E-commerce in India is only a small fraction of the entire retail sector, leaving room for changeover and growth, especially with the enablement of offline retail.

Mukesh Ambani talking about JioMart at Reliance AGM
Atom Retail Saturday, July 18, 2020 - 18:00

Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani had been teasing the company’s grand plans for ‘new commerce’ for years now, touted as the next big e-commerce disruptor. Taking the stage at Reliance’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, Ambani made two very important announcements. One was that Reliance Retail was receiving global investor interest. The other: JioMart would be expanded beyond grocery. 

With a massive offline presence, Reliance Retail is already the country’s largest retailer. With global investors giving it the financial muscle and an aggressive focus on expanding its offline-to-online model, Reliance Retail, specifically JioMart, could threaten the kind of position that Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart enjoy in India. 

At the AGM, Ambani announced that JioMart will expand to cover electronics, fashion, pharmaceutical and healthcare in the coming days. These are sectors that Reliance already has a foothold in offline through Reliance Retail that it could ultimately leverage. 

Amazon India and Walmart’s Flipkart both have a wide reach and deep pockets and have been aggressive in maintaining a hold over India’s e-commerce market. Though nascent, the Indian e-commerce market is largely dominated by these two players. Every other competitor — Snapdeal, Paytm Mall, Shopclues — has failed to achieve the same scale that these two have. 

JioMart, however, could change the game since it has what others lacked: the financial muscle, a history of aggressive market expansion and a strong offline backing.  

Devangshu Dutta, founder of consulting firm Third Eyesight, points out that Reliance is not an underdog. “As a company, whenever it (Reliance) has seen a sector as strategic, it has very aggressively built its presence — whether its telecom or retail. And JioMart is seen as strategic. He (Ambani) made a very clear statement on that — they will invest in it aggressively and build scale in it,” he adds.

Financial muscle

After Jio Platforms raised over Rs 1.5 lakh crore from various global investors, including Google and Facebook, Ambani said at the AGM that Reliance Retail is now receiving ‘strong interest’ from strategic and financial investors.

“Today, the world recognises our hyper-growth inclusive model. We have received strong interest from strategic and financial investors in Reliance Retail. We will induct global partners and investors in Reliance Retail in the next few quarters. I will keep you informed about the progress of Reliance Retail, which is at the doorsteps of continued exponential growth,” Ambani said.

Satish Meena, a senior forecast analyst at Forrester Research, says that this kind of capital is required to take on Amazon and Flipkart. “They are not even thinking about competing with the Indians in the retail sector, they are thinking ahead of it,” Satish says.

According to Satish, global investors may be interested in the retail sector as well. 

“India is a market where global retailers or investors are looking for access for a longer period of time. After the US and China, this is the biggest market in terms of retail opportunity. They don’t want to miss out. Most US companies have already missed out on the Chinese market,” he observes.

Satish adds that India provides a future opportunity, and the companies which are investing will be looking at the next 10 to 20 years, will need market access, and retail is a big opportunity.  

“For that, they also need someone who can do things on the ground at scale. That's something no one does better than Mukesh Ambani because he has done it three times —  Reliance Industries, Reliance Retail and now Jio. They are betting on these two things — access to the market and someone who can aggregate things on the ground and make their investments multifold in some years,” he says. 

But according to Ankur, it may become impossible to isolate Reliance Retail (with JioMart) and Jio Platforms, as Reliance’s retail play will most likely get plugged into its digital business in one way or another, unless they are portrayed as entirely different. 

So should Amazon and Flipkart (And Walmart) be worried?

Devangshu says that e-commerce in India is only a small fraction of the total retail sector, and that there is room for changeover and growth, especially with the enablement of offline retailers. Devangshu believes that there is room for an equally big third player in the e-commerce segment. 

Similarly, Ankur Bisen, Senior Vice President at Technopak, says that modern retail (including e-commerce) constitutes just 12% of the entire retail industry, with the rest being traditional, and says that the market isn’t saturated enough that one player will eat into the other. 

Looking at grocery alone (as JioMart currently stands), Satish says that JioMart, with the power of pricing that Reliance has, can push through as they can give customers the most savings when it comes to grocery purchases. 

And this pricing power has worked for Reliance previously in disrupting sectors, the latest of which was with telecom network Jio. Reliance entered the market with the cheapest data plans, triggering consolidation in the market and leading to other telecom players struggling financially. It is now the largest telecom player in the country with about 34% market share.

Offline advantage

Reliance’s other asset is the offline retail presence it has built. “The biggest players in online grocery are Big Basket and Grofers, and Reliance already has a backup of offline assets. That's a strength which Reliance is going to play on and they will fight it out with these companies in grocery, and might have some advantage,” Satish says. 

Apart from Reliance Retail’s wide network of stores, Reliance also has Reliance Brands, which has several luxury brands and can be used to cater to customers online. 

Ambani said that JioMart, which rolled out in 200 cities across the country, clocks 2.5 lakh orders a day — the kind of order numbers established e-grocers like Big Basket get.

Even Amazon has not been able to make a dent and Flipkart has made a recent foray with Supermart. But the pandemic, backed by various surveys, has shown that Indian customers are not moving away from their kirana stores. And kirana stores are what JioMart is looking to leverage. 

For JioMart, its biggest USP may come when it integrates it with WhatsApp to tie the local kirana store to the consumer on a platform that is already widely used, and the consumer is very familiar with. 

But as Satish points out, consumer experience is important to the success of an online platform — where a customer gets the exact same experience each time they shop on the site.

For JioMart, things did not get off to a smooth start, with numerous complaints of bad quality vegetables, undelivered orders and pending refunds. And while JioMart may have the scale, bandwidth as well as the inventory, bad experiences will drive customers away. 

How the retail industry will shape up

The retail industry is set to see a new trajectory of growth, one that is spurred by consolidation and a digital play. 

Devangshu from Third Eyesight says, “We are a very large population and most of the population buys through traditional retailers, so there is a lot of headroom to grow for modern retailers. Modern retail is not only corporate players but also smaller chains which are family-owned businesses in smaller towns, which are growing.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic further strengthening the case for online retail, Ankur says that the debate between offline and online retail will diminish, and modern retail will become more of a digital play — where there will be physical as well as digital presence, and digital will drive growth. 

This is already being seen with kirana stores too showing the intent to go digital. Walk-ins into retail stores have significantly reduced amid fear of infection. Currently, there is massive demand for online retail, not just for e-commerce the way we have been seeing it so far. There is also demand for essential items at home that were otherwise bought from supermarkets and neighbourhood stores.

Food will become an important driver for retail which it wasn't before COVID-19, Ankur adds.

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