Showing posts with label ecommerce. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ecommerce. Show all posts

Sunday, December 12, 2021

The day to say “Thank you”


This year, I am fortunate to celebrate RED – Retail Employees Day with over 500 front end staff in my team at Specsmakers. What started on 12/12 a decade back in a few retail chains who were part of Retailers Association of India (RAI) has become an annual event now with hundreds of Retailers across the country saluting and celebrating the spirit of lakhs of frontend workforce across thousands of retail stores. The day is an important one in the annual HR-led celebration of every retail company today and in the current times, with the risky environment in which the employees brave to work is stupendous. May their attitudes soar higher and may they achieve greater name and fame in times to come. 



Looking back at myself, I started as a frontend retail staff in an ice-cream parlour as a part time employee way back in 1997 in Chennai. It was the city’s first and the country’s second parlour for US fast food chain “Baskin Robbins” and was located on the way to the Marina Beach, at Mylapore. I studied B.Com (UG) at Vivekananda College, Ramakrishna Mission in the evening from 4pm – 8pm and learnt computer languages at NIIT in the morning from 7am – 9am. During the day from 11am – 3pm, I would scoop ice-cream and desserts and learn the ropes of retailing and customer service. At the end of my computer course which coincided with my third year UG, I decided to continue my focus in the same field that I had been groomed for over 2 years, ending up in a PG in Marketing. Thereafter, my first job was as a Store Manager with RPG Retail’s formats including Musicworld and Foodworld as a Management Trainee. As days and years pass by, I thank everyday my stars, my peers, my former & current bosses and of course, the customers of various businesses that I have been associated with – due to which I remain an eternal student of retail forever. 

 

Early in my career, I chose the tagline “Retailer by Profession & Choice”. Over time, this appeared on my resume, my LinkedIn profile and as my introduction at 100s of seminars on Retail that I have been privileged to address to students at B-Schools, employees and entrepreneurs over the past twenty years. And there are two strong reasons for choosing this tagline: One, I wanted to have something similar to how global iconic brands have (or had) – “Yeh Dil Maange More”, for example. Something, that can be related to me and only me when someone refers about me. Second, back in the new Millennium, Retail was not a preferred job, forget it being considered an Industry. It was widely said that UGs and PGs who didn’t get a proper job in Manufacturing, Banking or IT/ITES industries ended up as an FMCG Salesman or even worse, as a manager or a deputy in a “retail showroom”. Even managerial jobs in Retailing were considered lowly from a socio-economic point of view until around 2010 when the Industry started looking up – thanks to the emergence of Malls, huge network of retail chain stores and the growth of Indian business houses such as The Future Group, Tata Westside and eventually, Reliance Retail in 2008 as well as entry and scaling up of International Retailers and Brands such as Marks & Spencer, Zara, etc. taking wings and soaring high in India across Tier 1/2/3 towns. 


Today, a job in retailing is not just a coveted one but fiercely competitive too. For mid-level and senior level roles, the competition is quite high with as many as 4-5 candidates making it all the way to the final, meeting the CEO / Top management to clear the last round. I was quite excited and privileged to be a part of the celebrations at a few stores at Specsmakers today, my current organisation, cheering the staff and being with them. This is a day to thank my compatriots for their service, dedication and hard work, rain or shine. Kudos!

Thursday, December 9, 2021

The race to go Omnichannel

 Earlier this week, I had been to Kanchipuram, around 90kms west of Chennai on store visits to review the team’s performance. While I have been doing these visits for over 15 years now, what I love most about the trips is the local cuisine I love to enjoy. However, being a long and hard working day, I chose to have a quick bite and not the usual fare from the quaint town which is famous for its numerous temples. My colleague and I decided to eat a pizza thinking it would be quick and the restaurant, less crowded. I was wrong on both counts. Most of the 10 tables were crowded. Barring two which had business-attired guests, all others were a family crowd, including kids. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, I hardly expected such an outing in a Tier 3 town like this one. We profiled the customers and were raving about the economic transformation happening in smaller towns. All this while we were waiting for over 20 mins for our beloved pizzas.

When I first went to the cashier to order and enquired about Combos (or deals), she immediately asked me to order online, for they would have better discounts than in-store. Coming from the cashier herself, I was stunned – and I am guessing this would have been an informal gag ordained by her seniors and managers. Or maybe, not. Perhaps, she was simply helping a customer to get the best deal possible. Giving her a benefit of doubt, I hail her levels of customer service and caring offered to us. To my surprise, the online offer was way better than what we would get “at the counter”. Just that instead of home delivery, I had to click “take-away”. Sans the delivery time, the pizza and add-ons took the same time as otherwise. We spent as much time eating the maida-laced grub as much we spent waiting for them to arrive. As I chewed the vegetables, I was wondering what is it with the recent race to go omni-channel (or Phygital) as many retailers and brands claim to be.



Reliance Retail is experimenting with a 30 minute delivery possibility while Big Bazaar has already pioneered a 3 hr door delivery – both for orders placed online. This is in direct competition to Swiggy’s Instamart which promises delivery in less than 60 mins while newbie Zepto is assuring 10 mins delivery for essentials. Only difference being Reliance Fresh and Big Bazaar deliver from their offline retail stores while the e-commerce portals deliver from warehouses or “ghost stores”. Even as the pandemic hit the roof, fashion brands like Levis, Indian Terrain, Ethos watch boutique, Hidesign leatherware and eyewear retail chain Lenskart and many more set forth their e-commerce websites stronger than ever before, giving discerning customers an opportunity to buy clothes and accessories online. As the offline stores started reopening after the first and second wave of the pandemic-enforced lockdown, customers have started coming to the physical stores though the online entities remain as they were and there is a continued thrust and focus by the companies to push the vertical. In fact, many companies had invested heavily in creating online categories to cater to the audience due to FoMo even as their competition was lacing it up. 


Meanwhile, Amazon is planning to open hundreds of offline retail stores in the US & the UK across formats such as Fresh, Go and the coveted 4-Star stores which stock merchandise that have atleast 4-star or more reviews and ratings on it’s website and Apps. Back in India, Big Basket has opened it’s first ever physical retail outlet in Bangalore while talks are on that Flipkart will also launch similar experiential stores in India’s tech capital Bangalore. Chinese mobile & electronics brand Xiaomi now has several such stores across India known as “Mi Home” which showcases the company’s innovations and prowess. But one can place orders for these models only online and some only on it’s own digital assets which in turn get delivered to the customers. Samsung & LG meanwhile are converting their offline stores in to display-only formats while delivery happens from a warehouse nearby. Reliance Retail formats Fresh and Digital are pioneering “order offline, delivery at home” model while Croma has already been allowing the reverse - “order online pick at the store!” 



While on one side it certainly looks logical to have an e-commerce transaction model, the bigger question is do consumers really need it. Before I try to disprove or prove the hypothesis, I also reckon there is no one right answer, atleast for now. Going by the recent BlackFriday to Cyber Monday Thanksgiving Sales in the USA, which is the peak shopping period in the country and China’s Singles Day sales on 11/11 every year – both of which were tepid and beyond a surprise to brands and retailers, it is well established that e-commerce shopping is here to stay for the long term. In India though, things are not so crystal clear. While Amazon’s month long sale in October ahead of Deepavali and Flipkart’s Big Billion Day Sales garnered a lot of interest, it is also combined with wholesale shopping – in other words, shopkeepers buying stuff to resell. The fact that customers are back at Malls and local shopping areas is testimony to the fact that India is really an offline led market. So I wonder why brands and retailers are pushing the envelope to be everything to everyone. The coveted One Size Fits All (OSFA) model simply doesn’t work in India – be it footwear sizes or those for shirts or trousers – and also for business models. What works in the Western World may or simply may not work in our land. And Brands & Retailers must come to terms with this. 


While on one side, precious dollars are being spent on building and maintaining shopping websites (and Apps) for the sake of customers, what companies do not realise is that it also distracts and confuses customers on their current and future purchase pattern. If consumers are used to shopping in a particular way for a while, there is a high chance that habits are formed. As the saying goes, Habits die hard. Once a pattern is established, going back the other way is difficult. Unless companies are sure to continue with the service – e-commerce & omni-channel in this case, it is best not to experiment something which cannot be continued in the long run. In the garb of Omni-channel Retailing, many Brands are taking that extra effort just to appease their Investors, the Board and in many cases, to simply make the business owners happy. Tall ask.


While there is no doubt Omni-channel is the way forward, it really is NOT the only way forward. The sooner, we as Retailers & Professionals realise this, is best for our own peace!

Saturday, May 8, 2021

The E-commerce conundrum in Food Delivery

I was present at the India Retail Forum in 2012 at Mumbai’s Renaissance Hotel. The annual event was a carnival of sorts for Retailers across the country. Images Retail, the magazine publisher’s flagship event attracted thousands of retail enthusiasts every year and the year 2012 was a landmark one. This was when there was a cooling down in the Indian Retail story which scaled peak heights at the time. An estimated 350+ Malls were operational all over India and another 300 were in the making. India was touted to have 1,000 operational Malls by the year 2020 (which didn’t happen, obviously). Each mall would have atleast 250+ vanilla stores, 5-6 Anchor tenants and High Street rents had doubled in less than a decade. 

During an interactive session, Mr. Kishore Biyani, Founder and CEO of the Future Group was asked what went wrong with the group – this was the period the Group saw one of its toughest times in their history ever since they started operations in 1987 with their first ever company Manz Wear Pvt. Ltd. which sold suiting and shirting in Calcutta by the name and style of “Pantaloons” which was a combo-word of Pants and Patloons. Kishore Ji quipped that “they wanted to be everything to everyone” and hence a few things collapsed while a few stood tall and successful. The group’s e-commerce outing FutureBazaar.com was a colossal failure and couldn’t compete with a start-up named “Flipkart” (in 2012-13). So ironic looking back now. Their attempts to go “phygital” just didn’t work. Grocery e-commerce was unheard off and hyperlocal as a strategy didn’t even exist or was scripted. 


From running neighbourhood grocery shops measuring 1,000 sft. to running the Central chain of Malls across India, a hypermarket which redefined grocery and household products shopping in India, food courts and home improvement stores, joint-ventures with F&B chains and even a chain of kiosks by the name “ChaMosa” , which as the name suggests sold Chai, Samosas and may things more, the group was in to every format of retail which was in the book and which wasn’t. But the smart and suave entrepreneur that he is, Kishore ji exited his first love – “Pantaloons” store chain for Rs. 1,600 Crores to Aditya Birla Retail and pared an equal amount of debt driving the company back to success, profits and growth, eventually. 


Same is the case right now with many restaurants who wish to manage door delivery of food to customers. Off late, there has been a growing disquiet between the F&B houses – chains as well as neighbourhood standalone ones with the Food Tech companies such as Zomato, Swiggy among others. And the main bone of contention is that the tech platforms are overcharging the businesses – ranging from 20-45% towards discovery, discounts and delivery of food items to customers. What the restaurants believe is that these companies are mere delivery platforms. What the Food Tech companies are – are much beyond that. 


In India, eating out is “entertainment”. People dress up, wear make-up, connect with family and friends to step out for a meal – whether it is to celebrate a birthday or anniversary, salary weekend or just a casual outing. The premium that bars, pubs and restaurants have been commanding for “dining in” in India is not just for the great food, but also for providing an enjoyable and safe setting for individuals and cohorts of people to spend their time. So, more the premium a location is, the more expensive is the food (a cup of Coffee or Dal-Roti at a local restaurant vs. a  premium restaurant in a Mall, or a Star hotel & so on!). 


Assuming that patrons would keep paying more for the “setting” coupled with decent food, many restaurants across India have been charging a premium which has only been on the rise over the years. Even in a fiercely competitive category like pizzas – where Dominos specialises in take-aways vs. PH offering world-class dining options, prices of pizzas have remained more or less the same though Dominos saves immensely serving pizzas even to in-house guests in corrugated boxes with plastic chairs and tables. The likes of McD or BK have not been able to churn out profits like elsewhere in the world due to this continued focus on the restaurant format, the ambience and expected service standards. For Ex., India is probably the only country where we consumers expect someone to clear the paper packaging on which Burgers and Colas are served. So, the “cost of housekeeping” increases the business cost.


Now that consumers have been used to door delivery of F&B, mostly during the last 12 months and even before the pandemic began, the footfalls at restaurants for dining has dwindled. Sadly, most restaurant chains have not kept up with times and have followed their traditional ways of operating the business with the same kind of dine-in behaviour which today, unfortunately is becoming an expensive affair. With a total lockdown announced across some of the major towns in the country, restaurants are unable to operate the dining facility though the Government has allowed multiple delivery options. 


Now, what the Food-Tech companies have done, obviously is to charge consumers for deliveries and also charge a hefty commission from restaurants to catch-up on their hereditary losses – though am not sure if this model is sustainable. Even when the “Unlock” began around Aug. ‘20, many restaurants failed to convert their business model with a deeper focus on takeaways and deliveries, instead waited with bated breath for customers to keep pouring in. Until the second wave hit us and which has hit us very, very hard that there is no looking back now and consumers becoming weary to venture out, even after the so-called second wave slows down sometime in Jun. ‘21.


The ongoing tussle between the Restaurants and Food-Tech companies (I refuse to call them delivery partners because they are not just that) has reached a tipping point now that many restaurants are pulling off some of these platforms and are instead using pure-play delivery partners such as Dunzo, Shadowfax, Delhivery among others and / or are merely using their staff and waiters to deliver the food items. To opine the least, this is a disaster in the making.  The waiters and staff are not the “delivery person” material as their skill sets are quite different. But now, due to an imminent loss of livelihood, I believe they would double up their roles until they find their fitment elsewhere. 


To believe that each one is cut-out for the other’s business model is a myth. We saw how many so-called “Cloud kitchens” were created by the Food-Tech platforms which have not grown beyond a point. I am no one to judge but I guess, it’s best for the service providers to simply focus on their core skills so we consumers can keep at it without breaking this chain of discovery, ordering and reordering. Whether the players are listening to, is anyone’s guess.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Marketing or Sales – Take your pick?

I participated in a professional debate after a very long time last week. The Topic was “Marketing or Sales - Take your Pick” organised by TiE Chennai. Quite obviously I was given the topic of Sales and the co-speaker was a much senior person to me with vast experience in Marketing & Lead Generation. The Moderator conducted the session very well asking some uncomfortable questions on behalf of the august audience who were all members of TiE Chennai and many of them young Entrepreneurs. The topic was more in the scheme of Entrepreneurship and Start-Ups. For a young Start-up, be it 1 month old or 3 years old (Oh, btw, Flipkart and Ola are not start-ups anymore – the unofficial timeframe that is globally accepted for a new business to be called a Start-up is only 5 years!), should it put its focus, money and effort on Marketing (Offline or Online) or on getting the first Sale (and successive Sales) therefore effectively in building a Sales Team which will eventually build a Sales pipeline. The jury was out that evening, as decided by the Moderator and “Sales” won the topic of the day hands down. However, my co-speaker as well as a few in the audience (and some of my friends too) had a different view. Many felt that a product becomes a Brand only because of it’s Marketing, Promotions, Brand Recall and so on. 


Here’s my take. If a Brand is only remembered for it’s Marketing and probably not for its Sales, then it is, perhaps not selling enough! There’s a good old saying that a good product doesn’t need Marketing. Then there is evoking, invoking and hard selling the theories of Ace Marketing Professor Peter F Drucker (with which accompanies loads of 2 decade old emotions from University PG days) by one and all. I am of the humble opinion that Marketing, in it’s true definition and application has truly changed in the last 3 decades, more so in the last decade with the emergence of the Millenials and Gen Z as consumers of products and services.

For Ex., the newest Indian Interest which are the Food hailing Apps, affectionately (sic) known in the Start-Up ecosystem as “FoodTech” – apparently using technology to sell food (hic). Companies that are funded by Wall St., the Chinese and the Japanese, tease customers who order through the App with deep discounts, at times 50% or more effectively making a mockery of the efforts of the Restaurateurs who prefer to align with these Apps for the fear of losing out to competition. Interestingly, none of these discounts are offered in most cases by the Restaurants themselves, rather by the FoodTech companies – in order to acquire new customers and retain existing ones. The so called coupon codes aka cost of acquiring new customers is shown as Marketing – for convenience purposes as well as for the Balance Sheet. So, what was traditionally known as a one off “Sampling exercise” has now morphed in to this. Most e-commerce companies that sprang up in the past 10 years or so have effectively used this tactic to raise more funding. This, I do not call as Marketing. Cut to bigger and established consumer brands who offer 10% extra Shampoo or 15 gms extra of Biscuits and 20% more of Air in packs of Chips for the same price – No, this I do not call Marketing either. 


The core principles of Marketing haven’t died, they have just been tweaked conveniently to suit new age Marketing Campaigns, created by new age Marketers, approved by new-age Marketing Standards to please new-age Millenials and Gen-Z Consumers. Be it is a Start-Up or a Larger company, if you are not selling enough to fund your cash flows, you will cease to exist in the short term, no matter how strong a brand equity you build. Everyone is not as lucky as a Flipkart or Idea Mobile. 

I have been a firm believer of the adage, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. In the recent Tamil film “Petta”, there’s a conversation between two friends how a Facebook video garnered thousands of likes and shares to which another quips, if these could fetch him a beer. This is the reality of the so called new-age Marketing. Even as we felt that the physical sampling of audience viewership by Research Firms was a dubious exercise, today’s digital marketing metrics are not just dubious but futile. In fact, most of today’s new-age techniques do not have a conversion to sale, thereby making the money and most importantly the time invested in the exercise, a gross wastage.


Yet, there’s so much hype for Marketing a new product or service without giving it the much needed Sales push. There’s only so much Marketing can do, finally the product has to sell. And sell again and again for the company to remain in business. Be it a Start-Up or an established one. Take your pick.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Food E-Commerce – Disruption or Disaster?

Food E-Commerce – Disruption or Disaster?
There has always been a dichotomy – does Technology make us better (more productive) or lazier? The jury is still out. 

Ever since Uber Eats launched in Chennai a year back, I have been a big fan of this ordering service. While food delivery has been around for many years now, it was with the advent of funded Start-ups in Bangalore half a decade back that this mode of reaching customers became more mainstream. Restaurants of all sizes started tapping on these small companies run by 20 somethings usually which would pick up food and deliver to the doorsteps of customers. During my decade long stay in Bangalore, almost every second weekend, we would visit a restaurant and atleast once a month would be a house-party at a friend or friends’ friend place. Invariably, the food wouldn’t reach on time and it would be served in basic plastic containers (and sometimes in aluminium foils) – mostly cold. The Microwave (another retail revolution) at every Bangalorean’s home (almost) was just a saving grace. Cut to 2014, start-ups were delivering food packets all day and night and through the midnight in some cases, what with same households making multiple orders in a span of 3 hours, perhaps for starters, main course and even deserts and ice-cream. Business was good, everyone thought.


Until restaurants started feeling the pinch. Companies like Swiggy and Foodpanda who were charging low single digit commission from eateries slowly increased their rates which was hurting the restaurants. Over time, the eateries had no option but to increase their Menu prices, exclusively for online purchases. Customers, as always are smarter than we think. So, they started making their choices wisely. Which saw a slump in orders for the Startups as well as Restaurants. Valuations dipped, so did re-Investments. This was a vicious cycle. Many restaurants (a lot of them start-ups too) went out of business because of this rigged phenomenon. However, thanks to a slowing economy and poor offtake of the over all economy, amongst other things impacing our day today lives such as Demonitisation, GST, hike in Cinema Ticket Prices, Mall Parking Charges and so on, consumer visits to retail centres reduced and there was an indirect positive impact in food e-commerce. Things are back now to some extent, with many restaurants reporting as much as over 25% of their business coming through the digital platforms, of course with higher prices (to consumers). 

Cut to 2017, Uber launched Uber Eats, a digital ordering platform akin to their cab hailing service. Just like how Uber Cabs were charging below their cost of operations, Food delivery was unbelievably cheaper. To increase “stickiness” – a word abused by E-Commerce companies for a decade, Uber started with Zero delivery charges for the first few weeks, so consumers experienced their world class (sic) delivery service. No doubt, App downloads swelled and today perhaps has more active users than other platforms, thanks to their EDLP akin to Wal-Mart & Sears: Everyday Low Prices on Food items. Quite literally. In fact, for ardent users of Uber Eats, the App is actually a discovery App. Every time they open the App, there is a new addition of a restaurant and wonderful prices, mostly predatory. And of course, some of the previous names (of restaurants) would be missing for obvious reasons.


When I experienced one such surprise last month, a flask of Tea and 3 Samosas were offered at half the price by Uber Eats with a Rs. 10 delivery fee. Today when I ordered, it was offered at 33% discount. I still ordered because it was absolute VFM. I guess in a few days, they would straighten up the prices but the Delivery Fee would remain low, thereby retaining the customers. I only wonder how long this party would last. Needless, there is abundance PE Money lying out there. But is this whole food e-commerce really helping the ecosystem? Are restaurants only to focus on their delivery business and if yes, why run restaurants at all? Perhaps, dark kitchens would do. And for Start-Ups, well Uber is not one, how long would Entrepreneurs keep the engine going with deep discounts? A number of eateries who aren’t offering the food online are already impacted. What happens next? Very soon, I plan to order on Uber Eats sitting in the lobby of a Mall, so I get the food at a lower price! Would be interesting to see how this works. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

SS EOSS 2018 is a full house

After a long time, I went shopping. Once again, of course during EOSS popularly known as End of Season Sale which usually occurs twice a year after each season is over (SS – Spring Summer & AW - Autumn Winter). I recall, during my days at Benetton in 2004, there were not more than 3-4 weeks of EOSS, which would begin right after Valentine’s Day (late-Feb) & just before Ganesh Chathurthi (July). There would be a frenzy among Customers to get the best merchandise at lower prices during this time and the EOSS was a great crowd puller. A number of first time customers would turn up at the stores, those who’ve otherwise not been the Brand’s patrons earlier. They would engage with the Brand, the Staff, take Trials and purchase. If they liked what they wore, they would come back and buy again, even at full prices. Therefore, EOSS was a great tool to induce first time buyers (of a Brand).

Things started changing slowly, especially between 2006-2012 during the Retail explosion pan-India with over 300 Malls opening simultaneously across the country. What was supposed to work “for” the Retailers and Brands worked “against” them. Let me give a perspective;

Let’s say, Brand A had 3 -5 stores per Metro (around 2006) and a small presence in 1-2 Department stores. Circa 2012, the same Brand had a dozen or more stores plus larger counters at various Department stores in the city. Add to this, so many International, Domestic & Regional Brands started exploding the retail scenario in the country with total shopping space quadrupling every two years. 


All of a sudden, customers had too much choice, and at better price points. If a (Male) Customer had 4 brands to choose for Formalwear earlier, there were atleast 20+ brands in the same space now. Similarly, for casualwear & sportswear while new categories like fitness & lounge wear were created.

Meanwhile, the Bansals were building E-Commerce websites which offered clothes and accessories at half the price (like books!) and they called it disruption. It was indeed, that Customers could shop from their desks or sofas – just that a few Brand Managers got it all wrong. While pushing unsold merchandise to e-commerce (at discounts), thanks to a general slowdown in Retail Sales, even fresh Merchandise were being sold at lower prices than at stores. Mall Owners were gasping, feeling high and dry with footfalls barely hitting the precincts during the weekdays and largely window shopping over the weekends. Everyone was talking E-Commerce. So many Brands built their own websites while most of them who wanted an online presence aligned with E-commerce Marketplaces like Myntra & Jabong, as well as horizontal players like Flipkart & Amazon. 

As an ecosystem, we (Retailers) pampered Customers to shop online, return if they didn’t like what they bought, get a 100% refund if they deemed fit and encouraged them with a variety of discounts. This became a daily habit and more Brand Managers were getting intrigued with this incredible opportunity. All along, many Retailers missed meeting Customer Expectations at the Retail Outlets. Customer Engagement was negligible, Customer Service levels were dropping and the Staff were getting impatient not being able to earn more, thanks to a fall in their Incentives which was directly linked to lower Sales, thanks to fewer footfalls. The cookie crumbled. Many Brands shrunk their operations, some exited less important markets and a few downed their shutters. 


It’s been reasonably slow the last 4 seasons for most Retailers. However, I saw something incredible last weekend at one of India’s largest Department Stores. Customers were patiently waiting in a long queue to bill their products which took an average 20 mins during peak hours. Add to this, they have already spent quite some time trying out their outfits at the mobile trial rooms set-up. I was convinced, Customers haven’t shunned Offline Retail. They will come back to the stores when they see “value” for what they buy coupled with fantastic / personalised service. Ofcourse they are here for discounts right now, but then, the same discount is available on their Mobile Apps. So why did they come? Think.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Smiling Baby 2.0

The biggest challenge for most of us in our lives, especially for Startup Entrepreneurs is to learn from our past. We have all heard that it is perfectly fine for us to make mistakes. In fact, in my formative years as a Retail Professional when I worked at Pantaloon Retail (now The Future Group), there used to be posters in our office that it was “Ok” to make mistakes as long as you don’t repeat them and of course, one learns from them. Indeed I have made a number of mistakes in my Retail Career spanning 20 years but my specialty has been that I have gotten up back every single time after faltering with some amazing learning. And that’s what this article is all about.


It’s been in my mind to set-up my own Retail venture as an option for Entrepreneurship for some time now. From Education to Food to Tech to Product Retail, we (my wife & I) dabbled for a long time on which segment to choose. My only criteria, having signed up 140 cafes for Café Coffee Day and 160 Dealership Outlets for Royal Enfield (both of them all India) – I was General Manager – Business Development at both companies - was that the business I was about to build should be Scalable, Saleable and Profitable.

Among many other options that we finalized was the one retailing baby products – which is perhaps the only category other than food that has a potential sale 365 days a year and is almost price inelastic so to say. And that’s how my first startup venture Smiling Baby was conceptualized way back in 2013. While the business model was completely fool proof and continues to remain so even after 4 years, there have a few shortcomings as well. I took each of those lessons with grace and have become a much better Entrepreneur over the past 36 months.

Now as we enter in to our second phase, Smiling Baby 2.0 as I call, there a few learning that I have already implemented. I spoke about these initiatives at the recently held ReTechCon2017 at Mumbai, organized by Retailers Association of India, the industry body that represents Retailers of all sizes.


Among other things, the first thing that we have implemented is a truly “omni-channel” retail model. We already have one store in Chennai and are setting up two more in Coimbatore shortly. All the existing and future stores are connected together on the backend with the Retail store and a website (+ Apps) in the front-end. When a customer visits a store and looks for a product which may not be physically at the store but is still available on the website/app, she will still be able to order the item and it gets picked up and delivered to her from some other store where they may have it in stock. And all this within less than 24 hours from the time of ordering! E-Commerce, as a habit for shopping is getting better by the day in India and that’s been my biggest learning in my journey.

That Amazon has purchased Whole Foods strengthens my model of Omni-channel because that’s precisely what Retail in the 21st century is going to be.  Customers need a product right there when they need it. While the e-commerce warehouses will continue to remain, it is all about effectively utilizing the retail store fronts which we have all built. The power of leverage is immense and we at Smiling Baby would stand testimony for the same. Watch this space.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

H for Hyperlocal Retailing

One of the most used and abused words for the past 3-4 years in E-Commerce in India and all over the world is “Hyperlocal”. What exactly is Hyperlocal retailing? How does it help customers? What value addition does it provide to Retailers? Is it a viable business option? Let’s explore.

The Indian Retail Industry is estimated at $500 billion with over 1.30 billion people in the country. Out of this less than 12-15% is Organized while the rest remains with traditional businesses such as Kirana Stores, Mom & Pop stores, road side vendors, etc. While Retail has seen a CAGR of over 15% over the past decade, it is E-commerce that has grown leaps and bounds in the recent decade, thanks to Wall Street Funded companies who morphed themselves from being mere technology companies to retail behemoths that they are today. Within the E-Commerce Retail Startups as well as a few established ones, Hyperlocal Players are the buzz of the day, what with a new one commencing operations every day for another that shuts down almost every day.

So what is Hyperlocal?

The term has been coined to connect offline retailers in a locality to customers in the same locality, but through digital means. This is nothing new, honestly. Through the late 90s (in India) when we witnessed the highest landline telephone penetration, it was common for customers to call a nearby Retail store and request them to deliver products for immediate use. During the early & mid-2000s, it was the mobile phone boom where household maids, servicemen like Plumbers, Electricians, Carpenters and many more were available over a call. The world seem to be lot more connected and we all loved it.


It was early 2014 and we saw a slew of technology companies building websites and mobile apps that connected customers to shops and service providers over a click of the button. Honestly, this was nothing new compared to what “Just Dial” and “Yellow Pages” were already doing. Even neighborhood newspapers were in a way Hyperlocal, connecting local services and people to customers in a particular locality especially for finding rental accomodations.

It is quite amazing to see that Hyperlocal has suddenly become a billion dollar opportunity with a lot of Investors throwing money at such start-ups. Most of the large Hyperlocal companies that took heavy funding have left the space, notable among them being “Ask Me” which had not only shut down a few months back but also headed in to legal troubles with outstanding payments.

Hyperlocal is a very simple business idea that has been complicated a lot with too much of technology being pushed on to the customers. A mere signage at the
Retail stores (the ones Zomato put up initially) bring a lot of visibility and access to customers. The startups pick from the nearest store and deliver to customers in the shortest possible time thereby increasing merchandise offtake for Retailers. Sometime, it is the simplest task that is complicated the most. Hyperlocal Retail is one such example.

How does Hyperlocal Apps work?

Hyperlocal Apps connect nearby stores and service providers on their app and act as an aggregator. When a customer looks for a product or service, the offering in the neighborhood shows up usually with a cost / time attached to it. For example, if a user is looking for a carpenter, the app shows how much time it would take for the Carpenter to arrive and also the cost per hour / relevant charges. Similarly, when a customer is looking to order tomatoes or rice bags, vegetables or household articles, the app would show up the product, their prices and estimated time of delivery and convenience charges, etc. It is a presumption while building a Business Plan for a Hyperlocal App that such customers will continue to order from the app regularly while also adding new customers everyday. And over time, the App keeps adding more and more retail partners and service providers while also expanding the geographies served.


Is Hyperlocal viable?

Trust me, it is viable. I have done the maths and it is actually possible to make money with a Hyperlocal App. They key here is not the idea or the strategy but the execution. With my own Hyperlocal app Oyethere, I have experimented various means through which we reach out to existing and prospective customers. While both are tough (meaning retaining & adding customers), it is quite possible to get the business going through innovative ways of sales outreach. For this, we need the unstinted support of the Retail Store, which is the key in making a Hyperlocal App successful. Most times, we have seen Hyperlocal App companies splurge on mainstream media and attract a lot of PR while the business remains in the lurch due to execution issues. At a unit level, the app makes a margin from the Retailer, so while the volumes increase, there is a business break-even. The only challenge here is how much to “invest” in acquiring and retaining the customer and controlling overall marketing spends.

Are Offline Retailers ready for Hyperlocal?

At the face of it, Retailers do not support Hyperlocal Apps because they believe the proposed digital marketplace is lethal and could do a lot of harm to their businesses. But it is not. When a customer looks up a product on the app, they would merely choose the one that suits their need – Brand / Retailer-connect, Time of Delivery, cost of the products and convenience. If the Retailer doesn’t stand up to all these measures and based on a permutation by the customer, the choice of Retailer varies and there are chances that a few non-performing ones may get pushed back. Indeed, it is quite interesting that a few Retailers are experimenting Hyperlocal. Food Bazaar and Hypercity work closely with Amazon Now; Heritage Fresh and Spencers have their own Apps which is being tested in a few markets. However, aggregating Kirans remains the biggest opportunity here while the greater challenge is that they do not make enough margins to be shared with the App aggregator. The same applies for Service Providers on apps like Urban Clap.

The market is ready, just waiting for Retailers to catch-up on them. Let’s hope.