Talking to Estrade Mr. Arvind Saraf, PhD from MIT, Google India Ex-employee, currently the Director Triveni Sarees elucidates on E-commerce market scenario, their constraints, his initiative Iness.in and huesandvibes.in to bridge the gap between designers and customer, and much more.
1. Talk me through your approach to generating strategies for addressing current and future ecommerce market scenarios and to position a business to capitalise on them.
Our market scenario assessment is very gap or need driven. When you see a manufacturer or a supplier with a good product range, however is not yet well known or has a weak sales / distribution network, this creates a gap. The question to ask is – how do we fill in this gap? Many business opportunities come out of this.
E-Commerce in India, and indeed worldwide, is in a flux. The speed of evolution is quite fast in India – till about 2012, e-Commerce in India mirrored what was happening globally in 2000 (the first dot-com boom, which I witnessed first-hand as a student) – however if you go to see the current scenario, in 2015 India is almost on par with the current scene in the US, maybe just a few months behind. To adapt to this fast growing market, one has to constantly keep their eyes open for new opportunities.
E-Commerce in India is very speculative, banking on future growth & numbers more than the current scenario. One of the first areas of focus for a business entering the market is to identify the approach it is going to take – will it opt for a high risk, all out venture capital kind of investment, or more organic sustainable growth.
One needs to have core strengths to start off with – and then build upon them based on the market needs & the current scenario. At Triveni, our core expertise has always been our design & production capabilities of ethnic wear – and with the addition of core technology competence, e-Commerce became a positive way forward for us.
We at Triveni have always focussed on the transactional viability – and we have had a sustained growth of around 100% per year over the last 3 years, without any external investment or injection of funds.
2. You left Google and co-founded Swasth India – that aimed at providing healthcare for the poor in India? Also you are a part of many NGOs. What was the driving force?
I have always been excited by new challenges, and solving a real world problem. Sometime during my post-graduate studies at MIT, I volunteered with campus based NGOs working on development issues in India. That veered my interest away from long-term research I was working on, to problems more immediately needing solutions in day to day life.
Google had just setup its India Engineering office – and that gave me an option to work in India, first as an intern & then a full-timer. A few years later, I left to pursue technology in health or education sectors.
Swasth India happened during my interaction with the co-founders of the project, we were looking to do something in health systems, and coming in from the technology background, my iterations of the model converged more on the Swasth’s holistic health systems approach. During Swasth, I spent a lot of time doing ground work – in the villages or the slums.
When we look around, we see a lot of inefficiencies – systems, processes, markets – which if addressed, can total up to significant improvement in overall development of the country, and lifestyle of people. Having top talent of the country looking at & spending time on these problems is one of the ways to address them.
My move back to Triveni was again to bring about efficiencies in the Small / Medium Enterprises space – and actively participating in one is perhaps the surest way of doing so. In the process, we also defined Triveni’s vision, mission, presence, positioning & value systems.
Our experience with designers & e-retail customers at Triveni made us realize a few gaps that have been coming in the way of true exclusive Designer wear going online – and we have attempted to fix them with our new Designer only portal, Iness ( www.iness.in )
We realize that true fashion is about expressing one’s identity – which typically is a collaborative exercise between a designer’s collections, bringing in the buyer’s personalization preferences into it. Iness.in is an exclusive marketplace for designers – wherein we offer to manage the entire e-retail for designers, through Triveni’s linkages with other websites & worldwide stores. Iness.in brings in customization & a chance for buyers to interact closely with designers during their product sign off, before it is crafted. We believe this will notch up the Designer collection e-commerce like never before.
Here’s what we believe will be standout for Iness: that we’ll bring the regular designer – buyer experience online, incorporating the designer design & customization process into our website workflow. The way this works is as follow:
- Designers mention that certain designs are ‘Customizable‘ or they are sold to be sold ‘As-is‘ in design.
- When users see these products on the website, users – if they are logged in – see an option to “Express Interest” in a design.
- We call up the users to verify if they are genuinely interested. This requires certain questions to be asked.
- If they pass the test, we pass these leads to the designer’s team – so that together they can work on the design finalization. We facilitate these set of calls / coordination through our system.
- Once the design drawing is finalized between the designer team & the potential customer, we are again informed – and we take over the communication again then.
- We send the customer invoice.
- Customers make the payment.
- We inform the designers so that they start the fabrication.
- Designers ship the design to us – which we ship again to the customers.
We love cutting edge technology – our upcoming technology features also include a Virtual Trial room (see what the product looks like you online!) & even a feature to find designs similar to something you may have! So, stay tuned.
HueAndVibes.com has been designed as an online marketplace for home & kitchen linen. Home & kitchen linen is quite fragmented – with very few home-grown brands. Many of these international brands source from export or manufacturing houses in India, yet cannot compete with these brands directly due to the lack of sales & distribution knowhow. HuesAndVibes is an umbrella marketplace, brand & enabler for the designers & manufacturers of home & kitchen linen, helping to take their collections & brand forward – not just on huesandvibes.com, but also on all major Indian & International e-marketplaces.
4. We are in a phase of Apps/ Online world, is going online a necessity in today’s scenario?
Yes, going online is not really a matter of choice right now – it’s a question of how.
Traditional manufacturers need cost-cutting measures in reaching their end-customers. Online or digital presence helps firms reach end customers, without investing in physical infrastructure or direct retail. Product discovery by new or prospective customers, lead generation and all out direct retail is enabled by the online medium.
Online presence opens up a direct feedback channel to the brands & manufacturers, allowing them to engage & get customer feedback much more quickly & effectively. And direct interaction with customers changes brands in ways unforeseen – we at Triveni ourselves underwent major transformation when we went online.
Customers often do some research before shopping a brand – and a brand that isn’t online will struggle to be seen as in line with times, or will largely be seen local & thus skipped over by the prospective customers.
5. What are the constraints in becoming an e-commerce business? How do you mitigate them?
The challenges to going online are cultural, technical & visionary.
First and foremost, e-Commerce is a service that companies offer – and manufacturing brands need to reorient themselves from pure product design & manufacturing to a service company or unit. Aspects of customer service business, such as customer support team & service quality metrics must be brought in.
E-Commerce retail also requires strong warehousing & inventory management capabilities – so that stocks’ reflecting on the e-medium reflects the physical inventory design wise. Any order cancellation due to the inventory mismatch leads to customer dissatisfaction.
E-commerce business is currently viable – and businesses going online should look at a long or medium term investment, instead of short-term returns. Like with any retail option, basic upfront investment in stock, infrastructure & skill set is required.
It’s often hard for a manufacturer dealing in bulk volumes to entertain or focus on individual retail pieces, especially in the peak wholesale sale times. Hence, we have found it useful to restructure our e-business as a separate company.
If a brand, however, does not have skill set to take the plunge, the eco-system is witnessing the emergence of e-Commerce enablers – companies which offer complete e-Commerce management services. One of our group companies, Triveni Labs, is one of them – and could be a partner in taking the brick and mortar brands online as well.
6. What are the latest systems you’ve used to manage and optimise your business?
We have brought in latest systems to manage & optimize all of our 3 businesses – e-commerce, manufacturing & Triveni Labs. While the below lists the newer processes and software level implementations, another focus area for us has been the definition & implementation of KRAs at each team & individual levels.
Our e-retail software & process systems are built up from scratch, independently of our manufacturing systems – and include a very sophisticated warehouse & order management system that syncs all orders from all channels at one place; integration with our open-source based website CMS, accounting software (Tally), and a complete open-source based customized Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software. Additionally, our team has been working on cutting edge technologies such as virtual trial rooms, effective product recommendations & assisted shopping.
As a manufacturer, we have implemented & upgraded to a production management system that does complete material requirement planning (MRP). We have been experimenting with time series based forecasting technologies & tools, aiming to bring in forecasting into our production planning process.
Triveni Labs is about identifying the above process gaps, and bringing them to the outside world. Some of our initiatives are:
- Monitoring Dashboard for manufacturers: Keeping a track of number of raw material suppliers and managing them (both at a same time) becomes difficult at times, which can hinder the production process. Also, while manufacturing a certain product, sometimes the end product gets delayed due to some technical issue in any part of the machinery. So for this an automated system consisting of dashboard for every stage is being created so that the problem either in the previous or the next stage can be tracked and repaired there itself without any delays and also to keep a record of all the raw material suppliers at a single point.
- Sales people tracking- It becomes difficult at times to deal with a number of salesperson sent on field and to validate their performance. An app is being created to track the current location of the salesperson sent on field and even a Purchase Order could be created at that very moment.
- Virtual Trial Room- People still follow the trend of trying the product while shopping for garments and which is a big challenge for online shopping websites. So we are coming up with Virtual Trial Rooms wherein, a customer can get an idea about how he/she would look like in a particular outfit.
- Catalogue sharing App- It’s hard to share the upcoming catalogues with a large no of wholesaler base. So for the same, a mobile app is being created in which with a single click, number of product catalogues can be sent to a large wholesaler base.
- Listing on other websites- Listing one’s products on other websites (with different formats) becomes difficult to manage at times. So an admin panel will be created from where listing on all website portals can be managed from a single point of contact.
- Recommendation Engine- Customers, while shopping online have many queries of alternate or similar products, so while their shopping, all similar recommendations will appear in front of them.
7. How do you keep up-to-date with the latest ecommerce trends and new technologies?
I come from a Technology background – and technology has never been a black box to me. I like to look at a problem or use case – and quickly evaluate technical solution and its feasibility. Technology discovery for me is usually guided discovery – wherein, when I’m looking at technical solution to a problem around, I end up discovering the new innovations in the area. And having a network of other technologies in other companies or even investors / venture capitalists, I’m able to pick up the phone and call them – and get a quick validation on these ideas.