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December 15, 2018 Saturday 01:58:05 PM IST


Cover Story

Increased tech savviness, hectic work schedule, the worsening traffic and wider use of electronic transactions make the right cocktail for a new trend in food retail. A variety of online food platforms such as Swiggy, Uber Eats, Zomato and Food Panda have thrived as part of the trend.

 These platforms bring a large assortment of food items available at various hotels in the city into one large menu, which a decade ago would have seemed like a dream. The mobile apps have put these dream menus into our pocket, enabling us to satisfy our culinary craving for the day by means of a few touches on the mobile.

 The facility has opened a new world to the food retailers in cities to serve a larger area with no significant increase in overheads. Location no longer is a barrier for getting orders through the app.

 Businesses in the food sector, see it as a great opportunity to reach deeper into the market and acquire new customers. And, most importantly, it could increase visibility of the brand, without any significant cost. Every entity in the food sector is getting an opportunity to learn from these established platforms, perhaps prompting the players to develop own online ordering platforms to cater to their customer base more effectively. As far as manufacturers are concerned, it provides a good opportunity to provide customers with the whole range of products, which is not possible in the retail stores due to constraints such as space, listing charges and competition. The manufacturer can deliver the products directly to their homes, afresh, without parking them on the retail store racks till the customers pick it.

 The threat, as far as established businesses are concerned, is actually in keeping away from them, without recognizing the potential. There also emerges a risk of being left behind and out of sight. And, as out of sight would mean out of mind, a brand without a significant footprint online could become obsolete in a few years.

Another great opportunity for businesses is to acquire detailed customer database in the process of receiving an order. With the customers willfully providing details such as name, address and contact number, the data becomes an invaluable input for planning future marketing communication activities. Such accurate databases are hard to get in any other way and will involve considerable cost and effort.

With this great opportunity to build your brand comes great dangers too. Bad reviews posted online spread wildly and takes a life of its own. After a certain point, even the one who wrote the review wouldn’t be able to control the outcome. This review can come from competitors posing as customers. Whichever be the source or whatever be the motive, the brand image and sale will definitely be hit. Hence it is very critical to understand how to manage such reviews and control the damage.

 Nevertheless, a good product is a good product anywhere. Conversely, even the latest trends in retail cannot save a bad product. This is especially true now more than ever with information on what is good and bad very well published and known.

 We are also seeing a sort of a food revolution from the ready-to-cook (brought about by products such as instant noodles, frozen food and instant mixes) to let-us-cook-and-you-eat culture. As a result, we see customers becoming more open to trying out new eats, and the convenience has led to food being ordered more frequently. (According to a prominent online platform, their best customers order more than 30 times a month). This does mean that in areas where the new trends have touched, cooking and eating habits have definitely changed.

 All said and done, no amount of convenience and excitement brought in by these online food platforms can provide the sheer pleasure of eating out or buying food from the store directly. The experience and the ambience will still lure us to the retail stores, ‘the old fashioned way’. Therefore, the bulk of the sale will still happen at the retail floors while the best part of brand building will happen on the new online platforms.

 Retail in the online era

As for the retail business in general, it has undergone significant changes in recent years. These changes have been spurred further by events like demonetization and the introduction of GST.

Most businesses are realizing the possibilities of virtual showrooms online. For the first time, tax compliance has actually become easier than evasion. GST’s  ‘one nation one market’ concept meanwhile has also reduced complications as far as servicing customers pan India is concerned.

Consumers, in fact, are really being treated like kings, with all the available options at their fingertips and critical data such as best prices, discounts and offers, and reviews posted by current users of the product or service. They even have zero charge return policy where they can return the products that they had bought within a short, specified period.

Needless to say, the way consumers are lured into making that purchase decision has also changed. With all the data available on what they have been searching for on the internet, products and services are now targeted specifically to people who are searching for them.

While such developments are happening over the internet, the physical stores are also going through a sea change with all the latest in RFID, barcode, surveillance and electronic payment tech such as Samsung pay, Google pay and Apple pay.

Unmanned checkout counters

A prime example of this is Mynthra’s latest store at Bangalore, having unmanned checkout counters where customers themselves can easily generate invoice by just placing their shopping bag on the RFID reader. Even the store exits are unmanned with RFID readers integrated to the floor.

From what we are seeing in matured markets in the west, no more than 15% of the total sales are being generated online. The rest is still happening in the physical stores. So, while sheer volume will still come from physical stores, the bulk of the marketing and brand building will happen online.

In this era, retail businesses need to synergize the online opportunities as done by entities such as Amazon, Flipkart, Swiggy and Uber eats and understand how to use tools like Whatsapp, youtube, facebook and Instagram to popularize their brand, products, and services. Retailers could use technology to enhance the shopping experience at their retail floors and to finetune the offerings based on specific customer behaviour and feedback.

Biju Prem Shankar

The writer is Chief Operating Officer, Fresh Products, Kochi 

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