In India's e-commerce market dominated by Flipkart, Amazon, Snapdeal, no discounting others

Written by Anushree Bhattacharyya | Updated: Oct 23 2014, 18:40pm hrs
E commerceA slew of smaller e-tailers are quietly notching up sales with their niche play this Diwali. (Illustration: Rohnit Phore)
The big three of e-commerce Flipkart, Amazon and Snapdeal may be hogging the headlines with their jaw-dropping discounts this Diwali but a slew of smaller e-tailers are quietly notching up sales with their niche play. Shopclues, American Swan, FabFurnish, Lenskart.com and many more are wooing customers with their range of specialised products, sans too many discounts.

One of the reasons why Lenskart has been able to attract consumers on its website is that there is no other e-commerce player, large or small, which is into custom-made eyewear. So apart from selling spectacle frames we also create the lens as per the power of the eyes stated by customers on the website, said Peyush Bansal, CEO and founder, Lenskart.com.

At a time when the three big players have almost dominated the rules of the game, the niche players believe it is the distinctive proposition offered on their websites that has helped in gaining consumers confidence. The three players do not account for the entire industry, nor do they sell everything. They generate 40-50% of their revenue from the sale of electronic items such as mobile phones, tablets, apart from books. The larger sites just act like a shopping mall which sells top brands, said Sanjay Sethi, founder and CEO, Shopclues.com, an online marketplace.

According to Bansal, as a niche player the first step is to find the segment one would like to enter. Interestingly, Bansals Lenskart.com is not the only one with a unique offering in its kitty. FabFurnish, which sells home dcor and furniture online, has a similar story. Consumers go to large sites when they want to buy something as basic as an office chair, but when it comes to decorating her house in her own style then a customer comes to our website as we have a huge collection. We have more than 50 different design in beds. Similarly, we have more than 60 varieties of sofas, said Vikram Chopra, co-founder and CEO, FabFurnish.com.

Agrees Ashvin Vellody, partner, management consulting at advisory firm KPMG in India, who says that niche players are here to stay. While big players will continue to sell their product on the basis of deals and discounts, niche players will continue to do well by offering unique products targeted at a particular segments, said Vellody.

Even as niche players have managed to grab eyeballs with unique products, unlike the three large players who now follow the marketplace model, they still follow the inventory-led model, which only means that the cost of operation is double.

Bansal of Lenskart, however, remains unperturbed and says despite maintaining the high cost of inventory, the e-commerce platform continues to do well by clocking in more than 3,000 transactions a day. The e-tailer claims that it generates 50% of its revenue from top cities with Delhi and Bangalore being the main markets.

Likewise, Anurag Rajpal, director and CEO, The American Swan, an online fashion brand, says that unlike the large players, niche e-tailers are not forced to give heavy discounts, which helps them in saving their margins. Hence, there is a chance for niche players to break even before the biggies do. According to industry estimates, on an average e-tailers maintain 40-50% margins on a product sold on their website. During the sale seasons, margins come down to 10-15%. And this is one of the reasons why the number of exclusive deals inked between brands and large players have increased of late, he added.

However, Vellody of KPMG points out that despite their reasonable margins, the business model, which is mainly inventory-led, proves to be a challenge when it comes to scaling up their operations. Managing inventory requires huge capital. So despite drawing reasonable margins on products, it would not be easy to break even very soon for these players. One of the ways these small players are tackling the issue is by launching retail stores across the country, he said. While FabFurnish and Healthkart operate four stores each across the country, Lenskart runs seven stores through the franchisee model.

Advertising is another weapon these small players are using to establish themselves in the minds of consumers. If earlier it was the three biggies who hogged the limelight, today almost everyone starting from Shopclues to FabFurnish to Lenskart to FirstCry has started to advertise on television in addition to using print as well outdoor and radio. Advertising is used to increase familiarity between the e-commerce website and consumers. Also, in India, it helps in gaining the trust of consumers as they still believe that brands that advertise on television and newspapers are more credible, said Chopra of FabFurnish. The e-tailer launched a 360-degree campaign before the festive season in several languages.

Analysts say that at the end of the day advertising also helps in boosting valuation. For instance, Shopclues is in talks with investors to raise R450-600 crore in a new round of funding. The three-year-old company has so far raised over R90 crore from investors including Helion Venture Partners and Nexus Venture Partners. With most of them still largely following the inventory-led model, raising funds is another way of expanding the business. Going forward, one can expect these niche players to tie up with big players apart some of them being bought out completely, added Vellody.