As technology evolves, retail everywhere in the world today cannot be confined into the boundaries of e-commerce or physical shopping. Customers are telling retailers that they want to shop in a variety of ways and across a variety of channels. Sometimes it’s more convenient for a customer to go to a store. Sometimes it’s more convenient to purchase online. Sometimes it’s more convenient on your phone or your desktop computer. And sometimes it’s convenient to tell Alexa what you want.

We are already seeing that shopping is no longer a linear process that fits in a specific box. Customers are telling retailers that they want to shop in a variety of ways and across a variety of channels. For instance, discovery or price comparison can happen online and the purchase made offline, or browsing can happen in a store and the final order placed online. Further, customers can now order online and do the pick-up offline or vice versa. When the customer has a choice, he will opt for what is most convenient for him.

In India, ecommerce has potential to open up access for both customers and sellers in some of the smallest parts of the country to make for a great multiplier impact.

Our vision is to transform how India buys and sells and in the process, work closely with the local small business ecosystem to empower them while ensuring seamless customer experience. What we want to do is make it easy for customers to find, discover and buy whatever they’re looking for whenever they’re looking for it. In India, we have currently started with ecommerce and it is a great inclusive and unifying force and we also find physical ways to reach out to the customers with programs such as Amazon Easy or I Have Space, especially for new-to-online customers. We will continue to remain focused on fulfilling customer needs and offering differentiated customer experiences.

The future shopper

First, we continue to focus on what will not change - the Amazon strategy is based on the three pillars that we believe will remain important to customers everywhere and in future – selection, convenience and pricing. There could be changes in how we deliver these but we believe these would remain the most important of customer requirements.

However, the next two hundred million users from Tier-2, 3 and 4 cities in India will not be internet savvy, will prefer voice interfaces over text, will prefer vernacular languages over English, and will access the internet using their mobiles. To get these users to shop on Amazon, we will need to build new shopping experiences centered around voice conversations in a manner that is most convenient for customers to shop. Organised physical retail cannot realistically reach many of these locations and online shopping experiences centered around voice conversations in a manner that is most convenient for customers to shop is the need.

Just having a conversation with a voice assistant and AI will help find the right product without even opening the actual shopping site.

Non-transactional, device-agnostic and tech-enabled

Different retail formats are mutating and even blending. For instance, ecommerce sites now have detailed videos that showcase a product from every angle. For instance, in the US, Amazon is piloting with AR View, integrating Augmented Reality (AR) into ecommerce, customers can ‘see’ how a piece of furniture will look in their living room or a piece of clothing on them.

An Udaan point with a customer
Getting the flavour of online shopping at an offline Amazon Easy point

Then there are two different kinds of physical touchpoints we are experimenting across geographies, to meet different kinds of customer requirements. In India, we have experimented with assisted shopping models where a less internet savvy customer takes the help of a store manager or owner to place an order online, like we do under Amazon Easy. On the other hand, there has been much curiosity and interest for how advanced technology is creating stores of the future, like the Amazon Go stores. Amazon Go is a unique concept where checkout-free shopping experience is made possible by the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning. To enter the store, customers use their Amazon Go app and can then put their phone away. Once in the store, anything customers take off the shelf is automatically added to their virtual cart. Anything they put back on the shelf comes out of their virtual cart. When they’re done shopping, they can just walk out.

A man and a woman walk in front of the Amazon Go store in Seattle, WA.
Images of Amazon's Seattle, Washington, campus, in both the downtown and South Lake Union neighborhoods. (JORDAN STEAD / Amazon)
Photo by JORDAN STEAD/(JORDAN STEAD / Amazon)

Also, shopping is increasingly device agnostic. A customer does not have to be in front of a computer or toggle between different apps and menus. Just having a conversation with a voice assistant and AI will help find the right product without even opening the actual shopping site. This embedded-into-life shopping becomes even more relevant as shopping moves away from being a chore as personalised monthly lists, proactive notifications and smart AIs ensure that products, especially routine purchases, are ordered before or just as the need arises, like when the detergent is about to run out!

Another oft forgotten aspect is how financing or credit plays an important role in shopping decisions. Digital footprints of buyers have increased manifold in recent years. At the same time, technology tools are able to analyse customer data and match a customer with the most appropriate and affordable EMI and credit options in real time digitally. Such offerings will serve as an incentive for the next set of online shoppers.

What’s challenging but exciting about building out the ecommerce business in India is the scale it offers. Retail is so big and diversified that finally what matters are differentiated experiences, and remaining focused on customers and invention – finding locally relevant ways to reach out to the remotest parts of the country, unleashing the country’s entrepreneurial energy and manufacturing potential, enabling customers and small businesses through technology. In India, e-commerce has potential to open up access for both customers and sellers in some of the smallest parts of the country to make for a great multiplier impact. Indian ecommerce is all about using technology at scale for problems that are unique to India. We have really heartwarming stories of customers from as far-flung places likeLeh-Ladakh or Spiti Valley or Majuli Island in Assam or Andamans now able to access a huge selection of products that makes their lives easier and better. But it’s still day 1 for e-commerce in India and we are excited by what’s possible.

(This article was first published in the May 2019 edition of the Indian Merchant Chamber of Commerce (IMC) Journal)