Ready Steady Go

While retail brands have acknowledged that its time for an omni-channel approach and we can now see Indian e-commerce brands building an offline presence, Amazon is finally ramping up the pressure on the likes of Walmart, Trader’s Joe and finally on Indian chains like Big Bazaar.

While Amazon Go or to be more precise, the idea of automation is here to stay, I think retail firms must first consider how they can implement or fight the model. It’s essential retail firms identify whether they stand for a savings or premium approach. By defining their brand and identity, retail chains can best figure how to take the fight to Amazon. At the same time, retail chains need to consider how to mitigate risks (shoplifting, fraud etc). The absence of a physical person also brings into question the ability of brands to create a better shopping experience by stepping in at crucial moments of the purchase process.

But first – Lets look at why Amazon is adopting the offline route. Part of it is about being able to reach out to a larger audience – probably looking at developing markets such as Asia/ Africa where retail space is cheaper and people still prefer a physical shopping experience to online purchases( as Big Basket and Flipkart have learnt the tough way).

Amazon may be approaching this from 3 perspectives –

  1. Hit the likes of a Walmart/Tesco/ Macy’s before they ramp up efforts to provide a better omni-channel experience for their customers and pull them back from Amazon
  2. Acquire massive tomes of data on shopping preferences of customers from physical interactions at a store level
  3. Build a retail infrastructure which can be licensed out to other retail chains, much on the lines of AWS

While the first is more in the lines of a red ocean strategy, it doesn’t tie in with Amazon’s long term plans. However it could still make these companies bleed further and may create a point of consolidation where some of the smaller players look at getting acquired by Amazon or move into a different model.

The 2nd model can help Amazon in it’s long term growth opportunities by enabling better personalisation for online/offline customers and also help them identify how customers approach the offline purchase process. It can also help create a moat against future plans of Google/ Alibaba/Microsoft.

The 3rd strategy  speaks about Amazon’s long term cloud vision where it acts as a multi-user platform enabling higher adoption both by customers and vendors. Through this model, Amazon is creating a situation where retail chains will have to consider divesting their vast legacy systems built with the likes of IBM/Microsoft/Oracle and adopt the new technology to stay relevant to consumers.

It’s also imperative for Google and Oracle/SAP to look at reaching out to retail chains to promote an alternative solution. With Google’s expertise in applying Machine Learning and Data science towards targeting Big Data problems, they can act as a smart enabler for retail chains currently utilizing an existing solution of Oracle/SAP. By linking it to their existing cloud strategy, Google can also subsidize access to data storage for retail chains and help keep the legacy systems relevant for clients. By accessing millions of photos of brands and SKUs, Google can train their algorithms to provide a real time alternative to Amazon Go.

The key here is to see whether Google/Oracle/IBM consider Amazon’s strategy as a customer acquisition strategy or a blue ocean strategy. There is a vast opportunity for Amazon to build the next AWS through this strategy and accumulate enough customer purchase preference information to guide them on becoming a monopoly.

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Pissing in the pool

UberPool or OlaShare, aim to change the mentality of people using both personal and public transportation in India. By providing fares at 30-50% discount of their regular fares, which are themselves subsidised, they have become an attractive alternative for people in urban India.

However, I have heard complaints of how these carpooling initiatives often end up wasting time and money for people. Some stories speak of drivers waiting way beyond the stipulated time for passengers and often turning back to add an additional passenger. Others are disgusted about fellow riders and often feel uncomfortable having to travel with strangers.

The true challenge for both Uber and Ola lies in the sales incentive structure that has been built. Designed to enable both customers and drivers to push carpooling, it rewards drivers who take up car pooling by considering each passenger as a ride, and customers get a discounted fare. This results in drivers often going way out of their route to pick up additional car poolers , even if that inconveniences the existing passengers.

At the same time, passengers have not been informed of the risks of carpooling. They expect the service to be an extension of the current services and are dismayed by the difference in service quality. This can have a impact on future usage of carpooling and the cab service itself.

The answer lies in technology. While both Ola and Uber are using machine learning algorithms and data science to help improve efficiency, they need to improve the algorithms and build in features to avoid wastage of time and petrol. After all improving the time per ride allows drivers to pick up car poolers and build on their incentives.

Similarly carpooling firms need to incorporate customer satisfaction into the incentive mechanism. If drivers realise that an unsatisfied customer will also impact their sales incentives, it might help reduce some of the incidents. However customers also need to understand that if they do not turn up on time, they can lose the fare / can be penalised by not being allowed for future car pooling rides.

The challenge lies in marrying technology with the human touch. Understanding not just the patterns of rides but also the subtle tricks played by drivers and customers. That’s where Uber can potentially use the data of a Didi Mau while Ola still lacks access to the data and talent pool who can suitable make sense of such data.

While driverless cars are still some time away, I foresee a point where we may have automated shuttles with no drives plying on roads.At this time, rather than rebuilding Indian cities to accommodate new modes of public transportation, maybe it’s time we focussed on how options like carpooling or driverless shuttles may help reduce congestion, along with an approach of charging drivers of cars , a la Singapore.

 

KISS

This is not about Emraan Hashmi movies. The acronym KISS stands Keep it Simple, Stupid.

Uber has just completed a rebranding activity spread over the last few years. The logo looks very weird and the different colors make me wonder if the app will burst into a Bollywood song and dance next. Overall, I am disappointed that Uber has chosen to forget it’s origins and make life more complicated.

Simplicity seems to be underrated in the startup space. Everyone wants to be in multiple categories and spread their eggs across different baskets. A Flipkart is present in 20 + categories and is now even selling cars and motorcycles. Some e-commerce websites have sold flats in the past. Ola wants to ferry people, set up shuttles (which seem more like BMTC buses without the branding) , delivery groceries and food. Probably the only thing they have left out is delivering babies. Mobile apps have ballooned into resource hogging monstrosities which aim at giving the user the chance to purchase anything except ease of use.

From a risk management perspective, maybe it makes sense for startups to be in multiple categories. However from an operational perspective, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s tough implementing their operations properly in 1 category. Spreading yourself thin makes it tougher for your core audience to trust your brand and makes it tougher for your partners to accept you.

I think it’s high time startups decided to put their best foot forward in 1 space. Then they can consider encroaching on the space of other startups

Sidekicks galore

The origin of the word sidekick comes from old pickpocket slang in London from the 19th century. The kick was the nickname for the front part of the trousers and grabbing someone’s wallet from the side pocket on the front was considered a tough task. Hence the side-kick was the gentleman’s safest bet.

In recent times, it seems like most startups , specially those in the hyperlocal and food space, have decided that their sidekick is the digital wallet. Most companies are spending huge amounts of money, through discounts, freebies , cashback and other initiatives to get people to register on their digital wallets and store money. While I understand the logic behind converting people to their own wallet (greater control over transactions, ability to track usage and transaction flow , money earning interest) , I feel that that many brands are making a mistake by spending an effort on their own wallet.

Currently we have a couple of major players in the digital wallet space(PayTM, Mobikwik, PayU, Airtel Money) and we can also consider Ola Money and Flipkart’s former initiative. It makes sense for newer players to either tie up with one of them(PayTM/Mobikwik/Ola Money) or ask a Visa / Mastercard to provide an alternative. Managing a wallet comes with it’s own set of hassles and regulations and the net gains from getting some players on your wallet is lost by the effort put in.More importantly at some stage, we are going to reach the same point faced by credit card companies some years back. As more and more brands and companies started issuing their own loyalty cards, people were worried about which cards to keep and which to give up. Thus at the end of the day, only a few top loyalty/credit cards were retained while a large number were used once or twice and then given up.

From a customer standpoint, there are 3 problems –

a) People are going to only stick with a wallet as long as they are getting cashback/discounts/ benefits. Once the wallet is no longer able to provide those, they may give it up or if it becomes the major player they will keep using it when necessary

b) People are going to wonder what is going to happen with their money if they are not using a wallet or if the brand discontinues the wallet. Will the money be returned directly to the account or will it be given in form of credits or lost?

c) While digital /mobile wallets do make it easier for the customer, why will a shop owner pay the credit card company/payment gateway and the wallet company for a transaction? Thus overtime, the customer will see lesser traction from outlets and vendors which defeats the idea of a cashless economy

While I am not against the concept of a cashless economy and support digital wallets, I think the time is apt for banking institutions to create a consortium which will provide a single wallet standard. Banks can create apps/ methods for using the wallet standard while ensuring interoperability. If the banks provide the product, it can be an additional payment mechanism for vendors so they do not end up getting hit twice while customers need not have to share data with multiple parties.

Facebook Messenger’s Evolution

In previous posts, I have discussed how Whatsapp is part of Facebook’s plans to expand their social media presence. At the same time, an important monetization aspect remains marketing to the correct audience and Facebook has been struggling with this in recent times, what with reduced usage and migration of the younger audience to platforms such as Twitter/ Snapchat.

At such a time, Facebook has brought in new elements in Messenger which is aimed at helping brands engage the audience. This also includes messaging from the app which allows people to communicate from the app and the corresponding message will feature the app as well. This adds 2 elements – firstly the brand is able to ensure that the branding is not affected by the transfer from their app. Secondly The app is able to reach a larger audience of non users by motivating existing users to share information with their friends through the Facebook Messenger app.

For Facebook there are immediate benefits – greater involvement from new apps and developers whom they might be interested in acquiring at a later stage. But the most important benefit is that it rekindles the social relevance of Facebook. Over time, Facebook has been losing users and traction among existing users. Many people log into Facebook but time spent on the website has been going down while number of posts or images shared has also been reduced. This has a direct impact on the marketing revenues of Facebook. By enabling sharing through messenger, Facebook reactivates many dormant users while increasing their share of wallet of the marketing budget

The key to see is how quickly developers swarm onto this ecosystem and what other players such as Twitter do to oppose this. Twitter already has credit card and purchase through tweet systems coming in place and over time,they are definitely looking at providing brands with a channel not just for engagement but for closing the loop as well. It’s key that Facebook work on making Messenger not just a branding tool but also a method for completing the transaction. Ideally, partnerships with payment channels or acquisition of a payment startup may help them in this regard.

Right to broadband

There has been a lot of debate about Net Neutrality in recent times. We have telcos fighting for their requirements and we have a lot of ordinary folks explaining why it’s important we raise our voice to TRAI to help enforce Net Neutrality.
I think the fundamental root problem is in the Internet/Broadband being treated as a commodity / product. In the modern world, access to the internet is essential not just for work but also for personal requirements. Over time, many standard and essential requirements are being fulfilled over the internet and through private organizations using the internet, be it delivery of groceries and retail products to researching new cures for diseases and ensuring healthcare solutions.
The question for us to ask is not just about Net Neutrality which is about ensuring David doesn’t get crushed by the Goliaths. It’s about ensuring that the Internet is as easily accessible to everyone as say, Electricity, Water, Air and Public transport. One might say, nationalization is not the solution but might be a hindrance. But I am not speaking of Nationalization, as much as marking Internet as an essential utility.
There are 3 major benefits to titling the Internet as a utility –
a) Laws & Rules –

We will have much clearer laws and rules governing usage and distribution. Currently we have exceptional Internet coverage in urban areas and limited /poor coverage in rural areas. Further, private organizations who do distribute the internet have poor systems in place to cover outrages and technical issues. There are also frequent complaints on customer forums on how many of these Internet/Broadband organizations have cheated customers

b) Pricing and Speeds of Internet/ Broadband will improve considerable

Though 3G pricing is fairly competitive, as compared to prices abroad, the regular broadband and internet pricing in India is horrifying as compared to prices and speeds abroad. We seem to consider 50 MB/second as a marvellous speed when countries such as Vietnam and South Korea have speeds 10 times that easily available at much better rates. Prior to fighting the 3G battle, we must ensure wired broadband improves after which we need to improve the infrastructure for 3G . Infrastructure improvement will also be easier if Internet is treated as a utility, rather than a luxury. Public planning can incorporate Internet infrastructure while designing urban growth and redevelopment plans.

c) Making it easier for startups and small businesses –

One of the chief points about the Net Neutrality battle is how an Amazon/Google will be able to lord it over small companies once there are fees attached. It’s a valid point but currently the broadband situation, though tolerable in urban regions has much scope for improvement. With Internet being termed as a utility, access to the internet across India will improve, thus giving many people a chance to start their own businesses and drive the economy further. Rather than a urban centred growth story, this can actually change how India as a economy grows and thrives.

Out of left field

A couple of days back I heard about Ola starting food delivery services. One might think a couple of bright fresh MBA grads would have come up with a 100 slide PPT on how this would improve revenues while unlocking new value for the company. But in reality, it’s a fairly stupid move. The scary thing is that the Indian startup space is now filled with startups who are getting funded for ideas which are not monetizable and are wasting their investors monies to acquire users.

In a sense, Ola might have been thinking “Let’s just use our drivers who don’t have a fare” . But this would mean either decreasing the number of drivers available in an area, during peak lunch hours or would also entail spending more money to re-compensate the driver who is probably losing out on trips when he is delivering food. Unless of course, Ola has a designated team for delivery which means they have a separate fleet doing food delivery which is an additional fixed cost which may not even pay for itself. Maybe Ola wants to be the one stop solution for travel and food.

But all this boils down to one thing – Do I want to use my Ola app for everything? Will they start delivering groceries next? Followed by doctors and healthcare solutions for when I am unwell? Where does this one stop solution business end? Equally importantly, what happened to the old call for specialization in a particular domain so one could have barriers of entry for others.

My worry is that in the thought of applying learnings from one domain to another and getting economies of scale, Ola and other startups working on such concepts end up diluting service and failing to provide a certain quality output in any of the domains they are working.