Year after year, Indian e-commerce companies have perfected the art of wooing shoppers

Reel ’em in.
Reel ’em in.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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If you really want to see retail in its purest form, observe any parent trying to introduce their children to reading. There is so much innovation involved in trying to sell the book to the child. Whether it’s in the animated storytelling or the visual aids, parents constantly iterate their methods to showcase the value proposition of reading.

Mainstream consumer retail has largely functioned in the same way over the last decade.

With Indian consumers spoilt for choice, attracting buyers has not been an easy feat. So retailers have continued to design experiences keeping in mind the evolving tastes of customers. Among other things, Indian retailers have leveraged technology to come up with innovative ways to nudge customers towards their products, changing the retail landscape continually.

Here’s a look back at the most significant trends in Indian retail over the last decade, and what to expect in the future:

2011: Standardised to lifestyle

While a lot of online retail started with the easier categories such as electronics, books and the likes, the first wave of lifestyle products started becoming big with the likes of apparel, accessories, and jewellery being sold online.

Some of the big names, including Myntra, Jabong, and Yebhi, started becoming big around this time. Today, a lot of the growth of the e-commerce marketplaces is contributed to by fashion and lifestyle products, and furniture, while standardised products still continue their big share of revenue.

2012: Marketplaces to verticals

A lot of private online-only or online-first brands came into existence around this time. These included Warby Parker, Bonobos, and Dollar Shave Club, among others in the US, and closer home in India there were Urban Ladder, Bluestone, Zivame, Zovi, and Yepme, etc. These brands started creating distinct brand recalls.

While marketplaces still control a bulk of the online transactions, some of these vertical brands have established a clear viable business for themselves. For example, Dollar Shave Club’s sale for a billion dollars has been one of the first success stories for the online-first vertical brands space.

2013: Search to 360-degree

Google controlled pretty much all of the companies’ marketing budgets till 2012. Once Facebook started monetising its newsfeed, it also became a big force to reckon with.

While Google has won back much of the share, thanks to many categories, including furniture, now becoming search-focused, a 360-degree strategy (which involves social media, re-targeting, and mass media) is the preferred strategy for most brands.

If you see the horizontal players such as Flipkart and Amazon or the vertical players like Urban Ladder and Myntra, most of us use multiple mediums, including localised ones (such as radio, and outdoor) as well as digital and national ones.

2014: One-week to same-day

Around April 2014 is when Flipkart officially launched their same-day delivery. Though they were always known for their fast delivery for most products, configuring an entire supply chain to deliver the same day would have been quite an effort.

Amazon launched Prime delivery in India sometime around 2016, but today, the norm has become same-day or next-day delivery without any extra charge.

Supply chains have been configured end-to-end to be able to deliver these promises consistently at high volumes.

2015: Desktop to mobile

This was the year that companies started building dedicated mobile shopping experiences for customers. While some of them went overboard in giving discounts specifically to drive mobile installs, and shutting desktop sites, there were enough startups who were building integrated kick-ass experiences.

We launched the Urban Ladder mobile app in early 2015. Today, more than 35% of our revenues come from our catalog app (and another around 12% from the mobile website) without offering any specific incentive for customers. Users are buying even large products such as sofas, dining tables, and beds on the mobile app.

This percentage number is higher for some other companies dealing with smaller ticket size or smaller sized products.

2016: Personalised to AI

Recommended and related products have been showcased on websites forever. These products are usually based on a users’ browsing behaviour and the products that they typically add to their cart. As all online companies get more user data, we are able to personalise the experience far beyond just the products users see. We are able to utilise data in the background, and build more intelligence around the kind of products users like based on other patterns (such as demographic, geographic, inflow channel, and time-based) and showcase products to even the first-time customers.

An increasing amount of data, raw processing power, infinite storage, and ability to test the outcomes of any permutations thrown to the user has become a self-fulfilling prophecy to get the system to become more intelligent.

2017: Offline to online to omnichannel

Offline companies launching their websites has been a thing forever. But now, we are seeing online companies go headlong into opening offline retail stores.

The difference, however, between the two approaches is evident in the usage of data, online intelligence, and ground-up thinking that some of us are able to leverage for opening our retail stores.

For example, our revenue per square foot at physical store that we launched in July has hit five times of most other furniture stores because of our intelligent use of technology to aid selling and better store staff training with data.

Lenskart, too, is seeing great traction for their offline stores and has surpassed most other offline-first eyewear retailers. If some of the concepts that Amazon has shown in the US are to go by, the future of offline retail is actually going to be defined by online companies.

2018 and 2019: humans to robots

While some of these are nascent, Amazon’s drone video from a couple of years back seems to have funnelled a lot of promise in getting your next mobile phone order from the air.

Regulatory changes look imminent to clear the air for this next wave. Alibaba’s smart warehouse system powered by robots has also been in the news for a while. The overall movement away from humans and into systems and robots is debated with a lot of passion, obviously. Retail and logistics have traditionally been people-heavy industries and innovations like these on the backend show a lot of promise, and are outstanding for fast customer deliveries.

2020 and beyond: Store to AR/VR

Today, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are still seen as intimidating and gimmicky. But a ton of advances in both technologies in the last two to three years, and mainstream companies like Facebook (with Oculus and a massive reduction in price) and Apple (with ARKit) are getting these technologies out to the masses.

The day is not far away when the size of a VR device will be small enough to fit within the contact lens in your eyes (provided heating issues can be solved) and users will be able to merge the real and virtual worlds. Users will be able to browse infinite digitally created shops worldwide sitting in your home and be able to buy products with hand gestures and voice control.

It may sound right out of a Tom Cruise movie today, but rest assured, as devices become more mature, and user experiences become well thought-out, these experiences will become a reality to change the face of retail.

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