The flip side of convenience


I had earlier written about how hyperlocal grocery delivery folks were affecting the ‘other folks’ who were actually shopping in the super markets. Some of these ‘delivery’ experts were super aggressive in picking up items before us and were trying to beat the lines etc. So while folks who found it convenient to order through them, there were some inconvenience to the others who actually did shop physically.

While one might think that this is an isolated industry and incident, two similar incidents happened to me recently involving two separate companies/industries.

Food delivery: Last week, I stopped by Taco Bell (Sony world, Koramangala, if you must know), to pick up something on the go. I had ordered from the cashiers. There was hardly any crowd. But I waited for a good 15 minutes, because there were three swiggy orders queued up asynchronously in front of me. Yesterday we went to Anand Sweets (Purani Dilli, Koramangala 5th block, again, if you must know :)). We went to eat in. We had ordered just chaat. The food pick up here is by token. I was token number 52, and the running number was 49. Usually, this would have been about 5 mins, but again, it took me a good 20 minutes. Why? Two swiggy ordes again. And again, because it was delivery, it took time to pack. And to ‘beat’ the minimum order for free delivery threshold, folks typically order more. Boom. Double Whammy.

Radio cabs: Today evening, a radio cab almost ran into me. Why? He was busy trying to talk to a customer on the phone trying to understand where to pick him up, look up the same on his map on the phone app, and steer the dang car. Quite naturally, he was doing all three actions sub-optimally.

So now what? Now I am not being the luddite cribbing against technology advances. All I am saying is, are these companies thinking enough about this problem. Should the companies care only about their direct customer satisfaction? Or should they also look at their impact on society, as a bigger picture.

I am sure there are solutions. For the radio cabs problem, this is a solved problem in the US. The geo- problem is solved beautifully there. You call, and the uber is in front of you. No hailing. No telling landmarks. Nothing. I am sure our guys can improve this too.

As for the food delivery problem, one thing that I noticed was that, the guys started preparing the food only after the guy came to the restaurant, while they actually had gotten the order much earlier. Could they do some form of predictive start? I, as a consumer, know where the delivery guy is and how close he is to reaching the restaurant. Can’t swiggy share this out to the restaurant also?

What does everyone think?

Ecommerce kiosks

I had toyed with this idea earlier when I wrote the “Ideas for Bigbasket” post. The idea then was to have these internet enabled kiosks where folks could order stuff from big basket and perhaps even collect stuff from these kiosks/counters. Fundamental premise at that time was this was still for the yuppie crowd, but for those who do not want to sit on a computer and order, and most definitely do not want to wait at home for an order to arrive.

More recently, on reading this article about Flipkart going fully the app way (and most likely closing the route), this idea popped back into my mind. Kiosks as I mention above are probably best served using an android interface, and what better news than an ecommerce provider going fully the app route. (Sure you could do this even if it was not fully the app-route, but this was what caught my attention!).

So, let me try and use my static brain a little here, this fine tuesday morning, to see if I can come with a feature set for a kiosk like this.

1. Kiosks – An ATM like machine with only the ecommerce app loaded on to the screen, where customers can order. There could be one or many depending on the traffic the place sees. This would have to be a secure room such as those found for ATMs. Solid power backup and reliable internet connection would have to be a must. The kiosk must have the capability to be open 24 hours. This gives access for someone to pickup their order even late at night.

2. Positioning of kiosk My thinking has changed since my Bigbasket post. I think this kiosk can be anywhere and everywhere. It just needs to be high traffic. In a place like Bangalore, it could be in the BDA complexes. It could be in the MTC bus depots (like the T.Nagar Depot) in Chennai. It could be in the minimarkets (like Brahmaputra market – Sec 29) in Noida. It could be the megamarkets (such as Sarojini nagar Market) in Delhi. Well, these are the places I have lived for significant periods of time, but you get my drift. This is no longer for the yuppie crowd.

3. Manned vs unmanned kiosks: There could be manned kiosks where registrations can be facilitated by a personnel. These manned kiosks could potentially also take cash payments. Unmanned kiosks would have no personnel and could only be used order and take delivery of items using debit/credit cards. Unmanned kiosks could be 24 hours but manner kiosks could be open for a limited time. No special training for personnel would be required, since a current delivery logistics person could very well be reused to man this job- since the job function is exactly the same – except he does not go door to door, but deliver at a single point.

4. Access and payments would have to be through a card facilitated through the ecommerce company and potentially a bank. These cards could be applied for either online or through a help person sitting in the kiosks. These cards could be either preloaded debit cards or credit cards. Bank faciliated cards would take off a liability from the ecommerce company and help greatly on processing payments. Top up on cards can potentially be made easier with top-up cards similar to the pre-paid phone cards that are very popular now.

5. Pickup The access card could be used to unlock a locker, where orders can be picked up. Perishables have a timeline before which one needs to pick the order up. SMS alerts could be set up for locker opening and closing and when the order is available in the locker for pickup. This locker concept has already been tried out in the US by Amazon and is technically feasible. I do not know how successful the experiment was, but cultural significance matter and we cannot rule out it not working here.

6. Ordering would be easy. The card would authenticate them. They browse and choose the product they want to order. If the pickup location is a manned kiosk, COD would be a possibility, else, it would have to be credit/debit card payments.  The existing UX for the app could very well be reused. The delivery location however could have a default location, which is the kiosk location itself. The customer can choose to order here and deliver elsewhere as well.

Advantages to the ecommerce company:

1. Logistics is simplified to a great extent. It can be potentially much faster, since there just needs to be one trip from the motherhub of a city to the kiosk location. Cost reduces because of this simplification as well.

2. Reach is significantly expanded. People who do not have a stable internet connection at home, or a smart phone with an internet connection can easily order stuff off the web now.

Disadvantages to the ecommerce company:

1. There is one more entity that needs to be managed now – the kiosks.

2. There is always a risk of vandalism and pilferage. This needs to be managed carefully.

Advantages to consumer:

1. Biggest advantage to the user would be in the delivery segment. He does not need to be at home to receive the package. He can go to the kiosk on his way home and pick it up on the go. The yuppie consumer would probably still be using this phone or web to order, but would probably use this delivery mechanism for ease of pickup.

2. For a not-so-yuppie consumer, this could mean, he could order something off the web without using up his bandwidth on his phone or broadband. He could also do this at a location which he frequents daily (such as a bus stop).

3. For the masses, the reach would be huge. Now a much larger section of society would have universal access to anything they want to buy. Until now, the restriction for a large section of our society is to buy whatever is available in the store that is closest to where they live. If it is not available there, then it is not available at all. This could change all that.

Disadvantages to consumer:

1. The only disadvantages that I could probably think off here is adding yet another card for access to this kiosk, and potentially a long line that is waiting for pickup. But these could be easily worked around by introducing swift and efficient workflows.



Flipkart and its growth …

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Disclaimer: These are the thoughts of an engineer who is not fully familiar with the ecommerce domain. So there may be holes in this post, which are predominantly because of my ignorance. I urge the readers/commenters to fill these holes if possible, and I will be indebted to them for improving my knowledge, and showing me the light.

This post is a result of several emails from recruiters that I get that promise me the promised land if I join Flipkart or Myntra or Snapdeal. Note that I am not talking about Amazon in this post, and I will try and mention why, somewhere in this post. The above mentioned three companies are, at this point in time, and to the best of my knowledge, are pure ecommerce businesses.

My definition of pure ecommerce businesses: Online portals which serve as a market place for vendors to hawk their goods online. Customers are spared the ignominy of visiting a dozen websites to get the best deal, rather they go to this one large market place, where they get the ‘best deal’.

My definition of best price and how it is achieved: You may ask (as I did, until I recently read an article online) on how can these vendors can offer these special deals. The online market place offers incentive to these vendors/sellers to come and sell in their market places. If the vendor incurs a loss of Rs. X because he is offering a certain special deal, the marketplaces compensates for this loss. And in some cases, even more so that, the vendor continues to operate in this method (of offering continuous special deals).

My understanding of where the money comes from: The principal source for these moneys to offer to the vendors come from the venture capital funding. I see no other source. There are some fees that the vendors/sellers need to pay, but I would only imagine that to take care of the operational costs (servers, bandwidth etc) and perhaps offset a portion of the salaries.

Ok, now that I have exhausted my understanding of how the business works (and yes I know, this is probably an extremely myopic and 50000ft view), let us talk about my understanding of what goes into making all of this happen – on the technical side (because I am an engineer, you see).

Let us talk about the various components that form running a market place such as Flipkart (or similar others).

Web UI: This involves the actual web page front end. There are three kinds of people involved in getting this together:

UI/UX designers: These are design people. They may or may not code. They talk about fonts, mouse click counts, positioning of advertisements, CSS, positional relevance, cognitive dissonance etc. In short, these people design the front end web page, so that the user can use it with most ease. They also design such that users are persuaded to purchase. And not just purchase anything, sometimes, UX designers can design such that, the users are persuaded to buy what the market place wants you to buy.

UI/UX coders: These are folks who translate what the UI/UX designers mean into actual code. These are engineers who specialize in HTML/CSS/Javascript, perhaps the LAMP stack, and let me just say similar visualization technologies (since there are just too many of them now, a few propping up every few months).

Backend engineers:

The backend engineers probably can be broken down into a few specialists:

DBAs: These are folks who specialize in figuring out how the back end database should be structured – what are the tables? what are the table fields? What are the dependencies between the tables, between the fields? How should the tables be indexed? These are all questions, when answered correctly, results in a beautiful database experience, which guarantees the fastest data-access/response time. This means, when the frontend requests for some data from the DB, it gets it in the shortest amount of time.

Engineers who write the controllers: Theoretically, this can potentially be a separate category outside of backend, but most times, I have seen this to be lumped with the backend. These engineers write the piece of code, which take the input from the frontend, translate it into appropriate queries for the DB, and when the results are thrown back, give it in a appropriate way back to the front end. Mostly a conduit code, but performance and encapsulation is very important here.

Theorists/Algorithm Specialists: These are the people, IMHO, who differentiate the market place company from its competitors. They design prediction algorithms, based on data mining (what they now call big data). They probably design algorithms for pricing as well. Other theoretical areas where the theorists work on are algorithms to speed up information retrieval, techniques to cache data, so that performance of the frontend improves, techniques to make the entire marketplace solid/robust, failover techniques for the DB as well as web sessions etc. These are just a sampling, but I would imagine, an application of this size would throw up several ‘researchy’ challenges.

Mobile: By looking at its analytics, Flipkart has figured out that a majority of the traffic is coming in through the mobile space. This would involve specialized UX designers, and app programmers. Considering that there are three different app platforms (Android, iOS, WindowsPhone), there need to be three different teams doing this.

Platform: While I did mention this fleetingly, if flipkart is indeed taking care of their servers/datacenters, then this is a whole set of engineering challenges that need to be solved. I know this is involved deep work. Google has its own global infrastructure team just to keep the platform going.

Supply Chain: While this could be included in Miscellaneous, I saw that there was a renewed intense push in this direction from Flipkart and others. This is the software that tracks inventory in the fulfillment centers. It is also the software that tracks the delivery and procurement of various goods that are being sold in the market place. With Flipkart, getting into selling perishables (cookies etc), this part of the platform becomes tricky.

Advertisement: I got this from a recent YourStory article that I read. With a recent acquisition of adequity, it looks like Flipkart is getting into the advertisement business as well. The motivation for this, is the huge user base that the market place has now acquired. The large the user base, the more eyeballs, an advertiser can gather. This is ripe for classic captive audience type marketing (example of captive audience marketing – ads inside movie theatres).

Miscellaenous: There could be several misc features that one could imagine to improve the overall experience and robustness of the market place. An example that comes to mind is the ‘zippy’ online payment gateway that flipkart wrote on their own. Instead of outsourcing the payment gateway to one of the thirdparty players such as Citrus, they wrote their own. This is definitely a good thing. They improve their robustness (lesser dependency on a third party) and most likely reduces their expenses too (no fees to be paid to a thirdparty payment gateway).

OK, Now the question which leaves me befuddled:

I keep hearing that Flipkart (or one of the others) are expanding and creating new groups. I also know that Flipkart has established groups for all of the above categories that I mentioned (and probably more that I may have left out!). And I am not even talking about their ebooks business. That is a whole different take. Also, I am talking only about engineers. These businesses have a whole different sales side – vendor acquisitions, price point/deal negotiators, etc.

What more is there for them to grow out on? A market place is a market place. There are some building blocks that they can make better. But what more? 

And now, I will mention, why I explicitly said, I am not talking about Amazon. The US/global Amazon company does a whole lot more than just the market place. They are experimenting with fresh grocery/vegetable delivery. They are experimenting with twitter #hashtag based ordering. They experimented with post office box based collection. So many more things. Some of those are also slowly trickling down to their India subsidiary for local applications. Their recent announcement of Amazon Kirana is one of those – last mile connectivity/delivery from local kirana stores.

I have not really seen Flipkart grow in these adjacencies at all. Or perhaps they are not too public about their experiments – that I am not privy to.

This question on what more are they hiring for, brings a lot of doubt and ambiguity in my mind, every time someone reaches out to me.

If someone has some time and energy, and would like to educate me (via comments or email), I would love to get educated.

Update: I added sections on mobile, advertising, supply-chain, and platform, after getting somewhat more educated. Some of the education came from here.

Product Description in BigBasket

Disclaimer: This is not a paid post. I do have purchased from BigBasket a couple of times. The information contained in the post is my opinion on the way online marketing/retailing is changing.

I got an email in the morning from The email subject was to tout their latest android app. True to the subject, the first section of the email was a banner which described the arrival of their android app.


Nothing special about this. Then it went on to describe the latest deals. Nice bright pictures with their original price and the new deal price.


Again. Nothing special about this. I get atleast a couple of such emails these days.Then comes the kicker.


This seemingly innocuous note about Sona Masoori has more than what meets the eye. Firstly, it invitingly says, “A note by Subramanyam J,National Head, Staples Merchandising”. Intriguing. So I clicked on, and it took me here.

This page gives some very nice information on what is Sona Masoori rice. Where it is grown. Where the original rice comes from. What processing is done on it. And then, it also says, where BigBasket sources this rice from. It then goes on to give the quality metrics that it observes. And the yield. Yes, get that, the yeild. How much cooked rice does a cup of uncooked rice yield?


Wow. You dont get that information from ‘any’ grocer that you visit. Just not possible. This is where online retailing is headed to. And I like it.