For the world, Hemlatha Iyer is an e-commerce buyer of train tickets because all her travel is planned on the IRCTC website. The irony is that Iyer Aunty is 63 years old, has a non-smart cellphone and has never been near a computer in her entire life. Her computerised ticket purchase is done through an IRCTC registered agent, located five minutes from her home in Chennai. Mr. Thampi, of Rachna Travels, is what Iyer Aunty knows. She gives money to him, and gets a ticket in exchange. What gladdens Hemlatha’s heart is that she doesn’t have to venture anywhere close to a railway station to buy a ticket, that there are no touts involved, and that she gets a computerised printout, thus assuring her of a reliable transaction without any apprehensions about under the table deals. Paradoxically, she also remains blissfully unaware of the technology that underlies the whole convenience. Talk of user id’s and passwords unnerve her, while she has never seen a credit card in her entire life, let alone used one.
Rajesh Nair is a frequent traveller to the US, and has used a vending machine there often. It is simple, one drops the money in the allotted slot, presses a button, and hey presto! Out comes a can of soda in the box at the bottom. It is simple, yet every vending machine back home in India has a man next to it, one who takes your money, returns your change, inserts the exact amount in the given slot and presses the right button to get your coffee. All these transactions could just as well be done by Rajesh, but this is how Indians are: they’ve moved to vending machine coffee, away from the chaiwala, for reasons of assured quality and cleanliness, but they still need a human face next to the machine.
The lesson is clear. We Indians need a computer now because we know that life is too complex to be left entirely to humans. At the same time, we also need the reassurance of a human interface to guide us through every transaction. While we enjoy the convenience of an eportal, we don’t really trust it with our money. At the same time, we are no longer blind to the sheer range of options that have opened up with ecommerce. Except that it isn’t ecommerce as the IT pundits once envisaged.
Mala Biswas lives in Prabhadevi and drives 5 km through narrow lanes to reach Chhedda General Stores every week. It is inconvenient and time-costly to do so, but the quality offered by the store is unmatched. Mala would like nothing better than to order everything she likes over the phone, but there are some items at the upper end of the range that the store doesn’t stock. When Mala goes to Chhedda, she also swings by another small shop that sells baked savouries and oatmeal laddoos, almost a staple in Mala’s household now. Increasingly Mala wishes that there was some way she could buy what she likes without stirring from her home, a grocery equivalent of IRCTC. All she’d like to do is call, order what she wants and then sit back. Someone should deliver her groceries at home, and take the money from her. Chhedda Stores delivers at home, but is woefully inadequate when it comes to stocking the latest offer products. Mala sees these advertised but by the time she gets them, half of the offers have expired.
In comes BigGrocery.com. This eportal for groceries has everything that Mala could wish for, but there is a gaping hole in its offering – trust. For BigGrocery.com to gain Mala’s trust is a gargantuan task. Chhedda has won it by being around for donkey’s years. Trust isn’t something that’s built overnight. Mr. Chhedda knows Mala, and remembers that she asked for a particular brand of olive oil the last time she visited, something he didn’t have at the time but does now. He can remind her of that, as well as assure her that his delivery boy will visit only after 7 in the evening, once she’s home from work, since her mother-in-law doesn’t like to be disturbed. He stocks her preferred brand of bread and tells her when there’s a fresh supply of besan laddoos, a favourite with the family. However, he has politely declined to stock the 5 liter can of olive oil or the 10 kg bag of basmati rice that Mala now wants to buy, or the caesar salad dressing, given the increasing consumption at home. There aren’t enough takers for such products, Chhedda has informed her. Mala literally finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place. The BigGrocery.com eportal has everything that she could wish for, but she doesn’t wish to interact with its soulless interface. On the other hand, her friendly neighbourhood store is handicapped by a lack of options and the space and capital required for expansion.
Is there a way out that would bring value to Mala while making commercial sense to both the store and the eportal? Just as many touts, in the good old days, became IRCTC agents, BigGrocery.com eportal can appoint Chhedda General Stores as its delivery and collection agent. For a small fee, Chhedda can pick up the orders from the customer, fulfill whatever it keeps in its own stock and pass on the rest to the eportal site. The customer need know nothing of this bifurcation in service. For her, it is a seamless transaction. The same delivery boy continues to visit her, she continues to pay cash and continues to interact with her trusted neighbourhood grocer. All that changes is that now she is given a unique id number which she has to quote every time she places an order. And instead of getting delivery within two hours, for some products she’ll have to wait the mandatory twenty four hours for the order to be processed. What are the chances that the inconvenience of this will be offset by the sheer relief of getting everything from a single location?
Also, Indians, while rapidly adopting technology in their personal or work lives, still want things in the “DIFM – do it for me” way and not “DIY – do it yourself” way. When it comes to shopping as well, the well-to-do people don’t go to stores – the stores come to them. Groceries are ordered on the phone or bought by the household staff, jewellery designs, furniture and kitchen granite platforms are discussed at home, with the “experts” visiting home and the customer staying put. As incomes increase even more services – cooking, salon grooming, yoga, tuitions, massage – are being delivered – all DIFM, at home, not DIY!
Even in the west, eportals are creating robust front-end touch and feel stores. People aren’t comfortable with only an IVR system to share their groceries with. Indians too have a slightly different approach. They crave the convenience of eshopping while being completely unwilling to sacrifice the warmth of human interaction. The difference is, we know we can afford the latter – so why give it up? The beauty of the Chhedda Stores backed by Tata/Ambani/Birla/Biyani is that it panders to this need from customers so beautifully! Perhaps the hour has come for such a service delivery module to evolve in this country.