Tech Drives Growth in Grocery E-tailing

Supply-chain tech helps to reduce cost & inventory and predict user behaviour

Everyday, I learn something new,” says R Rammurthy as he picks up a netbook, an Android tablet and a paper-clip file before climbing onto the driver’s seat of a white Maruti van loaded with four neatly packed baskets of grocery and vegetables. As he slips into first gear, he pointed to the netbook screen which displayed a map where the vehicle’s number flashed. The on-screen status of the vehicle changed from idle to moving and the address to which the baskets needs to be delivered popped up.

Rammurthy’s trip ended nearly twenty minutes later at the doorsteps of a customer– mother of a three-year-old who hates to spend the little spare time she gets during weekends at the supermarket. During the drive, the 28-year-old management graduate, who now handles a small team for online retailer Bigbasket.com, started explaining how his company manages to keep near-zero inventory and fulfils hundreds of orders everyday.

Online food and grocery retailing, fairly mature in the West and showing lot of potential in growth markets like China, has not been able to capture the fancy of Indian shoppers yet. Things, however, may be changing as a new generation of wellfunded online firms — Bigbasket.com is a key example — are using simple end-to-end technology solutions to offer deep discounts on grocery items, predict customer behaviour and keep a tight leash on expenses. With technology playing a key role, they are trying to make a dent in the estimated $343-billon food and grocery market in India.

For example, these firms use a supplychain technology that allow customers to place orders through multiple channels and later predict what a customer is likely to order. Combined with applications that track everything from the time an order is placed to delivery and devices that help during procurement, technology is helping these firms to make a compelling and convenient offer to the tech-savvy shopper. For these online retailers, the most important tech application is the ability to predict customer behaviour which lets them reduce inventory and thereby, cut costs. For instance, while a traditional retailer might have to stock his monthly offtake of atta at least three weeks in advance, an online retailer ends up stocking it for less than two days. “That is mostly analytics,” says Ambuj Jhunjhunwala, the founder of Mygrahak.com which sells food and grocery online in Delhi. Predicting customer needs helps them to plan in advance and procure based on needs. Need-based procurement works ideally well with perishable goods like food not to talk about saving expenses on storage space, which is a large part of expenditure for a traditional retailer.
Analytics also involves knowing the customer better which helps retailers to make tailor-made offers for customers and increase sales. Online retailers can also eliminate a large part of their frontline staff because customers usually help themselves. Typically, large format brickand-mortar stores spend much of their attention to figure out customer behaviour on the shopping floor and arrange goods so that they catch customer attention. This can now be automated as the platform generates enough data about individual preferences. “You have complete control over knowing what your customer is buying and great level of predictability. The stickiness of forecasting can go up as you use technology to predict,” says Anand Ramanathan, Associate Director at KPMG.

Shoppers, whose experience of buying grocery online has been good, tend to very loyal. For example, Asha Liju, a clinical research professional from Bangalore buys her grocery online. “This is the second time I’m buying online because its simple and saves me nearly 10 kilometres of travel,” she says.
Here again, technology plays a key role. Grocery buying is mostly a repetitive task something technology is known to do well. For instance, when a shopper logs into the account, a history of previously bought items makes it easier to pick instead of going through the motion all over again. “At each step, simple technology is helping us save time and money,” says Abhinay Choudhary, co-founder of Bigbasket.com. Bigbasket.com, which now has 100 people on its rolls, will supply anything from milk products to fresh fruits among 7,000 other items at your doorstep at competitive prices within a few hours of placing an e-order. “Our delivery vans even have cold storage facilities. This is very new but if we do it right, it will be big,” says Choudhary. His earlier venture was shopasyoulike, a similar food and grocery store catering to residents in Whitefield, Bangalore.

25-year-old Jhunjhunwala’s Mygrahak.com now claims that they process nearly 15,000 orders a month. “The average order size is Rs 1,250- Rs 1,300 . We can at least grow 30 times in Delhi alone,” he said. He recently introduced “card on delivery,” where a customer can swipe their cards at the time of delivery to pay for the order. Jhunjhunwala comes from a family of entrepreneurs and returned to India after graduation learning how to do business from his family, the promoters of BSE listed REI Agro.Chennaionlinegrocery.com, Town Essentials and Atmydoorsteps.com also operate in this space. Scale might not be an issue as demand from a large working population, which finds frequenting supermarkets an irritant, grows.
Investors also seem to be buying into the grocery e-tailing story. Last month, private equity firm Ascent Capital invested $10 million when Bigbasket.com co-founded by a team of eight which includes Fab-Mall co-founders Hari Menon, VS Sudhakar, Vipul Parekh, VS Ramesh and Abhinay Choudhary, raised its first round of institutional funding.

The food and grocery market accounts for over two thirds of the $505 billion Indian retail market. According to retail consultancy Technopak, the retail market is projected to touch $725 billion by 2017. The organised food and grocery retail market in India is estimated at $ 12 billion in 2012 and grow at a compounded rate of 30% over next the five years. “Though e-tailing is still a very small part of retail in India it is projected to grow at a fast pace and over the next decade its presence will be significant,” said Pragya Singh, Principal Consultant, Retail & Consumer Products, Technopak. Headroom for growth comes from the fact that that e-tailing accounts for a measly. 2% or $1 billion of the overall retail market and it is expected to reach $13 billion by 2017.
But retailing food and grocery online is not an easy task. Though there are success stories, the monumental failure of Webvan in the United States back in 2000 is enough to act as a damperner.

The challenges include being able to give consumers a large number of products to choose from, achieving consistency in quality especially when it comes to perishable goods and the cost of logistics. For instance, Mygrahak’s Jhunjhunwala has already invested $1 milllon in the firm and anticipates an expense of $4 million to $5 million every time it moves to a new city. While critics often cite the example of Webvan, the story may not repeat in India. Webvan may not be the best benchmark, argues Singh. “It is an example of a company that grew too fast in middle of the dotcom boom, rapid expansion to multiple cities, gigantic infrastructure including warehouses but not enough sales to back the same,” she said.

Even as its spends Rs 150- Rs 400 to acquire each customer, Mygrahak.com will break even this Diwali, claims Jhunjunwala. Despite the rosy numbers, e-tailers looking to sell food and grocery might have to expand cautiously, suggests Technopak’s Singh.
The Challenges 

* Achieving standardisation in quality and quantity when a large part of grocery items are still sold loose in India

* Having a comprehensive product range that covers all possible variations

* Delivery across large parts of urban and semi-urban areas

* Sensory needs of consumers are not satisfied through online channels
Fulfilment and logistics costs

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One Response

  1. Very good, informative article. I usually shop online from an online shopping site known as motadeals.com. I don’t buy online grocery, but now i want to buy fmcg products online.

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