Even without the Future Group deal, Ambani is miles ahead of Bezos in India

Pushing the competition.
Pushing the competition.
Image: REUTERS/Amit Dave
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India’s richest man is under fire from the world’s richest person—yet he has nothing much to worry about.

On Oct. 25, won an interim order against Reliance Industries’ (RIL’s) deal to buy the retail business of India’s Future Group. The order by a Singapore-based arbitration panel has reportedly asked the Future group to put the deal on hold. The deal would give RIL a hold on very popular retail store brands such as Big Bazaar, fbb, Foodhall, Easyday, Nilgiris, Central, and Brand Factory.

But with or without the deal, RIL is still the king of India’s $700 billion (Rs5.17 lakh crore) retail industry. After all, e-commerce is still less than 2% of India’s retail market, which is dominated by RIL.

Launched in 2006, Reliance Retail Venture, a subsidiary of RIL, is the largest retailer in India with a presence across apparel, footwear, jewellery, electronics, and groceries, among other segments.

Even though Reliance Retail doesn’t have a strong standing in the fast-growing e-commerce space as of now, experts believe that it can still beat Amazon—and the other sector heavyweight, Walmart-owned Flipkart—hands down.

“Reliance has more than 30 million square feet of retail area, about 12,000 stores across formats and new partnerships with Google and Facebook for a massive digital, social, and e-commerce foray. No one can match this reach,” said Rajeev Karwal, who served as the first president and CEO of Reliance Retail in 2006. Karwal is now the founder and chairman of Milagrow, a consumer robot brand.

Despite this existing wide offline presence, Reliance Retail is far from slowing down. Lately, retail appears to be Ambani’s new focus sector.

From Jio to retail

After a series of head-turning investments in his telecom and new-tech based venture Jio Platforms earlier this year, Ambani has been strengthening Reliance Retail by bringing in some marquee investors.

In less than two months, the retail arm has raised over Rs37,000 crore from eight investments.

Given the recent track record with Jio Platforms, it won’t be surprising if Reliance Retail raises even more funds.

“Reliance’s strategy is to use capital, its strong reach, cash flows from the legacy businesses like energy and petrochemicals, its relationship with the [Narendra] Modi government, [the option] to leverage partnerships with Facebook and Google to get the domain strengths in the digital space, and [the ability] to use its telecom presence to get people to transact with Reliance. And so far it’s working,” said K Ganesh, serial entrepreneur and promoter of a bunch of online ventures including grocery platform BigBasket, jewellery website Bluestone, and healthcare firm Portea.

The Future Group acquisition was part of this carpet-bombing strategy. On Aug. 29, Reliance Retail said it had acquired Future Group’s retail, wholesale, logistics and warehousing units for Rs24,713 crore.

However, has contested that this deal breaks an agreement it had with Future Group. In January, Amazon had bought a 49% stake in one of Future Group’s unlisted firms with the rights to buy into flagship Future Retail after a period of three years to 10 years.

Reliance versus e-commerce

Despite its weak online footprint, experts say Reliance Retail is a potential threat to watch out for.

“With its size, Reliance can have disproportionate influence over the demand and supply better than anyone else. In tier-3 and 4 towns, it can enjoy dominant monopolistic power by offering incredible deals to put pressure on competition in a very price-sensitive Indian market,” Ganesh said.

E-commerce will likely not stay out of Ambani’s radar because the coronavirus pandemic has given the segment a boost as shoppers refrain from visiting malls and shops.

Currently, Reliance Retail has e-tailing portals for its fashion and lifestyle brand Ajio, electronics brand Reliance Digital, and jewellery brand Reliance Jewels. The company also runs Jio stores, a portal for selling mobile phones and related accessories. But all these websites are still not in the top league with Amazon and Flipkart.

But Ambani has lately been expanding his company’s digital footprint. In August, Reliance Retail acquired a majority stake in e-pharmacy Netmeds. In April, Reliance Retail launched JioMart, an e-grocery business in partnership with Facebook’s WhatsApp.

The money muscle aside, to win in the e-commerce space, RIL will also need to learn the tricks of the trade, which companies like Amazon and Flipkart have mastered over the years. ”The first and foremost challenge is to figure out the logistics of faster and most reliable delivery across all pin codes like Amazon and Flipkart,” said Karwal.

Ganesh said that Reliance was still a long way from catching up to the level of “sophistication, technology, customer service and execution” of Flipkart and Amazon in the online retail space. “But they will get there given their strong execution skills and huge capital. But by then the market would have expanded too and the growth will not come at the cost of Amazon or Flipkart,” said Ganesh.