Even as the lockdown speech by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was underway, there was a frenetic dash to the slew of Kirana stores located outside the residential society gates in East Delhi suburbs. Residents had fear writ on their faces and armed with lots of cash, they wanted to buy whatever they could. Competitors in the best of times, these three store owners presented a picture of unity and composure. It was a stark contrast to the residents’ behaviour.
The ‘we are there for you’ sentiment was manifest in each of the store owners and their attendants tried hard to calm down frayed nerves and ever eager customers trying to jump the queue. For many, this date with the stores was an unfamiliar experience. Used to buying excessively online, the offline experience for them was slow.
But the writing was on the wall! With each passing day in the lockdown, these Kirana stores became the first and the last line of defence between hunger and the residents. The offline model served a lesson in the unprecedented crisis. These Kirana owners, vested with modest pockets, put on a grand display of composure risking their own lives whilst ensuring basic essential supplies. They drove home the need to not panic and most importantly induced a sense of proportion in consumption. Their sage counsel rested on the premise of rationing, raising a feeble but firm voice against hoarding, though not always with great success.
Like these Kirana stores, the neighbourhood chemists too joined the service bandwagon. Between them, they created a new social distancing order. They were armed with empathy but drew chalk-made semi-finished circles to enforce social distancing.
They didn’t go for the kill! They soaked in the sudden burst of attention. Their silence gave an expression to their latent desire to make a point. They too have an aspiration: An aspiration to grow! They showed remarkable speed to present themselves in a new avatar knowing well that the rush may not endure. The unsaid ambition to achieve scale was manifest in their demeanor.
A new identity for Kirana stores
The story here is not that Kirana stores are back. They actually never went away. They have always been there braving all-round apathy. The COVID-19 crisis showcased their critical last-mile role. It also bared our inability to perceive and own them as businesses that can truly transform the economic landscape, if offered the opportunity to grow.
For long, India has been consumed in the debate about the future of mom-and-pop stores. The pundits had long ago written their obituary. They have survived, for their bond with their clientele is just and durable. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated their resolve to not just exist but grow. Obviously, they need to be held by the hand and not grabbed by the collar. They need to co-exist but at their own terms and conditions.
What has traditionally dwarfed them in comparison to organised retail is the absence of mentoring in terms of finance, technology and last-mile connect. Given their traditional mindset and an induced sense of inferiority complex, the hand-holding has been missing since the available business models have essentially been about not treating them as equal partners in the India retail growth story.
Collaboration and convergence
The idea of collaboration and convergence makes sense only when it is an empowering tool to translate the vision on the ground.
The Kirana syndrome reflects the existing conundrum in the micro and small business vertical of the country. It is hailed for its promise but on the ground it bleeds for want of key levers of growth – technology, capital and market access. Each Kirana store or small business entity in India has an aspiration to grow.
Will the new emerging business models that lie at the intersection of technology, retail and consumer, reset the small business paradigm in India and help it achieve its true potential? The Jio-Whatsapp deal and the idea of JioMart aim to play the perfect balance while promising to create a win-win situation for all the involved stakeholders.
What has JioMart on the menu? If JioMart would enable inventory and back-end supply chain for small shops, the WhatsApp platform might enable ordering and payment providing seamless customer experience.
Let us examine the axis: it promises to be a cross-venture using the infrastructure of retail and user-base from telecom verticals. Under this cross venture, the mega deal aims to connect offline retailers to households employing an offline-to-online marketplace model.
JioMart: Bridging retailer and consumer
The idea to bridge the retailer and the consumer with technology as the facilitator offers an unprecedented business opportunity. It has the potential to achieve speed and scale. The skill game here is about adoption and adaptation.
From the Kirana store and the consumer perspective, how does the paradigm look like and what might be on offer?
Price – There is no word yet on price trajectory under the offline and online model. But any business model would entail price sensitivity. India continues to be an extremely price-sensitive market and what is for certain is that under the new model price discovery will not only be transparent but also competitive.
Proximity – As COVID has reiterated, proximity is an evergreen factor. Proximity breeds comfort and familiarity in business. Familiarity, in turn, gives rise to trust. Trust is paramount in any transaction.
Penetration – Like the Delhi Metro, which democratised public transport killing all class barriers, the offline-online integration model (given the reach of both Jio and WhatsApp), has the potential to be all inclusive. It is penetrative from the demand and supply side making last-mile growth a reality.
Progressive – Any model that primarily rests on the premise of technology has to be not only democratic but also progressive. It has the potential to draw the progress trajectory both at the emotional and business model level.
Therefore, here is an opportunity for the small Kirana store or any other non-essential micro-enterprise to stand shoulder to shoulder with the big daddies of organised retail. Buoyed by the technology firepower and a democratic foothold on the escalator, JioMart aims to offer these traders a powerful vehicle to expand their reach and reimagine themselves for the post-COVID economy.