Date: 31st Jan. 2000

Surfing the shops
Shimul Shah


Click, click, click! And a brand new compact disc player arrives at your doorstep a few days later. Armchair shopping, literally. Without any doubt, this is the future and the trend is catching on fast. A search on reveals close to 50 sites offering 'online shopping' facilities. Going by the number of new websites springing up everyday, entrepreneurs seem to have a lot of faith in Indians' desire to shop on the Net. You think it's just a passing phase? A survey conducted by the National Association of Software & Service Companies (Nasscom) argues otherwise. According to Nasscom, the total volume of e-commerce transactions that involved consumers in India in 1998-99 was Rs 12 crore, a far cry from the Rs 119 crore spent on business-to-business transactions. But, the value of e-commerce transactions is expected to rise to about Rs 50 crore in the business-to-consumer section in 1999-2000. The total value of e-commerce transactions (business-to-business as well as business-to-consumer) is, however, expected to increase exponentially to Rs 1,000 crore by 2002 merely because of  the way things are moving on the regulatory framework and PC penetration. It seems a natural evolution. After all, you save time by avoiding a trip to the store. With Internet usage increasing over the next few years, the speed with which you can transact on the Net will increase almost ten-fold. In India, where department stores are more the exception than the norm, the Net opens the doors to a unique way of shopping. A consumer can view a whole heap of products at one go as well as compare different products that may not necessarily be available at the same store. Discounts are more accessible since online stores save on overheads unlike a bricks-and-mortar store. And, of course, you are spared the cacophony of salespeople trying to convince you about products and features. This is exactly what crossed Shirish Dave's mind when he decided to try e-shopping. What bothered him, however, was the lack of privacy. After placing an order on, another colleague decided to check it out. To his shock, Dave's credit card number appeared on the screen when the friend decided to place an order. "Try online shopping on a limited basis. If possible, try sites that are recommended by friends or a company you can trust", says Sandeep Kadwe, e-strategist, Plexus Technologies. A lot of inconsistencies need to be ironed out before we can say that online shopping is safe. These sites encounter problems on two fronts. Technical problems that arise due to lack of cyber laws and banking procedures and logistics problems that stem from the lack of infrastructure and problems related to merchandise. The fact that the Net is still an uncontrolled territory makes it unsafe ground for consumers to tread on. There are no laws that Web-shops have to abide by and there's no guarantee that a Web-shop will stand by what it promises. Even though most sites assure delivery time, what stops them from blaming the postal service or courier firms for any delays? Which brings us to the next problem: who owns up responsibility if things go wrong? After all, most cyber-shops offer items from a variety of suppliers. So, in case you get damaged goods or a wrong item arrives at your doorstep, what do you do? You wouldn't expect the online store to tell you that you have to deal with the supplier directly. And you could be opening up a can of worms if you decide that you want to cancel an order placed earlier. Do most sites provide that kind of after-sales service? The answer is still 'maybe'. 
"The absence of reliable payment gateways makes online shopping relatively unattractive," says Sanjay Deshpande, CEO, House of Code. Even though some sites allow you to shop on your credit card, the absence of online transactions will still require you to sign a slip before the item is delivered to you. This, of course, makes it safer, but it also makes the process that much longer. Indian banks have not tied up with each other to facilitate online transactions or facilitate online shopping. ICICI Bank is the one that plans to offer its customers the benefit of online shopping with payments being made directly from your account at the bank. What about logistics? Few online stores have the infrastructure needed to carry out operations on a full-scale basis. This means that the site should be able to deliver the goods to you in time as well as guarantee that it will not be damaged. Which is why Amit Zaveri, vice-president (business development), Indbazaar. com has not jumped on the online shopping bandwagon yet. "There are too many variables involved to jump into online shopping. does plan to offer online shopping in the future, but at the moment we are busy preparing the infrastructure that would be needed for a venture like that," he explains.Many sites that Businessworld checked out did not offer much variety and choices. For example, boasts of having a wide variety of music picks (around 10,000), but a search revealed that there weren't too many options available in the jazz, dance music and movie soundtrack categories. Another site, where you can buy toys, art and other such items, also proved disappointing. There were no choices available in the soft toys and action-figure categories. Several sites had technical problems. For example, when an item was placed on the site (a site that specialises in deliveries around Delhi) shopping cart, it was not there at the checkout and we had to start all over again. Given all these uncertainties in the online shopping planet, it is a good idea to follow the expert's advice and wait a while before you plunge headlong into it. Says Deshpande: "It should take six to eight months for cyber laws to be put in place and one can expect positive changes in online shopping." After that, log into long hours of shopping. 



Interview-Comment in Business World- 31st Jan 2000, India                                                                 Home