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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E-tailing for Success.

WITH the economy performing below normal, many retailers who preferred having a physical presence are looking to go online at minimal costs and keep the cash registers ringing. Compared to a traditional brick and mortar storefront, an e-commerce store is a relatively small, convenient and lowcost startup. The only costs involved in the e-commerce platform include the monthly hosting and ISP bills. With a website, an e-tailer has the capability to gauge the market condition and make alterations accordingly. Taking into account all its benefits, e-commerce can be considered ideal during a recession as it helps retailers to stay globally competitive.

Serving retailers and consumers
Today leading global e-commerce retailers earn more than 10 billion in revenue on every portal they own, and this shows the shifting trend towards e-tailing. Affirming this, Pawan Gadia, VP, Ferns ‘N’ Petals (FnP), says, “We are achieving 60 percent growth year-on-year, thanks to e-commerce. In fact, 10 percent of the total turnover of the FnP Group comes from online sales.”

Videocon is also aiming big on e-biz. “In 2009, our target is to earn online sales of Rs 10 crore, and our current sales are very much in line with our targets,” adds Arindam Bose, VP–IT, E-biz and Exports, Videocon.

Consumers today are more open to the online medium. This trend is further catalysed by various product and price comparison websites that enable users to perform research on products that they intend to purchase. Moreover, increasing fuel costs, large mall crowds and low disposable incomes are motivating buyers to shop online. Mr Gadia says, “Contrary to a physical store that has issues of timeline, visibility, etc, an online store is more flexible. An FnP store closes at 8 pm every day, but the online store runs 24×7, thereby giving us more customers. We serve more than 2000 clients everyday on our online site.”

The e-commerce option caters to customers in the current economy because it offers products at lower costs. “E-biz reduces the logistics cost as the goods go directly to the end consumer. Any business model that removes layers and brings the consumer nearer to the manufacturer benefits all,” agrees Mr Bose.

Choose intelligently
Despite its potential, many people don’t know how to get started with e-commerce and are often confused about the numerous options available. Several solutions allow retailers to sell items online, but it is always advisable to approach retail-specific vendors who can customise solutions according to customers’ business needs. “Each customer has a different requirement. Some want a pure Web shop, while some want integration with CRM or ERP, and yet others seek telephonic booking. Each requirement should be considered individually before offering a solution,” says Manu Agarwal, CEO, ANMsoft and Naaptol.com.

Though most solutions may differ, some are fundamental for every online business enterprise, and these are listed below:

Design customisation solutions: Setting up a business involves considerable time, energy and money. It is necessary to create a brand that customers find familiar. Many ecommerce solutions force retailers into a particular site layout, template or theme, making them just another cookie-cutter, faceless, online store. An e-commerce service provider must understand the objectives of an e-tailer to equip the latter’s website with aesthetic solutions.

Scalability solutions: Retailers do not want solutions that limit the number of products on display or the amount of traffic that the site can generate. Therefore, e-commerce solutions must equip retailers to add dynamic features to his existing site.

Payment solutions: Many e-commerce solutions force customers to register before making a purchase. Forcing customers to leave a site when they are ready to purchase products is not a smart business practice. If a customer finds the payment options in the website too cumbersome, he/she may switch to another shopping site. Therefore, a retailer must ensure that customers are hooked on to the website until they have completed their transaction.

Order processing solutions: These solutions are specifically designed to save operating costs. In the absence of these automated solutions, a retailer has to maintain the inventory and keep a track of orders and process them.

Search engine optimisation (SEO) and Search engine marketing (SEM) solutions:
To drive traffic to the website, a retailer must employ an SEO or SEM. SEO is more popular because of its low costs and better results. However, a retailer must ensure that the SEO uses the right keywords to improve his website’s page rank. The website must contain the right keywords so that when a user searches for a particular product, the retailer’s website appears at the top.
According to Mr Agarwal, “A majority of the people who go online end up buying nothing or may not even visit a particular website. This is because the retailer and the service provider may have not set up means to direct traffic to the site.”
Coupon solutions: In the face of rising prices, consumers have once again begun clipping coupons. Giving away gift coupons serves to increase sales. People are always looking for discounts and freebies, and a site that offers similar incentives often sees repeated visits. E-tailers can send coupons as an SMS with unique promotional codes that shoppers can use on their e-commerce website, and receive discounts on online purchases.

Shopping Cart and Delivery Solutions: A customer should be given a free hand to add products to his/her shopping list, remove products, change their quantity, recalculate the order before processing and even come back to the same after logging out. On the delivery front, most clients prefer websites that offer free home delivery and, therefore, e-retailers must have a user-friendly delivery solution in place.

Innovations to help you save
In lieu of the ongoing recession, retailers have started exploring innovative ways to cut costs. Many e-tailers are outsourcing their retail operations to specialised retail vendors for reducing labour costs. One of the affected areas during this slowdown is advertising, and very few retailers seek to manage advertising costs. Retailers should ideally adopt online advertising tools like e-mailers, newsletters, etc. “Retailers can send e-mailers, promotions, gift coupons to their existing customers at a very low cost, and still enjoy sales benefits,” admits Mr Gadia.

In order to grow in the existing scenario, a retailer should place his merchandise where his potential customers are most likely to be. Going by this, the retailer should view e-tailing as a cost-effective channel to lure sales.

Companies need to refocus e-commerce efforts to reach cosmopolitan shoppers

The latest report from the European Commission has highlighted the need for consumers to buy more online products and services abroad, venturing beyond home markets

With up to 56 percent of the EU community now making purchases using the web, the Commission believes that confidence must be heightened to cross borders and embrace e-tailing at an international level.

The lack of confidence in cross border e-commerce is evident by the fact that only 16 percent of consumers have made international purchases over the web, a very small rise from 15 percent the previous year. With many well known retailers now beginning to embrace e-commerce, the potential of the online market to deliver a wide variety of product choice at lower prices is significant.

Unfortunately, many sites are still not equipped to handle this kind of global functionality. If companies are going to be able to deliver their goods and services to broader audiences and take advantage of larger market opportunities, it is crucial that companies ramp up their efforts to traverse borders and cultures. At present, in many cases users are either blocked when attempting to access foreign portals or are redirected to a local homepage of their own nation.

John Stroshal, VP of Europe at Digital River – a provider of global e-commerce solutions, comments on what companies can to do to extend online shopping borders beyond home markets and encourage consumers to take better advantage of the web:

“Businesses can do a lot more to generate e-commerce activity on the web, encouraging users to move out of their comfort zone and shop beyond the borders of their home town. Potential customers are often concerned about whether cross border purchases will actually be successful and companies are unsure about how to provide the best cross e-commerce experience. They often settle for not having a global online presence, missing out on a valuable opportunity to increase productivity and grow.”

“What businesses need is an uncomplicated web site that is optimised to cater to cosmopolitan customers. Users the world over have come to expect a functional web experience that saves them valuable time and effort, so it is vital that companies look at potential service barriers like language, currency, tax and shipping regulations. By providing a solution to these common cultural stumbling blocks, companies will be able to create the kind of online experience that is built to encourage diverse users to shop abroad.”

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