We have come a full circle in the online-offline debate. Online businesses have taken charge of our lives though we may be in denial. Besides many brands on highstreets, several neighbourhood mom and pop stores (kirana) have vanished as we got swept away by the charm of an easier doorstep delivery of anything from grocery to vegetables, clothes to shoes and breakfast to dinner. The story is not very different in the travel space. Hiring a cab is just about tapping an app or the other; black and yellow taxi is, of course, history. Booking an airline ticket is also a click away and travel agents are a forgotten breed now.
While we fell for the likes of Amazon, Flipkart, BigBasket, Grofers, Ola, Uber, MakeMyTrip, Yatra and more, many of them have failed us. Friends, colleagues, relatives are all ready to narrate their online experiences and how the quality has slipped, of both products and services. When was the last time your carefully chosen dress or shoe or accessory tallied with what you thought you were ordering? When was the last time the chocolate you gifted online reached your friend in solid form? When was the last time that your grocery basket arrived at the time it was supposed to? When was the last time your return to an e-commerce company was without a hassle? When was the last time you had a great cab ride and felt on top of the world without a worry about guiding the driver at every turn when GPS went on a blink? When was the last time that the hotel you booked through a travel portal turned out to be just as you saw on the site?
If you can’t remember exactly “when”, these marquee companies have failed us, despite all their promises. The problem is we are going to be stuck with the internet-led businesses even as the level of customer satisfaction falls because many of the good-old models are an extinct species now. So, however rude that new-age cab driver is, however many times he cancels your cab booking without any notice or reason, you have to live with them unless you take your car out or opt for public transport. Even if you are blacklisted by this cab aggregator or that, you carry on. It doesn't matter that you got a soap instead of a mobile phone or a pirated book at a steep price from your favourite e-commerce site. You end up thinking: There’s no time to go to a shop and it’s worth another try and yet another on the same site or on its rival's. These businesses are sure, they are here for good.
It’s good to know the government is working on stronger rules to protect e-commerce customers. But, more than that, the digital companies, most of them funded by signature foreign investors, can do some brain-storming to meet customer expectations. Not just by offering heavy discounts and freebies but by not taking their customers for granted. Their investors, from the US to Japan, are pumping money into these online firms because they see promise in the Indian market. So, while it’s all good to focus on return on investment and check cash burn, it's high time the founders and investors paid attention to those who are keeping their businesses alive and kicking.
The narrative of successive governments has been that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail is a recipe for disaster. There have been studies and studies on how FDI adversely affects small retail or mom and pop stores and takes away jobs. Policies have been done and undone on that premise alone. The American major Walmart, for instance, has been such a big threat for everyone — from policymakers to farmers, big bricks and mortar chains to pop and mom stores — that multi-brand rulebook allowing 51 per cent FDI has been kept on hold for several years now.
We have come a full circle now because Walmart is all set to power the online space in the country by picking up a stake in Flipkart. The largest bricks and mortar retailer of the world, if the deal happens, will have a big say in deciding how to serve the Indian customer online. That will be a test case for internet businesses. It’s a new beginning and many such powerhouses are likely to surface across digital categories. Will that help you remember when was the last time you were happy shopping online, or you had that dream cab ride?