As Apparatus engages in new projects that involve catalogs, payment gateways and retail concepts I am starting a series of posts focussing on ecommerce in India. This is the first of the lot.

Indian railways is probably responsible for making online users ready to pay and buy things on the web. With their devastatingly ugly website they could generate substantial revenue with payment modes that were compelling – cash on delivery for instance. The air carriers, travel and ticketing websites followed suit. And now this is the sole vertical that generates B2C revenue online. However fashion retailers and bookstores never took to selling online like they did in the west. The users were still wary of identity theft and misuse to swipe their cards online. There were a few retail platforms like rediff or indiatimes that stocked fashion, had their own logistics partners and private labeled shops for big brands. However this was restricted to the privileged credit card holders.

Sometime early last year with the sweep of social shopping websites in the US and the death of local social networks in India online startups considered commerce again. Venture capital firms were ready to look at this new found interest. Even the new fangled security measure of validating personal credit cards at the über secure bank website did not deter them. Myntra, Flipkart, Bigshoebazaar and more such names appeared and today they are growing or consolidating.

I personally think there are flaws in these properties and more payment methods do not necessarily make better user experience or more business. The things that ail Indian ecommerce are:

  • The business is not a brand: The principals are from a technology pedigree and they make functionally strong websites. But they do not consider the value proposition, persona or the tone/voice of these brand expressions. They do not engage the users like a brand does. Examples are Myntra’s inconsistent promotionals, human models without a specific statement and a packaging that does not communicate.
  • Product discovery is about an intuitive information model, focussed promotions and an agile search: Category trees can be misleading if they are not thought through. Consolidating categories for more real estate can be detrimental to a seamless ‘buy experience’. Flipkart’s ‘Art, Photography and Design’ as a category has about 100000 books in it and filters like hardcover/paperback or delivery time does not help me narrow down to what I need.
  • Focus the homepage: Why do we all like the Apple homepage? It is an intelligent solution with a single product/promotion occupying over 50% of above-the-fold real estate. The rest can really be interactive stamp size pictures. Cluttered home pages with too many portlets like in Yebhi.com or Letsbuy.com can intimidate a new user. Also the brand gets a boost with a visually lightweight homepage.
  • Fulfill smoothly without much ado: Myntra messaged me twice, called me more than six times before they hand delivered a pair of shoes that I bought. I would have preferred it less intrusive and efficient. So it is important to engage a smart logistics partner to get wares without a hitch.
  • Play the brand always: Engage the users like offline brands engage consumers. Remember amazon’s bookmarks, expedia’s smart guides and goodies from Target to create a brand asset biosystem that goes beyond the online shopping experience.

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