19 Apr 2015 20:35 IST

In the game of brick and mouse ...

How is traditional retail coping with the onslaught of e-commerce?

There’s an elephant in the showroom, and it is threatening to knock everything off the shelves. Retailers are wondering how to deal with online shopping that is looming large - and threatening: Should they adapt, adopt or ignore?

“We deal with them by joining them,” says Altaf Harris, Director, Witco, the Chennai-based luggage retailer that went online five months ago. “A combination of brick-and-mortar and online is necessary.”

Retailers across categories are taking to e-commerce. Vasanth Kumar, Executive Director of apparel store Max, says, “Surely no fashion player can afford to ignore this channel.” Kumar says Max will soon e-tail, but believes fashion consumption will continue predominantly through stores as the touch, feel and fit are vital aspects of a shopper’s experience.

Chennai-based Pavithra Srinivasan, a consumer, says, “Shopping in stores ensures the personal touch, especially when sales assistants are good. Also, call me old-fashioned, but shopping for clothes feels better when I can actually touch the fabric!”

While some see a value-proposition in e-tailing, others have different reasons. Interaction with and feedback from the customer are what Anaka Narayan, designer and founder of apparel brand and store Brass Tacks, values. “I just think it’s easier to build a brand by having a physical presence,” she says. Brass Tacks, a Chennai store, also e-tails. Anaka says the Website was launched with an eye on expansion, virtual though it may be. Also, “it was essential to reach out to a wider base to justify all the R&D that went into making each garment,” she adds.

It was customer demand that pushed Nuts N Spices, a gourmet store with a large presence in Chennai, to start its e-commerce portal. Sunil Sanklecha, Managing Partner, says, “We started offering e-tailing services only two years ago. This was because when loyal customers moved to other cities, taking orders over the phone and then delivering was becoming difficult.”

As Kinjal Shah, CEO of bookstore-chain Crossword, says, “We started our Website to supplement our offline stores. It just provides a platform for customers to check books online and buy it at their convenience.”

Gautam Jatia, CEO of another bookstore, Starmark, believes many customers still prefer to visit book stores for the sheer experience of browsing and “hence book stores will continue to flourish till we have such an audience”.

No panic attack

Going by the numbers, brick-and-mortar still rules. Indian industry body Assocham reported that e-commerce grew to $15 billion in 2013, an 88 per cent increase since 2012. But this is still just a fraction of the $520-billion Indian retail sector. An Assocham-PWC report, Evolution of E-commerce in India: Creating the Bricks behind the Clicks, reports that e-commerce portals made less than 1 per cent of India’s total retail market sales.

An Harvard Business Review article, E-commerce is not Eating Retail, published in August this year, allays the retail sector’s fears and point out that several store-based retailers are growing “even faster than Amazon”. About half the e-commerce sales go to retailers who also have physical stores because big companies often rely on their existing brand value to pay off when they foray into e-commerce, it says.

Textile major Raymond started its e-commerce portal this week. Vijay Basur, Head of e-commerce, says, “Our physical store footprint is unmatched in the apparel and fabric category. When this is augmented by an exhaustive online offering, we believe we will be able to offer comprehensive and multiple options.”

But the difference between e-commerce and traditional retail might soon end as there is a reverse trend as well. E-commerce ventures such as Caratlane, Bluestone and Lenskart have set up stores and experience centres, or are working towards them.

Calvin John, Vice President – Offline Marketing, of jewellery company Caratlane, explains that a challenge selling jewellery online is representing accurately the size of the product.

Furniture e-retailer Pepperfry plans to launch four experience centres by this year. Ashish Shah, COO and founder, Pepperfry, explains that many shoppers need to get a feel of the product. Pepperfry’s centre will showcase about 25 sofas and dining sets while the iPad-wielding staffers will take customers through the entire inventory, totalling more than 10,000 items online. Design professionals will be on hand to offer tips to customers.

The Secrets of Seamless Retailing Success, a survey by Accenture which evaluated 15,000 consumers across 20 countries, reports that in some sectors due to the range of choice online, shoppers find it easier “to let stores curate their choices for them”.

Accenture found that in-store experience is a key issue that needs improving. More than half of all global shoppers want to be able to access services in-store via mobile devices, for example.

Witco has plans to place tablet computers in each of its stores so that customers can check its Website for the entire range of goods. The customer will have the option to pay at the store and claim delivery later if they do not want to pay online, Witco’s Harris says.

In the end brick-and-mortar stores will not only have to be flexible and play to their strength, they will also have to join the bandwagon or risk losing out on the edge which e-commerce obviously offers.

Convenience and accessibility remain the watchwords. As Pavithra Srinivasan explains: “I can’t pick one over the other because both suit me fine depending on the situation.”

(With inputs from Sravanthi Challapalli)

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