FirstCry.com: Leveraging the power of offline

In my blog post last week, I wrote about how a hybrid online and offline strategy is useful for collecting small data. As a couple of my readers pointed out, what marketers and strategists call small data, ethnographers and sociologists call as thick data. Honestly, I had not heard of thick data. @fernandogaldino introduced thick data to me. I dug through the online references on thick data, and realized we are talking the same thing. Exactly the same thing. Thank you Fernando! So, I am going to continue using the term small data (that is what I have read academic articles about) with the caveat that small data is also thick data. Last week, I promised to delve deep into FirstCry.com and its online-offline strategy. Here it goes.

FirstCry.com

The firm was founded by Supam Maheshwari and Amitava Saha in 2010 as a pure online venture. By 2011, FirstCry.com opened its first offline stores. In an interview to TechCircle, co-founder Supam Maheshwari elucidated how a vertically focused ecommerce firm could survive and make money in a market dominated by horizontally spread competitors (you can read the interview here). He talked about replicating Quidsi’s business model in the Indian market, by owning a set of vertical markets like diapers.com and soap.com. In replication, firstcry.com has a sister website goodlife.com. The key difference, he said, between the Indian and the US market for baby care products was that, more than 95% of the products were imported. In fact, that was the seed for the enterprise – his own difficulty in finding good quality products for his child in India, whereas he could buy a lot of them during his international travels. That effectively makes this business inherently inventory-heavy. One needs to leverage economies of scale and scope in sourcing, hold inventory and invest in logistics to be able to service customers across the length and breadth of the country (read about firstcry.com inventory model here).

Omni-channel strategy

Here is where the omni-channel strategy helps. Instead of keeping inventory in dark warehouses, ready to be shipped, it was possible for firstcry.com to open retail outlets in tier II and tier III cities (where real estate was also likely to be cheaper), where ecommerce penetration was not as much as the tier I cities and the metros like Mumbai, Delhi, or Bangalore. The inventory holding was thus distributed across the various franchised retail outlets. The outlets also provided customers with the look and feel of the products before they bought them – you need to appreciate that baby apparel and shoes dominate the market, only to be followed by toys and diapers. Clothes and shoes … when was the last time you bought your own shoe purely online? Inventory provided increased footfalls to the store, created brand awareness, and inventory off-take. The decision to have the same prices between online and offline stores, coupled with large touch screen interfaces to shop online from within the offline store could have provided exponential growth in traffic and sales.

Promotion: The FirstCry Box

Firstcry.com began promoting using traditional mass media – television and online ads. They invested in Bollywood’s longest serving (possibly) celebrity, Mr. Amitabh Bachchan as their brand ambassador and launched a few television advertisements (see some of their ads on YouTube here). However, they soon realized that mass media advertising was highly expensive and yielded low returns for a niche range like baby care products. That is when the idea of the FirstCry Box was born. The FirstCry Box is a bundle of some essential products that the mother would need during the first few days of the baby and mother reaching home from the hospital. Firstcry.com has agreements with over 6000 hospitals, through which these FirstCry Boxes are gifted to the new mothers, congratulating them on the birth. These boxes also contained gift and discount coupons from major brands of baby products, that the parents could redeem at either online at firstcry.com or any of their retail outlets. This ‘welcome kit’ to parenting provided firstcry.com a significant opportunity to build brand equity and recall amongst the over 70000 mothers receiving these kits every month. Some marketers call this permission marketing (read about it here), or direct-to-parents strategy. For me, it is a wonderful platform, a two-sided platform mediated by firstcry.com. Parents, especially first-time mothers, are initiated into parenting with the help of these grooming products (basic diapers and lotions) and the gift coupons for free. The new mothers as a subsidy side is being financed by the brands that provide the products and coupons to be included in the box and act as the money side in the platform. For the brands, this is highly targeted sampling of their products, and most mothers would stay loyal to quality brands/ retail stores in baby products. In the entire transaction between the mothers and the brands, firstcry.com benefits significantly in three ways: (a) store loyalty resulting in increased sales, (b) small data about how these mothers use these products, the basket, frequency of purchase, and willingness-to-pay for quality; and (c) good quality prediction of demand in specific geographies, leading to efficiencies in inventory and supply chain management practices.

By the way, such welcome kits are not entirely new – a lot of employers have been on-boarding their employees with such welcome kits. I first heard/ saw such welcome kits when I was part of a team that delivered a customized training programme for the ITES service provider ADP India, a few years back. It was fascinating to see how the entire family was on-boarded into the firm! Not just ADP, a variety of other new age firms, I see have adopted this practice (read this article on how some Indian organizations welcome their employees). I wish I was welcomed like this by my employers!

Are hybrid models here to stay?

I would say, yes. We saw how Amazon was opening stores in our blog last week. We also discussed how Amazon.in was using firms like StoreKing to reach the Indian retail hinterland. I read last week that their Indian competitor, Flipkart.com was also opening offline store to reach users in small cities (Flipkart to open offline stores as well). And in vertical markets like baby products, it has become all the more important to target your promotion very narrowly, and focus on the backend (inventory, supply chain, and logistics) efficiencies, while at the same time achieve scale.

Is vertical ecommerce a winner-takes-all market?

Three industry conditions define a platform market as a winner-takes-all market: presence of strong cross-side network effects, high multi-homing costs for the users, and the absence of special requirements. The baby products retail market is dominated by imported brands, is a highly fragmented industry, and the brand owners are dependent on their retail partners to promote their brands. The demand for these products are relative price inelastic, and consumers would be willing to pay premiums for sustained quality and reliability. An aggregator platform like firstcry.com would significantly aid in establishing and reinforcing the cross-side network effects between the brands and consumers. Second condition – the quality and reliability concerns of the parents would ensure significant store loyalty and brand loyalty. As long as there are no serious concerns, consumers would be loath to switch; and when the fill rates are high (there are no stock-outs of items that they want to buy) in their preferred stores, would not multi-home. In other words, consumer switching costs for brands are high, and as long as these brands are available with their favorite retailer, they would not shop from multiple outlets. And most infants have the same needs – diapers, creams, lotions, oils, and basic toys. Special preferences begin showing up only when they ‘grow up’. Some of them don’t ever grow up, but that is a different matter!

Firstcry.com and BabyOye merger and further consolidation

Given the industry conditions of geographically distributed year-round demand, operational efficiency and leveraging economies of scale and scope become key success factors. Consolidation is inevitable to achieve both backend (sourcing, inventory, and supply chain/ logistics) efficiencies as well as frontend scale (online and offline stores distributed across the country). That is why we would see waves of consolidation in such strong vertical markets. Like how firstcry.com and BabyOye merged their operations, I agree with Supam that this market will see more and more such mergers (read his interview here).

Lessons for enterprises focused on vertical markets

Based on what we have discussed over the past few weeks, I would urge enterprises focused on vertical markets (like firstcry.com) to (a) seriously consider your business model to include online and offline consumer touchpoints … for instance, online furniture store, Urban ladder is ‘pivoting’ to offline stores (read the news here) and are positioning their offline stores as customer experience centers; (b) invest in collecting and analyzing small (or thick) data through these omni-channel (or hybrid) business models; and (c) critically evaluate if the market conditions favour winner-takes-all dynamics.

Hope my readers from India and the diaspora had a great deepavali festival! Greetings from Bangalore.

Disclaimer: I am in no way related to FirstCry.com, Goodlife.com, its investors, or its founders.

(C) 2016, R. Srinivasan

Flipkart Ads – Is there a shift in online advertising economics?

Yesterday, I read an interview with Sanjay Ramakrishnan, Senior Director & Head – Business development & Marketing, Flipkart Ads in Advertising Age India (read it here). It set me thinking, why is Flipkart into advertisements? Is it competing with Amazon or with Google, Facebook, and Apple as well?

Though I am tempted to label this development as the advertising market becoming a contestable market, I will refrain from doing so. Let me first explain what is a contestable market (in simple terms, of course, let me try; and in the context of platform business models), and then proceed to analyze if the success of Flipkart Ads is a source of worry for other platforms whose principal business model is based on advertising revenue.

The theory of contestable markets originated from the works of Baumol as early as 1982 in this seminal paper (available through JSTOR here). He (and his co-authors in subsequent papers) defined a contestable market as one with absolutely free entry and costless exit. Which implies that such a market would be vulnerable for a hit-and-run entry, i.e., by any competitor with no need for any specific assets, process capabilities, or differentiation.

A key characteristic of these markets is that the new entrant takes the prices prevailing in the market (of the incumbents) as given, and enters with the same price. In a perfect competition, any new entrant will increase the supply in the market, and should lead to a reduction in prices. Even when the market shares of incumbents and new entrants change, the industry price levels should ideally fall with increase in supply. In contrast, in a contestable market, the new entrant could enter the market with the same price as the incumbents. The justification for this assertion could be based on two arguments, that the new entrant enters the market at such a small scale compared to the incumbents that there is no visible change in the total market supply to warrant a price correction. The second argument is founded on the thesis that the incumbents cannot retaliate with sufficient speed to counter the threat posed by the new entrant, due to their systems and processes that bind them to a particular cost structure and a positioning in the market. In such a case, the new entrant could enter the market with a prior contract, preferably a long-term contract, at least as long-term as it takes for the incumbent to respond. In perfect competition or monopolistic competition, incumbent firms will adopt limit pricing strategies (if profitable for them) to keep new entrants at bay, i.e., as the incumbents sense the threat of new entry, they would reduce the prices to a level where it would be profitable for the incumbents and not for the new entrant. Take for example, when cola firms entered the bottled water market in India, the incumbent, Bisleri International embarked on a strategy of keeping market prices so low that it took a long time for Coca Cola Company, and Pepsico to break even.

The second aspect of contestable markets is the absence of any sunk costs whatsoever for both the incumbent and the new entrant. If any upfront fixed costs were to be incurred by a competitor either prior to entry (including in studying the feasibility of making money in that market) or at entry (like setting up manufacturing and distribution capabilities), the costs of entry will prevent this market from becoming contestable. Let me provide an example. In today’s world, setting up an online store entails no sunk costs for any retailer. The domain registration and hosting, website design, payment gateways, and fulfillment are all functions that are unbundled and offered as independent services (as SaaS) by different vendors, which makes all of them variable costs, rather than fixed costs. Such costs are neither fixed nor specific – one could use the payment gateway for any other online transaction, should this venture fail. Such markets with no sunk costs result in no barriers to entry and exit and therefore, are contestable. Contrast this with our previous example of Coca Cola Company and Pepsico entering the Indian bottled water market – this is a market that requires significant bottling and distribution capabilities. Though the cola firms enter this market with significant synergies from their core business, there were certain unique capabilities that the bottled water market required – sourcing of good quality water and plastic bottles, bottling lines that were specific to water, unique branding, and wider distribution networks.

The third characteristic of contestable markets is that the products are absolutely non-differentiable. That means, the new entrants can enter the market and imitate the products/ services offered by the incumbents at the same costs or even lower, and therefore maintain the same price levels. It is also possible that the new entrants enter with lower prices, and offer the same ‘standard’ products or provide additional features at the same or lower prices. Such standardization is highly visible in the context of platform services, like a C2C marketplace. In the absence of any product differentiation between competitors (any new feature is imitable quickly and is almost costless to do so), Quickr.com and OLX.in entered the market and took market share from incumbents like Sulekha.com or asklaila.com.

In summary, a market can be (or become) contestable when either of these conditions are met – no changes in prices (no limit pricing by incumbents), no fixed sunk costs, and no differentiation in products and services offered.

Is digital advertising becoming a contestable market?

For digital advertising market to become (and be) a contestable market, it has to allow for costless entry and exit, no sunk costs, and no differentiation. In the case of Flipkart Ads, I would argue that it would have cost Flipkart next to nothing to build the platform. The ecommerce store was in any case dealing with sellers, and all that they had to do was to extend the relationship to brands. And remember, in the Indian market, a lot of the brands had their own ecommerce retail operations and some of them were already on Flipkart as sellers. For instance, when I searched for the Prestige brand of pressure cookers on Flipkart, I found about 40-odd sellers including TTK Prestige, the brand owner.

And when Flipkart entered the digital advertising space, did Google and Facebook respond with limit pricing? I am not sure they did. A Feb 2015 LiveMint article that announced Flipkart and SnapDeal’s entry into online advertising space gave Google ad revenues as US$55bn compared to Amazon’s US$1bn (read it here). Given these sizes, it is unlikely Google and Facebook would have felt the need to respond to their entry by lowering prices.

Developing the advertising platform would possibly not involve any sunk costs for Flipkart. There is sufficient traction in terms of relationships with sellers and brands, the technology platform costs next to nothing to build, transaction costs are variable (including cloud storage and payment gateways), and even brand building is costless (as they are extending the same brand – Flipkart Ads).

It is the third condition of contestable markets that protects the online advertising market from becoming a contestable market, i.e., lack of differentiation. In the case of online advertising market, differentiation is created and sustained by superior targeting of advertisements to the right users. Measuring and monitoring engagement of the audience is the key in data collection; deep understanding of the consumer behavior and decision-making process is critical in analyzing this large volume of data; and close relationships with a wide variety of advertisers is imperative to ensure narrowcasting of advertisements to specific audience profiles. Here is where the product differentiation kicks in – the kind of browsing habit data that Google has access to is very different from the ‘buying intent’ that Flipkart can derive out of its customers’ behaviors. And especially in the context of mobile apps, the Flipkart app has access to other information like the person’s location, WiFi/ data connection information, and even his contacts; all of which could be useful to provide targeted narrowcasting (or even unicasting) of advertisements. Such shrinking of segments and the ability to serve what the marketers call ‘the segment of one’ customer can differentiate the new entrant, Flipkart’s services from the incumbent ‘Google’ and ‘Facebook’.

So, what are the implications for entrepreneurs?

First, evaluate if your market is indeed contestable, or is likely to become contestable. If there is a likelihood of your primary market being or becoming contestable, consider one of the following options:

  1. Change your business/ business model (pivoting is a fancy word these days in the startup ecosystem)
  2. Erect barriers to entry and exit – use regulation if you must (see how Airport Taxis in Bangalore are competing with OLA and Uber)
  3. Differentiate – even if it is not the most significant of your product offerings, focus on those value creation opportunities that involve sunk costs
  4. Wait for a new entrant and bleed him to death with limit pricing (you better have easier access to capital than the new entrant)!
  5. Wind up, sell out, and take your family (if you have one) on a holiday to Seychelles! And don’t forget to thank me!

 

 

StoreKing: Taking ecommerce to rural India

Each of my visits to Europe has taught me something new over the past few years. My recent visit in April-May, I had to travel through three countries – Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. What struck me this time was how much the local language was used in a lot of business and commerce, with English being the common language. While looking for similarities between India and the European continent, I was amazed at how much they value their local languages. For instance, my colleagues in Germany did my hotel bookings for Nuremberg and Rome through Booking.com and HRS.com, and the entire communication cycle was in German language. Not surprising. But it triggered the thought about “why don’t we have websites and mobile apps in India’s languages?” What would be the impact of an ecommerce site in a local language like Kannada on a rural consumer in say, the Dakshin Kannada district?

I began my exploration and in a recent road trip to Tiruchchirappalli (Trichy for the phonetically challenged) in Tamil Nadu, I experienced the power of StoreKing. StoreKing is not a traditional retailer or an ecommerce firm. It leverages the power of ecommerce and solves the three major problems faced in rural penetration of ecommerce – language barriers, non-specific addresses, and trust. A detailed description of the StoreKing business model is available in a write-up on YourStory.in (read here), but for the sake of explanation, let me briefly introduce the same.

StoreKing approaches rural retailers (brick and mortar) and convinces them to install the StoreKing kiosk/ buy a StoreKing tablet in their shops. These kiosks or tablets are powered in the local language, and has a large variety of SKUs, ranging from electronics, appliances to digital goods like mobile/ DTH recharges. Customers walk in to the store, and with the help of their trusted retailer, browse and shop on the StoreKing kiosk. Once they have placed an order, they pay the retailer in full, StoreKing communicates with the customer through their mobile phones in their local language. The problem of poor (ill-specified) addresses is taken care of by dispatching the goods to the local retail shop (from their central warehouse in Bangalore) within 48 hours. The retailers receive a 6-10% commission on the sale proceeds. Though I am not sure how StoreKing sources the goods, it uses the standard FMCG distribution network to ship the products to the retailers.

StoreKing’s last-mile connectivity to its rural consumers addresses the three main problems faced by traditional ecommerce firms – lack of scale in rural markets to justify investments in delivery infrastructure, lack of sufficient data about rural consumer habits and preferences, and their (misplaced) perceptions about rural buying power. An older YourStory.in report talks about how StoreKing’s customers bought dishwashers (not one, but two for the same household) and iPhone 6s (read here). The lack of scale has been overcome by adopting a hub-and-spoke distribution system that piggy backs on the FMCG distribution network.

I am not sure this happens, but would it be possible for the customer to change the default language of communication? I appreciate that rural India would not have enough linguistic diversity to justify this, but if StoreKing were to penetrate into border towns like in Belagavi (nèe Belgaum) district, where multiple languages are used, it would definitely need customization.

StoreKing has partnered with Indian Oil petrol bunks (gas stations) as retailers (see here); as well as Amazon.in, presumably for expanding their breadth of products. The recent media reports talk about Amazon.in’s Udaan initiative to reach rural customers with limited internet connectivity, and the synergies Amazon.in will have through this partnership with StoreKing, but not the perspective of StoreKing. Amazon.in would leverage their deep local presence and established distribution network; and I would guess StoreKing would significantly benefit from Amazon.in’s breadth of products list.

StoreKing claims to be neither a discounter nor a premium seller of goods. The primary value proposition is the trust its customers have on the local retailer; and that has enabled them to even collect cash in advance, rather than cash-on-delivery that has become the dominant mode of ecommerce transactions in India. This trust placed by the retailers on StoreKing provides it with a significant first mover advantage. At over Rs.10,000 investment and significant local knowledge of the customers, the switching costs and multi-homing costs for the retailers are very high. Even when a competitor enters the market directly, it would be difficult to convince a retailer to shift out of the StoreKing kiosk/ tablet to another competing solution. It is here, that I believe StoreKing should follow the classic Wal-Mart strategy of “regional rural saturation”, and convince every retail shop/ kirana store in a particular geography to host a StoreKing kiosk.

Four questions pop up in my mind, for which I have no answers right now.

  1. Should StoreKing open its own exclusive stores, as they grow big? What are the costs of signing up with competing retail stores in the same village? Can these costs be overcome by stand-alone StoreKing kiosks?
  2. At the other extreme, should StoreKing allow for a tight integration of the brick-and-mortar retailers’ inventory and their inventory? For instance, if a customer ordered a Micromax mobile phone through the StoreKing kiosk, which was already available with the retail store in his physical inventory, should he fulfill it from his store (and forego the StoreKing sales commission) or block those items that he sells in his store?
  3. If these brick and mortar stores who are trusted by the local customers offer discounts and credit for their offline sales, how does that affect StoreKing operations and business model? Should StoreKing allow a retailer to extend the same credit terms he offers to his customers for ordering good through StoreKing?
  4. As StoreKing expands into more and more geographies (as of June 2016, they operate in the five South Indian States, plus Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Odisha), is this model scalable? What challenges would a market like Eastern Uttar Pradesh pose?

I am watching this firm and its growth trajectory from the outside. Any answers?

PS: I am nor in any way related to StoreKing or its investors/ founders.

Durability of network effects – importance of multi-homing costs

In their recent HBR article, David Evans and Richard Schmalensee argue that winner takes all thinking does not apply to the platform economy. In the article, they cite instances of how popular multi-sided platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter haven’t won every market. In fact, in spite of being near monopolies social networking, internet search, and micro-blogging, they compete very hard for the advertisement revenue. They also posit that network effects are not durable enough in the case of digital goods, as compared to physical networks like railroads and telephones. In this blog post, I am going to discuss these two assertions.

In the meantime, I ordered their book, Matchmakers, and my favorite ecommerce bookseller just delivered it to my desk, as I begin writing this blog. Will read the book in the coming week, and possibly update the note; but for now this blog post is based on their HBR piece. Now, if you have not read their HBR post, please read it.

Winner-takes-all markets

In their very popular HBR article Eisenmann, Parker, and Van Alstyne elucidate three conditions for a market to exhibit winner-takes-all (WTA) conditions. One, the network effects should be strong and positive; two, multi-homing costs should be high; and three, there should not exist any special needs by the users.

Network effects

In the case of the three multi-sided platforms that Evans and Schmalensee quote, the network effects are very strong. You signed up to Facebook because all your friends, family, and acquaintances were on Facebook (same side network effects); you use Google search because Google has learnt enough about you and only pushes “relevant” advertisements to you (cross-side network effects); and you micro-blog using Twitter because everyone who you want to reach are already looking for you at Twitter, as well as everyone who you want to follow are micro-blogging using Twitter (a combination of same and cross-side network effects).

Multi-homing costs

Multi-homing costs imply the costs of affiliating/ maintaining presence on multiple platforms at the same time. My most popular example is the case of internet-based email services. Even though it is literally free for anyone with an internet to have an unlimited number of email accounts, most of us cannot really maintain more than three email accounts. The monetary costs of creating and operating multiple email accounts may be zero, but the effort required to remember passwords, periodic logins to each of the accounts, and ensuring that you are communicating using the right email account is too much for most people. These are multi-homing costs.

Multi-homing costs exist in all the three markets we are discussing – social networking, internet search, and micro-blogging. In the case of social networking, it is difficult to maintain multi-home as the updates that we are likely to share in multiple networks are likely to be the same. And, the strong network effects (all my friends are on Facebook) make sure that there is virtually no-one else who is active in any other competing social networking site who is reading my updates. Multi-homing costs in internet search manifest in the form of the search engine’s ability to customise its advertisements and offers to my preferences and behaviour, which is based on my behaviour over time – with my past preferences, I have actually trained the search engine to customise. Search on the same key words across different internet search engines are unlikely to provide different results, but it is the overall experience including advertisements and personalisation that matters in the case of Google. This is somewhat similar to being loyal to a particular airline and gaining miles in that frequent flyer program; as splitting one’s travel across multiple airlines’ loyalty programs would ensure that one does not remain a frequent flyer anywhere! Similarly, having invested sufficiently in training Google on my personal preferences, I would rather stick with Google search. Similar is the argument for Twitter – the network of micro-bloggers and followers exist on Twitter; and I have carefully curated the list of which micro-bloggers I want to follow. Multi-homing costs include creating multiple lists of people I want to follow, and getting others to follow me.

Special preferences

The third condition for a market to exhibit winner-takes-all characteristics is the absence of any special preferences. Let us take the case of social networking – when professional networking and sharing of professional thoughts is a special need, different from social networking, LinkedIn thrives. Most people with a need to separate out their personal networks from the professional networks will maintain a Facebook account, as well as LinkedIn account. And, when a LinkedIn user turns into an active job seeker (from being a passive expert), she would open an account with a focused careers site like Monster.com. Similarly, someone’s work/ passion may require sharing large sized file attachments over email, and therefore push her to open multiple accounts for different kinds of uses.

In sum, winner-takes-all markets are characterised by the presence of strong network effects, high multi-homing costs, and the absence of any special needs. What Evans and Schmalensee ignore in their HBR post is the presence of high multi-homing costs. Yes, these firms do contest in the market for advertising revenues, but in one side of their respective markets, their strategies have been to continuously raise multi-homing costs. Take Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp for example. When more and more people took to social networking using a mobile phone than the ubiquitous desktop, and were increasingly constraining the breadth of audience for their posts, it was important for Facebook to be present on the users’ mobile phones, not just enabling broadcast social networking (with its Facebook mobile App), but also including narrowcasting or unicasting social networking using WhatsApp. Same is with Google – over the years, Google has come to dominate the internet search in more ways than one – YouTube and Maps to name a few.

Durability of network effects

The second thesis of Evans and Schmalensee is that network effects in multi-sided platforms are not durable. They cite how easy for a new entrant to challenge these leaders with little or no physical investments. Digital goods like software have high fixed costs and almost zero marginal costs for every additional unit produced. Economics has taught us that in markets with near-zero marginal costs, prices will fall continuously to eventually make the product free. There are a variety of other goods where such cost structures prevail. Take for instance, news media. The cost of replicating (or is it plagiarising) a news article across multiple outlets is close to zero, and therefore news producers are under tremendous pressure from consumers to respond to the threat of potential new entrants to provide news at prices cheaper than free. Yes, cheaper than free, which means that you may actually be paid to consume news! Like what Google did to the handset makers to use its mobile OS (for more details, read here). In the initial days of building the platform, firms are under severe pressure to kick-in network effects, and adopt pricing strategies that are cheaper than free. For instance, the Indian cab aggregator OLA Cabs, incentivises drivers handsomely (as the markets mature, the incentive rates are falling) to undertake a certain number of rides per day. This is apart from the amounts they earn from the passengers. In the entire bargain, drivers get paid by both the riders and the aggregator, and OLA keeps the rider fare low to encourage more usage, leading to faster growth of network effects.

Evans and Schmalensee argue that faster the network effects grow, faster they will disappear. I contend that this may not be true in markets with higher multi-homing costs. Take the OLA Cabs business model for instance. At the rider’s side, there are no significant multi-homing costs; at best it is limited the real estate available for multiple apps on the rider’s smartphone. It is the drivers’ multi-homing costs that are of interest here. OLA Cabs and its primary competitor Uber, have been working hard on increasing the driver’s multi-homing costs by limiting the incentive payouts only when the driver completes a certain number of rides per day. And as the market grew, this number of rides required to earn incentives has risen sharply. That means, a multi-homing driver has to ensure that he completes at least the minimum number of rides on one of the aggregator platforms before accepting rides on another. And soon, drivers who cannot meet the minimum required for earning incentives on both platforms would choose one of the two, and those drivers who cannot even meet the requirements of one aggregator would leave the market. Even though the cost structure of cab aggregation is similar to digital goods (high fixed sunk costs incurred upfront) and close to zero marginal cost of adding a new driver/ cab to the fleet, these firms have sustained the winner-takes-all characteristics by increasing the multi-homing costs of the drivers.

To sum up, network effects are durable when the platforms invest in increasing multi-homing costs of at least one side of the platform. Better so, the money side (not the subsidy side) that has the highest switching costs. These multi-homing costs arise out of asset-specific investments that the participants make in affiliation with the platform. In the case of OLA Cabs, multi-homing costs do not arise out of having to carry multiple devices, but in ensuring minimum number of rides per day on a particular platform to earn incentives. And these incentives are significant proportion of the drivers’ earnings, as the aggregators keep the rider prices low.

The importance of multi-homing costs

Evans and Schmalensee write:

With low entry costs, trivial sunk capital, easy switching by consumers, and disruptive innovation showing no signs of tapering off, every internet-based business faces risk, even if it has temporarily achieved winner-takes-all status. The ones most at risk in our view are the ones that depend on advertising, because even if they dominate some method of delivering ads, they are competing with everyone who has or can develop a different method.

In this post, I argue that creation and maintenance of high multi-homing costs is an effective insurance against low entry costs, trivial sunk capital and easy switching by consumers. Fighting disruptive innovation requires platform firms to understand the economics of envelopment, which we will discuss next week.

Cheers

Measuring E-commerce firms’ performance

The week began with the news of the online grocer PepperTap closing its grocery business to become a pureplay logistics firm (see here). And we just read that SnapDeal is recalliberating its performance metrics (read here). So, what exactly is the problem and what can we do about it?

The investor obsession with GMV

Throughout the world, venture capitalists and other investors have used the metric of Gross Merchandise Value (GMV) to measure the performance of E-commerce firms. Everyone manages what they are measured on. So, all E-commerce firms focused on increasing their GMV, that is increasing the gross value of their sales. What this obsession with gross sales does to firms is that there is significant incentive to pursue what I call as “profitless growth”, where only the topline matters, with no attention whatsoever on all other parameters. Especially so, when the entire industry thrived on deep discounting and low customer switching and multi-homing costs. Focus on just one parameter like the GMV might be valuable when the business just sets up to measure the initial traction amongst the target customer groups, but continued focus on the single parameter can lead to misplaced strategies.

Evolving other measures

After all, E-commerce is also a business that needs to provide sustained returns to its shareholders. As with all for-profit businesses, good measurement of performance should include a variety of metrics that reflect the organization’s priorities and strategies. For a consumer focused multi-category retail business, it would be prudent to measure performance on the following four parameters – (a) gross and net (of returns) revenues; (b) gross and net margins; (c) customer addition, loyalty, and attrition; and (d) distribution of sales across categories in line with the firm strategy/ priorities (merchandising mix).

The bane of COD

The boom of Indian Ecommerce industry and its reach to tier II and tier III towns in India could be attributed to the industry adopting “cash on delivery” as a means of payment. With the proliferation of mobile phones and 3G/ 4G coverage across the country, customers with smartphones, and with no access to any digital transaction platform (like a credit card/ debit card/ wallet) can easily buy goods online. And pay for them when they actually receive them through cash. The impact of this on Ecommerce companies is three-fold: adding more number of customers, providing time for customers to actually make up their mind – they could actually return the goods when they arrive with no liability at all (see the recent Flipkart ads), and larger investments in working capital for the industry (either the platform or its suppliers, or both). Therefore, it is imperative that the E-commerce firms measure not just their gross merchandise value, but include the GMV net of returns, or Net Merchandise Value (to account for returns).

E-commerce = discounts

The primary selling proposition of E-commerce firms in India have been around deep discounts. While the idea of a zero-inventory marketplace model (that Amazon pioneered over a decade and half ago) does provide sufficient economies of scale and cost advantages, competitive discounting in the Indian E-commerce industry has over the years shaped customer expectations to the extent of equating online buying to deep discounting. Therefore, measuring gross and net margins of the entire firm is imperative.

Spreading Commerce to the “hinterlands”

The first line of defense Ecommerce firms take umbrage to when someone accuses them of being focused on a single parameter is that “the industry is in its infancy, and we need to broaden our net”. True that the low penetration of E-commerce in India provides a big opportunity for growth, we need to define appropriate metrics to measure the firm’s performance on that front. It is therefore important that firms measure the total number of transactions (as a proxy for volume sales in the offline world), number of active customers (as a measure of customer concentration – or an ABC analysis of customers), number of new customers added (not registrations but at least on transaction), average GMV per customer (as a measure for identifying high-value customers), average contribution per customer (gross profitability), and the proportion of customers whose GMV increased over the past period. In addition to this, we need to also factor in the cost of acquiring customers (CAC), and derive the long term value (LTV) of customers to evaluate performance. As the firm matures, it should strive to bring the CAC lower than the LTV.

PepperTap’s source of worry (read the article on YourStory.com here) was its rapid expansion to new towns where the costs of servicing was far higher than the LTV of the customers in those geographies. As they cut down on the number of cities, their performance improved. Therefore, it is imperative that Ecommerce firms measure and report their CAC and LTV of their customers as a key performance metric.

Alignment with strategic priorities

For a multi-category retailer, the distribution of its sales, costs and margins across categories is a critical parameter to monitor. Firms may prioritize certain categories over others as per their market position and strategic priorities. Successful firms therefore need to measure and monitor their performance across categories, and benchmark against their intent and priorities.

Creating a holistic dashboard

In sum, E-commerce firms would do well to measure, monitor, and report their performance on the four categories of parameters including (a) the traditional GMV, and a GMV net of returns; (b) overall gross margins and net margins for the firm; (c) total number of transactions, number of active customers, new customers added, average GMV per customer, average contribution per customer, proportion of customers registering increase in contribution over the past period, and the cost of acquiring customers; and (d) distribution of GMV, GMV net of sales, gross margins, net margins, number of (net of returns) sales, and CAC & LTV numbers in each category.

Interesting times lie ahead for the industry, as the golden tap of venture capital finance dries up, leading to reduction in discounts and possibly consolidation of firms to leverage the traditional scale economies of a zero-inventory marketplace model.

100% FDI in e-commerce – will prices fall?

On the 29th March 2016, the Government of India allowed 100% FDI in Indian e-commerce firms. While there is reason to cheer about the fast-growing sector getting more access to much needed funds for fuelling growth, there are three interesting developments in the notification.

  1. The Government has explicitly defined what is a marketplace model, as different from an inventory model.
  2. The consequence of this definition means that marketplace ecommerce firms cannot have a single retailer selling more than 25% of the retailer’s sales.
  3. The definition also means that the retailer cannot provide discounts and promotional offers on their own, directly or indirectly.

The impact of these three definitional changes would in the short run, require marketplace e-commerce firms to discontinue price discounts they offer directly or indirectly. Amazon’s promotional funding to sellers, PayTM’s cash back offers, or Flipkart’s big billion sale have to end. Will this mean they would stop offering discounts? I do not believe they will. They will find other ingenious ways of providing the customer with discounts, given that they would have access to larger source of funding through the FDI investments. More on that below.

It’s the sellers that matter

This definition of the marketplace model would clearly lead to interesting dynamics on the seller side. For instance, an SMB seller who would otherwise be listing his goods across multiple e-commerce companies would now be wooed by more and more marketplaces, as they seek to expand their base of sellers. Do you realize that the firm that owns the site www.amazon.in is actually called Amazon Seller Services India Pvt. Ltd.? In order to expand and sustain their broad base of sellers, these marketplaces would now have to offer discounts and freebies to the seller side, rather than the buyer side as it was apparent in all these years of growth. These seller-side offers would eventually translate into lower prices for buyers in two ways.

One, in the traditional sense of the word, the seller bargaining power would go up; sellers’ multi-homing costs (costs of simultaneously offering their products and services across multiple marketplaces) would come down; and the volumes would go up. Larger sellers therefore, would invest in technology to manage their multi-homing costs, automate a lot of processes, outsource specialised functions like last-mile delivery to focused service providers, and would grow their own sourcing networks. Smaller sellers on these marketplaces would have no incentive to be remain small, and would either get gobbled up in a consolidation game or become second-tier sellers to the larger sellers operating on the marketplace e-commerce retail. This consolidation and growth of sellers on the marketplace would result in lower costs through economies of scale and scope, which the seller would eventually pass on to the buyers.

Two, the consolidation of the seller market would lead to fierce competition across sellers; and the basis of competition between the sellers is likely to be only price. Other differentiators like product variety/ features and brand are likely to be owned by manufacturers/ marketers (like Samsung), whereas service differentiators like distribution network, logistics and related customer service are likely to be managed by the marketplace. The only bases of competition for the sellers to compete would be (a) optimisation of inventory to reap appropriate economies of scale and scope, (b) managing distributed inventory through accurate prediction and forecasting of demand and supply, and (c) reducing costs through faster inventory turns as well as leveraging their bargaining power with manufacturers as well as retailers/ ecommerce firms.

Good times are here to stay (for the consumers)!

So, in effect these regulations do not necessarily mean that the prices in the ecommerce retail would rise and match the offline prices. There may be small adjustments; but in the long run, the discounting would shift from the retailer to the supplier. And the consumer would continue to enjoy lower prices (offered by the sellers) along with superior customer service (provided by the retailer, as this would be the only basis of competition across  marketplace e-commerce competitors).