Two such recent experiences from within the team, and some resonance outside, made us think about the online vs. offline buying experience in India.
One of us bought a television
Circa 1998, Bangalore.
The average sales representative in a store knew or understood so little about the product he was selling that “help” from them was a pain more than anything else. There were few products in the market, and the price one could pay was a narrow band and made decision making easy. There were hardly any reviews for Indian brands and products online, and visiting a couple of stores usually resulted in quick price discovery.
Circa 2012, Bangalore.
Look – we have the internet! So there’s lots and lots and lots of the same brands and even products available elsewhere, and consequently lots of reviews, information about them. There are also multiple sites in India selling the products online, and those who help quickly compare prices across both online and offline vendors. It follows that a consumer would be able to make a much more informed decision – and easier! Or would it?
I just bought a TV. Here’s how I’d sum the whole experience up in 5 points
- Online stores : each carries just a few products for each category. “Out of stock” was the most common response for products I finally start narrowing down to! Offline, typically, they had a representative enough display, and a wider choice in stock at the warehouse. This was across 3-4 different retail chains.
- Online prices cannot (yet) beat those offline. Not nearly. The “bargain button” needs inventing 🙂 Apart from this, there are no “house brands”, clearances, “display pieces” that all add to a wider choice of VFM options in the store.
- The offline experience has improved significantly. Better display space despite a much larger range of products, more informed sales guys who try and play consultant, not just seller have negated the pain.
- For a category like TV, seeing and trying is believing; all the expert commentary in world does not help. Nothing works like seeing it work on a regular DTH/cable feed and playing around with the settings. The “information” available online is a cut paste job from manuals, brochures so doesn’t really help decide. How to I know what “Triple XD Engine” means? An informed, helpful sales guy has what AI will never manage – a good understanding of what this specific customer wants and a take on what works for me.
- The stores deliver the next day as well!
I’m somewhat of an early adopter – I even bought grocery worth over Rs 1 Lakh from FabMart in the early days of e-commerce in India – and have purchased lots online (though nothing that was very expensive). However, if I were to hazard a guess from my appliance buying experiences, I’d say that the online world will need to befriend and adopt offline as well and create hybrid models over time. Of course, there are categories for which “experiencing” the product is not critical in the decision making and from the numbers e-commerce companies are talking about its obvious that hordes are buying online, but somehow, I don’t see offline retail feeling too much heat from online too soon, at least for big ticket purchases.
And then, we have been looking for a good, affordable laptop
1. There are way too many product options than what we had 3 years back. Every manufacturer has an array of devices. Just look at how many different versions of processors we have for laptops: Intel has Intel Core2 Duo, i3, i5, i7 (iSeries has three subtypes, i.e. 1st gen/2nd gen and 3rd gen); AMD has Dual Core A4/A6 and Quad ranges.
What do these mean? Well, they do translate to better performance, but a banker’s definition of high performing laptop is quite different from a gamer’s version.
What do online stores do? They help you filter option with an assumption that you know what you want to buy.
What do offline sellers do? They ask you for what you want to buy (“How can I help you, saar?”) and then suggest options based on your budget.
Offline sellers have gotten more intelligent and from what I have observed, they are quite well trained too.
What about online? For them, everything is a feature (which they hope, adds to experience).
I was planning to buy couple of laptops and except Apple, none of the other brands have less than 15-20 sub brands with different configuration/offerings.
This time, I decided to skip Windows OS and planned to go for either Mac or Ubuntu (i.e. DOS and install Ubuntu). And here is what I found out : the offline world had lot more options than online, for a niche requirement like this.
While online is great aggregation, it’s very difficult to navigate through all of the choices.
2. For mass requirement, offline has less options. They don’t show you products that are not in stock. Good for you? Maybe not. But, the experience is less frustrating than navigating through a maze of options only to be informed a week later of purchase that the product is out of stock (isn’t that a new norm these days?).
3. Offline = bundling/negotiation.
If you enjoy negotiating and haggling, go offline. You will always get a better deal than online.
And third, we read this from someone whose opinion we value a lot
*Sameer co-authored this post.