Tuesday, November 09, 2010

eCommerce: The Buying Online Story

Arun Kumar Dhadwal was a sort of role model. I was in the 1994-97 batch at IHM, Chennai. And he taught us French and Food & Beverage Service.

Thin-framed man, he himself passed out of the alma matter just a couple of years back. Passionate about French, he also pursued course in Alliance Francaise de Madras and became proficient in the language. After completion of the Diploma in Hotel Management, he decided to pursue lecturing rather than get into the industry. He was very good, I loved the man's style, his demeanor and the way he taught us. He was refreshing in that old Government-run institution.

It was a period when Computers were quite rapidly penetrating.

On one of those lazy afternoons after our free lunch at the QTK, sorry the Quantity Training Kitchen, I settled for Arun's class. And he said something which excited and left me confused. Blame it on the lunch that caused the blood from brains to flow into the primary digestion chamber, maybe. Arun said that internet was becoming popular the world over and that it was changing the way people shopped. He said it removed any barriers in geography. As I said, he also taught us F&B service. And since wines and spirits were in the second year subject, he took the example of how one could order a bottle of wine from a different country through internet sitting inside the confines of his house.

Wow!

Ok, I knew what computers were and how they looked. But I couldn't imagine how a bottle of wine would drop out of those white boxes!

If you are laughing at my naivety, please consider that even today the vast majority of Indians are still not blessed. Internet has touched only about 70 million Indians. And 1995 was another period. I got my first email id only in 2000 and no one to email to!

Things have changed and I have become more aware. Most importantly, e-commerce is a reality and is happening.

2000 and for the next few years was what everyone remembers as the period of dotcom bubble and burst. Honestly, I think there were great ideas, but came quite early.

I can't remember when I first shopped online but the most vivid memory was ordering monthly groceries at Fabmall (now, India Plaza). I was super thrilled about buying online. I didn't possess a credit card but then Fabmall offered payment on delivery, so it enabled me to do the transaction. Incidentally, I was never able to complete my ordering and the page became invalid! And for a moment, I thought this transaction was not going to happen when I got a call from Fabmall and they took the order on phone. So, we probably cannot strictly say it was online shopping. It was almost-online shopping.

And when things changed, they changed quite drastically and I have used Internet quite heavily. Whether it is netbanking or shopping, I have bought a wide variety of products and services over the Internet. And I am not alone. Some reports suggest that in 2009 the e-commerce market was about INR 9000 Cr!

I did start as a skeptic despite having enthusiasm. Am sure many would think why should they shop online? There are many reports on net being an unsafe place. Is there a recourse if the product is defective? Net is only good for buying only some goods...

When I look back and think I seem to have shopped a wide variety of things in the last 10 years. And here are some reasons why I like online shopping:

  1. Romance in the delivery: Call me an technology enthusiast or visionary (terms from Crossing the Chasm), I have always been kicked about buying online. Though I couldn't muster courage in initial days, it was just matter of time before I picked it up. My initial shopping for groceries on net was to showcase to my folks that I was a responsible son, which I realize they would never acknowledge! I believe that I am a networking person. More so, if it's to connect to the fairer sex. And one thing that women loved was flowers, I had learnt. Ordering flowers for my interests across the country was enabled by the online sites. There is also certain amount of charm in the process. And I think the impression made is far more impactful.
  2. Almost everything under the Sun: Books and tickets (cinema, train and flight, in that order) has probably been the commodities that I have bought most online. Though, I have also bought jewelery, gift items, apparel, mobile phone and tennis racquet!
  3. It so bloody convenient: I was notorious for forgetting paying utility bills. Ah, and at one point of time, I had four credit cards and trust me finding the branch or ATM to drop the cheques was a pain. Skypak was an option but it had its own issues. Thankfully, net banking allowed me to pay these bills with a click. But more than paying through netbanking, it is the gateways that provide greater flexibility. 
  4. Research, compare: About two months back, I was seriously considering purchasing a sedan. In the first two car purchases, I never bothered to check for options or do research or performances. Alto and Swift were obvious choices. But now, surprisingly, in addition to test drives and speaking to lots of friends and acquaintances, I did so much of research, I can't believe it myself. A visit to Carwale and TeamBHP sites became an integral part of daily life. But I am not sure if I will order a car of the net? Will you? But you never know, if there is a strong motivator, I might. Why not? There was a time buying books meant going to Landmark. Today, I do a camparison between Flipkart, Indiaplaza and Rediff before ordering a book. You would be surprised the variety of prices the same book is offered for. And tennis racquet! Aren't we supposed to hold and feel before we purchase such goods!
  5. Recourse, of course: In the initial days, I bought an unbranded walkman (the small cassette player that Sony created) from Rediff. And as my luck would have it, it failed to play. I mailed Rediff and they gave refunded the money. I didn't have any issues. Even if there were, they were solved quickly. Refunds, apologies and a free gift vouchers took care of any bad experience. But yes, online shopping isn't all rosy. Recently, I ordered flowers and gift on Ferns & Petals and they terribly messed it up. You have to remember that when you buy from one of these online portals, you are buying it from some unknown vendor, unless it's a branded product. While I have had good experiences with both Rediff and Indiaplaza, there have been disappointments, too. But there is recourse if you are shopping with an established portal.
In this context the eBay's ad on the eve of Diwali is quite relevant. I am beginning to get excited to think of the future of eCommerce.

And of course, it would be interesting to see what is in store for the physical stores. Long ago during the dotcom bubble, I used to handle PR for eGurucool.com. Mr. Agarwal who founded the company during a seminar said that click-and-mortar has to work with brick-and-mortar. Have you seen Bharatmatrimony and Shaadi's marriage centers?
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