Grofers, BigBasket and the Lack of Systems Thinking

Last week I wrote this post about why Grofers is not a sustainable and scalable business. The basic point was that goods they sell undergo both high inventory cost (having been stored in a retail store) and high transport cost (delivery).

The most common response to the post was that my claim was wrong because “Grofers doesn’t store any inventory but only delivers”. And it was not unintelligent people who said this – I counted at least three IIM graduates who made this claim on Twitter (ok if that statement gives the impression that I think that all IIM graduates are intelligent, so be it. I don’t disagree).

While their claim is correct, that Grofers doesn’t store any inventory but only delivers, the problem with their line of attack is that they are looking at it from a very localised perspective and not looking at the bigger picture.

A similar problem can be seen in this post on TechCrunch announcing BigBasket’s latest round of funding. Relevant section here (hat tip: Rohin Dharmakumar):

Challenges faced by BigBasket include the grocery industry’s low margins, the cost of adding new delivery staff, and the fact that it carries its own inventory. This allows BigBasket to offer a large selection, but also means it has more overhead than hyperlocal services that partner with existing merchants and needs to more time to prepare before expanding into new cities. (emphasis added)

Catherine Shu, who wrote that piece, might be right in claiming that Bigbasket carries its own inventory. But she is wrong in claiming that it is a problem, for Bigbasket is in a completely different business compared to those hyperlocal services, and in my opinion in a superior business. The carrying of inventory is a feature rather than a bug.

What the twitter comments on my post on Grofers and this piece on BigBasket illustrate is the lack of “systems thinking”. People are great at looking at localised problems, and localised “point solutions” to these local problems. What is not so intuitive is to look at a particular problem as part of a bigger picture and in a more holistic fashion.

Grofers itself may not carry inventory, but the goods it ships would have been part of inventory of some retailer. So while Grofers may not directly incur this high inventory cost, someone along the chain (the retailer in this case) does, and that means there is less money for Grofers to play around with and make a margin.

BigBasket, on the other hand, carries its own inventory and this inventory is aggregated at a much higher than retail level. This implies that the inventory costs for BigBasket are significantly lower than any retailer (since aggregation leads to lower inventory costs). And this inventory cost thus saved can help BigBasket make higher margins. It also allows them to serve the “long tail” to the customer cheaply, something Grofers may not be able to do if no shops in the customer’s vicinity stock such products.

The problem with localised thinking is that it leads to localised solutions, and local optimisation. Optimising locally at different points in a chain makes it harder to optimise at a system level.

How Long Tail affects pricing

My late mother never shopped for fruits and vegetables in the Gandhi Bazaar market. She found that the market was in general consistently overpriced, and if we look at the items that she would buy, it is still the case. For “normal” stuff, you are better off going to nearby “downmarkets” like the one at NR Colony, or even Jayanagar Fourth Block.

So why is the Gandhi Bazaar market overpriced? The answer lies in the long tail. In the book of the same name, Chris Anderson talks about products that are not the most popular, but which has a niche demand. In that he talks about companies such as Amazon or Netflix which are successful not because they do a better job of selling the “bestsellers” but because they are able to service well the “long tail” – items that are not found elsewhere thanks to the high cost of selling.

In other words, it is a liquidity story. If the neighbourhood kirana, for example, wants to sell olives, his costs are going to be high as the rate at which he sells olive bottles is going to be so low that his inventory costs are going to increase, and the risks of ageing and spoilage of inventory also goes up. And he has to spend that much more manpower and effort in managing this extra item, so he decides to not sell this item at all (he will have to charge such a high premium to sell such goods that it doesn’t make sense for the customer to buy it).

Yesterday I bought an “imam pasand” mango in Gandhi Bazaar. Now, this is not one of the “standard” mango varieties that are available in Bangalore. In fact, I had never in my life eaten this variety of mango until yesterday, for the simple reason that it is not generally available in Bangalore. The fruit stall in Gandhi Bazaar, however, stocked it. A neighbouring fruit stall was where I used to source the Dashehri mangoes (common in North India but rare in Bangalore) a couple of mango seasons back. Avocados, which are generally hard to find in “traditional” retailers in Bangalore were also available in every fruit stall in Gandhi Bazaar, as were other not-so-common fruits.

So why did my mother find Gandhi Bazaar expensive? The answer is that the fruit sellers at Gandhi Bazaar stock the “long tail” because of which their general costs of inventory are high compared to competitors who don’t. Thanks to the range, they will have a large number of customers who come to them to buy specifically these “long tail” items. And while they are at it (buying the long tail items), they also end up buying some “normal” items. Customers who come seeking the long tail are usually those that are willing to pay a premium, and thus the shops in Gandhi Bazaar are able to charge a premium for the non long tail items also.


Thus, if you purely look at rates of “common” items, Gandhi Bazaar, a market which offers the “long tail” will always be more expensive than other markets. Anecdotally, along with the Imam Pasand yesterday, I also bought a kilo of “vanilla” Raspuri mangoes, at the rate of Rs. 100 per kg. At the shop down the road, Raspuri was available for Rs. 90 per kg. The shop down the road, however, doesn’t stock Imam Pasand, which means that the price of Imam Pasand in that shop is infinity.

So if you are only looking to buy Raspuri, you are better off going to the shop down the road. If you either want only Imam Pasand, or both Imam Pasand and Raspuri, though, you should go to Gandhi Bazaar! In other words, the “range” that the fruit seller in Gandhi Bazaar offers implies that he can get away without discounting. Theoretically speaking, though, we can say that the fruit seller in Gandhi Bazaar actually discounts on the long tail items by the sheer act of stocking them (thus dropping their price from infinity to a finite number), and he is using this discount to sell his “normal” goods at “full price”. Ruminate on it, while I go off to devour a mango!


Ashirwad Retail

This is a blog post I had written on 12th June 2007 and for some reason not published! Was cleaning up my drafts today and found this, and thought it would be good to publish just to show how I thought 7 years back! 

This evening I accompanied my mother to this store called Ashirwad Departmental Stores in Basavanagudi (near South End Circle). If you would ask me to describe the store I might probably call it a family-owned supermarket. And in my opinion, that store is easily the best department store I’ve seen in terms of customer service. And I believe this particular model might end up being the big success story in Indian retail.

Being a stand-alone store, Ashirwad may not have the supply chain efficiencies that chains such as Big Bazaar claim to have. It may not offer the discounts that say a Subhiksha offers. It may not be airconditioned and have the perfect lighting like yet another of the larger retailers. However, I believe it makes up for all this, and more

What Ashirwad so nicely achieves is in combining the good points of both organized and unorganized retail while trying to eliminate the drawbacks of both. To elaborate, one usually associates family run ‘kirana’ stores with inconvenient formats (you need to ask the shopkeeper for everything you need), lack of facility for bill payment for credit cards (i hear this is changing now), old or non-moving stock, the lack of a “shopping experience” and so forth.

Organized retail usually loses out on factors such as incompetent staff and store managers, ignorance of staff about store layout, bureaucracy, rules and most importantly the “impersonal” feeling. There are also quality issues that people (such as my mother) raise about the store-branded goods (mostly groceries) that are available at the supermarkets.

A family run supermarket tackles them all. The thing with Ashirwad is that the guy at the billing counter (there is just one, and there are no huge queues) is one of the owners of the store, and the store P&L has a direct impact on his life. He reports to no one, and hence has to offer no explanations. This solves a large number of problems – starting from billing time to allowing people to selling without a bill. Also, I noticed one thing that two people do the billing simultaneously (one looks at the items and packs them, while the other keys in the codes) speeds up the billing process by a huge amount.

Then, there is the format itself. It is a supermarket “help yourself” format, but there are staff all around (and they really know the store) in order to help you out if you can’t locate something. The level of intrusion, in my opinion, is just right. In fact, there are enough staff in the store so if you can’t, or don’t want to, go around the store to fetch things for yourself, the staff will do it for you, converting the store into a regular kirana. And you can browse all day if you want, and the staff won’t bother you, and it becomes a supermarket!

The most important thing that sets Ashirwad apart from the other supermarkets is that “personal” feeling. It being a family-run store, the staff are also fairly permanent (this perhaps explains their knowledge of the store layout – something sorely lacking in current “organized retail”) and if you visit the store a couple of times you become a “regular customer” and get the associated benefits. The same staff being there always also helps in case you want to return defective goods (another major hassle at supermarkets) or go to claim some unclaimed discount. Oh, and by the way, Ashirwad delivers.

The most important thing that sets Ashirwad apart from the other family run stores is it’s size and format. The shopping experience is sorely missing in the kiranas, and the fact that you need a shopkeeper to serve you also increases service time. They accept both credit card and meal pass coupons without a fuss, and most of the stock looks fresh. The in-store brands (in groceries) are also supposed to be of good quality.

However, what really struck me about Ashirwad, and I see that as a clear sign of financial strength, is the range of inventory. One way stores like Subhiksha save on expenses is by stocking only the really fast moving of FMCGs, thus saving on inventory carrying costs. Which means that every visit to a Subhiksha has to be followed by a visit to some other store to get what you didn’t get at Subhiksha (which is a lot). The range of goods (talkign about biscuits and tea and cosmetics here) I saw at Subhiksha seemed much larger than that I’ve seen at Food World, or maybe even Big Bazaar. I’m really impressed.

Now that I’ve praised the Ashirwad model so much, the question is regarding its scalability. Is it possible for me to open a thousand Ashirwads, and hope to give the Big Bazaars and Reliance Retails a run for their money? The answer, I think, is no and yes.

One of the key things that make Ashirwad what it is is that it is a standalone store, and it is a family that runs it. As I talked earlier, a large number of benefits of kirana stores are also seen in Ashirwad purely because the guy at the cash counter owns a share of the P & L, and that he has full control of the store. I opening a thousand such stores would imply employing store managers, and staff, and doing everything top down. Doesn’t fit into the concept at all.

So is there some hope in this? What if I can link up with a thousand such kiranas and make money out of that? I need not open a thousand Ashirwads myself. What I need to do is to convert a thousand existing kiranas into Ashirwads. And get a share of their profits (or maybe a fixed fee) while they function like a thousand independent Ashirwads – with all the associated benefits, and owning their own P&Ls.

Now if this format is such a clear winner, why is it not being replicated? Why are there not already a thousand Ashirwads out there? Looking at the various players, the people best placed to convert to this format are the kirana owners. Why are they not doing it, when it is such a winner? I believe the main, and maybe only, reason is that they don’t NEED TO. They don’t see any benefits in remodeling their store, and offering things they are not offering right now, and are hence not spending in this direction. They believe they are making enough money in the present format and there is no need ot change.

In the introduction to this piece, I actually mentioned a couple of drawbacks that Ashirwad suffers vis-a-vis organized retail. I mentioned reduction in supply chain costs. And I also mentioned discounts. Is there a way in which we could work with say fifty Ashirwad-like stores in a large city such as Bangalore and help them save costs? Is there something we can do that can save costs for all these guys (and significnatly so that a part of it can be passed on to the customer) and also make a profit for ourselves?

What kind of model can we use for this? How can we save the costs for the stores? What revenue sharing model do we use, and how do we make money? Who invests in teh store remodeling, us or them? Why will the stores partner us? Will their revenues increase so much by joining with us that they can pay us a part of that? All these questions still need to be answered. And once I do that, I need to approach someone with loads of money in order ot implement it.

Offline marketing of online services

Using snail-mail for marketing is an effective strategy for it grabs more of your attention. But messages need to be more personalised to have effect.

This came in the mail yesterday. If you are an old-timer like me, you will recognise it as an “inland letter card”. The edges are frayed because it had been so long since I’d received one such card that I’ve forgotten how to open them.


You will notice that this inland letter came from Bigbasket, the online grocery shopping firm. At first look, it is bizarre that an e-commerce firm is using snail mail for its marketing. On second thoughts, though, it isn’t that bizarre!

The thing with online modes of communication such as email or SMS is that the cost of sending a message is low, very close to zero. What this leads marketers to do is to bombard you with messages. For example, I bought something from Jabong a couple of weeks back and they’ve since sent me at least an SMS a day. I promptly delete them without reading. On my email, I’ve been unsubscribing wherever possible from promotional lists from which I get messages – for they are too frequent and too “vanilla” (it’s bizarre that even marketers who know much about me refuse to use that information in their communication).

In short, there is too much clutter in online (email/SMS) marketing, and the chances of any promotion really standing out and getting the user’s attention is minuscule.

Sending snail-mail, on the other hand, is expensive. It costs you to buy the paper, print out the letters and then you pay for postage. This means that with the advent of cheaper means of communication, most marketers have moved away from it. What that has done is that you get much lesser snail-mail than you used to a few years ago. Which means that the amount of attention you devote to each snail-mail is actually more!

So with snail-mail being the more expensive form of marketing, it is actually more effective for marketers because it draws your attention! (You can think of it as a multi-player prisoner’s dilemma where the marketer wants to maximise her claim on your attention (relative to her costs), and can do so by either using email or snail-mail. The optimal solution, I believe, is a kind of “mixed strategy” – mostly email, but the odd snail-mail here!)

So an online sales company reaching out to you by snail mail is not that bizarre after all. If only they had customised the mail to put my name on it (not hard to do at all), and made it seem like a personal letter, it would have been even more effective!

There have been two occasions in the last five years when I’ve actually responded to upsell campaigns. One was by Airtel who called and offered me a 3G data plan for almost the same price as what I was then paying for my 2G plan. I had been intending to upgrade and I took it.

The other was by Tata Sky, who sent me a beautifully crafted personalised letter printed on thick A4 paper, indicating I was a “premium subscriber” and asking if I wanted to upgrade to Tata Sky+ HD, and giving me a number of a dedicated call center who I had to call to upgrade. It is likely that had it been email I might have discarded it (or if I were using today’s Inbox, marked it as “Done”). Snail mail drew more attention, and the personalisation made me feel good. And I upgraded.

Categorisation and tagging

Tagging offers an efficient method to both searching and for identifying customer preferences on the axis most appropriate for the customer

The traditional way to organise a retail catalogue is by means of hierarchical categorisation. If you’re selling clothes, for example, you first divide it into men’s and women’s, then into formal and casual, and then into different items of clothing and so on. With a good categorisation, each SKU will have a unique “path” down the category tree. For traditional management purposes, this kind of categorisation might be useful, but it doesn’t lend itself well to both searching and pattern recognition.

To take a personal example (note that I’m going into anecdata territory here), I’m in the market for a hooded sweatshirt, and it has been extremely hard to find. Having given up on a number of “traditional retail” stores in the “High Street” (11th Main Road, 4th Block, Jayanagar, Bangalore) close to where I stay, I decided to check online sources and they’ve left me disappointed, too.

To be more precise, I’m looking for a grey sweatshirt made with a mix of cotton and wool (“traditional sweatshirt material”) with a zipper down the front, pockets large enough to keep my hands and a hood. Of size 42. This description is as specific as it gets and I don’t imagine any brand having more than a small number of SKUs that fit this specification.

In case I were shopping offline in a well-stocked store (perhaps a “well stocked offline store” is entering mythical territory nowadays), I would  repeat the above paragraph to a store attendant (good store attendants are also very hard to find nowadays) and he/she would pick out the sweatshirts that would conform to these specifications and I would buy one of them. The question is how one can replicate this experience in online shopping.

In other words, how can we set up our online customer catalog such that it becomes easy for shoppers to search specifically for what they’re looking for. Currently, most online stores follow a “categorisation” format, where you step into two or three levels of categorisation, where you’re shown a large assortment. This, however, doesn’t allow for efficient search. Let me illustrate by my own experience this morning.

1. : I hit “hoodies” in the search bar, and got shown a large assortment of hoodies. I can drill deeper in terms of sleeve length, material, colour and brand. My choice of material (which I’m particular about) is not there in the given list. There are too many colour choices and I can’t simply say “grey” and be shown all greys. There is no option to say i want a zip-open front, or a cotton-wool mix. My search ends there.

2. Jabong (rumoured to be bought by Amazon shortly): I hover over “Men’s”, click on “winter wear” and then on “hoodies”. There is a large assortment of both material (cotton-wool mix not here) and brand. There are several colours available, but no way for me to tell the system I’m looking for a zip-down hoodie. I can set my price-range and size, though. Search ends at a point when there’s too much choice.

3. Flipkart: Hover over “men’s”, click “winter wear” and then sweatshirt. Price, size and brand are the only axes on which I can drill down further. The least impressive of all the sites I’ve seen. Too much choice again at a point when I end search.

4. Myntra (recently bought by Flipkart, but not yet merged): The most impressive of all sites. I hover over “Men’s” and click on sweaters and sweatshirts (one less click than Jabong or Flipkart). After I click on “sweatshirts” it gives me a “closure” option (this is the part that impresses me) where I can say I want a zippered front. No option to indicate hood or material, though.

In each of the above, it seems like the catalog has been thought up in a hierarchical format, with little attention paid to tagging. There might be some tags attached such as “brand” but these are tags that are available to every item. The key to tagging is that not all tags need to be applicable for all items. For example, “closure” (zippered or buttoned or open) is applicable only to sweatshirts. Sleeve length is applicable only to tops.

In addition to search (as illustrated above), the purpose of tagging is to identify patterns in purchases and know more about customers. The basic idea is that people’s preferences could be along several axes, and at the time of segmentation and bucketing you are not sure which axis describes the person’s preferences best. So by having a large number of tags that you assign to each SKU (this sadly is a highly manual process), you give yourself a much superior chance of getting to know the customer.

In terms of technological capability, things have advanced much in terms of getting to know the customer. For example, it is now really quick to do a Market Basket Analysis based on large numbers of bills, which helps you identify patterns in purchase. With the technology bit being easy, the key to learning more about your customers is the framework you employ to “encase” the technology. And without efficient tagging, you are giving yourself a lesser chance of categorising the customer on the right axis.

Of course for someone used to relational databases, tagging requires non-trivial methods of storage. Firstly the number of tags varies widely by item. Secondly, tags can themselves have a hierarchy, and items might not necessarily be associated with the lowest level of tag. Thirdly, tagging is useless without efficient searching, at various levels, and it is a non-trivial technological problem to solve. But while the problems are non-trivial, the solutions are well-known and advantages large enough that whether to use tags or not is a no-brainer for an organisation that wants to use data in its decision-making.


Impact of online retail on offline retail

The other day we had to buy a couple of electronics items, and we went to this long line of electronic stores close to home. Since what we were looking for was closer to the long tail, we eschewed the small “standalone” stores and went to the chain stores. And the service at each store was simply underwhelming.

Sales staff seemed extremely demotivated, and seemed to have no incentive to make a sale. There seemed to be no senior sales staff around who would guide these staff to serve us well. They just stood by standing around, and the only thing they did was to pull out the item that we requested, and then look at the price tag and tell us the price.

With the coming of online retail, one reason for people to shop offline is service. When we had to buy a refrigerator recently, we wanted some human help in determining the pros and cons of various brands, and which are the faster selling ones. And off we went to the nearby (standalone, non-chain) “white goods store”. And we had booked a refrigerator on our way out!

What online sales is doing is to set a higher bar for salesmanship in offline stores, and stores need to recognize this. Just standing around when a customer shops and showing him price tags will not cut it any more – what offline stores need to figure out is what service they can offer that online stores don’t. And provide that aggressively, in order to not lose business to the e-retailers.

Another advantage for offline stores is in terms of letting the customer touch and feel the goods – a refrigerator or a washing machine or a television, for example. The downside is that inventory costs can be prohibitive and there are only so many models that the retailer can put on display – but then based on sales patterns they can choose which models to actually put on display (the top selling ones).

One reason mobile phone sales have so easily moved online (Moto and Xiaomi, for example) is that even at an offline retailer you don’t have much opportunity to touch and feel a mobile phone – in a large number of cases it’s dummy models that are stuck there rather than working ones, and that doesn’t particularly add value to the customer in terms of purchase decision.

Finally, based on my limited sampling of “white goods” stores on 10th Main, Jayanagar 1st Block, Bangalore, I think the coming of online retail is not going to affect the standalone family businesses (that the BJP seeks to protect) as much as it is going to affect the chain stores. The former are agile and able to adapt to customer needs. It is the latter that are sluggish and seek protection.

Available only on flipkart

This mornings mint has a full page advertisement on the front page announcing the launch of the moto x phone in India. The ad mentions that the phone is available in India exclusively on flipkart the online retailer. The question is if this is a good idea.

While it is true that online retail offers the best costs and prices – thanks largely in part to the massive savings on real estate and inventory costs, I’m not sure if we are still thee at a stage where retail can be online only. In fact people like to touch and feel the stuff that they’re buying. Especially when it comes to big ticket purchases such as a phone. Without giving people the opportunity to do so – shops won’t carry the dummy model unless they’re also selling it, at a good margin – I’m not sure how many will want to make the jump and buy.

On a related note I saw a report last week, again in mint, talking about pushback from offline retailers and malls to the online retail phenomenon. This brings into focus how retail will evolve going forward since people now have a low cost (low inventory, zero real estate) option for making their purchases. We’re already seeing some “progress” in that direction where people go to malls and high streets to browse and get a touch and feel and then buy online where the prices are lower.

This points to one direction in which retail might evolve – soon stores in malls and high streets might be set up with the primary purpose of building the brand and letting customers get a touch and feel. Any sales from these stores for the brands will only be a bonus – the primary purpose being to let people know what is out there and to let them touch and feel and experience it.

If this were tO happen we can expect malls and high streets to move to more brand stores and less multi brand stores – unless the latter can somehow either match the cost and price structure of online or get paid for purely providing the experience to the customers.

Either ways we can expect the overall demand for retail real estate space to come down in the next few years. If there are any malls or retail real estate firms which are listed its time to short them. Or by hedging against them by going long on online retail.