The Evolution of Ecommerce Business Models in India [Going back to where it started?]

In the last couple of years we saw the Indian ecommerce industry making it to news for all the funds it raised. In the past few months, funding news has been slow but nonetheless ecommerce has had its fair share of media limelight with pundits talking about lack of profitability in companies that value growth and mocking small profit making ecommerce players for their lack of investment in infrastructure and growth.

Amidst all this, there is a slow but noticeable change in the way ecommerce players are operating. The business model of the Indian ecommerce is taking a full circle flip to go back to where it started, though this time the infrastructure has changed and along with that the size and understanding of the market as well.Online Buying ecommerce

Last year, at an industry body’s panel, we saw about 5, then prominent, ecommerce players each with a distinguishable business model.

  1. Ebay – Marketplace
  2. Flipkart – Inventory owned Retail
  3. HomeShop18 – TV Shopping extended to ecommerce.
  4. VIA – Store in Store model through there offline network of franchisees.
  5. Smile Group – Vertical play through fashion&You, Deals&You, Bestylish, Freecultr, Juvalia&You.

The debate was mostly around which model works best for ecommerce and is sustainable in the long run. Today of course everyone is leaning towards the marketplace model. Part of which is to do with the regulations around foreign direct investment in retail in India and the rest around capital efficiency. One credible point is that this time the players are moving towards a model that they did not originally start with, hence the belief is that they have definite answers to the intricacies of the model and not just a me-too jump.

Let’s take a look at how the full circle of change has evolved and how things are moving towards the better.

The Pre boom era – Rediff / Indiatimes/ Indiaplaza – Ecommerce, as was introduced in India, was more skewed towards sellers than consumers. The focus was on getting the user to transact without worrying about order fulfillment and post purchase support. Add to that the payment collection woes; the ecommerce ecosystem was only a blue link on the web for most consumers.  Most of these sites catered to non resident Indian audience who wanted to send something back home. The time/quality/pricing mattered very little. A good instance of this could still be seen through the prices at some sweets and flowers delivery sites.

The players were more of a tech/media company with little to no exposure to retail (Indiaplaza is an exception and infact was powering the shopping section at a lot of news/media sites). The actual inventory owners were responsible for shipping but did not have a direct interface with the user. A lot of this still exists.

If you draw an analogy of this model to the offline world, it’s more like a megastore that has a single interface for billing and checkout but each department, floor and label has its own service levels. This was skewed indeed and the incumbent players realised the gap only in the past couple of years.

Marketplace – Through the acquisition of Baazee, Ebay entered India and gave a marketplace model to the user. The initial positioning was around enabling every consumer to be a seller and give them a platform to dispose-off their un-used products. This is very similar to the OLX/Quikr positioning of today. That positioning is still hurting Ebay India as there still exists a perception about ebay being second hand products store.

Ebay has acted well to bring in more trust and security for buyer and seller. Though it has been restricted a lot due to the FDI regulation and having to follow its international model in India as well. The buyers on Ebay are still limited to the savvy audience of the web. Others, who got introduced to ecommerce in the past couple of years through TV ads are yet to figure out why “IndiaTech99” or “Gadget4Sale” is mentioned as seller for a product.

The Flipkart Model – Until Flipkart entered the market, most ecommerce players acted more like an interface between the sellers, who were the actual inventory owner, and the buyers. Back then “Own the inventory” model was rarely seen, as this model is considered to be cash in-efficient. Large warehouses, limited credit time from vendors and added liability of dead stock have not worked in favour of this model and brought in new set of problems to solve. Though, the control over the complete value chain that this model offers has a lot of benefits as it means greater bargaining power with suppliers, higher gross margins and most importantly you become the single interface to the user. User does not have to worry about who the real inventory owner is.

This model, though, has been very costly but has helped Flipkart develop trust and service credibility amongst its users. That kind of intangible value creation for its brand would not have come through any amount of marketing spend.

TV ShoppingHomeshop18 /StarCJ – TeleShopping or TV shopping has been in India for over a decade now. It started with products that one would never get at a regular store and would never think of buying otherwise. Loaded with surprises and offers that sounded too good to be true, white skin humans with dubbed voice promo videos with lots of testimonials – that was the key to those transactions. I remember ordering some “mathemagic” course back in school days from one such network; the books came in English and the videos in dubbed Hindi. It was that bad.

With time, we saw Indian/Chinese products being sold by Indian celebrities targeting the gullible afternoon or late night audience. HomeShop18 fought that perception has made a mark in TV shopping. StarCJ followed but hasn’t been as much popular although backed by GEC (General Entertainment Channel) network. HS18 is good. The transaction process is smooth, delivery is on time and ordering on phone isn’t painful.

The pain with HS18 as a TV only model is that the catalogue size will be limited by airtime. Also, the cost of producing promo video is justified only for high margin products like apparels or imitation jewellery. The limitations are similar to that of a-deal-a-day model of WooT. For the user, though, this is as good as inventory owned retail. The brand extension on web has been executed well and it has the advantage of being an As-Seen-On-TV brand which does bring a lot of trust with Indian users.

I would expect Indiatimes Shopping to pull off something similar with TV being replaced by newspaper or may be both together. The problem with Indiatimes’ current usage of print media space in their bouquet of publications is that the same spot earlier showed Chinese products from Naaptol or some e-phone or blackcherry (sic) phone under the Reader’s Offers. Indiatimes isn’t using its print space enough for brand building but only for announcing coupon codes. When you turn pages, you jump from one offer to another between Naaptol, Reader’s Offers and Indiatimes Shopping. It is faciong the same perception problem that HS18 had to fight due to incumbent players in the TV shopping space. Timesdeal did try a little brand building through print but that just isn’t enough, specially when competitors like FlipKart, Infibeam etc. have earlier enticed readers with full page ads in the same publication.

Pro cheapskate tip – use FLASH<today’s date> as coupon code on Indiatimes Shopping anyday, eg. FLASH3101 for Jan 31. [That is all that the ToI ad of Indiatimes Shopping says.]

Store in Store model –, through its network of offline franchisee stores, has been selling travel services, telecom services, movie bookings etc. Though I haven’t tried but I have heard of Via trying their hands at selling physical goods such as books through the ViaWorld network. That is a powerful proposition in India. It is enabling “assisted” online shopping. Anyone who has ever sold anything offline in India knows how important “assisted” shopping is. We are a country where coin operated coke vending machines and ticket vending machines are also manned. In the long run, this network of retail points can become a delivery hub for neighborhood orders and in turn increase footfalls in the store.

Vertically Integrated Retail – India is yet to see an aggressive vertically integrated retail play on web.  The advantage of VIR shouldn’t be viewed as an ecommerce company starting to manufacture but a manufacturer getting direct access to consumers. Some large brands have deployed their own stores using Martjack, Zepo, BuildaBazaar etc. though the marketing for their ecommerce store hasn’t been that aggressive. As the market matures, single brand VIR would need to depend on marketplace and their ecommerce setup would be reduced to an order fulfilment department. Private labels are a different game than VIR. There is no manufacturing in private label. The analogy of Private label vs. VIR is same as Marketplace vs. inventory owned retail. Zovi, for example, is a private label. The Zovi shirts are manufactured by a Delhi based manufacturer called TN’G, amongst others, which also serves private labels for large stores like Lifestyle. Same is the story with most private label brands, online and offline.

So where are we going from here?

The 2 important points to consider from over a decade of action are:

    1. Ecommerce needs greater control over each process in the service chain for maintaining brand credibility.
    2. Owning the inventory is cash in-efficient. While a marketplace model allows for greater catalogue coverage without the risk of maintaining stock but owning the inventory also allows for higher margins.

A hybrid model of the 2 is best suited. Which takes us to what Amazon is doing in US. It is a retailer itself and it provides each process of the service chain as a service to its marketplace sellers. This way the service quality will be checked at all levels and there will be known/well communicated reasons for failure.

Again, the important point here is that the players are making a conscious move towards this model and it is (hopefully) not a blind jump.

Please note I am suggesting a hybrid model with power of direct retail and efficiency of marketplace. This is not a standalone marketplace model like Ebay with only web infrastructure.

Do drop in your comments with your thoughts on where you see the industry going.

Here’s a list of Marketplace related action so far in India.

  1. Flipkart – Expected to launch marketplace in March. Good infrastructure in place.
  2. Infibeam – Hybrid model but lack of physical infrastructure. The retail of Infibeam is still different from that of Flipkart in the fact that the order fulfilment is not handled by them. Say if you order a Videocon fridge from Infibeam, it would be delivered by Videocon in Bangalore with no mention of Infibeam anywhere. Almost marketplace but no exposure of seller until delivery (read: Interview with Infibeam on Revenue/Funding etc)
  3. Jabong – Launched customer support as a service. Also launched Logistics service.
  4. BuyThePrice – Converted to marketplace.
  5. Shopclues – Making a prominent mark in electronics segment with marketplace model.
  6. Tradus – Doing decently well with pure play marketplace.
  7. Rediff/Ebay – Was always a marketplace but lacks infrastructure.

* All of the players mentioned above are either my customers or potential customers. The article is only a perspective on the past and does not intend to demean anyone.

Recommended Read

Ecommerce Marketplaces in India : Crawford Market Vs Bigbazaar?

All about Online coupon sales and eCommerce in India

What e-commerce in India looks like [Recap 2012]

[Editorial Notes: This is a guest post by Naman Sarawagi, Founder of – a product comparison engine. He analyses how the different ecommerce models have evolved in India and what the future might be.]

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