When Suchi Mukherjee decided to start a woman-centric online fashion discovery business in 2012, several investors she approached laughed her out of the room. With a background at internet ventures such as Skype and then Gumtree, an eBay company, she certainly knew the market well. Yet, potential backers couldn't fathom why someone with Mukherjee's pedigree would chase women consumers, who at the time constituted under a fifth of India's online population and an even smaller sliver of actual consumers. "When Limeroad was founded in 2013, everyone laughed at us... the entire ecommerce industry was male-dominated," recounts Mukherjee. Rather than targeting over 80% of India's internet population, Limeroad was attempting to devise a social discovery platform for the minority, and that had observers amused and appalled.
Just two years on, the story couldn't be more different. From a time when women consumers were a distinct afterthought for most ecommerce ventures, today they are scrambling to meet their every whim. In the past 24 to 36 months, there has been an explosive growth in women coming online and in mobile penetration. Consequently, a raft of new ventures are focused on this opportunity and several older ones tweaking their business model to chase after it.
Today there are 28 million active internet users in India in the 18-44 age group in SEC A and B cities alone. Add another 28-30 million from SEC B and C towns, and there's a fastgrowing market for the likes of Limeroad to target. "In January 2013, Limeroad was an outlier, but today we're at the heart of what is India's most attractive and fastest-growing online opportunity," adds Mukherjee.
Mukherjee and Limeroad are hardly alone in going after this booming opportunity in India's ecommerce market. Across this industry, companies of all shapes and sizes are in hot pursuit of this prize, ranging from focused startups to large horizontal ecommerce giants such as Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon. While most of them today get around a third of their business from women, executives believe that this number can easily be more than 50%.
"Most women's categories are predominately unorganised and difficult to access," says Rishi Vasudev, vice-president, fashion, with Flipkart. "We give them a platform to access products made anywhere from Kanyakumari to Kolkata." While typical categories such as apparel, accessories and personal care see the most purchases on Flipkart, other segments such as furniture and home appliances too (typically a male purchase) are seeing strong traction with women buyers.
Ecommerce companies are trying to reel in more customers such as Naina Shetty. The 33-year-old public relations executive in Mumbai (she doesn't represent any of the companies featured in this article) has gone from a stage of paranoia over online purchases (primarily to deal with security of personal information) to being a staunch votary.
From slowly finding her feet online, Shetty has become an avid online shopper, first for groceries that ate up hours of her precious weekend, then for gifts for friends and family, accessories and apparel. "Buying everything online has helped balance out my otherwise chaotic weekend," she says. "The saving in terms of fuel and time, combined with practically year-long sales and promotions, make ecommerce a compelling proposition."
For Richa Kar, the founder and chief executive of Zivame, an online lingerie retailer, the internet provided an opportunity to give women consumers a far better shopping option than an existing inefficient and uncomfortable offline experience. "We not only offer a broader range and more styles, we also help with fitting," she says. "We have leveraged technology to solve this problem and built a womencentric brand from the ground up." She claims that 18% of Zivame buyers made their first online purchase on the lingerie portal and the company is looking to move more such potential customers online. "We have barely scratched the surface despite our apparent growth... with almost no marketing we are seeing strong brand recognition in tier II and III towns... we want women to buy their entire lingerie drawer from us" she adds. Deepthi Gohain, an HR manager with a Bengaluru-headquartered IT major, says she shops online because of the convenience of not having to step out, and of being able to compare prices and check reviews online. "If I had to buy a dress from a shop I'd have to visit four or five of them but, online, I can easily check 20-30 options. And there are discounts almost throughout the year. For shopaholics like me, the ease of accessibility is a big reason I shop online." It's also easier to impulse-shop online, she says. Most websites are much better than they used to be earlier. And an easy returns policy is what can build consumer confidence. Fashion ecommerce app Myntra, for instance, is willing to pick up returns the next day, no questions asked. Most etailers, though, have still to get their act together on the returns front. Rahul Taneja, vice-president, category management at Snapdeal, believes online companies need to mimic the setup of offline retailers if they are to successfully reel in women consumers. "Both online and offline, we think that women shoppers compare a lot, are very social with their purchases (sending pictures of interesting options to friends and family by WhatsApp, for example) and take longer than men to decide on purchases," he contends. The online world seems to be coming to grips with these nuances — for example Snapdeal's Shopo unit allows buyers and sellers to interact directly on its platform, to detail and debate product specifications. "We will be introducing more features targeted at women consumers... around the areas of social shopping, bargains and comparisons," he adds. For Prateeksha Sharma, a regulatory affairs manager with a German multinational, buying online began because she didn't want to endure the chaos of Delhi's Nehru Place, a hub for IT peripherals she used to patronise for products such as USB thumb drives. What began with cheaper online purchases evolved to shopping for these drives, and then expanded into apparel and accessories, food, groceries and even electronics. "Most of these ecommerce sites (and apps) have a huge range and a very convenient returns policy, making it really tempting to log on," she says. "Now, there are also sites to compare prices across the board, making ecommerce an even more attractive proposition." Anisha Srinivasan moved to Mumbai a few months ago from Bengaluru and discovered that finding stores in small lanes in a strange city could be a challenge.
And, wading into Mumbai's monsoon for something as small as a soap dish, seemed a foolhardy idea. Instead, the entrepreneur decided to log and clear out her home shopping list—ranging from the soap dish to shoe organisers. "Going online helped me quickly buy products that would have otherwise required a prolonged offline struggle," she says. Having used Amazon Prime when she lived in the US earlier, she's a frequent online window shopper here in India, but says she's yet to find anything of interest here.
A few months ago, a female senior citizen in Pune logged onto Quikr to clear out a bunch of potted plants to make space for her grandchildren in her home. That was her first visit and since then she's logged on a few more times to clear out unwanted goods from her house. Pranay Chulet, founder and chief executive of Quikr, says women shoppers have quickly become the centre of the online used products platform's strategy. "Younger women use Quikr for a makeover, while older ones use it to clear out their stuff," he says. "Women control a large share of spending across categories and several of our initiatives ranging from QuikrNxt (a chat platform to keep contact data confidential) to our latest campaign for our soon-to-be-launched real estate foray are all women-centric." As the benefits of the internet (especially on the mobile) have percolated, Quikr is seeing women from smaller towns and poorer backgrounds use its platform for an assortment of purposes. For example, one woman used it to sell her prize milch cow, Radha, fielding numerous enquiries on her phone, as she tended to the bovine. While she hasn't yet bought a cow online, Kriteeka Saxena has bought a lot else — including groceries, home supplies, apparel, food, white goods and electrical and electronic products.
"The only time to go to a mall is in a dire emergency," declares the digital marketing associate. "Once you know your size and fit, products such as apparel and accessories are a breeze... I even bought decorative lights from a store in Delhi sitting in Bengaluru, so there's no reason not to be online."
With many sites also proffering a no-questions-asked-refund policy, her online shopping is only likely to increase. "Many brands seem to stock a wider range these days online... this, combined with the promise of rapid delivery, makes these options more compelling," she adds. Vineetha Chandy, director of SpecsCraft, a soon-to-belaunched online eye-wear retailer, buys clothes, shoes, diapers and other baby products and electronics online. "I shop for clothes online because of the deals," she says. "It's also easier to find more sizes on ecommerce sites.
Otherwise, I'd prefer to buy clothes after browsing in a mall and trying them on ... Impulse shopping is definitely easier because you keep browsing sites and might up end up buying something you like." She also questions the app-only stance of Myntra and some other ventures. "Myntra being app-only is inconvenient — if the same product is available for the same price on (a traditional website of ) Jabong, I'll buy it from there because you can see it on a bigger screen," she adds.
Company executives admit women consumers are initially hard to please, but maybe a strong long-term bet. For example, Flipkart's Vasudev says that men typically look at no more than five options during a browsing sessions, according to the company's estimate, while women look at least 10 to 12 variants in the same time. Even if women do make a purchase, return rates are higher (as much as 30-40% more for women, as per industry estimates), which again means women try out far more options than men. Technology is expected to play a key role in bringing more women to these sites and apps. Rather than an assorted jumble of products, ventures such as Flipkart, Snapdeal, Limeroad and Zivame are leaning on analytics and algorithms to try to read the mind of the women consumer. "What you see is different from the options your friend sees... based on location, purchases and browsing history, we can now more accurately tailor products for our women consumers," says Vasudev of Flipkart. This kind of detailing may be of interest to Lavanya Akarsh, an architect in Bengaluru, who has expanded her online shopping from accessories and apparel to books, groceries, food and even electronics. A seasoned shopper, Akarsh says she has quickly tired of the sameness with wares sold in malls. "You get a sense of freshness and exclusivity when you shop online because they have a far larger catalogue and some sites such as ASOS and Koovs offer products which aren't otherwise available offline," she contends. Ecommerce executives also believe that the internet is allowing a large group of previously disconnected women to get networked — thanks to the mobile phone. For example, Flipkart's Vasudev says the company sold over a million sarees in nonmetro cities during its Big Billion Sale. Other executives too say that bringing women online has thrown up some interesting nuggets of information.
The Northeast Factor
While Snapdeal too claimed to be selling two sarees a second at the peak of its festival sale, it also discovered that its largest percentage of women shoppers came from the northeast — a function of both a healthier gender ratio in the region and more women getting online for the first time. "We are focusing on building the right assortment and merchandise to attract picky women shoppers," says Taneja of Snapdeal. "To be sticky customers, women demand more creative inputs with what's in fashion, design cues and other style inputs." Elsewhere Quikr, the online seller of used goods, discovered that 80-85% of its users over the age of 55 are women.
It isn't just the nuances that attract women shoppers. Multiple industry executives say women tend to be fairly selective with their online destinations, but demand the moon of these sites and apps. "Women demand almost infinite discoverability and freshness... every month, we have 30 lakh new looks on Limeroad," says the firm's founder and chief executive Mukherjee. "We are building a business that is all about freshness on steroids." She claims that Limeroad has slowly grasped the intricacies of dealing with picky women consumers and browsers use its app at least 10 times a month — well higher than the industry average. "We have already made deep inroads into the fashion segment and believe we have a loyal following," she adds. "We want to use this strong base to consider a move into other women-centric markets such as home furnishings and wellness." Backed by around $45 million in VC funding (its most recent round in May this year), Limeroad thinks reservations over touch and feel will be trumped by discoverability of new styles and products. Despite the bubbling enthusiasm of the likes of Limeroad's Mukherjee and her peers, avid shoppers argue that these companies are far from the finished piece. For example, some shoppers such as Ramya Mudaliar, a homemaker in Mumbai, say that product descriptions are vague and shoppers are left to use their imagination while making purchases. "Product descriptions could be a lot more specific in this industry... if you're buying something online, you want as much detail as possible, not as little," says Mudaliar. "Is this material thick or thin, is this apparel suitable for summer or spring ... these finer details could make or mar an online purchase." Even before you get to the buying bit, other shoppers think the browsing could do with a rethink. Akarsh, the architect in Bengaluru, thinks that user interfaces for many of these ecommerce ventures are too cluttered and do more harm than good for these companies' prospects. "I'd like to shop online and want a curated and orderly list of options... most sites today bombard you with options and that's a massive turn off if you shop regularly," she explains. Srinivasan, the budding entrepreneur in Mumbai tends to agree. "There need to be more specific instructions on areas like product storage or cleaning and washing that ecommerce companies could give women," she adds. Sharma in Delhi too piles on. "You are bombarded very clumsily with options," she complains. Online women shoppers also agree that product returns, often used as a way to get women hooked, cut both ways.
While some companies have a smooth returns policy (picking up products as quickly as the next day), others are slower and even involve a trip to the local post office. Uniformly, this inertia with returns prickles women consumers. "I don't like the returns policy across most sites ... it involves multiple phone calls and a waste of time ... if I buy a piece of furniture and it takes me ten days to have it returned or replaced, I am stuck sitting on the floor," she says. With the opportunity to switch loyalties just a flick of the finger away, ecommerce companies will need to go out of their way to pander to India's demanding online women shoppers.
Wearing the Pants
In a market dominated by men, the furniture and home decor space stands out. According to executives in this segment, shopping is essentially a joint decision, taken by a family or a couple together and women are highly involved and even lead browsing and purchases, unlike personal consumption categories such as apparel and even electronics, furniture and home decor tends to be a fairly gender-neutral market, says Ashish Goel, cofounder of Urban, cofounder of Urban Ladder, a leading player in this category. Rather than gender, nuances emerge elsewhere. For example, women shoppers come to sites such as Urban Ladder with more references, while men tend to form their ideas and opinions online. Social media, especially Facebook, Intagram and more recently Pinterest play a vital role in decisionmaking for women. Interestingly, in Urban Ladder's case, mobile devices play an important role in attracting women shoppers. "On our mobile app, 75% of shoppers are women ... on the tablet, for every 100 men browsing, we will have 200 women," says Goel. "The conversion rate is also 40-50% higher for women." He admits that Urban Ladder (and indeed its rivals) have their work cut dealing with women shoppers online. "They demand a lot more in terms of design, colour and the latest trends...men mostly focus on function over form," he adds. The, the etailer is trying to overhaul its logistics to ensure not just safety of its women customers but also prompt-delivery — and returns — of products sold on its platform to choosy women. "We want 75% of our products delivered in five days," Goel claims.