMart, so they aren’t worried about the delivery cost,” the executive cited above said. “But eventually, reality will catch up, and they will have to increase basket sizes because this model isn’t sustainable. Grocery has very thin margins to start with. “
Private label push
One obvious way for Reliance to boost margins is by selling more private label products. In the grocery category, Reliance Retail already generates 14% of its revenues from private labels. People familiar with Reliance’s plans said that the company wants to push its private label products to kirana stores. While there are hundreds of well-known brands in FMCG, the grocery category (products like rice, pulses and flour) is largely unstructured. Reliance plans to sell its private label products both in grocery and FMCG.
Apart from retail, Reliance is also rapidly expanding its B2B business. Its private label products form a key component of its retail and wholesale business plans, the people cited above said.
The private label push, however, is making large FMCG companies like Hindustan Unilever, Marico and Dabur, which sell competing products, wary of working with Reliance’s B2B arm.
Like Flipkart and Amazon, which are also expanding their B2B businesses, Reliance’s grand vision over time is to have an integrated ecosystem of wholesale and retail in which it connects consumer goods makers with kirana stores and retailers, supplies a large number of private label products across many categories to retailers and end-customers, and becomes the biggest omnichannel retail firm in the country. But realising this vision will require Reliance to work seamlessly with millions of kirana stores, thousands of brands, modern retailers (all of which will see the firm as a rival to an extent)—and provide exceptional service in a profitable manner to retail customers.
Analysts and industry executives said that Reliance has a higher probability of finding success in categories like fashion (in which it already runs a portal called Ajio) and grocery that are mostly unorganised and have a shortage of established brands. In these categories, Reliance faces fewer barriers from existing players and has a better chance of pushing its private labels in both the wholesale and retail markets. But in categories like electronics and FMCG, which are dominated by entrenched brands, kirana stores and e-commerce firms, Reliance may struggle to scale as fast.
For instance, Flipkart and Amazon dominate online sales of electronics and fashion, which together comprise more than 75% of all e-commerce. To win significant share in electronics, Reliance will have to spend enormous amounts on discounts, marketing and offering favourable terms to brands . But, in fashion, Reliance can tap its low-priced private labels to lure customers without resorting to value destruction.
“The market is too varied for one player to be big in all categories,” an investment banker said. “Reliance will have to carefully choose its battles. There’s a risk that it may spread itself too thin, so it’s wise for them to have started with grocery.”
Meanwhile, while Google and Facebook have together invested more than $10 billion in Reliance, both companies are continuing to expand their own businesses in India. Google and Facebook have ambitions to enter e-commerce and expand in other sectors like payments and content. What this means is that while Google and Facebook will end up collaborating with Reliance in some areas, they will also compete with the firm in others, joining Flipkart and Amazon in the war of the digital conglomerates.
Flipkart and Amazon have already stepped up their lobbying efforts with the emergence of Reliance as a threat. Because of the pandemic that has made e-commerce indispensable, there has been a thaw in the government’s attitude towards the US e-commerce firms. A more antagonistic attitude may return when the pandemic passes.
Eventually, though, the war will be decided by customers. Here, experts are divided on whether Reliance will emerge as the winner. “Reliance still has to do a lot more on getting the customer experience in place, but given the strides they’ve made, it is well-placed to compete in the digital space,” said Devangshu Dutta, head of retail consultancy firm Third Eyesight.
Written By Sangeeta Tanwar
Two of India’s leading retail chains are currently preparing the ground for their full-fledged e-commerce forays, albeit in totally different ways.
While the Kishore Biyani-led Future Group, which operates the popular Big Bazaar hypermarket chain, is busy listing its labels on Amazon, rival Reliance Retail is withdrawing its products from all e-commerce platforms, as parent Reliance Industries (RIL) gears up to launch its own online marketplace.
For both the traditional players, cracking online sales is important as they prepare for a future beyond high street retail.
Online sales in India will balloon from last year’s $18 billion (Rs1.25 lakh crore) to $170 billion by 2030, Jefferies India predicted recently. This potential aside, Indian e-commerce is still nascent and retailers are still perfecting their strategies.
“E-commerce is now a game of two dimensions, one of scale and the other of last-mile ubiquity. Whoever gets this right, will manage growth, revenue, and customer acquisition,” said Anil V Pillai, director of the independent marketing firm Terragni Consulting.
As for the Future Group, it thinks the best way to achieve this is by riding piggyback on Amazon’s proven capabilities in scale and last-mile delivery.
How the plan evolved
In 2016, the Future Group had made its first e-commerce acquisition by buying out the struggling furniture retailer FabFurnish from its German incubator Rocket Internet. Biyani had hoped to find synergies between the startup and his group’s furniture brand Hometown.
A year later, hit by heavy losses, FabFurnish was shuttered. Biyani downplayed the move saying his losses were “compensated” as the company had learnt “enough” from the episode.
The move now to partner Amazon seems to have stemmed from that learning.
Over the past month, the two have been trying to make joint plans, including in distribution, warehousing, and creating products for Amazon and its grocery format, Pantry. Also, Future group brands, including Big Bazaar, are being aligned with Amazon Now, which promises delivery of everyday essentials within two hours, suggest media reports.
A more serious handicap will be Amazon controlling Future Group’s data and customer relationships in the partnership. “In e-commerce, ownership of customer relationship and data, which offers consumer insights, is the real asset,” points out Devangshu Dutta, CEO of Third Eyesight, a consulting firm focussed on retail and consumer products.
Vianello agrees: “When you have your own e-commerce venture, as Reliance Retail plans, you are the owner of the data and you can slice and dice it to come up with exciting product offerings and improved service experience.”
This is one of the advantages that RIL might have seen in going it alone.
“Reliance Retail has taken a more integrated approach towards e-commerce,” observed Dutta. “The company is set to leverage its pan-India retail presence and Reliance Jio’s (RIL’s telecom business) data capabilities to roll out an e-commerce platform,” explained Dutta.
The synergy between Reliance Jio and Reliance Retail is a big advantage. The retailer has about 10,000 stores across 6,500 towns in India, while Jio has a subscriber base of 306 million. After bringing many Indians online with Jio’s affordable data offerings, Reliance now hopes to get most of them to start shopping online as well.
The challenge, though, would be in getting the last-mile delivery right. “Reliance Retail could be at a disadvantage here compared to the Future Group, which has its delivery mechanism in place courtesy its partnership with Amazon,” suggested Vianello.
Moreover, like with Jio, consumers will expect heavy discounts from Reliance’s e-commerce venture as well, which may be difficult to sustain given the initial investments. “Biyani’s (online) launch involves lower upfront costs, while Reliance Retail’s will be resource hungry since it’s an almost greenfield project,” pointed out Pillai, adding, “Reliance’s challenge is the overwhelming perception about the group being a price warrior and disrupter.”
So, which strategy will triumph? Everything comes down to execution. “Success in retail, including e-commerce, is about more and more customers choosing to transact with you repeatedly. Achieving this is a difficult and ongoing process. There are no guaranteed or permanent winners,” says Dutta.
Aggregator models and hyperlocal delivery, in theory, have some significant advantages over existing business models.
Unlike an inventory-based model, aggregation is asset-light, allowing rapid building of critical mass. A start-up can tap into existing infrastructure, as a bridge between existing retailers and the consumer. By tapping into fleeting consumption opportunities, the aggregator can actually drive new demand to the retailer in the short term.
A hyperlocal delivery business can concentrate on understanding the nuances of a customer group in a small geographic area and spend its management and financial resources to develop a viable presence more intensively.
However, both business models are typically constrained for margins, especially in categories such as food and grocery. As volume builds up, it’s feasible for the aggregator to transition at least part if not the entire business to an inventory-based model for improved fulfilment and better margins. By doing so the aggregator would, therefore, transition itself to being the retailer.
Customer acquisition has become very expensive over the last couple of years, with marketplaces and online retailers having driven up advertising costs – on top of that, customer stickiness is very low, which means that the platform has to spend similar amounts of money to re-acquire a large chunk of customers for each transaction.
The aggregator model also needs intensive recruitment of supply-side relationships. A key metric for an aggregator’s success is the number of local merchants it can mobilise quickly. After the initial intensive recruitment the merchants need to be equipped to use the platform optimally and also need to be able to handle the demand generated.
Most importantly, the acquisitions on both sides – merchants and customers – need to move in step as they are mutually-reinforcing. If done well, this can provide a higher stickiness with the consumer, which is a significant success outcome.
For all the attention paid to the entry and expansion of multinational retailers and nationwide ecommerce growth, retail remains predominantly a local activity. The differences among customers based on where they live or are located currently and the immediacy of their needs continue to drive diversity of shopping habits and the unpredictability of demand. Services and information based products may be delivered remotely, but with physical products local retailers do still have a better chance of servicing the consumer.
What has been missing on the part of local vendors is the ability to use web technologies to provide access to their customers at a time and in a way that is convenient for the customers. Also, importantly, their visibility and the ability to attract customer footfall has been negatively affected by ecommerce in the last 2 years. With penetration of mobile internet across a variety of income segments, conditions are today far more conducive for highly localised and aggregation-oriented services. So a hyperlocal platform that focusses on creating better visibility for small businesses, and connecting them with customers who have a need for their products and services, is an opportunity that is begging to be addressed.
It is likely that each locality will end up having two strong players: a market leader and a follower. For a hyperlocal to fit into either role, it is critical to rapidly create viability in each location it targets, and – in order to build overall scale and continued attractiveness for investors – quickly move on to replicate the model in another location, and then another. They can become potential acquisition targets for larger ecommerce companies, which could acquire to not only take out potential competition but also to imbibe the learnings and capabilities needed to deal with demand microcosms.
High stake bets are being placed on this table – and some being lost with business closures – but the game is far from being played out yet.