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Online Groceries In India: Will Consumers Bite?

U.K.-based Ocado, the world’s largest online grocery firm (or e-grocer), recently posted its first ever full-year profit. Ocado, which started operations in the year 2000, reported a pre-tax profit of £7.3 million ($11 million) on revenues of £948 million ($1.4 billion) for the 52 weeks ended November 30, 2014. In 2013, it reported a loss of £12.5 million. It has taken the company 15 years to deliver on its promise

In India, BigBasket, the country’s largest e-grocer which began operations in 2011, expects to break even in the next 36 months. It is already operationally profitable in its home market, Bangalore. “Labor and logistics costs are much cheaper in India than in western markets, so e-grocers here can make money faster,” says Hari Menon, BigBasket’s cofounder and CEO.

BigBasket currently has a kitty of over 10,000 products across 1,000 brands and over 450,000 active customers across five cities. It expects to close financial year 2014-2015 with revenues of around Rs. 250 crore (US$40 million). By December this year, the company plans to expand its presence to around five more cities. And over the next two years, it expects to grow to Rs. 1,800 crore (US$288 million).

India is the sixth largest grocery market in the world and one of the fastest growing markets for online groceries. According to industry estimates, of the $500 billion-plus retail market in the country, food and groceries account for the biggest chunk with around 70% market share. Of this, organized food and groceries is estimated to be around $12 billion and growing at a compound annual growth rate of around 30%. Research firm IGD predicts that by 2016, the Indian grocery market would have overtaken Japan to become the third largest. Meanwhile, India’s online grocery market, which is estimated to be less than $100 million at present, is expected to be worth billions in the coming years. “We anticipate it to cross $20 billion by 2020,” says Menon.

“Labor and logistics costs are much cheaper in India than in western markets, so e-grocers here can make money faster.” –Hari Menon

A 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report notes that “the growth in India’s online retailing for food and groceries is a function of the rise in total Internet users from 120 million to 213 million in the past year as well as a fall in mobile handset prices and a rise in smartphone penetration.” Nitish Asthana, general manager at electronic payment firm First Data, adds that as consumers get more comfortable shopping online, they move to newer categories. “Consumers with busy lifestyles are opting for online grocers. We believe that the key point is the quality and range of products being offered at an attractive price and without the customer having to step out the door.”

Khual Bahl, Founder Snapdeal |Click on image for more

Packed with Action

The potential is attracting a flurry of attention and action. Even as pure-play domestic e-grocers like BigBasket, ZopNow and LocalBanya are expanding their operations, horizontal e-tail biggies like Flipkart and Snapdeal have added gourmet and specialty food to their offering. Importantly, so has the global e-tail giant Amazon, which created waves last year when CEO Jeff Bezos announced a $2 billion investment for India.

“We launched the gourmet and specialty food store in October last year on Amazon.in. This is a reiteration of our commitment to relentlessly focus on building a place where customers can find, discover and buy virtually anything they want to buy online,” says Samir Kumar, director – category management at Amazon India. Pointing out that online grocery shopping in India is currently nascent, he adds: “We see potential in it, particularly for niche products like gourmet, organic food and specialty products which are not easily available. Customers should expect us to continue investing in expanding selection in this category.”

Amazon has been moving fast. In March this year, it launched Kirana Now, an express delivery platform in partnership with neighborhood stores. According to Amit Agarwal, vice president and country head of Amazon India, this is an “India specific innovation built particularly for the local market.” In a conversation with daily newspaper Times of India, Agarwal said: “These corner stores, which would be listed as sellers, will upload their catalogues online on our platform and we would help with the backend and technology.”

Amazon’s entry is expected to step-up action in the segment. “With Amazon’s deep pockets and experience with Amazon Fresh, it will [pose] a big challenge for BigBasket and other local firms,” says Kartik Hosanagar, an operations and information management professor at Wharton. Pragya Singh, associate vice president of retail at New Delhi-based research and consultancy firm Technopak Advisors, adds: “The entry of a player like Amazon will definitely pose a challenge for the incumbent players Twitter . However, food and grocery is relatively more complex than other categories. It will be interesting to see how competition in this space unfolds as more players enter it.”

It’s not just e-commerce players who want a piece of this pie. Leading brick-and-mortar Indian retailers like Reliance, Future, Godrej and the Aditya Birla groups are also making their moves.

For instance, in January this year, Godrej’s gourmet food chain Godrej Nature’s Basket which went online two years ago, tied up with Snapdeal and has listed over 700 products on it. In a press statement Mohit Khattar, managing director of Godrej Nature’s Basket, said: “We are thrilled to partner with Snapdeal.com. This is a huge opportunity for the brand to connect with all discerning customers who are currently not serviced by our offline and online formats.” Godrej Nature’s Basket, which was started in 2005 as a single store and has grown to 33 stores across multiple cities, has recently also acquired Mumbai-based e-grocer EkStop.

Venture capitalists, too, are upbeat on this space with BigBasket being the most favored one. The company has so far received around $60 million from various investors including Bessemer Venture Partners, Ascent Capital, Helion Ventures, Zodius Fund and LionRock Capital. According to Venture Intelligence, a research services firm focused on private equity and M&A deals, ZopNow’s investors include Accel India and Qualcomm Ventures while EkStop has received funding from Jungle Ventures and Unilazer Ventures. LocalBanya, which has raised $20 million so far in three rounds from Springboard Fund, realtor Karmvir Avant Group and others, is now reported to be looking to raise another $15 million.

A Different Recipe

Technopak’s Singh says that with nearly two-thirds of the retail market being food and grocery, it won’t be surprising if even more players eye this space. However, she adds a note of caution: Online grocery needs to be approached with a different level of preparedness. “The approach to online grocery needs to be more localized and hence their sellers and processes need to be aligned to local fulfilment. This is a different ball game than what is done in other categories.” Singh also believes that while the “traction in larger cities has been encouraging so far, for smaller cities the case still needs to be built.”

“With Amazon’s deep pockets and experience with Amazon Fresh, it will [pose] a big challenge for BigBasket and other local firms.” –Kartik Hosanagar

Snapdeal’s cofounder Kunal Bahl points out that supply chain, specifically temperature controlled storage, transport and delivery systems play a “pivotal role” in making the gourmet e-commerce ecosystem viable. “India has just begun to work in this direction and it will take time to move beyond the metro cities and reach the vast segment which has high purchasing power but lives in tier 2 and tier 3 cities,” he says.

According to Wharton’s Hosanagar, a key challenge is that grocery is a low-margin business. Specialty foods, he says, is better from a margin standpoint, but it still does not have the economics of, say, the apparel industry. “On top of it, there are logistics challenges, and the business needs a lot of capital investment. For it to be economically viable, one needs cart sizes that are big enough. This means that the product offering has to be broad. A [further] challenge in India is that since kirana [neighborhood] stores drop off groceries at home for no fee, grocery shopping isn’t as inconvenient as in the U.S. So the value proposition is a little weaker in India.”

K. Ganesh, serial entrepreneur and co-promoter of BigBasket, disagrees. Physical grocery retail in India, he says, is “broken and dysfunctional because of problems of high rentals, high shrinkage and high inventory costs.” And while Ganesh concedes that neighborhood stores do offer the advantage of quick home delivery, he points out that because of their very nature, these stores have limited offerings. “Most consumers have to do a fair bit of their grocery shopping at department stores. Heavy traffic on the roads and lack of adequate parking make this a very stressful experience. Put all this together, and there is a compelling case for e-grocery in India.”

Adds Menon of BigBasket: “If you look at the grocery buying pattern in the country, a typical urban Indian household does the bulk of its grocery shopping on a monthly basis. This is done primarily at department stores which offer variety and discounts. The shopping at neighborhood stores is mainly for top-ups.

What we are targeting at present is the shopping done in the larger stores. Over time, we hope to offer express delivery — within an hour or two — and get a share of the neighborhood stores also.” According to Menon, customers at BigBasket purchase at an average of 2.6 times a month. Through the use of analytics, Menon wants to push this up to four times a month. “It’s ambitious and requires a huge change of habit in our customers. But we believe that we will definitely get to three visits in six to eight months from now,” he says.

Margins Game

Ganesh and Menon also counter the argument about low margins in this business. According to them, margins can be as high as 22%. But this, they say, requires strong domain expertise in order to source and grade the products, as well as going deep into the supply chain and building strong relationships with farmers and mill owners and FMCG companies. “Building one’s own brand is also critical,” says Ganesh. He adds that unlike a horizontal play, where you can ship from a central location to the whole country, food and groceries is an extremely localized business. “One needs to understand the local nuances. It’s all about building local relationships, local buying, local logistics and building the business city by city.”

“Right now, it’s a growing market and there is place for everyone. But in time we will see a shakeout and mergers and acquisitions.” –Karan Maheshwari

Do large brick-and-mortar grocery chains have an advantage in their online avatars? Not necessarily, says Singh of Technopak. “Their DNA is completely different. Just because you have inventory doesn’t mean you will succeed online. This business requires very different capabilities like expertise in analytics, digital marketing and so on. It also requires tremendous process discipline and lots of investment in technology.” Talking to daily newspaper The Economic Times, Amit Bhartiya, advisor at LocalBanya, noted that “offline players going online cannot make a mark if they do not offer competitive pricing and value.”

The jury is still out on what is the best model for this category in India. “A marketplace model that brings together a variety of sellers offering an assortment of products is most suited for this segment,” says Snapdeal’s Bahl. “The established offline stores can expand their reach through the e-commerce channel without actually having to build it. They have the expertise in handling such products, and marketplaces like ours have expertise in connecting them with customers outside their natural geographic markets.”

LocalBanya’s cofounder and CEO Karan Mehrotra points out that his model doesn’t require much infrastructure. In an interview with daily newspaper Business Standard, he says: “We connect with existing retailers and grocery stores. We do not compete with them. We work with them, adding the online channel to the existing vertical.” Ganesh thinks this category needs an inventory-led model. “Some of the players buy from large stores and supply to their customers, but this is not scalable,” he says, adding that since the ticket sizes are small, scale is critical to be successful in this business. BigBasket itself holds a 10-day inventory for all its products, except for fruits and vegetables. For these, it holds an inventory of less than two days.

What no one disputes however is the headroom for growth in the sector. “The more the number of players who enter this segment, the faster will be the growth,” says Bahl. He is also not worried about a player like Amazon with deep pockets and global expertise. Echoing the sentiments of others in the industry, Bahl says: “India is a very diverse country and a complex market. The effectiveness and efficiency in adapting to the Indian markets will define how any company will fare here.” Adds Karan Maheshwari, one of the early angel investors in EkStop: “Right now, it’s a growing market and there is a place for everyone. But in time we will see a shakeout and mergers and acquisitions.” Some of that has already started.

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