You have to sit up and take notice when one of India’s largest conglomerates worth over $200 billion across businesses invests billions in a new space and makes that the centrepiece of its future growth.
So when I got access to Tata’s Neu App-- combining airlines, hotels, medicines and groceries in one place-- because of a friend working there, I was looking forward to seeing how an age-old institution is adapting to the new technology game, and what new ideas and approaches it brings to the table.
Straight off the bat, the app looks great. A black background is default, but individual icons in the app, and the Neu logo pop with colours. I mention this upfront because as a user coming to a new platform, well versed with the Amazons, Nykaas and Swiggys of the world, the design choices strike you first. The actual mechanics of shopping come later. The sleek black background juxtaposed with colours gives a premium feel to the app, different from Amazon, which feels a lot messier (even though you would spend lakhs on it). The app’s homescreen feels like a digital version of Dubai airport’s shopping area.
A super app which is looking to change consumer behaviour (we usually use at least three to four commerce apps, between food, groceries, electronics, clothes and general purchases, not counting flights and hotels) needs to be easy to understand and navigate. The Neu app does not overwhelm you with information, but clearly tells you this is well…neu. It has built services like Tata-owned grocery BigBasket or medicine delivery firm 1mg inside it. So using these literally feels like an app inside an app.
You can use a whole host of Tata services on this app, including Croma to buy electronics, AirAsia to book a flight, Taj for hotels, manage your satellite TV via Tata Sky or buy luxury and beauty products from Cliq. It even offers personal loans, short term credit and insurance, along with bill payments for all your bills in one shot.
Tata’s aviation partnership with Singapore Airlines - Vistara - and Cure.fit, the health and fitness startup in which it owns a little over 10% and whose CEO Mukesh Bansal is now a key Tata executive, are both missing so far. While they may be added later (it is still a trial/beta version with the app set to be rolled out with the IPL cricket tournament next month) Vistara feels like a big miss because it has a loyal customer base that doesn’t mind paying for things- exactly what the Neu app is targeting - rather than AirAsia as a low-cost limited-region alternative.
The app also feels editorialised, rather than a mere shopping portal. There are articles and listicles about travel and fashion, presented in a fashion-blogger kind of way. This reminded me of Myntra, which also looks to provide a more personalised experience, including tips for summer and winter clothing and fashion combos and accessories you can pull off. Not so coincidentally, now-Tata executive Bansal founded Myntra and sold it to Flipkart in 2014.
The app’s biggest draw is summed up in this Twitter thread by entrepreneur Ashwini Asokan. If you are a loyal Tata consumer across brands, Neu wants to acknowledge you. For the first time in India (that I know of), you can use reward points across a dozen brands. While they were buying a TV, the app “pulled up our rewards from our Taj stays, our BigBasket buys, our TataCliq purchases & boom ... close to 10K in discount instantly. We didn't do a damn thing. Just like that.”
“As someone who's been in AI/data/retail for a while, I can tell you I've seen absolutely nothing like this. It literally pulled up holidays and data from a decade ago,” she says.
The app’s other big draw is NeuCoins (not a cryptocurrency fortunately, although wouldn’t that news shock the markets?) which you get with each purchase on Tata Neu, a form of cashback as well as discounts. In fact when I joined the app using a code from my friend, I was promised 200 NeuCoins, but this didn’t happen. When I asked customer service over chat (Swiggy style) I was told I would get a response to my query in 72 hours. I downloaded the app 48 hours back. So to take five days to make a ‘decision’ on whether I get Rs 200 free or not feels a bit much.
I didn’t realise until now, but I’m not a big Tata user. I use Swiggy Instamart for groceries if at all, get medicines from across the road and travel on IndiGo (or Vistara, which isn’t there currently). So if this app is meant to revolutionise online buying, it didn’t quite do it for me because my default choices are Tata competitors. But if you use even two to three of the dozen sub-apps this provides, having you switch over is a compelling proposition for Tata.
But this is a test of consumer psychology and not how super apps have been built in China (the country where the model has worked best). “Typically for an app to be a super app, there is one inherent use case for which the consumer comes to the app and then other services are built around that. But what Tata is trying to do is not an approach super apps have traditionally taken in other countries,” says a report from BofA Securities. “Tata does not have a core use case currently for which consumers come back to their app. Consumers would have an option of directly downloading any of their other apps like 1mg, BigBasket, etc.,” it adds.
According to the report, payment plays an important role for super apps to succeed, since they are the backbone of commerce transactions. In fact, this is why Paytm tried a super app model (which failed) and CRED seems to be nudging in that direction. So Neu has built its own payments platform, similar to Amazon.
Now for some of the problems. While these may be teething issues, the app’s sleekness and really popping colours and look are dampened by the app feeling heavy to use. It takes that second longer to switch from one sub-app to another, and I spotted the dreaded buffering, loading icon more than a few times.
Executing on the promises is also a problem. I saw offers for 75% off on Taj Hotels and discounts on AirAsia flights, but when I went to the respective sub apps, I couldn’t seem to find them (unless a discounted basic room in Taj Exotica Goa costs Rs 28,000 a night). And while it said terms and conditions apply, there’s no clarity on what these terms are.
Lastly, privacy. At first glance, Tata Neu seems to care about your privacy deeply. There is a section where you can easily opt out of promotional SMSes, emails and push notifications with a tap. It is pretty neat. I can also enable screen lock to access the app, a move Tata anticipates will be key if people use this app for a bulk of their internet transactions.
But in practice, Neu felt pretty invasive to me. When I went to the Taj and AirAsia sub apps to see how they work, and was less than halfway to booking anything, I got emails welcoming me to their membership programmes as well as luxury commerce website Tata Cliq, merely for clicking on it. If this is a way to goose membership numbers, it feels unfair.Overall though, Neu certainly feels new. The app’s design is standout, even though actual transactions and navigation leave a lot to be desired. With Tata already investing billions in acquisitions and this app, whether it can provide something extra -- immediate big discounts or unprecedented membership points -- to drive consumers to adopt this app could determine its eventual outcome.