Shopping offline can be underwhelming

Maybe to compensate for the amount I’ve been buying on Amazon over the last few days (mostly baby stuff), I set off on Sunday to buy some stuff offline. And it was a most disappointing experience.

The biggest problem was the lack of choice and availability and inventory. I first went to a Levi’s showroom to buy a pair of jeans, having ripped three of them in the course of the last year (thanks to squatting I’m guessing).

I asked for comfort fit jeans and was shown a pair. Was rather underwhelming and I asked for more. Turned out that was the only pair of comfort fit jeans in the store.

And then I was looking to buy a pair of shorts. At least three¬†stores on Jayanagar 11th Main Road were visited, only to be told none of them stocked shorts (Levi’s, Wills Lifestyle, Woodlands). I might have cribbed about lack of effective categorisation in online shopping but it’s a more acute problem offline, given the transaction cost of going to a store.

On Jayanagar 11th Main Road, for example, you have brand stores of every conceivable brand, but few stores have chosen to differentiate themselves by what they sell, rather than what brand. So you lack stores that specialise in shorts, or T-shirts, and so on.

For a while now I’ve been looking for a new pair of spectacles (hate my current frame, so I end up wearing contact lenses even when I don’t want to). GKB offered some choice, but nothing spectacular. SR Gopal Rao said they didn’t have large size frames, and had no clue when they’d arrive.

And there ended my shopping trip. The only things I’d been successful buying was a packet of freshly made rusks from a bakery (feel damn lucky most bakeries in Bangalore have in-house kitchen where they bake stuff fresh) and some medicines.

When your demands run into the so-called “long tail”, I guess nowadays online is the best bet. So I’ll possibly buy another pair of jeans online, having bought one pair from Korra and returned a pair to Amazon. I don’t normally buy clothes online, but on other tabs of my browser I’m checking out shorts on Amazon.

Oh, and I must mention Lenskart, who might end up getting an order for a pair of spectacles. They’ve set up what I call “experience centres” where you can check out their range of frames and try them on. Orders are fulfilled through their online store, since prescription glasses cannot be sold over the counter anyway (since the glasses need to be ground). I strongly believe that this is how retail will shape out in the future.

Indigo’s Food Policy

My last few flights on Indigo Airlines have not been pleasant, at least from a food perspective. It is said about the airline that they put a great amount of thought into each of their processes, but while it might have been working earlier (I used to positively prefer Indigo’s food experience a while back) of late it doesn’t seem to be doing too well.

Firstly, I don’t have a problem with the food itself. I most definitely prefer Indigo’s cold sandwiches and Real Activ fruit juice to the reheated omelette/pulao that Jet Airways serves. It is much lighter on the stomach and feels healthier, and doesn’t give you that usual bad aftertaste of “airline food”. I also understand that it makes sense from the company’s perspective, since the lack of hot food reduces their cost of serving it and also makes the plane easier to clean.

The problem, however, is with the process. Firstly, Indigo has these “corporate program customers” (I’ve never understood how to get into one of these), whose meal is pre-paid. So you have stewardesses walking around with printouts to know who is eligible for a free meal. I’ve also noticed some kind of priority in terms of service – that the corporate program customers are served before others (which is logical, since they’ve already paid), which disrupts the flow.

Then there is the problem of cash management. For whatever reasons the price points are not in multiples of 50 (sandwiches cost Rs. 170, fruit juice Rs. 70), so change management (!!) is a huge problem. While they have credit card machines they don’t work uniformly, and end up causing further delays.

The biggest issue, however, is the choice! For probably good reason Indigo serves a variety of meals, enough variety that the menu runs up to a full page in their in flight “retail therapy magazine”. There are two problems that result from this – firstly, there is a problem of inventory. When you offer so much choice, how much of each type do you carry? I know there must be some science going into how many packets of ready-to-make Uppit they carry and how many chicken sandwiches. However, on days when I’m (unfortunately from a food perspective) seated in the vicinity of Row 14 or Row 30, it is reasonably unlikely that I don’t end up getting my preferred choice.

The second problem with the variety in food is the time lost in decision-making. “Give me a chicken sandwich. Oh, it isn’t there? Then give me biryani! Oh, but that’s a Ramen kind of thing? No I don’t want that. Give me cashew nuts. Not pepper flavour, give me chilli”. The amount of time it takes for a passenger on Indigo to decide on what to eat is significantly more than the corresponding time it takes for a passenger in a so-called full-service carrier (veg/non-veg). Again, it doesn’t help (from this perspective), that an Indigo flight operates with four stewards, as opposed to six in a “full-service” carrier of the same size.

Overall, it makes the entire process of ordering for, paying and getting a meal rather unpleasant for significant proportions of passengers. My solution to this would be two-fold. Firstly, include the cost of the meal in every ticket. The current cost of an Indigo meal is Rs. 240 (170 for sandwich, 70 for juice). With economies of scale (everyone ordering a meal) I’m sure this can be brought down to about Rs. 200. When I’m paying Rs. 5000 for a flight, I wouldn’t mind the extra Rs. 200. I may not eat (note that half the time I fly Jet I don’t eat), but the point here is that given the brand Indigo has built I may not change my decision on flying Indigo because it costs Rs. 200 more.

The second idea is to drastically reduce the choice. Yes, ¬†I know that might end up pissing off some customers who have their own favourites from the Indigo menu (mine is spinach-corn-cheese sandwich) but it makes the logistics much easier to handle. Imagine having just two choices of sandwich and two choices of juice (and no more, maybe less) and you think of how much quicker the service will get then. Going even more drastic is also an option (this is something Jetlite used to do in 2008, and I’ve noticed the same with Turkish Airline’s low-cost brand Anadolujet). Give absolutely no choice and just deposit one sandwich and one can of juice on every single tray-table. They could even.

The point of this post is that uncertainty hurts, and sometimes even those that it is intended to benefit. The choice in the Indigo menu is meant to be a boon for the passengers, but it has significant costs attached – in terms of availability and timeliness.

PS: There are no good food stalls in the airport terminal (Mumbai 1B) also that one can peacefully carry on to flights. Last two times I carried muffins from Cafe Coffee Day and Cafeccino respectively and both were downright horrible. I miss Delhi’s terminal 1D and the double chocolate chip muffin at the Costa there.