Flipkart and other online sales sparked off protests. Some of the discussion is around consumer rights, much of it around regulations and competition. Logistics and service delivery remain key to these businesses.
A Consumer perspective here, in response to the response to the sale.
A turning point in the movie 3 Idiots was the word ‘sale’. The magic password that revived the poor mother from her deep coma. As the word echoed through her awareness, we, the audience laughed. Not because we were relieved at the plot twist, but because we realised that this was us – the word sale acts like a boost to us, the consumers too, and a discount sale is even better.
Come the festival season, we know that retailers are going to play the sale game with us. The wise shoppers, and indeed us festival makers, now have the choice of whether to be prudent with our time and shop in advance or be opportunistic and wait for the festival sales. We pride ourselves as Indians in knowing what ‘vasooli’ means and extracting every little bit from our purchases. We know that every shop does not give the same value – I’d rather travel 10km to buy my sugar because that retailer has better quality stock, and again, I’ll buy my steel utensils only from another retailer, because he charges less and gives a good discount. This is how we shop, we seek value, and when that value meets our price point we transact.
You see this in the street markets – just pop over to any of the weekly baazars – and see the vigorous price discovery mechanism in process. Enter technology, and why should things be any different? An advertisement on television famously used the phrase, “no ullu banaoging” as it showcased women doing a quick price and value check with their peers using whatsapp on their phones while purchasing sarees in a shop. What makes you think that we, the online shoppers are less savvy? Or believe that we will be tricked by an e-tailer raising their prices and then showing large discounts. When I shop online, there is a quick mental scan of comparative prices, then I add the cost of petrol to get to the shops and run a quick check asking myself – “Is it worth it?” before pressing the ‘buy’ button. The Indian customer is not that easy to fool – we have been trained in keeping our price antenna sharp and own the bragging rights that these give to us.
“Kitne mein li?”, (How much did you get it for?) is a question that must be asked in a hundred languages and dialects in India. For every purchase – a saree or a piece of furniture – there is a discussion group. We break western norms of what is ‘appropriate’ and share intimate details of the hunt for value. I have often maintained that discount shopping is the last hunt left to those of us who inhabit the urban jungle. I have to admit to being a bit of an expert here, or was: there was a time when I could give you the price of most consumer goods across four continents, online and offline. This is still largely true. But I am not alone in this – a quick question on Twitter or Quora asking for price and features for any possible purchase gives a rich range of responses, all knowledgeable and helpful. We hunt in packs, and online access gives us the ability to seek value in packs too.
Does online shopping cause us to give up our antenna and get sucked into the drama of the day? Did Flipkart cheat its customers? As a customer who successfully made a few small purchases on the day, I think not. They were fairly clear about the sale terms. There was a precedent of things available on sale only for a few minutes and going out of stock soon. This had happened on that site before and most of us knew about it. The site clearly stated that there would be no exchanges or returns on the day of the big sale. I read that to mean that I would be on my own if things purchased did not work, so decided not to buy any electronics. I choose my risks, others can choose their own. Was the fact that the site was overwhelmed and down detrimental to customers? Maybe, but it damaged the brand more than it hurt me, so much so that they apologised to most (not to me). I did not feel betrayed by their failure to allow me some more consumerist indulgence.
The real issue here seems to be that the competitors of online shops are feeling threatened, as they should be. Online shopping has seen many high street shops go out of business in many countries, but the volume of online shopping in India is too small (reportedly less than 1%) to claim that argument. Stock clearance sales are common in the retail space too – an e-tailer can do the same. Discount sales in festival seasons are common to all retail shops – the e-tailer did nothing out of the ordinary. I am at a loss to see what was so unjust or unfair that has caused the grand online sale brouhaha. Was it merely that we were able to spot the tricks used by the e-tailers and have not been able to see them in the retail space? Is there a problem with the transparency that the e-tail space offers?
A free and fair market thrives in transparency. Consumers benefit from being able to make choices with more and better information, and if the current noise leads to better information from both the bricks and the clicks retailing space, then it will have been worth it. But if this is a witch hunt to protect the high street and leads to more price distortion by regulation, then the customers would have been done a disservice. We, the consumers, may have become a bit soft having been protected by MRP regulation for essentials, but we still have our shopping muscle in good condition, ready to flex for the festival season. Bring on the sales!