India: Online retailers set to restart discount wars

Photo: Mint

Online retailers will again start discounting in earnest this month, as they look to bounce back after two quarters of falling sales—the first such in recent memory for many of them.

Online retail sales dipped to an annualized $12 billion in June, compared with $13 billion in March and $15 billion in December, according to estimates by research and advisory firm RedSeer Management Consulting.

A combination of cost cutting by Flipkart Ltd and Snapdeal (Jasper Infotech Pvt. Ltd), two of India’s largest e-commerce firms, and new government rules prohibiting discounts curbed the growth of e-commerce over the past seven months. Monthly sales at Flipkart and Snapdeal were at lower levels in June, compared with December, said two people familiar with the companies’ finances, asking not to be identified.

Analysts say the fall in sales is worrying for a market such as India where e-commerce is still at a nascent stage. It again confirms the view that when discounts are pulled and sales events aren’t extensively advertised, Indian shoppers are unwilling to spend freely on buying online, they add.

In the June quarter, sales growth at Amazon India (Amazon Seller Services Pvt. Ltd), too, slowed sharply, according to a person familiar with the company’s performance who spoke on condition of anonymity. The slowdown was primarily because of foreign direct investment (FDI) rules introduced in March that ban online marketplaces from influencing prices (read that as offering discounts), the person added.

After the rules were announced, all three online marketplaces put sales events on hold temporarily; they re-started sales in late June with the end-of-season fashion sale after figuring out new ways of offering discounts.

Now, Flipkart and Amazon will go head-to-head in a discounting war starting with the Independence Day sale that both companies plan to advertise heavily, said the people cited above.

Amazon has already announced a “Great Indian Sale” between 8 August and 10 August.

Unlike the fashion sale, the Independence Day sale and other sales these companies will launch this year will include all kinds of products including laptops, furniture, large appliances and most importantly, smartphones, the single largest product category for e-commerce firms.

“This time, Flipkart and Amazon will pull out all stops,” said Harminder Sahni, managing director, Wazir Advisors. “However, brands across the board have been asking marketplaces to cut discounts as they don’t want to hurt their offline business. It will be interesting to see how the marketplaces manage this conflict with brands.”

The coming festive season—September to January, when most Indian festivals are concentrated—is a good time for most consumer product companies; for online retailers, it is the most important festive period in years. The performance of Flipkart, in particular, over the period may help determine the company’s future, said the analysts.

After changing its chief executive in January, Flipkart is scrambling to maintain its No.1 position in the face of an onslaught from Amazon.

Flipkart has struggled to revive growth this year and the company’s sluggish sales are reflected in the decline of the entire industry.

“This festive season is make or break for us,” said one of the three people cited above, a Flipkart executive.

“There is pressure to cut costs, but the most important thing is now to get growth back to an acceptable level.”

A Flipkart spokesperson declined comment. Amazon and Snapdeal spokespersons didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

While until the beginning of this year, it was a three-way fight between Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon, analysts and investors say the battle now is primarily between Flipkart and Amazon—at least for now.

Snapdeal has been forced to slash spending on discounts, advertising and other things as it looks to conserve cash amid a funding crunch. Unless Snapdeal raises a large new round of funds, the company is likely to be left behind by its two cash-rich rivals.

The festive season sales will also prove to be the first test of Amazon’s newly launched Prime service, which the company expects will be one of the key drivers of its growth in India.

Last week, Amazon launched its global Prime membership programme in more than 100 cities in India, offering one-day and two-day delivery on hundreds of thousands of products for a fixed price of Rs.499 initially.

Also read:

After permitting 100% FDI, India warns e-commerce firms on discounts

India: Fare wars, flash sales, capacity addition & capital raising on aviation’s flight path in 2016

This story was first published on Livemint

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Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
  • A journalist to track special situations funds, distressed debt and private credit (from the PE angle) across Asia.