When Rediff launched online shopping (as e-commerce was called then) in the late 90s, they did not promote the category. Till Flipkart, in the early 2010s started promoting the entire e-commerce category using the kids-as-adults theme, everyone in the sector presumed ‘What is there to promote in the category? We should promote what’s available in the store”. Flipkart, while promoting itself, took on the mantle of really selling the reasons why someone should opt for online shopping and focused on building trust (“if you order online, without seeing any humans in the process, you can trust us to deliver your product”) and related features (cash on delivery, returns etc.). Every other e-commerce brand since then has benefitted from this category-building exercise.
Now, in 2020, we are in a very different India where e-commerce is largely taken for granted. When you order anything from any (decent-enough looking website), you can expect it to be delivered.
During the pandemic, when regular offline sales channels were disrupted for the first time in decades, and when even online platforms were impacted due to supply chain issues (to and from manufacturers), it may have been a good time to take a deep look at brands’ own online stores.
When a new brand starts operations and decides to go completely direct to consumer (D2C), that choice is very different from an existing brand, fully used to the existing system of retailers and distributors, online and/or offline (B2C) also adding D2C as an extension/additional channel.
Let me look at this from multiple perspectives.
1. Offline vs. online
Brands that already have exclusive offline stores may seem to be better off planning and managing exclusive online stores. For instance, Himalaya has a chain of exclusive offline stores. And that they also have an exclusive online store for all their products makes perfect sense. This, despite the fact that their products are also available in retail outlets offline and retail platforms online (like Amazon, Flipkart, and online drug/medical stores).
But, is there an exclusive offline store for Cinthol’s products? Not that I know of, but there is one online. And I order from them frequently too.
2. Percentage of sales
The kind of sales that an exclusive online store may generate could impact the amount of effort put into it. Should a Sri Ganeshram’s 777 allocate money, time and effort to promote its own online store? Or, is it ok to just let it be organically discovered by an unknown number of people using just their curiosity and Google, and deliver only for those unknown numbers? Should they put in effort and money consciously to promote their own store (even as the sales from an Amazon and Big Basket online, and many, many retail stores offline is going perfectly well)?
3. The point of its existence
Think about this from the buyers’ point of view. Why should I, a buyer, consciously choose to (a) visit your online store? (b) order from it? I have other options to buy your products – through any number of offline retail stores and the many online e-commerce stores. Why should I overlook all those options and buy from your own store online?
I looked at my own behavior since I order frequently from some brand stores online.
With SGR777, I order from them often because their products are not that easily and predictably available in Bengaluru. The other reason is that I order an idly chilly powder from them that is available on a ‘buy 1 get 1’ basis, even as the same offer doesn’t seem to be available on other online stores! So, price and availability, in this case.
With Cinthol, I have ordered from their online stores because some of the products that I specifically want are not available elsewhere. For instance, I wanted specific size packs of their face wash + shaving cream that were not available on Amazon or Flipkart. So, availability.
These are anecdotal reasons, of course, but can brands use insights from people to consciously create specific reasons why their own online stores should even exist in the first place?
For example, I wrote about Kaleesuwari’s print ad on World Heart Day last week. The call-to-action in that ad was not to buy that product anywhere we find it, but to specifically go their own online store and buy it.
Is that a compelling call-to-action? In a way, it is – the product is not available anywhere else and is exclusively available, during the launch phase, only in their own online store.
Could brands allocate some kinds of products as an ‘exclusive’ to their own online stores? Would it antagonize the brand’s other retail partners? Would sales of the product(s) be stunted if it is artificially curtailed in such ways? These are some of the questions they need to address, though.
Earlier, technology was a hindrance to launching an exclusive brand store online. Who would manage the back-end processes? Who would handle the online payments? Who would manage delivery? Now, all these are available as a service. And technology companies like Shopify sell this as a packaged service to other brands, to start their own online stores almost effortlessly. But this is still technology, not user experience, which needs to be thought through by the brand’s team, depending on their knowledge of their kinds of users and their behavior.
Some of the brand stores I have tried are fairly slow, compared to the user experience of an Amazon, for example. I still persist because I have a very compelling reason (as explained above).
For context, take the example of Leo Coffee’s online store. Leo Coffee, which too has Shopify behind their online store like Cinthol (identical UI and confirmed through the code) makes certain choices in the store-front that Cinthol has thought-through differently.
For example, you can add a product to the cart directly from the listing page on Cinthol’s store, but on Leo Coffee’s online store, you need to click on the product and then add it to the cart in the 2nd step.
This is perhaps the most confounding aspect. Let me give you an example.
I noticed Vicco’s ads (featuring Alia Bhatt) in the media very often and came to know that they have saunf-flavored and cinnamon-flavored versions of their iconic toothpaste too. I could not find these variants in a couple of offline retail stores near my home that I frequent. When I searched Amazon or Flipkart, they were only available in packs of 3, which is too much for just a trial.
So, I checked online, on their own store and found that they have what I want. But, for a cart size of 2 products worth Rs. 170, the shipping charge was Rs. 120 (flat rate, all over India!).
That’s more than the price of one product in my cart and unless I’m super curious, I would not place that order online in their own store. (Incidentally, I called up a few local retail outlets slightly further from my place to check if they have it in-store, and got it from one of them).
To compare, SGR777 has a flat Rs.30 ‘packing charge’ (and no shipping charge). So if I order just my favorite idly chilly powder, I pay Rs. 64 for 2 packs, and the flat rate packing/shipping charge of Rs. 30 seems like a decent amount of spend.
Another comparison: Cinthol too has a flat Rs. 30 shipping fee. When their new charcoal variant soap was available exclusively on their own online store, I ordered a pack of 3 and the shipping fee seemed like an apt amount to pay for the exclusivity (instead of waiting for Amazon to also sell it).
Cinthol also has a smart idea – their minimum cart value is Rs. 200. So I usually end up buying more than what I specifically need.
This is an excellent behavior-modeling nuance that works on top of other reasons like exclusivity, price benefit (exclusive discounts) and so on, to increase the sales from own stores online.
Leo charges Rs. 75 flat rate for shipping – for context, Cinthol charges Rs. 30 for Mumbai to Bengaluru, while Leo charges Rs. 75 for Chennai to Bengaluru!
Vicco, for example, doesn’t seem to have thought through the reason why people may buy from their own online store. Or, they perhaps do not care to think on those lines because their other sales channels are doing perfectly fine. If they consciously wanted to increase their own online store as a percentage of overall sales, then they would need to think through the shipping charge from the buyers’ point of view.
How could brands position their own online stores? After all, they are not selling their products while marketing and advertising their own online stores – they are selling the store! And that too, as a rival channel to other online retail stores (that have spent way too much money to entrench themselves in buyers’ minds and offer far superior user experience start-to-end).
Should the focus be on trust? In the sense that when you are buying directly from the brand’s store (either offline, if they have one, or online), you can trust them to be 100% original? But would making such claims affect how people think about the same products’ availability in other channels? So, framing this correctly is extremely important.
Should the brand offer free shipping (bearing the cost of shipping as a cost of promoting its own online store in the initial stages) to build traction and use that as a competitive edge along with quality assurance?
Or, should the brand focus on a subscription option, if the products they sell are needed frequently (toothpaste, for instance)? And then offer other benefits like free shipping, better pricing for longer duration subscriptions and so on?
Would people be ok to wait for a longer delivery period than an Amazon, considering Amazon’s well-oiled delivery and local storage network? If so, how to position that delay away from the USP and layer some other context as a good enough reason to sell the store?
Brand-owned online stores may be easy to launch, but a lot needs to be thought-through in ensuring that they exist for a purpose… starting with what that purpose should be.