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!