The pandemic and the resultant lockdowns have impacted every aspect of our lives and behaviours. Digital was embraced in its fullest and e-commerce came into its own with the work-from-home economy. The story in India, one of the worst affected by COVID-19, is no different. With digital shopping becoming a way of life, what is the road ahead for e-commerce brands in the country? In this India Spotlight series, WARC India Editor Biprorshee Das asks if the time is right for e-commerce brands in India to capitalise on a crisis and leapfrog to the next level.
This article is part of a Spotlight series on on what e-commerce 2.0 means for brands in India. Read more
When we look back at our lives a few years from now, our stories will probably be divided into two broad periods – the world before 2020 and the one after. In other words, pre-COVID and post-COVID time.
When we decided on “e-commerce 2.0” as our next focus for the India Spotlight, things were slightly different. There was talk of normalcy and the Indian economy inching towards recovery as people stepped out of their homes. But before we know it, the virus returned in a second wave to wreak more havoc. India is already the second worst affected country in the world and there’s no telling if it will get any worse.
Most of all, the pandemic forever changed our behaviour and the way we live. Staying indoors was the new normal, working from home was the new normal, socially distancing was the new normal.
In the marketing world, being online and embracing digital became the new normal. We had been hearing how digital was going to be game-changing but it wasn’t until 2020 that we really saw how it became so.
The e-commerce phenomenon in India is a little less than a decade old but it truly came into its own last year. Consumers had little choice but to head online for the smallest of needs. Daily grocery needs, for instance. How else could get provisions when your neigbourhood store is closed? Shopping online became more just convenient, it was necessary.
Since the current Indian administration began pushing the Digital India cause when it came to power in 2014, it is only now that we see its true value. Cashless transactions have become the order of the day, even for a piece of candy; WhatsApp became more than just a tool to exchange texts.
Needless to say, e-commerce brands in the country now have the opportunity to make the most of a crisis. The pandemic might not have been a trigger anybody wanted but it certainly became one for online businesses.
Of all the reports I have come across in my research, one has stayed with me. Data from IBM’s US Retail Index suggested that the pandemic accelerated the shift to e-commerce by five years. This is an insight one cannot ignore and if this is the case, is it not an opportunity for e-commerce to springboard to the next level?
With consumer behaviour drastically changed and still evolving, what is the road ahead for e-commerce in India? The rise of communities, social commerce, engaging content, there are opportunities galore and it is for the brands to take it from here.
For this edition of Spotlight India, we spoke to three brands, all with a unique story tied to their digital plans.
Big Bazaar, a leading hypermarket chain in India, is a modern trade major that relies heavily on footfall in its physical stores although it had substantial digital initiatives. But come the lockdown, a brand like Big Bazaar had to step on the gas to take its customers online. When some semblance of normalcy briefly returned, Big Bazaar also launched an online-to-offline campaign but the brand could no longer keep its digital initiatives on the backburner.
Pawan Sarda, Big Bazaar’s group Head – Digital, Marketing and E-commerce, said: “I see e-commerce 2.0 as really taking a shape where our businesses cannot just concentrate only on buying the customer. I think they have to look at their experience, their service, their timely delivery and so on.”
Online grocery store BigBasket is another brand in the limelight. Over the last 10 years, the brand has pushed the envelope in making online grocery shopping more widespread but it was last year that it was really tested. It witnessed a massive surge in demand and had to tread carefully managing deliveries and inventory.
Online grocery is an exciting segment in India right now, with new players further expanding the market. Ultimately, providing the best customer experience will set them apart.
BigBasket’s Arun Jayaraman, Head of Marketing – Loyalty, Site Merchandising and Partnerships, thinks these are promising times but also knows that brands need to understand their consumers better.
“The Tier II markets are growing faster than the Tier I markets. In Tier I, the rate of growth has been fairly steady. I don't think it will be exponential in the foreseeable future,’’ he noted.
“In Tier II, the market has matured pretty drastically over the last year. There is access to the internet, the digital maturity has gone up by leaps and bounds. Those markets are primarily value-driven. We have to make sure that social commerce picks up.”
The third brand featured is an interesting one – The Souled Store. It is a startup that is a favoured online destination for youngsters looking for pop culture merchandise. Licensed and original merchandise is still an area that is new and growing in India and in the last few years, the brand has been at the forefront of the movement.
The Souled Store faced its share of troubles last year too, especially because it isn’t an essential goods and services provider. This meant it couldn’t deliver its products for the longest time. We spoke to founder Harsh Lal, who shared how the brand began, how it weathered the lockdown, and how it sees the future. The Souled Store’s current offline strategy is particularly interesting.
Lal said: “The pandemic has brought about a massive mindset change. People who are shopping online, even though the vaccine has come out; I don't think they want to enter crowded areas. This mindset changing over a longer period of time is great for online brands like us.”
Strategists contributing to this Spotlight edition also shared their insights on the way forward for Indian e-commerce brands. All of them agreed that the time has never been better for the industry to move forward while keeping the evolving consumer in mind.
- Do right: Narayan Devanathan, CEO of dentsu Solutions, India, noted that now is the time for e-commerce to address concerns and do right by keeping in mind the interests of every stakeholder.
He said: “Indian e-commerce has the opportunity to address a whole range of questions, some immediate, some pressing, some technological, some sociological, but every one of them affecting the entire spectrum of stakeholders that can either enable or impede progress. Led by doing right, e-commerce can tackle diverse challenges across issues such as data privacy, social justice, equal access, sustainability, localisation.”
- Deliver human experiences: Oindrila Roy, Essence Head of Strategy, India, is of the view that as opportunities grow, brands cannot miss out on the human connection. Leveraging technology to deliver more human experiences will eventually make all the difference.
Roy said: “Shopping has always been more about the experience than the transaction. Brands that can leverage technology to create a more human experience are the ones that will emerge winners in this competitive landscape.”
- Customer advocacy: According to Kartik Iyer, Head of Publicis Commerce, India and GDD, as e-commerce evolves, the marketing role will move from being the brand’s spokesperson to customer advocate – once again driving home the point that it is critical to be more humane and empathetic towards consumer needs.
Iyer said: “With deep data-driven understanding about their consumers beliefs, behaviours and motivations, we expect marketing’s role to shift from being a ‘brand spokesperson’ to becoming a ‘customer advocate’. This would be a significant change as most marketing managers, in our view, lack the ‘empathy and contextual know-how’ needed to drive ‘meaningful and purposeful’ engagement with their brands’ customers.”
- More than convenience: Ogilvy India’s Vandana Nath and Anupama Yadav shared how they think e-commerce brands must keep their ears close to the ground. It is no longer about convenience; e-commerce has the chance to address the consumer’s needs a lot more effectively.
“E-commerce in India is not just about convenience but rather bridging real gaps unique to India. Whether it’s the broken infrastructure and access gap for rural India, or the changing ownership discourse witnessed by the youth with fluid identities, or the changing social structure of family that is giving rise to community commerce, all respond to the unique needs and behaviour of the Indian consumer,” they noted.
It will be a while before we can truly put COVID-19 behind us. For now, it looks like we are going to stay indoors for a little longer and our shopping habits will be dictated by the next delivery slot available online.
As we continue to do so, it can be assumed that the online brands we favour will be looking at us more than ever for insights. And it is just as well!
Read more in this Spotlight series
E-commerce in India: A chance to do right
How e-commerce behaves differently for different consumers in India
Vandana Nath and Anupama Yadav
E-commerce: Consumer sentiment data
Spotlight data report