Sucheta Dalal :An online shopping drive isnR17;t that smooth after all
Sucheta Dalal

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An online shopping drive isn’t that smooth after all  

Jun 4, 2007

For many of us, the world is divided into two kinds of people — those who spend a lot of their time in cyberspace and conduct many of their personal transactions on the Net and those who don’t. The first category does its banking, shopping and trading on the Net and looks forward to the day when, not merely airline tickets and holiday destination, but even their grocery can be bought from anywhere.

Some perceive online grocery shopping as a way of extending their physical malls and sales points to a larger audience while others cynically hope to improve valuations and attract private equity by holding out the promise of an extended online-telephone-home delivery model.

The result: daily advertisements offering incredible deals on everything from mangoes to potatoes and shampoo to furniture. Does online shopping for grocery and toiletries really work? Or are marketers merely holding out an impossible dream without the systems, trained manpower and rigorous processes to fulfill customer dreams?

In fact, despite the hype, most Indian retailers have to pay attention to product quality and staff. After the excitement about big discounts, which is certainly a serious attraction in a price-sensitive market like India, the discerning buyer has begun to chafe at quality. For instance, consumer feedback reveals that the quality of vegetables at multi-product malls such as Big Bazaar, Magnet or even Subhiksha is erratic and often atrocious.

Also, products that are cheap are usually of shoddy quality. Once the thrill of bargain hunting and shopping in an air-conditioned, western format mall wears off, the lack of discipline among the staff and their perpetual chattering in the aisles begins to irritate.

But it doesn’t get any better if you shop online either. Listen to Anuj Gupta’s experience with Sangamdirect, a much advertised on-line shopping service started by Hindustan Lever (Hindustan Unilever), shows that even large companies have a long way to go before they get their act right. Interestingly, the Unilever Company has sold its business to Wadhawan Food Retail Pvt Ltd (WFRL) since March 31, 2007. When we forwarded Gupta’s experience to the company, it was the Unilever executives who answered our queries, since the business is still in the handover process.

Here is what Gupta says: “I initially tried grocery shopping online because of the convenience and cost. The alternative was the neighbourhood kirana stores or hypermarkets (like Big Bazaar), which I found costlier and time consuming. My horror story of shopping with Sangam started with their poor interface, since products are not categorised by price and one is forced to navigate by brand name and categories.

Consequently, ordering online at Sangamdirect took the same time as shopping at Big Bazaar and with similar savings. I ordered online anyway since I didn’t leave the comfort of my home. Three-four hours after placing the order Sangamdirect begins to call saying that many of the items you ordered are out of stock and you are asked to order alternate ones.

Not surprisingly, the best bargains are out of stock and not removed fast enough from the online system. I now spend another half an hour trying to modify my order over the phone at some inconvenient hour. The real fun starts after you have gone through all this trouble. Once you are a registered member, you receive calls every few days urging you to buy atta, rice or detergent at a special bargain.

In the early days, I kept fending off these calls saying that if I wanted something I would go online and order it, I didn’t want to be disturbed by their calls. Finally, I stopped shopping at Sangam, but despite my repeated emails to them to stop calling, I continue to get sales calls at all hours.”

When we forwarded the story to Sangam, the Unilever executive explained their systems, thanked us for the feedback, said there was a Do Not Disturb facility available (which obviously did not work for Gupta) and said it had got in touch with the customer.

But then Gupta’s is not an isolated case. My own experience with Orange, the mobile service provider, which had offered a similar service a few years ago, was similar. It was discontinued within months after it started.

In fact, companies have a lot of learning to do with regard to their in-store shopping and telephone shopping as well. For instance, Subhiksha, a south-based chain is currently making waves in Mumbai with its price challenge to existing retailers, but apparently finding it tough to deliver on quality. Prabha, a customer from Andheri has reported a horror story about delays, bad quality and no availability on a yahoo consumer group.

Reacting to this, R Balakrishnan, a regular user of the store at Chennai says, Subhiksha has “always been like this on delivery. The only thing they are good for are the branded products, which you usually buy for your monthly requirements and give you good discounts on MRP for soaps, generic medicines. But Subhiksha is not for those who value shopping as an experience.

As for unbranded products, fruits and vegetables, the quality is certainly not the best and the staff shows a clear lack of quality and training. If you can survive the pain, there are savings to be had. The company should not stray from its core value and positioning of “acceptable quality, affordable price”.

Even in the US, online grocery shopping hasn’t lived up to the pre-dotcom hype. There have been many failures, of which the best known is Webvan, which folded up after burning up $1.2 billion of venture capitalists’ money in two years. On the other hand,, which looked at online shopping as a niche trend, is a dotcom survivor and seems to have discovered aviable business model and is growing steadily.

-- Sucheta Dalal