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Retail 2.019: Navigating by Customer Experience

Do you have this feeling that 2018 went by a little too quickly? Well, however quick it seemed, it was certainly momentous for retail in India.

If 2016 was marked by the shock of demonetization, and 2017 by the pains of GST implementation, 2018 highlighted two threads – the obvious convergence of the online and offline world that had been ignored for far too long, and the interest of foreign capital in India’s consumer world.

Walmart bought India’s loss-making ecommerce leader for an eye-popping US$ 20.8 billion valuation, while ecommerce giant Amazon injecting equity into Shoppers Stop, bought Aditya Birla’s More grocery chain (49 per cent through a back-end entity), and held discussions with Future Group to acquire 9.5 per cent in Future Retail. There were rumours of a mega joint venture between Reliance Retail and China’s Alibaba, and media also reported Japan’s Softbank looking at ploughing US$200 million into Firstcry. Both rivals Amazon and Alibaba were reported to be looking at Spencer’s, one of India’s oldest retail chains currently owned by the RP-Sanjiv Goenka group.

Videos of the crush of curious crowds at India’s first, much anticipated Ikea went viral, and the company said it planned to open 40 locations over the next few years, upping its earlier projection of 25. Chinese retailer Miniso basically came out of nowhere and claimed to have clocked sales of ?700 crores in the very first year in the country.

But along with these cross-border “big bangs” we saw domestic confidence also quietly resurging. Indian retailers are not cowering before large foreign retailers and expensive ecommerce advertising splashes; today they are less defensive about their own prospects than they were two years ago. There is also a growing interest among entrepreneurs and corporates to create new retail businesses, which augers well for the diversity of competition and freshness of offerings in the market.

Going into 2019, one thing I can say with certainty is that the weather, economic and political – both in India and elsewhere – will be unpredictable, and might even turn stormy. Externally, retailers should “expect the unexpected”. To ensure that the business remains on track, however rough the track becomes, retailers must centre all major strategies and decisions on the customer. A theme that has been around for centuries, it is surprising how much it gets ignored in this most customer-facing business.

Retailers tend to divide customers into rigid segments. My suggestion would be to look at customers through the behaviour and experience lens and also recognise that the same customer behaves differently at different times and in different contexts – in effect there are no hard boundaries between “segments”.

It is often emphasised is that Indian consumers are “deal-seeking”. I don’t think we should treat this as a uniquely Indian thing: all consumers look for value-reassurance in unpredictable times and in uncertain conditions. Also remember that even in value-seeking, experience still rules. Retailers and brands that are solely focussing on price or price+feature comparisons are turning their business into a commodity. They are missing the long game: of defining the customer’s experience from the first moment of brand contact to the purchase and beyond.

In 2019, if you want to focus on a single competitive strategy, it would be this: for stickiness and sustainability, think about the customer’s experience, and actively design it, in every environment where the customer connects with you.

Lastly, technology is transformative, but tends to get restricted to being the contrast between ecommerce and physical retail. Indian retailers need to embrace technology in all forms, from using the zillions of transactions within the business and with the customer for developing actionable knowledge, to automating processes where unnecessary cost or time makes the business inefficient.

Having said that, keep the previous rule in mind when deploying at customer-facing technology – make customer-interfacing technology as invisible or intuitive as possible. When in doubt, learn from one of the leaders in the sector, Amazon: its 1-click ordering patent 20 years ago gave it a huge advantage over competitors, and it is now aiming to replicate the same seamless, friction-free behaviour physically with its Dash button. Or pick cues even from younger fashion businesses like Rebecca Minkoff, whose focus is on ease and convenience. The key reason for adopting technology is to remove friction for the customer and for processes that serve the customer.

I have no doubt that 2019 will be eventful – let the customer experience be the guiding light to keep our businesses off the rocks and afloat.

(Published in the Financial Express on 4 January 2019, under the title “Retail in 2019: Need for stronger brand-customer connections that go beyond purchase“)

The Oneness of Retail

Amazon Go; Source-Wikimedia (Brianc333a)

[Accompanying Image credit: Amazon Go; CC/Wikimedia Commons/Brianc333a)]

To many, retail seems to be having an identity crisis.

Closed storefronts on American and European streets and dead malls in India and China are blamed on the growth of online retail. At the same time, the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon, is opening physical stores and buying offline retail operations in the US and in India, while the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, is busy digesting India’s ecommerce market leader. Even India’s online fashion and lifestyle websites – among them Myntra, Firstcry, Yepme and Faballey – are acquiring offline brands or opening stores. Or both.

What in the world is going on?

The short answer: consumers want choice; and retailers have no choice.

For many, ecommerce still seems to have the “new car smell” after more than 20 years, the message pitched so desperately by the founders of and investors in ecommerce companies still echoing: that this “new kid” will make customers’ lives a quintillion times better and wipe out the competition. Two decades on, and hundreds of billions of dollars of investment later, online retail is estimated to be about 12% of the global market. Ecommerce is 10% of the US market, of which Amazon takes up about half. In India the figure is in the vicinity of 2%, with that share is virtually stitched up between Walmart-owned Flipkart Group and Amazon.

Clearly, consumers value offline retail stores, whether for convenience or as holistic brand ambassadors. You can’t take away the fact that retail for us is theatre, experience, social.

Over at physical retail businesses, managers have been terrified of “channel conflict”. Senior management have squeezed resources for online, even when return-on-capital was demonstrably better than a new store. Some have refused to publicise their own company’s website through in-store banners, fearing that the customers would get sucked away from the store. It has been strange to see this opportunity being passed up – if a customer is trusts you to walk into your physical store, why would you not want to connect with them at other points of time when they are not near your store?

As I’ve written earlier, retail is not and should not be divided between “old-world physical” and “upstart online”. Successful retailers and brands have always been able to integrate multiple channels and environments to reach their customers.

For instance, British fashion retailer Next has long used a combination of physical stores (of varying sizes) as well as mail order catalogue side-by-side, and then ecommerce as the digital medium grew. Another British retailer, Argos, took another angle and embedded a catalogue inside the physical store – first a paper catalogue, and then on-screen.

American designer Rebecca Minkoff has taken this unification further. Without the weight of legacy systems, the brand attempts to create a seamless experience for the customer, unifying the store, in-store digital interfaces such as smart dressing rooms, the website and the mobile.

No doubt, for older companies, integrating is tough; business systems and people are in disconnected silos, incentivised narrowly. Each channel needs different mindsets, capabilities, processes and systems, to ensure that the optimal customer experience appropriate for the interface, whether it is a store, mobile app, website or catalogue. But etailers opening physical stores have their own challenges, too, tackling the messy slowness of the physical world, where you can’t instantly switch the store layout after an A:B test. They now need to develop those very “old-world skills” and overheads that they thought they would never need.

Regardless of where they begin, retailers need to mould and blend their business models with proficiency across channels. In the evolving environment, any brand or retailer must aim to offer as seamless an experience to the customer as feasible, where the customer never feels disconnected from the brand.

Varying circumstances make customers choose different buying environments. At different times or on different days of the week, even the same person may choose to shop in entirely different ways. Successful retailers that outlast their competitors have used a variety of formats and channels to meet their customers, and will continue to do so.

To my mind, retailers have no choice but to see the retail business as one, even as it is fluid and evolving. A retailer’s only choice is to bend with the customer’s choice.

(Published in the Financial Express under the title “Uniting retail: Why online versus offline debate must end“)

One Ring That Rules Them All

In this piece I’ll just focus on one aspect of technology – artificial intelligence or AI – that is likely to shape many aspects of the retail business and the consumer’s experience over the coming years.

To be able to see the scope of its potential all-pervasive impact we need to go beyond our expectations of humanoid robots. We also need to understand that artificial intelligence works on a cycle of several mutually supportive elements that enable learning and adaptation. The terms “big data” and “analytics” have been bandied about a lot, but have had limited impact so far in the retail business because it usually only touches the first two, at most three, of the necessary elements.

Elements in Operationalizing Big Data and AI

“Big data” models still depend on individuals in the business taking decisions and acting based on what is recommended or suggested by the analytics outputs, and these tend to be weak links which break the learning-adaptation chain. Of course, each of these elements can also have AI built in, for refinement over time.

Certainly retailers with a digital (web or mobile) presence are in a better position to use and benefit from AI, but that is no excuse for others to “roll over and die”. I’ll list just a few aspects of the business already being impacted and others that are likely to be in the future.

  1. Know the customer: The most obvious building block is the collection of customer data and teasing out patterns from it. This has been around so long that it is surprising what a small fraction of retailers have an effective customer database. While we live in a world that is increasingly drowning in information, most retailers continue to collect and look at very few data points, and are essentially institutionally “blind” about the customers they are serving.
    However, with digital transactions increasing, and compute and analytical capability steadily become less expensive and more flexible via the cloud, information streams from not only the retailers’ own transactions but multiple sources can be tied together to achieve an ever-better view of the customer’s behaviour.
  2. Prediction and Response: Not only do we expect “intelligence” to identify, categorise and analyse information streaming in from the world better, but to be able to anticipate what might happen and also to respond appropriately.
    Predictive analytics have been around in the retail world for more than a decade, but are still used by remarkably few retailers. At the most basic level, this can take the form of unidirectional reminders and prompts which help to drive sales. Remember the anecdote of Target (USA) sending maternity promotions based on analytics to a young lady whose family was unaware of her pregnancy?
    However, even automated service bots are becoming more common online, that can interact with customers who have queries or problems to address, and will get steadily more sophisticated with time. We are already having conversations with Siri, Google, Alexa and Cortana – why not with the retail store?
  3. Visual and descriptive recognition: We can describe to another human being a shirt or dress that we want or call for something to match an existing garment. Now imagine doing the same with a virtual sales assistant which, powered by image recognition and deep learning, brings forward the appropriate suggestions. Wouldn’t that reduce shopping time and the frustration that goes with the fruitless trawling through hundreds of items?
  4. Augmented and virtual reality: Retailers and brands are already taking tiny steps in this area which I described in another piece a year ago (“Retail Integrated”) so I won’t repeat myself. Augmented reality, supported by AI, can help retail retain its power as an immersive and experiential activity, rather than becoming purely transaction-driven.

On the consumer-side, AI can deliver a far higher degree of personalisation of the experience than has been feasible in the last few decades. While I’ve described different aspects, now see them as layers one built on the other, and imagine the shopping experience you might have as a consumer. If the scenario seems as if it might be from a sci-fi movie, just give it a few years. After all, moving staircases and remote viewing were also fantasy once.

On the business end it potentially offers both flexibility and efficiency, rather than one at the cost of the other. But we’ll have to tackle that area in a separate piece.

(Also published in the Business Standard.)

Grow Up To Find Growth

In 2016, brick-and-mortar modern retailers seemed to have begun recovering their confidence, and cautiously investing in expansion. However, currency shortage has significantly dampened demand at the end of the year. The hangover would continue into the first half of 2017, and consumers could be muted overall on discretionary purchases, including fashion, mobile upgrades and out-of-home dining.

On the other hand, while digital transactions introduce a note of caution (friction) in the consumer’s purchase decision, for e-tailers they do reduce complexity, cash-handling costs and potential returns which could provide significant unexpected wins.

I’ve written about this for years, and don’t tire of reiterating: the retail sector must recognise that shopping is a unified activity for the consumer; physical stores and non-store environments are alternative but complementary channels. Brands can and must use whatever channel mix works for them, and brick-and-mortar retailers need to invest in creating an integrated growth blueprint towards “unified commerce”.

On their part, while e-commerce companies are constrained by FDI policy, they will need to invest more in developing “old economy” strengths – strong product differentiation and distinguishable brands. Fashion, accessories, home decor and other lifestyle products are strong drivers of gross margin for all multi-product retailers, and e-commerce players struggling on the path to profit would focus on these even more, as well as on private labels. They also need to have management teams that are able to cast their minds 3-5 years into the future, while keeping close watch on immediate cash flows. Capital is available, but turning risk-averse. All businesses need to focus on up-skilling their teams, retaining good people, improving processes and adopting technology. In recent years, growth in the retail sector seems to have been driven by a “spray-and-pray” approach, not necessarily management sophistication. Spending like there’s no tomorrow is a sure way to no tomorrow.

In short, 2017 could be the year where the entire retail sector grows up – a lot. We hope.

(This piece was published in The Hindu – Businessline on 29 December 2016).

Hyperlocals, Aggregators: Developing the Ecosystem

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.

Retail Integrated – the Best of Both Worlds

Retailers seem to be fighting a losing battle against the growth of ecommerce, and it is only the nature of the shopping activity, especially for fashion – interactive, social, and immersive as it is – that has kept many retailers relevant and in business.

However, the defensive stance is changing, and now they’re using technology to get the customers back into the store. Forward-thinking retailers are reimagining trial rooms, stores, business processes and entire business models. It’s not a physical versus virtual approach but an approach that integrates both sides. The idea is to create a more immersive experience than pure digital retail can be, using some of the same tools as ecommerce.

It is important to remember that the whole retail environment is a “suggestive” environment. Due to cost and other operational factors most retailers are ill-equipped to provide appropriate levels of excitement, suggestion and support during the browsing and buying process.

For many, the simplest move could be screens serving up their catalogue to customers within the store. For instance, US department store chain Kohl’s has initiated connected fitting rooms that identify products the customer is carrying, and bring up not only those items onscreen, but additional colours and sizes that are available. If the customer wants an alternative, a message goes to a sales associate who can fetch the requested option. Macy’s and Bloomingdales are using tablets in the trial rooms, while Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Rebecca Minkoff are attempting to boost their fashion sales using magic mirrors to provide similar enablement. These devices and the processes empower and involve the customer far more, while leaving store staff free for other activities.

A step up, Puma is using “virtual trials” for its apparel products by having a customer take images of herself in specific positions, and then mapping styles on their own images to visualise how they might look. While this needs more work and investment, this is still only a more developed product browser technique from the customer’s point-of-view.

The next level, augmented reality trials and virtual fit, are significantly more sophisticated at creating simulations of a selected garment image draping and falling on the customer’s body even as he or she moves normally. Imaging and texturing of the simulated garments is technically challenging and expensive, repeated for each new style and option. The imaging also needs to mimic the “wearer’s” movements. Nevertheless, retailers such as Polo Ralph Lauren are finding it worth their while to investigate these new technologies, as these reintroduce the much needed “theatre” that are integral to a successful retailer.

For the customer virtualisation expands the number of items “taken” into the trial room, and creates more convenient product discovery. More products can be seen in the same shopping time, and sharing of images and videos with friends and family, engages them in the shopping process as well.

For retailers, the benefits multiply. Inventory can be optimised, and there is reduced handling and shrinkage. Even without sales associates, it is feasible to prompt for alternatives and related products, improving conversion and transaction values, reducing space and costs of physical trial rooms, and increasing the number of customers serviced especially at peak traffic times.

A phenomenal advantage is the data captured that is relevant while the customer is in the store, but which can be linked to future promotions. Valuable intelligence, such as what is being tried and for how long, can help the retailer to quickly gauge demand patterns, and adjust pricing and promotions. Normally retailers only capture sales transactions (post-fact), and miss out the rich information on in-store behaviour that etailers do collect and analyse.

However, massive hurdles to virtualisation remain, including data input accuracy, product accuracy, and the technical capabilities of the tech solution adopted. A bigger concern is whether technology is intuitive and seamless, or whether it gets in the way of the shopping experience. Further, consumers do have privacy concerns about the images and other data collected.

Its important to remind ourselves that, on its own, technology is just a novelty – huge transformation of business processes, organisational capabilities and behaviours must happen as well.

That is perhaps the biggest mountain to climb.

The Next New Thing: A Retail Store

Much has been written recently, with more than a touch of surprise, about ecommerce companies opening physical retail stores. Whether it is Amazon, Birchbox and Bonobos in the US, Spartoo in France, Astley Clarke in the UK or FirstCry and Flipkart in India, young tech-based ecommerce businesses are adopting the ways of the dinosaur retailers that they were apparently going to drive into extinction.

Perhaps, the seeds of the surprise lie in the perception that the ecommerce companies themselves built for their investors, the media and the public, that it was only a matter of time that the traditional retail model would be dead.

Or perhaps we should pin it on their investors for keeping the companies on the “pure-play” path so far – venture funds that have invested in ecommerce have largely taken the view that the more “asset-light” the business, the better it is; so they’re far happier spending on technology development, marketing, salaries, and even rent, than on stores and inventory.

After a bloody discounting and marketing battle, in a few short years, there are now a handful of ecommerce businesses left standing in a field littered with dead ecommerce bodies, surrounded by many seriously wounded physical retailers who are trying to pick up unfamiliar technology weapons. And their worlds are merging.

Which is a Stronger Building Material – Bricks or Clicks?

Online business models offer some clear strengths. Etailers have a reach that is unlimited by time and geography – the web store is always up and available wherever the etailer chooses to deliver its products.

An ecommerce brand’s inventory is potentially more optimised, because it is held in one location or a few locations, rather than being spread out in retail stores all across the market including in those stores where it may not be needed.

However, we forget that consumers don’t really care to have their choices and shopping behaviour dictated by the business plans of ecommerce companies or their investors. The fact is that physical retail environments do have distinct advantages, as etailers are now discovering.

omnichannel-2

Firstly, shopping is as much an experiential occasion as it is a transaction comprising of products and money. In fact, the word “theatre” has been used often in the retail business. For products that have a touch-feel element, the physical retail environment continues to be preferred by the customer. Of course, there are products that could be picked off a website with little consideration to the retail environment. For standard products such as diapers or a pair of basic headphones, online convenience may win over the need for a physical experience. However, non-standard products such as apparel or jewellery lend themselves to experiential buying, where a physical retail store definitely has an edge.

Shopping in a physical retail environment is also a social and participative activity. We take our friends or family along, we ask for their opinion and get it real-time. The physical retail environment lends itself to the consumer being immersed in multiple sensory experiences at the same time. These aspects are not replicable even remotely to the same degree by online social sharing of browsed products, wish-lists and purchases, nor by virtual smell and touch (at least not yet!).

In a market that is dominated by advertising noise, a physical store also helps to create a more direct and stronger connect for the consumer with the brand than any website or app can. An offline presence creates credibility for a brand, especially in an environment where online sales are dominated by discounts and deals, and many brands have risen and fallen online in the customer’s eyes during the last 3-4 years.

As a matter of fact, every store acts as a powerful walk-in billboard for the brand. If used well, the store conveys brand messages more powerfully than pure advertisements in any form. This reality has been embraced by retailers for decades, as they have created concept stores and flagship stores in locations with rents and operating costs that are otherwise unviable, except when you see it as a marketing investment.

Showrooming vs. Webrooming

As ecommerce has grown and brands have become available across channels, offline and online, the retail sector has been faced with a new challenge: customers browsing through products in the store, but placing orders with ecommerce sites that offered them the best deal. This obviously meant that retailers were, in a sense, running expensive showrooms (without compensation) on behalf of the ecommerce companies! The industry adopted the term “showrooming” to describe the phenomenon.

However, ecommerce businesses are now getting a taste of their own medicine as retailers are benefitting from a reverse traffic.

Consumers have now started using websites to conveniently do comparative shopping without leaving the comfort of their homes, and collect information on product features and prices but, once the product choice has been narrowed down, the final decision and the actual purchase takes place in a physical store.

This is described with a slightly unwieldy term, “webrooming”. This is one among the reasons that lead to consumers abandoning browsing sessions and carts when they’re online.

Bricks AND Clicks

The wide split between offline and online channels is mainly because traditional offline retailers have been slow to adopt online and mobile shopping environments.

Most physical retailers around the world have approached ecommerce as an after-thought, with a “we also do this” kind of an approach. Ecommerce has typically been a small part of their business, and not typically a focus area for top management. So, in most cases the consumer’s attitude has also reflected these retailers’ own indifference to their ecommerce presence. However, due to the accelerating penetration of mobiles, tablets and other digital devices, a serious online transactional presence is now vital for any retailer that wants to remain top of the consumer’s list.

On the other hand, ecommerce companies, as mentioned earlier, have so far mainly stuck to “pure-play” online presence due to their own reasons. However, with passage of time there is bound to be a convergence and eventually a fusion between channels.

The Journey to Omnichannel

Omnichannel today, in my opinion, is still more a buzzword today than a reality. Being truly omnichannel requires the brand or retailer to offer a seamless experience to the customer where the customer never feels disconnected from the brand, regardless of the channel being used during the information seeking, purchase and delivery process. For instance, a customer might seek initial comparative information online, step into a department store to try a product, pay for it online, have the product delivered at home, and be provided after-sales support by a service franchisee of the brand.

Very few companies can claim to offer a true omnichannel experience, due to internal informational and management barriers. However, having an effective multi-channel presence is the first step to creating this, since operating across different channels needs a completely different management mind-set from the original single-channel business. Having a presence across different channel means that a retailer will need to juggle the diverse needs. Capabilities, processes and systems that are fine-tuned for one channel, may not be fully optimal for another channel. This requires the retailer to restructure its organisation, systems and processes to handle the different service requirements of the various channels.

For instance, brick-and-mortar retailers moving online need to rethink in terms of the service (“always open”), speed (“right now”), and scale (“everywhere”). A traditional retail organisation is seldom agile enough to work well with the new technology-enabled channels as well.

An etailer opening physical stores, on the other hand, needs to embrace product ranging and merchandising skills to allocate appropriate inventory to various locations, as well as the ability to create and maintain a credible, distinctive store environment – in essence, inculcating old-world skills and overheads that they thought they would never need.

The retail business is not divided black-or-white between old-world physical retailers and the upstart online kids – at least the consumer doesn’t think so.

Retailers need to and will see themselves logically serving customers across multiple channels that are appropriate for their product mix. They need to mould their business models until they achieve balance, proficiency and excellence across channels, and eventually become truly omnichannel businesses. It doesn’t matter from which side of the digital divide they began.

Amazon enters India

Amazon has beta-launched a consumer-facing business in India with its comparison shopping site Junglee.com.

The company has been engaged with India as a support and development centre for several years now, and its traffic and business from India has also grown steadily ever since it started shipping products to the country.

Given the critical mass that is now becoming visible in the Indian e-commerce market, it is logical for Amazon to look at a more direct customer-facing presence here. Its recent moves to set up a fulfillment centre and now the Junglee.com launch certainly look like precursors to a retail launch, whenever the government allows foreign investment multi-brand retail businesses.

Junglee’s current business model is technically not a retail business since the actual transaction would happen on Amazon and websites of other retailers whose product listings it is aggregating.

In the short term, Junglee could be a beneficial partner to existing e-commerce retailers, since Amazon’s robust technology and know-how would become available as a platform, and it would also provide an additional channel for customer traffic. However, with time, Junglee could well become a sizeable competitor for primary traffic which otherwise would have landed directly on the retailers’ own websites. Smaller e-tailers who sign up with Junglee may also find it harder to break away into an independent presence.

The benefit to Amazon, of course, is developing the customer base for a future Amazon-India site, and achieving much deeper insights on customer shopping behavior in India than it possibly gets from the Indian customers transacting on Amazon’s non-Indian websites.

With time, and as Amazon takes a deeper plunge into the market, Indian customers who have enjoyed the Amazon experience remotely can certainly look forward to a wider choice of products at lower costs and with quicker deliveries.

The e-tailing sunrise, finally?

Amazon went public in 1997, when there were a total of 50 million internet users in the world. I remember making my first purchase on Amazon in 1998, and being delighted at the experience of finding something specific, quickly and conveniently. Over the next few months, a “revolutionary” fashion site in Europe – boo.com – raised and spent more than US$ 100 million of venture funding, and heralded a world under the domination of dotcoms.

A few short months later, chatting with a journalist in New Delhi, I found that India too had caught the dotcom bug. We weighed the pros and cons of retail on the internet in India. The previous year, ecommerce sites in India were estimated to have transacted all of Rs. 120-160 million (US$ 2.7-3.7 million) worth of business, but the figure looked set to explode.

I felt then that while the growth could be rapid, even exponential over the next few years, the outcome would still be a very small fraction of the total retail business in the country. We estimated that by 2005 e-commerce in India could be anywhere between Rs 5 billion and Rs. 15 billion on a best case scenario. Despite several apparent advantages in the online business model, the outcome depended on a variety of factors including internet penetration, the appearance of value-propositions that were meaningful to Indian consumers, investments in fulfilment infrastructure and the development of payment infrastructure.

In fact, by the middle of the decade the business had reached just under halfway on that scale, at about Rs 8-9 billion (US$ 180-200 million), despite 25 million Indians being online. Dotcoms became labelled dot-cons, with an estimated 1,000 companies closing down. The retail business discovered a new darling – shopping centres – which pulled funding away for another explosion, that of physical retail space.

The Second Coming

Today, though, dotcoms seem to be back with a vengeance.

The Indian e-commerce sector has received more than US$ 200 million investment in the last couple of years. Now India’s Amazon-wannabe Flipkart alone is looking to raise approximately that amount of money from private equity funds in the next few months, to push forward its aggressive growth plan.

Estimates for internet users in India vary between 80 million and 100 million, and the total business transacted online is projected to cross Rs 465 billion (US$ 10 billion). Online, the Indian consumer seems spoilt for choice, with offers ranging from cheap watches, expensive jewellery, speciality footwear, premium fashionwear, the latest books to feed the intellect, and organic foods to satisfy the body.

However, a closer analysis shows that product sales (or “e-tailing”) are still straggling, being forecast at about Rs. 27 billion (around US$ 550 million) in 2011, which would be merely 6 per cent of all e-commerce, and just about 0.1 per cent of the estimated total retail market. 80 per cent of the business remains travel related, with airline and railway bookings taking the lion’s share, and most of the rest is made up of services that can be delivered online.

The success of online travel bookings shows that the consumer is increasingly comfortable spending online. While a low credit card penetration remains a barrier in India, websites and payment gateways have created alternative methods that give the consumer a higher degree of confidence, including one-time cards through net-banking, direct debits from bank accounts, mobile payments, and, if all else fails, cash on delivery.

An e-tailing presence offers “timeless” access without physical boundaries. For a retail business, reducing and replacing the cost of running multiple stores, with their heavy overheads (rent and store salaries being the largest chunks) seems like a dream come true.

Similarly, merchandise planning and forecasting is typically fraught with error and multiple stores only compound the problem. An internet presence can minimise the number of inventory-holding points, thus reducing the error margins significantly. These factors should, in theory, make the online business more efficient and the value proposition more compelling for the consumer.

Then why isn’t e-tailing growing faster?

Barriers to Growth

The answer is that, while the online population is bigger and payment is no longer the hurdle that it once was, there are two other critical factors that have changed only marginally and incrementally over the years: the consistency of products and how effectively orders are fulfilled. With an airline or a train ticket, one has a reasonable idea of the product or service that will be delivered. Unfortunately this isn’t true of the online merchandise trade, which is plagued by poor products, poor service and, as a result, low consumer confidence.

Individual companies, of course, are spending a large amount of management effort as well as money, to ensure consistency. For instance, the team at Exclusively.in told us how they fretted over design, (including the thread and the number of stitches in the embroidered logo on the T-shirts) to ensure that the final product had a “rich” feel and to ensure that their product in quality to some of the most desirable brands in the market. Flipkart highlights its in-house logistics operations to ensure high service levels, in addition to using traditional courier and postal services.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that the consumer’s confidence can only be built over a period of time, by constantly providing consistent product quality and high levels of service. Businesses need to spend a few years before they achieve a “critical mass” in this area.

This issue of confidence is more of a problem in some products, due to their very nature. For instance, buying fashion and accessories online is very different from buying a book online.

Businesses such as Amazon have made it more convenient for the customer to search for books, compare them with others on the same subject, and read reviews before finally deciding to buy the book. But, even more importantly, they now also allow us to preview some of the pages or sections, so that we can do what we do in a bookshop – flip through the text, to get a sense of whether the book actually speaks to us. However, when we think of putting fashion products online, the problem that immediately comes to mind is that there is no effective way yet of the consumer getting a similar touch-feel experience. Avatars and virtual placement are a poor substitute to holding the product and physically placing it on oneself.

Accessories – such as jewellery and watches – are an easier sell than clothing and footwear, and if we could classify mobile phones and other electronic items also as “fashion accessories”, then we can declare the online accessory market a runaway hit. As long as the product quality and the accuracy of the picture depicting the product are high or consistent with the offer, it is the pricing and convenience that will drive business growth online, and the business can benefit from all the efficiencies inherent in the online model.

However, with clothing and footwear two major concerns remain: sizing and fit. For the answer to why this is so, we need to remember the fact that these are indeed two separate barriers. There are usually anywhere between three to six sizes options in any product, sometimes more (especially if you account for half-sizes in shoes). This translates into 3-6 times the complexity of managing inventory and, at the very least, doubles the possibility of returns (since customers may order multiple sizes to discover one that fits them). However, the other aspect is perhaps even more important and a bigger problem: fit also depends on styling, not just the size. We know from our own experiences in buying clothing and shoes that the same size in two different products does not mean that they will fit in a similar manner. This is less acute for clothing, especially products such as T-shirts, shirts and blouses which may have some allowance around the body, but is absolutely critical for shoes, which must fit close to the feet.

The American online shoe retailer Zappos – also owned by Amazon now – has found a way to overcome this barrier by offering free shipping both ways (i.e. for delivery to the customer and for any products that need to be returned), a 365 day return policy and a process whose final objective is customer-delight. As long as the product is in the same condition as it was when it was first delivered to the customer, Zappos accepts returns at no cost to the customer.

On the other hand, Indian sites Bestylish.com and Yebhi.com (also now owner of Bigshoebazaar.com) have different policies to deal with returns, but both are less flexible and less customer-friendly than the Zappos policy mentioned above.

I’m sure the Indian websites have sound commercial principles and clear strategic reasons for structuring their policies as they have, but it certainly presents a significant barrier to customers who may be debating whether to buy shoes online or buy offline after trying the shoes on. Unfortunately, the convenience factor is just not a big enough driver yet to overcome the fit barrier for most customers.

Among other products, the food and grocery category stands out as having the largest chunk of the consumer’s wallet. However, selling this electronically is a challenge, especially since the biggest driver of purchase frequency is fresh produce that is tough to handle even in conventional retail stores in India, let alone via non-store environments.

However, grocery retailers could ride on the back of standardised products, if they can overcome the challenge of delivering efficiently and quickly.

Another barrier is the desirability of shopping online versus offline. Management pundits may borrow Powerpoint slides from their western counterparts, describing “time-poor and cash-rich” customers for whom the internet is the most logical shopping source. This holds true for a small base of Indian consumers, but for most people product-shopping remains predominantly a high-touch activity and a social experience to be enjoyed with friends and family. In spite of the inconvenience related to driving and parking conditions, the pleasure of walking into a physical store has not diminished. If anything, during the last five years the “retail theatre” has become capable of attracting more customers with better stores and better shopping infrastructure. The convenience of shopping online is just not compelling enough for most of India’s consumers.

Emerging Opportunities

On the plus-side, consumers located in the smaller Indian cities, with less access to many of the traditional brand stores, are finding the online channel a useful alternative. However, fulfilling these orders in a timely and cost-effective manner remains a challenge for most companies.

One potential growth area is the “clicks and bricks” combination for existing retailers. Indeed, worldwide, leading retailers have moved on from multichannel strategies to being “omnichannel” – present in every location, format or occasion where their consumer can possibly be reached. Many of the chains in India have gained the trust and goodwill needed to tip the customer over to online shopping. However, for them the challenge would be to ensure that the internet presence is designed for an excellent user experience and serviced in a dedicated manner, just as any flagship store would, rather than as an online afterthought.

Retailers who have achieved a high degree of penetration and consumer confidence can also use a combination of “sell online, service offline” in locations where they have critical mass, as first demonstrated successfully by Tesco in the UK.

Delivery-oriented food services are a potential winner for consumers in urban centres in India who are pressed for time, again on the back of standardised service and product offerings, and their existing delivery mechanisms. For instance, quick-service major Domino’s, which hits 400 outlets this year, already has 10% of its annual sales coming from internet orders within just a year of launching the service, and that share is expected to double in the next year. What’s more, the online orders are reported to be of higher value than its other delivery orders. All in all, a phenomenal shift for the brand that promises delivery within “30 minutes or free”.

There is no doubt that e-tailing will grow in India. The confluence of increasing incomes, a growing online population, improving connectivity, and more businesses starting up on the net will lead to what would be “stupendous” year-on-year growth figures. We can expect the e-tailing revenues to be between Rs. 50 billion and Rs. 80 billion by 2015.

However, we need to remember that this will still be a very small share in the total pie, because the rest of the retail business is evolving and growing rapidly as well. Costs of acquiring and retaining customers will remain high and only increase, cost-effective fulfilment and high service levels will continue to worry most players. Per capita spends are also not going to be helped by discount-driven websites.

It is not a false dawn for e-tailing in India but, to my mind, the sun is as yet below the horizon despite the recent sky-high venture valuations.

Teams that are building for an exit must remember: most are likely to never achieve one. If you are losing money on every transaction, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future, there is no future. Entrepreneurs and investors who are being over-enthusiastic and blithely ignoring the real costs of doing business may be in for their darkest hour.

However, those who are careful in tending to their flickering flames and have a longer term view of remaining in the business, may get to see their own e-tailing sunrise in the next few years.

(Updated in November 2011.)