Thursday 13 June 2019

Online shopping goes live to tap the untapped

Online shopping goes live to tap the untappedMs Sitara is trying to sell a Pyramid clasp sling bag for ₹399. Together with a friend, she painstakingly describes the bag’s features, carefully demonstrating its “ease on the shoulder”. In another stream, Ms Diva shows off her red top, which she explains gives you a “modern” look, besides being best suited for the summer. It’s a brief, 29-second video, but look closer to the bottom right of the screen, and you will see a ‘Buy Items’ icon.

In many ways, this is a throwback to the 90s, when teleshopping networks occupied prime slots on cable television. Except today, all of this is happening on a 75-dayold app called BulBul, which has quietly started offering a different take on how ecommerce could be done in India: content-led, compared to product-led.

BulBul was founded in November 2018 by Sachin Bhatia, former MakeMyTrip cofounder, Atit Jain, cofounder of medicine-delivery startup Pluss, and Sichen Sianna Liu, a former senior executive at Chinese short-video company Kwai. The fledgling app could soon be competing against SimSim, a recently launched app founded by former Paytm senior executives Amit Bagaria and Saurabh Vashishth, and Kunal Suri, formerly of Foodpanda. EkAnek Networks, founded by former Airtel Wynk CEO Kartik Sheth, is also involved.

While these are early days for live-streaming ecommerce, or “live commerce” as it is known in China, the opportunity to take online shopping beyond the first 100 million users is what these companies are excited about.

Video-first Audience
Bagaria of SimSim says, “Ecommerce in India still caters to a very small consumer base. Not more than 30-35 million users shop online on a frequent basis (more than 3-4 times/ year). And even this small base shops only for a limited set of categories. Categories like accessories, unbranded fashion, home & kitchen, beauty & personal care have not taken off online at all.”


At the heart of this growing interest in live commerce are the tailwinds that favour access, content, and transaction — all of which have been solved by different players. The content piece primarily caters to what is called a “video-first” audience, found largely beyond the metros. These are also language-first users, who primarily interact with the Internet on their smartphones in their native language. And livestreaming, over the last two years, has emerged as a major source of entertainment for these users. Thank Bigo Live.

“These users do not necessarily read product descriptions. They like to be spoon-fed with information about the product,” says a person familiar with BulBul’s plans who requested anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media. Even as Flipkartand Amazon have tried taking the language route, they have largely offered transliteration, which is far from contextual. “For instance, a deal is called ‘sauda’, which is [too] literal,” the person adds.

Traditional ecommerce platforms are self-serve models and are intimidating for the first-time user, says Bagaria, almost akin to walking into a large warehouse and trying to find out what exactly they want. “It’s a difficult process to discover the right products for your needs. Offline, you end up talking to the shopkeeper, the salesperson, and the community around you. That’s how you discover what you want to buy. This process is very difficult online and it needs to change. It has to be close to what happens offline.”


BulBul hosts anything between 25 and 30 streams a day, between 12 in the afternoon and 6 in the evening, five days a week. Currently, it offers five categories including “home and kitchen”, “beauty and cosmetics”, “apparel”, “health and gadgets”, and “jewellery and bags”.

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