Washout Or Opportunity: How D2C Startups Have Risen Through the Lockdown
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When I moved back to India seven years ago, the word D2C (direct to consumers) was something that we in India only heard about. E-commerce was still evolving and we were questioning whether consumers would buy categories such as fashion and furniture online. Fast forward today and the world has changed. I remember a time when saying you were an e-commerce brand was viewed as ‘they’re probably not able to crack offline’. Today though, India has hundreds of brands that are digital first and through this lockdown, these disruptors have come out even stronger.
As the lockdown began, I thought it was doomsday. Like all other businesses we put the shutter down and went to the place that most entrepreneurs only see nightmares about—zero revenue. While this period started with fear, anxiety and stress, it also allowed us to do some introspection. I began to feel it was a washout but, opportunities started creeping through. Consumption was fundamentally changing—or at least it seemed to have changed for the short term. India was seen as a market where a large section of the population still wasn’t ‘e-commerce friendly’. This section of consumers (including my parents) fear credit cards, don’t trust online payments and prefer to go to a store to shop. Even though they know I run an online brand, they were yet to complete their first transaction on Amazon or Google Pay.
In the early part of the lockdown, supply chains were rocked and business was completely disrupted. But with this, came a new paradigm of consumption. Contact became a negative word as brands completely evolved the models and ways to reach their consumers. While D2C brands eagerly awaited the opening up of non-essentials (for us fortunately, we did not have to wait for this), there was a huge pent up demand in consumers. Uber and Ola began to be used for hyperlocal deliveries, pop up stores came to buildings and the word ‘essential’, ‘immunity’ and ‘new normal’ became new everyday conversation items. While this changes in larger consumption patterns continued, what happened by itself was the creation of new habits.
As I mentioned earlier, my parents were the ‘non e-commerce friendly’ consumers. They were the ones that stayed as far away as they could from digital transactions to the extent that even using Makemytrip (or any other OTA) and Bookmyshow was out of their purview. As the lockdown hit us, both my parents realized that life had fundamentally changed. My mother now knew that the only way for her to pay for bread and eggs was through Google Pay and thus, she was forced to set up online banking (which she hadn’t done till date) and set up her accounts. Similarly, my father loves to cook and the easiest and most contactless place to buy these ingredients was online. Even though his son and daughter-in-law run an e-commerce business, he had never placed an order for a product online himself. This had to change and he learned how to use Amazon during the lockdown. A couple of days ago, I heard him on the phone talking to the customer care team of an online website about how his delivery had crossed the TAT and he wasn’t getting the correct tracking information on their website.
While these examples from my parents seem like anecdotes, the reality is that there are hundreds of thousands (even possibly millions) of consumers who will be forced to exhibit ‘leapfrog’ behavior through these times. It will create a huge addition to the online-friendly population of the country and the addressable market for digital first and D2C brands. Through this time, brand themselves have seen and understood this trend and adapted. As a brand that focusses on our own website, I have seen so many more brand owners because this has now become their focus too. Brands have started investing heavily in customer experience, UI/UX and increased digital contact with their customer set in lieu of physical.
When I moved back to India, brands were made through complex and nuanced distribution networks. Today, brands are still built by these networks but, the advent of digital has allowed a new class of brands to evolve. While the last five years may have been the creation of the D2C ecosystem in India, I strongly believe that this is the inflection point and I will state one example—in the last month my father graduated from shopping just on Amazon to clicking on a brand’s Facebook ad and buying Masala Quinoa directly from their own website. As a D2C founder told me a few days ago, “this is our time…”