Everyone’s talking about it but who’s actually doing it?
Omnichannel retail, as the term implies (“omnis” is Latin for “every/all”), is about offering customers a seamless shopping experience across multiple retail channels.
Since old and entrenched retailers have been struggling to adapt to online retail in the last few years, the term has generated quite a bit of buzz in the recent past.
Or has it?
First, introducing StoreKing
StoreKing is an ecommerce company based in India. It was started in 2012 and recently hit a gross merchandise value of $100 million a year. On a map of ecommerce giants, they may only register as a blip. But as an example of innovation and omnichannel retail strategy, they could very well be pioneers.
While India’s ecommerce stories focus on big players like Flipkart and Amazon India, this small-ish company has penetrated India’s notoriously difficult rural market with its ingenious omnichannel strategy.
Except it doesn’t call itself an omnichannel retailer, or even talk about it extensively.
It simply does what it takes to get to its customers.
Here’s the backdrop. 83.3% of the villages in India have a population of less than 2000 people. Rural penetration of ecommerce faces lots of obstacles. Distribution models are not efficient enough and fraud is a huge issue. But most damagingly, rural India has an issue with trust and familiarity when buying online. Consumers who order online for the first time feel a lot of anxiety and distrust.
And though the penetration of internet in India has been largely driven by mobile phones, it still lags far behind with only 32% of the population having access to the internet in 2015, according to a report by Morgan Stanley.
To tackle this tech handicapped market, StoreKing came up with a simple solution — it set up a kiosk at local village stores and put up tablets with access to shopping catalogues. Store visitors can use these kiosks to choose the products that they want, with the shopkeeper offering tech support where required. Once the order is placed, customers pay the shopkeeper directly and pick up the item a few days later once it arrives. StoreKing pays the shopkeeper a commission.
This model have proved very successful. Since village residents visit their local stores frequently, it solves the problem of access. And since residents know and trust their local shopkeepers, it bypasses any issues of lack of trust.
StoreKing’s business is based on two key changes to the traditional model of ecommerce retail.
First, it follows a transportation-distribution model to deliver goods to villages. The same vehicles that bring traditional groceries and FMCG goods to village stores also fulfil online orders placed at the village stores.
Second, it uses an existing retail channel to empower customers. Most retailers have taken the approach of lobbying for better public-private partnerships to bolster reach and infrastructure, while lying in wait to capture rural market share. StoreKing, on the other hand, has leveraged existing infrastructure by engaging village shopkeepers as both tech gurus, and a means of establishing trust with wary consumers.
The solution is elegant and powerful when you think about it. This young company has:
- Bypassed the infrastructure bottleneck of having to wait until customers get access to high-speed internet connections and devices.
- Saved on the costs of last mile delivery, typically upto 60% of the total distribution cost.
- Built trust instantly via local storekeepers.
Given that StoreKing services 10,000 locations across South India, it isn’t surprising that Amazon India has signed an exclusive partnership with them.
So what’s StoreKing, a company located in rural India, got to do with the ecommerce battles being fought around the world?
It’s about innovation
Many traditional big box retailer have seen their stock prices and revenue plummet in the wake of the rise of ecommerce-first companies like Amazon. Yet the standard response to the threat of war has been more of the same.
A lot of the traditional big-box retailers continue to move at snail’s pace, at what is effectively a sprint for survival. Reacting to changes that required radical overhaul several years ago. Bringing swords to a gun fight against that omnipresent threat — Amazon.
StoreKing represents the sort of innovation and nimble-footedness that companies like Sears, Target and the rest took years to execute. If a small startup in India could think of providing in-store pickups in tiny villages with no internet in 2012, is it good enough for America’s largest and oldest retailers, to have begun their in-store pickup offerings in 2014?
… and about omnichannel
There’s a second lesson in the StoreKing story. The understanding that the future of retail isn’t just about better digital marketing and an improved online presence.
Ecommerce and the need to move online dominates strategy discussions so much that we forget to talk about the reverse trend.
Online retailers are looking to move offline!
Retailers have realized that the omni in omnichannel retail just about online or offline. It’s about online, offline, direct, subscription and everything else. In a previous article of ours — ‘Ecommerce Isn’t the Future’ — we referenced precisely this. The future is going to be a fluid mix of online, offline and everything in between. It’s going to be an amalgamation of all the conversations that brands have with consumers.
And it’s going to have to be everywhere that the consumer is, at the exact moment that he or she want to buy something. If that’s when she’s sitting on her bed eating a pint of ice cream, or while he’s walking past the store after his yoga class, then so be it.
The unspoken fear in retail is that we are progressing towards a state of unacknowledged but unassailable monopolies, a dystopian reality which can’t be good for either consumers or suppliers. The traditional big-box retailers of the world, many of whom still have the presence and clout, can do a lot to modify this equation. But if they are to stem a slow descent into irrelevance, they could do a lot to learn lessons of innovation and omnichannel retail from mavericks like StoreKing.