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Whoever said anti-ageing creams and iPhones are urban fads

Soumonty Kanungo, Daily News & Analysis (DNA)

Mumbai, 20 July 2015

Buying an anti-ageing or anti-wrinkle cream online is no longer an urban phenomenon. A growing number of women from smaller towns are busy placing orders for such products these days, thanks to the increasing rural penetration of e-commerce companies.

If e-retailers are to be believed, customers from tier-3 and tier-4 towns and beyond are growing aspirational and on their shopping lists are products like microwave ovens, dishwashers and high-tech smart phones.

Sridhar Gundaiah, founder and CEO, StoreKing, a Bangalore-based assisted e-commerce company having a large rural and semi-rural target base, told dna, "Around 70% of the country’s $600 billion retail market is in rural belt. People in small towns and villages too are aspirational and have spending power, though the consumption pattern could be different."

The company, which came up with a hybrid model to reach out to rural areas with poor internet connectivity, sells about 100 of anti-ageing creams per day and 100 of microwave ovens per week. Gundaiah said another fast selling product is smartphones, which includes iphones as well.

Expensive smart phones in areas with low net connectivity? Gundaiah says they are mainly purchased for the sake of a good camera. "They want a phone with a good image and video recording option," he said.

Another best selling items are garments. Harish Bijoor, brand-expert & CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc., said, "Rural folk are very excited about two things today – garments of every kind and the mobile phone. Expect this to deepen to adjacent categories very fast."

Thanks to its population and economic development, the small towns and rural India offer a huge growth opportunity which marketers cannot afford to overlook.

Devangshu Dutta, chief executive, Third Eyesight, said, "Rural markets are enormous in terms of population, but there is a supply-side gap in terms of retail stores, brand mix and product range available. E-tailers can expand outreach and create demand among customers who are otherwise under-served."

Ankur Bisen, senior vice-president, retail & consumer products division of Technopak, said, "Nearly 50% of the country’s retail of $589 billion comes from rural India. Right now, the penetration of e-commerce in rural India is zero. So the market opportunity is nearly $300 billion."

In reality, the relevance and fit of the e-commerce model of business, is best attuned for rural markets, feels Bijoor. "Rural people have the money and desire, but are distanced from markets physically. E-commerce can bridge this gap and deliver. The model needs to be tweaked a bit though," he said.

To tap this potential, most players in the e-commerce space are trying to enter the rural market. However, logistics being a challenge, most of these companies have been able to reach out only till tier III and IV towns, which are different from the actual rural markets.

Bisen of Technopak pointed out that rural is defined as clusters where more than 50% of the households depend on agriculture as the primary source of income. Bijoor also said, "Rural is deeper still, tier 3-6, and then R1 to R6. E-commerce can go up to R1 and R2. Beyond that, it is unviable to reach."

The logistic challenge is the main reason why the vast rural market is still under-served by e-commerce companies. Gundaiah of StoreKing said the last mile reach is a challenge and thus cracking it through assisted e-commerce route, where a customer goes to a kiosk, place order and then collects it, is the best way. StoreKing has developed its own logistic network as a third-party courier will never reach a rural market.

Assisted e-commerce, according to Bisen, is a thought in the right direction because it takes care of user experience, customer literacy and helps the customer to overcome many barriers retailed to technology, device, and language, etc. "Such out of the box thinking can only enable initiation of e-commerce in rural India. A cookie cutter urban approach for rural markets will not cut ice," he said.

To bridge the gap, leading online marketplace player Snapdeal is also actively assessing partnerships opportunities in logistics space. The company is betting big on the rural opportunities as well.

According to Dutta of Third Eyesight, to service the demand created by webstore, a cost-effective fulfillment infrastructure is required. "The government-run India Post, with its countrywide delivery capability, has been pitched at various times as a potential delivery partner, but has its own challenges and restrictions," he said.

(Published in DNA.)

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