Hundreds of millions of dollars have flown into the sector over the past couple years at valuations that were very attractive to the entrepreneurs. The talk now is that the “mini-bubble” has burst. Consolidation is starting in the sector. Companies lucky enough to have raised substantial capital are the ones who will be the survivors and the new brands in the Indian space.
What has changed is that the increased competition has led to limited differentiation on product and price. Investing in service (logistics, payment collection) increases costs of operation. Marketing expenses continue. eCommerce is a business of scale. As such, most companies burn through cash quickly. Not many are profitable. Some are even operating at negative gross margins in efforts to get the customers.
As a result, if future rounds of funding are not forthcoming, it is rapid death for companies because it is not easy to scale back the burn. That seems to be happening in this sector. More than the consumers, it is the investors who will decide the winners.
Fourth, the deals and discounts. With eCommerce companies flush with funds and in a ‘customer grab’ mode, 2011 has been a buyer’s delight. From books to phones, everything seems to be available to less than what you would get to a nearby store. With free shipping thrown in. So, click and order.
Fifth, the cash on delivery option was a game-changer. With credit and debit cards usage still limited and a desire by consumers to pay in cash, the eCommerce companies have been increasingly open to collecting cash on delivery. This has also taken away the risks of ordering on the Internet. (On the flip side, one problem that eCommerce companies have to deal with is the rate of returns from customers who change their minds.)
Finally, a liberal flow of venture capital funds into the sector has helped create many companies who could invest in awareness creation via media on the benefits of eCommerce. This has also helped drive usage.
Put it all together, and the stage was set for a big boom in the eCommerce sector. The ecosystem has finally come together.
Before we get to a discussion on the present and future of eCommerce of India, we should look at the reasons as to why it is a sector that has the potential to be big in India.
First, the sector has grown because of the growth of the Internet in India. A decade ago, the user base was very thin. Now, with 100 million users on the Internet, there is critical mass. Also, in the interim, ticketing emerged as a big thing. Booking train tickets for many and flight tickets for some became their first introduction to the world of eCommerce. That is now extending to other sectors.
Second, in metros, there is the convenience. For many who are pressed for time, a few clicks is all it takes to order and have it delivered him. It saves a trip to the nearby mall where parking can be a challenge.
Third, in the smaller towns, there is the sheer variety available. Given the costs of retail stores and their limited expansion in India, the Internet stores are bridging the gap by making everything available to everyone across India. It is no surprise then that the majority of orders on eCommerce sites are now coming from non-metro locations.
From the first in a series of questions I asked a year ago:
Why are we surprised when Manmohan Singh messes up his press conference? Why did we expect anything better? When will we change our frame of reference that he is despicably dishonest? Raja may have looted the nation along with many other Ministers, but who let them get on with the looting? Who turned the proverbial blind eye to serve his High Command? Why did he do it?
Why did we expect anything better? Why do people continue to believe that he’s “honest”? Why did we not change our frame of reference and see that if we start with the assumption that he is not honest, all his action fits to a T?
Why does our country have to suffer the government we have? Why don’t we care more? Why are we dishonest as a collective? Why are we like this only?
This is what I wrote a month ago as part of my Digital India 2012 Trends series:
Undoubtedly, the biggest story on the Internet in India is that of the dramatic rise of eCommerce. People are becoming comfortable buying all sorts of things over the Internet. Companies have also set up better logistics for distribution and collecting money on delivery. Consumers are willing to trust sites since they can choose to only pay on receipt of the goods.
For an India that is urbanisng and hasn’t had as much choice, especially in smaller towns, the Internet eCommerce sites are a godsend. More than FDI in retail, it is these sites which are the real disruptors for kirana stores. Daily deal sites and discount portals which offer branded goods at lower prices means that eCommerce also becomes a fun activity in the search for the best price.
The challenge for Indian eCommerce sites like Flipkart and Snapdeal will be the investments that they will have to do to fill in the missing elements of the Indian logistics value chain. Amazon can rely on UPS for delivery and the credit card companies for cash collection. Indian companies have to do all of this themselves for the most part to ensure tighter control on delivery, as also set up warehouses closer to the customers. Much of this should improve as third-parties start offering all of these specialised services.
For now, discounts and free shipping supreme, giving Indian consumers a veritable treat if they choose to buy online.
Continued next week.
Fortune India called the eCommerce entrepreneurs as the visionaries of 2011. It quotes some of the eCommerce entrepreneurs in its cover story in its latest issue:
K. Vaitheeswaran, IndiaPlaza.in: “The tipping point of e-commerce will be reached only when the offline retailers go online successfully.”
B. S. Nagesh, Shoppers Stop: “Retail is about the consumer, and he is engaging in online shopping. So there is no choice for us but to look at e-commerce.”
Sachin Bansal, Flipkart: “The real power of e-commerce will come from small- and mid-sized players from all cities being able to sell online.”
Yesterday’s Economic Times had a front page story entitled “India’s e-commerce industry braces for consolidation as stronger online retailers gobble up minnows”:
With the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon, preparing for entry into India and the market separating the strong from the weak, India’s best-known and stronger online retailers are taking the lead in the consolidation race.
…For the approximately 10 million Indian e-commerce consumers, there has been a growing choice of online stores that sell everything from books to travel experiences. But behind the scenes, e-commerce start-ups-around 40 active ones at last count-are battling price wars and high customer acquisition costs.
Leaders in the e-commerce space-ones that have raised money, have large teams and are aggressively pursuing growth-are spending $1-2 million (Rs 5-10 crore) a month, including on marketing, overheads and salaries.
Consolidation is also being hastened by the inability of smaller firms to raise money at the valuation levels they commanded even last year.
This is what Business World wrote in its recent cover story on the e-tailing wars in India:
Hundreds of such entrepreneurs are delighted at the sudden turn in the fortunes of India’s e-tailers in 2011. Easy availability of broadband, patchy rollout of 3G and growing aspirations of non-metro youth, coupled with economic uncertainty, are driving traffic for shopping and bargain hunting. While the industry grew to over Rs 4,000 crore in 2011, large players grew 100-150 per cent.
As 3G and broadband wireless come this year and smartphones and tablets population rises, Web-based businesses will hit a tipping point. New-age entrepreneurs are trying out everything from full-fledged e-tailing sites such as Flipkart by Binny and Sachin Bansal to specialist ones such as Firstcry for babycare products, founded by Supam Maheshwari and Amitava Saha. Or footwear-only Bestylish from Gurgaon-based Shailen Amin. After all, the race to the top of India’s e-tailing industry is still wide open.
Indians are buying online. And eCommerce sites are proliferating to meet this demand. Venture capital money is flowing in. Consumers are being papered with specials, offers and discounts. It is finally boom time for the second leg of the Internet in India (the first leg being advertising).
Fortune India and Business World both have cover stories on the Indian eCommerce companies. There are many other companies racing to build the ancilliary industries that are needed to facilitate cash collection and delivery. Many business models are emerging – from sticking everything to marketplaces. Even the traditional offline retailers are now accelerating plans to increase their online presence.
A similar explosion had happened in 2000. But that was very short-lived since the consumers were just not there. This time around, it is all in place – the consumers, the digital infra, the entrepreneurs, interesting models, and plenty of venture capital. So, what is happening and how will this space evolve in the coming months and years?
I wrote this a year ago. While we did have the Anna Hazare movement, we are back to square one. Corruption has been accepted, we are no closer to getting any Bill to tackle it, and we are getting ready to cast millions of votes for the Congress.
Can an Egypt happen in India? My answer is No. We are a society that didn’t even throw out the colonialists. Why then should we bother about oppressors of our own ilk? Let British Raj 2.0 continue. Of course, we must vent feelings out once in a while, but other than that, we are happy to let the looting, scamming, divide-and-rule continue. Imperial rule is our tradition.
One of the services I find myself using a lot on the 3G activated phone now is the audio version of BBC World Service. (I guess given that it is audio, it would probably work quite well on 2.5G also.) I grew up listening to a lot of BBC, and listening once again to the headlines in the same sort of familiar voices feels good.
This made me wonder why there aren’t more Indian Internet radio stations – other than some of the FM ones who rebroadcast over the Internet. I am quite sure there is an opportunity to create different kinds of talk radio, perhaps along the lines of NPR in the US which can lead to some serious discussion.
I finally got around to activating 3G on Vodafone. I had tried the demo last year and was disappointed. But now that all the network issues seem to have been resolved, I decided to give it another try. So far, so good. For the first month, I decided to try the Rs 850 for 3GB data plan, and see what all I’d like to do on my phone without worrying about data consumption. Then, will probably move to a lower plan if I find the data consumption isn’t that much.
Video is where the 3G experience really makes a difference. For general browsing, while it does seem faster, the difference is not that big since most sites do now have lighter mobile versions.
What do you use 3G for?
I will be moderating a panel on Mobile Marketing at ad:tech in Delhi on Feb 24. The panelists are:
What are the kind of questions you’d like to see answered?
With BMC elections a couple days away, perhaps the new corporators will consider why arterial roads have to be repeatedly dug up. Look at the road stretch from Worli to Haji Ali. One part of it is almost at a 45-degree angle now! Every few months, some part of is under construction.
Nepean Sea Road is in the same state now — repaving is under way. Come monsoons, whatever road is done now will be gone, and it will be time for the next road work.
Surely, we can do better than this. As a friend put it, it is time we citizens ask for SLAs (service level agreements) from our government!
It has been one amazing winter, especially the past week. In general, Mumbai is one of those places where the only weather one has is: hot and humid, and more hot and more humid. This year has been an exception. With temperatures dropping to sub-10 degrees Celsius, it has been an absolute delight to feel the cool winter breeze in Mumbai.
I don’t know what implications we will have with this unusual weather going forward. But for now, we can surely enjoy it as it lasts for another few days. One hasn’t felt this cold in Mumbai on a successions of days in living memory. Let’s enjoy this while it lasts. And then we will be back to your hot and humid days.
So little has changed since I wrote this a year ago:
We have one Sea Link in Mumbai (named after the same person whose name prefixes Hyderabad’s airport and a million other things.) There is another one planned, from Worli to Haji Ali. Now, there is an idea of a Coastal Road as a possible alternative. The link on the eastern side of Mumbai is stuck because two agencies cannot decide who will build it. And guess, who suffers with escalating travel pain and costs every year.
Mumbai is a coastal city. We have to make the sea an ally in all we do. We should have had these bridges a long time ago. We should have adopted water transport along the coasts. But, all this happen with someone out there has a vision and also sees the mess our traffic is on. Our politicians need to be stripped of their police escort cars and red lights, and made to travel just like us in the city. Then, maybe, good sense will dawn. Until then, we can continue travelling in packed trains and crawling traffic, and attribute it our destiny. The fact that these problems can be solved doesn’t seem to dawn on any one.
History is about people, their motivations and their actions. With 20-20 hindsight, we can study what people in the past did and how successful they were in their objectives. Understanding our past will help us decide what we should do in the present and guide us into the future. This is, in some ways, the ultimate reality show. And we are all participants in it. We may choose to ignore it – but we do so at our own peril. For it is our future and our children’s futures that are at stake.
We stand at a moment in time where we can shape the future path of India in a way that can be very different. For that, it will require us to understand the choices, and then stand up for what is the right one.
It will not be an easy path ahead – for us and for India. Many times in India’s history, we came across a fork in the road, and somehow managed to make the wrong decision. . There are a few right ones, but they were not good enough to get us to the destination of a developed nation. We will face a similar choice soon.