12 August 2015 14:18:44 IST

Groceries to bespoke ethnic wear: the story of Cbazaar

Rajesh Nahar and Ritesh Katariya evolved from selling groceries and booking tickets online to high-end retail

A start-up needs to constantly re-invent itself and stay on top of the game in every field; be aware of technological changes, needs of the customer, et al. And no one knows this better than Rajesh Nahar, co-founder and CEO of Cbazaar, an online shopping portal that makes bespoke ethnic wear and delivers to consumers globally.

It was in 1998 that Nahar and Ritesh Katariya, pursuing their MBA, thought of venturing online.

“We began as chennaibazaar.com and dabbled with multiple business models before finalising on ethnic wear as the main business,” explains Rajesh, who spoke to BLoC at his office in Guindy, Chennai.

Rajesh Nahar

Up a flight of stairs, we see workers poring over sewing machines, with the continuous tapping sound in the background. “We have two units where the bespoke pieces are made — here and in Surat,” he explains.

We sit around an oval conference table in an unassuming office that has a white-board and a blank wall with ‘Cbazaar’ emblazoned on it.

Groceries and travel bookings

“We have evolved quite a lot as an e-commerce business. We are probably the most experienced online start-up, considering how we existed from 1998 till now. Because we were quite early in the space, we didn’t have a choice of wanting to do one particular thing,” Nahar says.

In keeping with the eco-system available to them then, they started delivering groceries booked online. “We would send across groceries, fruits, vegetables and FMCG products ordered online and take cash on delivery. But soon, we realised not many people had an internet connection at that point.”

After two months, they shifted their business to railway and bus ticketing.

“We integrated with a Southern Railways authorised ticket agent. So, at the front end, Chennaibazaar would accept applications for people who needed tickets and, at the back-end, the agent would book it. It was the same with bus tickets. We reserved two seats on buses that were available to travellers. It became a huge hit with consumers across the globe. Anyone who was landing in Chennai, and needed to get somewhere close, could book their tickets online,” explains the CEO.

But they had to discontinue their business. “Southern Railways said it wanted IRCTC to be the first online booking portal and it kind of pushed us into discontinuing the service.”

Flowers, clothes, chocolates

But by then, their site gained traction even in the US and the UK, thanks to their ticketing business. “We received mails, asking if we could deliver flowers to someone’s fiancée for Valentine’s Day, or chocolate for birthdays. This, we thought, was an interesting proposition. Here were people with access to internet money to spend online using credit cards, and we could provide them with the service,” elaborates Rajesh.

So it was that the 21-year-old duo of Rajesh and Ritesh would work on their website during the day, and prepare for their MBA in the evening from Institute of Technology and Management.

“We had cakes, sweets, chocolates, flowers. That business went very well. We broke even in the first month itself,” he recollects.

When they introduced ‘ethnic wear’ as an option in the gifting section in 2003, people started ordering it for themselves as well.

“By 2005, we decided to stop all other businesses and retain just the ethnic wear one. That’s when we renamed it Cbazaar.” And this they did with an initial capital of ₹12 lakh, that was funded by friends and family. Today, Nahar says Cbazaar ships around 10,000 pieces a month to various countries.

Current mantra

“One thing that has always helped us grow in any eco-system is making sure the quality is beyond the customer’s expectation. So, we need to think like today’s customer, not the customer of five years ago. As a business, we need to innovate and think from their point of view,” he explains.

He believes there is large opportunity outside India. “Around 98 per cent of our service is done abroad. Our vision is to make Indian fashion widely adopted by a global citizen. That’s why we also launched Ethnovogue, which looks at harnessing more from what India is producing, in terms of fabric and design. Right now, we are selling products that are traditional. But this will go beyond tradition, cutting across consumers who want to be contemporary.”

What are the challenges?

One, he admits, is supply. The other, more pertinent, is keeping pace with technology.

“It’s like a moving goalpost! We want to get there, and by the time we get there, there’s something else. Also, you need to be on the mobile and make sure customers can easily transact on it. It’s an app but that’s not enough, you need to think through a lot of things before your app gets released. We’re executing a mobile strategy as well. Certainly, the space has become very innovative and demanding. It is a must for any business to stay on top of everything to sustain,” he says.

Future plans

Currently, Cbazaar sources its ensembles from three or four segments — directly from the weavers; brands such as Biba, W, Melange and upcoming designers.

“Now, we’re also looking to tie up with retail stores such as RmKV, Pothys and Nalli as our e.commerce presence is superior,” says Nahar.