India Went on an E-Shopping Spree
The great powers of India’s rising e-commerce sector (including newbie Amazon) locked horns to spectacular effect this week, agitating customers, brick-and-mortar businesses, computer servers, payment platforms and even themselves to levels never seen before.
Flipkart, Amazon and Snapdeal all held a day of impossibly deep discounts Monday to kick off the festive season in India, which lasts through November. Together, they sparked one of the biggest shopping sprees in Indian e-commerce history and signaled a breakout moment for the sector, which still accounts for less than 1 percent of all retail expenditures in India. But it has picked up quickly in the last five years, growing 88 percent last year to $16 billion -- still a small figure by the standards of the world’s developed economies, yet big enough to heat up the market.
In the last year, in an effort to build up their war chests after Amazon's arrival in India in June 2013, many of India's major online retailers hauled in substantial investments from venture capitalists, who see plenty of opportunity for long-term gains in the country's rising Internet use. (While the number of users is growing by leaps and bounds, less than 20 percent of India’s population currently uses the Internet, and only about 20 percent of those users shop online.)
Matters finally came to a head this week, with Flipkart’s “Big Billion Day” sale ads flooding the pages of major Indian newspapers. Amazon’s response alluded to India’s recent successes in space with its “Mission to Mars” campaign, while Snapdeal tried to play it cool with a pitch that ran with the tagline “For others it’s a big day. For us, today it is no different.”
It was hard not to feel the love. Shoppers rose early Monday to grab the best deals, and goods flew off the virtual shelves. Among the discounted items that sold out fastest were smartphones, thanks to the wallets and consumer habits of India’s burgeoning middle class and aspirational youth. Millions of Indians under 50 today revel in the pleasures of a two-decade-old consumer society that their forebears never knew and frequently deplore.
Although I lack for nothing materially, I couldn’t help but check out all the goods on sale. I logged on to Flipkart around 11 a.m., three hours after the sale began. By that time, most of the really good bargains had been snapped up. To stop myself from feeling as if I’d been left out, I settled on a book, a T-shirt, a Nehru jacket and a … well, I’ll have to look at the invoice, because I’ve now completely forgotten.
Whatever pinpricks of disappointment I felt were nothing compared to those of Flipkart's most wound-up shoppers, who raged against the injustice -- in our cynical age, only the promises of business are taken seriously, not those of love or politics -- of goods selling out within minutes of going on sale and against prices rising between selection and purchase. Perhaps even the seller hadn’t prepared for such a storm. (Never underestimate the size of an Indian crowd or its power to disrupt when it has been set up to desire something.)
On Tuesday, I was one of thousands of shoppers who received a long and very courteous apology from Flipkart that began:
Yesterday was a big day for us. And we really wanted it to be a great day for you. But at the end of the day, we know that your experience was less than pleasant. We did not live up to the promises we made and for that we are really and truly sorry.
Nothing could be more illustrative of the peculiar calisthenics and paradoxes of capitalism: having to say "sorry" for a sale that was just too successful and trying to fight off the hit to your brand from the very party that was meant to boost it.
No, I wouldn’t ever want to be stuck on the supply side of India’s e-commerce wars, but millions of Indians are looking forward to being part of the fickle and demanding mass that, in the days to come, wins them.
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