INDIAN HANDICRAFT is a story of ironies. While the country has highly skilled artisans who are absolute masters—be it in creating a painting, weaving a textile, coming up with a complex embroidery pattern or imagining and making pieces of jewellery or home décor—there is a dearth of ready markets for them to reach out to wider audiences. Enter e-commerce, which has been slowly but steadily bringing artisans to the forefront and empowering them, and, in the process, changing the prevailing perception of how handicrafts are generally marketed and sold in the country.
“The knowledge pertaining to the handicraft scene in India is restricted to craft clusters or cottage industries. Beyond platforms like Dilli Haat or brick-and-mortar handloom stores, nobody ever thought of putting artisans on the global retail map. Even when e-commerce as an entity started creating a buzz, the handicraft industry was never the first priority,” says Rahul Narvekar, CEO of IndianRoots.com, an online marketplace for Indian fashion, which was launched in 2013. It recently announced its tie-up/partnership with Banka Silk, a handloom brand from Bihar that is working towards the uplift of artisans from Banka district in the state.
“E-commerce can play a major role in providing market acceptance to artisans, who never imagined that their hard work could be showcased at the same level as any other product,” Narvekar adds.
Aishwarya Suresh, founder of Banna Creations, an e-commerce handicraft store that designs and promotes exquisite handcrafted products from India, feels what’s problematic is that the craft of Indian artisans has become commoditised and is compared with machine-made products. “The reasons behind this are two-fold: first, customers are not aware of the effort that goes into making a handcrafted product and, second, this fragmented sector cannot invest in building solid retail channels to reach customers,” says the electrical engineer by qualification, who started Banna Creations in 2011.
Tie-ups and promotions
Handicraft e-commerce in India has been growing in recent years with numerous start-ups and some established players also capitalising on the appeal of traditional Indian arts, while making a difference to artisans’ lives. Snapdeal, for instance, has tied up with various state governments and organisations to empower thousands of artisans and small businesses.
Recently, it partnered with the Himachal Pradesh government to launch India’s first special e-commerce zone in Dharamsala. “The special e-commerce zone by Snapdeal provides digital training (to artisans) that further endeavours to create business expansion and employment opportunities for residents,” says Vishal Chadha, senior vice-president, market development, Snapdeal.
Prior to this, Snapdeal partnered with a number of government and industry bodies across the country to bring regional artisans and small businesses online. “We are working with the Puducherry State Cooperative Handloom and Handicrafts Federation, Rajasthan Small Industries Corporation, Central Cottage Industries Corporation of India, among others,” adds Chadha.
In the past one year, Flipkart, too, has partnered with several government bodies like the Federation of Indian Micro and Small and Medium Enterprises, National Centre for Design And Product Development and National Institute of Fashion Technology to promote products of artisans and entrepreneurs. It operates purely on the marketplace model, which offers artisans and SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) a better platform to showcase their products. “Through this platform, artisans from across the nation can now reach out to a wider set of audiences.
They are no longer restricted just to their localities,” says Ankit Nagori, chief business officer, Flipkart.
In terms of products, Flipkart sees a lot of demand for home and furnishing items like marble artefacts from Rajasthan, jute products from West Bengal, handloom saris and silk textiles from Tamil Nadu, etc.
Running closely along these established players are some start-ups. Gurgaon-headquartered online marketplace ShopClues has partnered with the Upgrading Skills and Training in Traditional Arts/Crafts for Development scheme, which is linked to PM Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign. “The scheme aims to preserve the traditional and ancestral art and craft of minorities, besides upgrading their skills,” says Nitin Agarwal, senior director, marketing, ShopClues.
The business model
On the retail front, Banna Creations builds a product roadmap for the next three months from any point in time, co-designs products working closely with artisans and builds an inventory. Products are bought and inventoried or taken on consignment, and payments are made once the sale is done.
“We have been able to provide 30-40% of the product value to the artisans, which is a big plus for them. Banna also helps artisans by giving them bulk orders for corporate events. This helps them improve their livelihoods exponentially,” explains Suresh. “One artist told me that with the volume of orders that Banna Creations has given him, he is now able to afford air travel and does not travel by train or bus any more. These are small but significant victories,” she adds.
Online shopping portal FashionAndYou.com, which offers handicrafts and its sub-categories, directly sources from the hubs, offering artisans a platform to market and sell their products across India. “We gain by serving customers’ demands in this category at great prices,” says Shyam Katuri, associate VP, sales and sourcing, FashionAndYou.com.
In recent times, the e-commerce industry has seen a new wave of enthusiasm among SMEs across India towards the online sales model, and Snapdeal is working towards that direction by offering sellers extensive support and guidance. “Snapdeal’s model benefits sellers by assisting them in an efficient way of doing business, which saves time, cost and resources, thereby adding significant value to their overall businesses, as well as making selling online an extremely easy process,” explains Chadha. Snapdeal currently has over 1.5 lakh sellers from across India and plans to grow this base to 2.5 lakh within this year.
ShopClues works on a commission-based model, wherein it charges minimal commission rates for selling products.
The respective government bodies appoint an NGO or an entity, which works with handicraft artists. “This entity facilitates the transfer of information and finances between the portal and the artists. The artists stand to benefit, as they work with someone they trust, and they also get paid well,” adds Agarwal.
As per a recent Assocham report, the country’s handicraft exports in 2014-15 stood at about Rs 9,000 crore. Exports are expected to nearly double during the current fiscal to R17,000 crore and further increase to Rs 24,000 crore by FY 2020-21 on account of increasing demand in western markets.
Explaining the reason for this sudden increase in the country’s handicraft exports, DS Rawat, secretary general of Assocham, while releasing the findings of the chamber’s study, had said: “Increasing inflow of tourists along with lower costs of labour, development of real estate, retail business, increased use of Internet and e-commerce augur well for the handicrafts sector.”
This is surely good news for the handicraft sector in India, but is e-commerce helping in some way in this regard?
Nitin K Pamnani, co-founder of Gwalior-based handicrafts website iTokri, explains: “E-commerce has surely opened a channel to buy handicraft products directly from India without going through a formal export route. In the coming days, this is surely going to increase, with more trust and connectivity from Indian e-commerce players,” he adds.
As per Narvekar, there’s an increasing demand for handcrafted goods overseas. “Our international consumers turn to us when they are seeking the goodness of traditional craftsmanship. We have labels that are channelling the unique essence of each Indian state—from Punjab’s phulkari-embroidered dupattas to Kerala’s trademark kasavu sari.”