India's kirana stores, the original ecommerce play
Let me begin with a story that I heard a little while ago. Nitin Paranjpe, COO of Unilever Plc, a good friend and former colleague, narrated this anecdote at a party, one that had us all laughing but also set me thinking.
Here’s what he told us: ‘Do you remember when the company allotted an apartment to me in Parel? At the time, that neighbourhood was still dominated by factory workers living in chawls. When we began to live there, it had just begun its path to gentrification. There were still just a handful of upper middle-class families living there. All the stores there were small kiranas that catered to the workers’ households.
'One day, I had a party at home. In the morning, when I checked my refrigerator, I discovered that we were out of lime cordial. I called up my local kirana, Gupta General Stores, from whom we bought all our groceries, and asked for lime cordial. The owner, Guptaji, asked me, ‘Sir, yeh lime cordial kya hota hai? [What is this lime cordial?]' Before I could explain, he elaborated, ‘Sir, just tell me how you spell it and what’s the brand. I’ll get it for you.’ I didn’t believe him and was resigned to scouring the local shops for the drink. But lo and behold, two hours later, there was a ring at my door, and the delivery boy from Gupta Stores held out a bottle of my favorite brand. ‘Lame kodal,’ he said with pride. I was as amused as I was amazed. Guptaji had delivered. When I called him next, he told me, ‘Sir, now that we know that you use this, we’ve started stocking your 'lame kodal'. You can order it any time.’’
While all of us laughed, I walked away with a very important lesson, one that has stayed with me all through the years. In one transaction, Nitin actually received three areas of excellence in action: Customer-centricity, endless aisle of assortment and a seamless omnichannel retail service.
As a student of retail modernisation, I have run this story in my head time and again. And this is my conclusion. We use modern terms like ecommerce and omnichannel as though these were recent phenomena. The fact is that Indians have been the beneficiaries of ecommerce for several generations.
Let’s begin with the fundamental definition of ecommerce: “When a customer trusts a seller without visiting the store, communicates orders not in person, and the seller delivers the ordered goods at home, that’s ecommerce”.