Cash on Delivery- The catalyst for E-tailing in India? – Deepak Srinath

I often hear people saying that e-commerce entrepreneurs in India have it easy when it comes to ideas for their startups- they simply have to look at what has worked in the US and copy that model. Group Buying sites inspired by Groupon are the favorite examples used to illustrate this. Sure, E-commerce startup’s in India are by and large inspired by successful US models – Group buying for services and products, private sales for fashion, flash sales for electronics and accessories, category specific sites such as baby products or shoes…you name the e-commerce startup in India and there is a corresponding US model. However, it would be massively unfair to Indian E-commerce entrepreneurs not to give them credit for the clever and sometimes subtle adaptations to suit Indian markets and consumers. Perhaps the most significant and game changing of all these innovations is the ”Cash on Delivery’ (COD) payment option. In fact, I will stick my neck out and say that the e-tailing business in India owes its explosive growth to COD.

For a long time any discussion or article on E-commerce in India centered around the twin problems of low internet penetration and low debit/credit card base. Add to this the perceived ‘trust issues’ of Indian consumers for transacting online and it was believed that e-commerce in India would take years and years to scale. As recently as 18 months ago, while the online travel model was relatively well established, it was difficult to imagine how e-tailing or online purchase of physical goods would take off anytime soon.

And then the e-tailing revolution happened, and how! Flipkart and Infibeam led the charge, starting off with categories such as books, music CD’s, etc which were easier to sell online. As reports of their phenomenal growth came in, the trickle turned into a flood and at least a hundred e-tailing startup’s sprung up across the country across all possible categories. VC money started pouring into these startup’s and valuations based on annualized Gross Merchandize Value (GMV) multiples became the norm. Hygiene factors such as internet and card base reaching critical mass had helped but the real reason why sales took off was perhaps a small innovation in the payment model called Cash on Delivery. It allowed internet consumers to ‘order’ without paying upfront and allowed them the luxury of seeing the product (or at least the packaging box 🙂 ) before they paid for it. Logistics companies such as Bluedart and Aramex supported this model and trained their employees to collect payments. COD entails an extra charge of Rs.75 to 100, but consumers don’t seem to mind. Suddenly the limitation imposed by card base or trust issues for online purchase were redundant. Moreover, India has a large parallel ‘cash economy’ which has its own dynamics and cash payments are the preferred mode for all non salaried professionals. It’s a win-win situation for e-commerce firms and consumers and the only flip side to the e-commerce firm is an increase in working capital requirement.

So what % of e-tailing happens through COD? E-tailers I’ve interacted with say that 50% to 80% of their sales come from COD and rejection rates upon delivery are lower than 10%. I’m not sure whether COD was the brainchild of a single e-commerce firm or whether it evolved naturally as a solution to the payment problem based on a facility logistics partners anyway provided. Nevertheless, this collaborative innovation in business model and it’s impact on e-commerce in India should be the subject of a business school case study.

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About Deepak
Venture Capital and M&A advisor, Entrepreneur, Startup enthusiast..

One Response to Cash on Delivery- The catalyst for E-tailing in India? – Deepak Srinath

  1. Kiran Saligrama says:

    I have thought the same (lack of credit card usage) for a long time. As soon as I read the words “Cash on Delivery” the light bulb sparked. A generic delivery company that handles cash (or credit) transactions on delivery would parallel the credit card market in India.

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