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Reuters/Ralph D. Freso
Getting it right.
COME, LET'S PLAY

Is Amazon a friend or foe? India’s two largest retailers have divergent views

By Sangeeta Tanwar

Two of India’s leading retail chains are currently preparing the ground for their full-fledged e-commerce forays, albeit in totally different ways.

While the Kishore Biyani-led Future Group, which operates the popular Big Bazaar hypermarket chain, is busy listing its labels on Amazon, rival Reliance Retail is withdrawing its products from all e-commerce platforms, as parent Reliance Industries (RIL) gears up to launch its own online marketplace.

For both the traditional players, cracking online sales is important as they prepare for a future beyond high street retail.

Online sales in India will balloon from last year’s $18 billion (Rs1.25 lakh crore) to $170 billion by 2030, Jefferies India predicted recently. This potential aside, Indian e-commerce is still nascent and retailers are still perfecting their strategies.

“E-commerce is now a game of two dimensions, one of scale and the other of last-mile ubiquity. Whoever gets this right, will manage growth, revenue, and customer acquisition,” said Anil V Pillai, director of the independent marketing firm Terragni Consulting.

As for the Future Group, it thinks the best way to achieve this is by riding piggyback on Amazon’s proven capabilities in scale and last-mile delivery.

How the plan evolved

In 2016, the Future Group had made its first e-commerce acquisition by buying out the struggling furniture retailer FabFurnish from its German incubator Rocket Internet. Biyani had hoped to find synergies between the startup and his group’s furniture brand Hometown.

A year later, hit by heavy losses, FabFurnish was shuttered. Biyani downplayed the move saying his losses were “compensated” as the company had learnt “enough” from the episode.

The move now to partner Amazon seems to have stemmed from that learning.

Over the past month, the two have been trying to make joint plans, including in distribution, warehousing, and creating products for Amazon and its grocery format, Pantry. Also, Future group brands, including Big Bazaar, are being aligned with Amazon Now, which promises delivery of everyday essentials within two hours, suggest media reports.

Some experts see merit in the alliance.

“Even with big investments, it will be hard for a new player to gain a huge customer base like Amazon. It’s really global with more than 100 million (Amazon) Prime members worldwide. And Future Group will benefit from it,” said Silvia Vianello, director of the innovation center at the Dubai campus of at the SP Jain School of Global Management.

Yet, there may be chinks in the Future Group’s armour.

For one, it is doubtful if the strategy will work across price ranges. “If the Future Group wants to sell exclusive products, Amazon can be a good partner, but if they want to sell products with low margins, it will be difficult to be profitable,” added Vianello.

A more serious handicap will be Amazon controlling Future Group’s data and customer relationships in the partnership. “In e-commerce, ownership of customer relationship and data, which offers consumer insights, is the real asset,” points out Devangshu Dutta, CEO of Third Eyesight, a consulting firm focussed on retail and consumer products.

Vianello agrees: “When you have your own e-commerce venture, as Reliance Retail plans, you are the owner of the data and you can slice and dice it to come up with exciting product offerings and improved service experience.”

This is one of the advantages that RIL might have seen in going it alone.

Going solo

“Reliance Retail has taken a more integrated approach towards e-commerce,” observed Dutta. “The company is set to leverage its pan-India retail presence and Reliance Jio’s (RIL’s telecom business) data capabilities to roll out an e-commerce platform,” explained Dutta.

The synergy between Reliance Jio and Reliance Retail is a big advantage. The retailer has about 10,000 stores across 6,500 towns in India, while Jio has a subscriber base of 306 million. After bringing many Indians online with Jio’s affordable data offerings, Reliance now hopes to get most of them to start shopping online as well.

The challenge, though, would be in getting the last-mile delivery right. “Reliance Retail could be at a disadvantage here compared to the Future Group, which has its delivery mechanism in place courtesy its partnership with Amazon,” suggested Vianello.

Moreover, like with Jio, consumers will expect heavy discounts from Reliance’s e-commerce venture as well, which may be difficult to sustain given the initial investments. “Biyani’s (online) launch involves lower upfront costs, while Reliance Retail’s will be resource hungry since it’s an almost greenfield project,” pointed out Pillai, adding, “Reliance’s challenge is the overwhelming perception about the group being a price warrior and disrupter.”

So, which strategy will triumph? Everything comes down to execution. “Success in retail, including e-commerce, is about more and more customers choosing to transact with you repeatedly. Achieving this is a difficult and ongoing process. There are no guaranteed or permanent winners,” says Dutta.