Kishore Biyani, CEO Future Group, reboots for the digital era, the online furniture retailer acquired by Kishore-Biyani-led Future Group, was relaunched with a fresh campaign and a slew of deals. It marks a new chapter in the evolution of the group, which is best known for kicking off the modern retail revolution in India a decade ago.

However, when Biyani, 54, laid his hands on the Rocket-Internet-promoted company last month, it did come as a surprise. The Marwari businessman has been a fierce critic of the e-commerce business model in India, saying it is designed to lure consumers with discounts with little focus on profits.

That moment appears to have arrived. Fabfurnish is his first acquisition but more such deals could be in the offing. “I am not closed to the idea,” he says. “I will do it selectively and ensure our investments make money,” he adds.

It is clear the lines between physical and virtual shopping are blurring for him. He said he plans to merge the group’s home furnishings business under HomeTown with Fabfurnish and subsequently de-merge it from flagship Future Retail.

The goal is to unlock value and make his home furnishings business a stronger enterprise in the face of increased competition. Once the online and offline arms are merged, HomeTown is likely to reach a turnover of Rs 1,000 crore within a year. It closed the last financial year with revenues of around Rs 750 crore.

The driving force

Biyani’s hybrid business model, also called omni-channel retail in industry parlance, is a compulsion, say analysts. With consumers today spread far and wide, brick-and-mortar retailers have been left with no option but to add an online leg to their offline operations in a bid to reach as many customers as possible, and quickly.

Biyani has been at work on an omni-channel presence for a year now, trying to create a seamless and consistent brand experience across his group’s retail channels: bigbazaardirect, and offine stores. Other retailers, including Reliance Retail, Aditya Birla Retail and Shoppers Stop, have also been working on creating an omni-channel presence in recent months.

“The endeavour is to reach more consumer touchpoints and ensure you are there while the action is on. The ultimate objective is customer acquisition. That will mean that you have to go where he or she is,” says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive, Third Eyesight, a consultancy firm.

A recent study by the Retailers Association of India and Mumbai-based data analytics firm Hansa Cequity says that nearly 74 per cent Indians shop across all channels including neighbourhood stores, modern trade outlets and online platforms.

The study also notes that a significant number of these consumers still prefer to touch and feel products before buying, implying therefore that an online-only model is not enough.

Domestic e-tailers have picked up this cue. The top three e-commerce majors -Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon – have all gone offline in the last six to eight months to ensure the “touch and feel” experience is provided to consumers.

Flipkart, for instance, has tied-up with brick-and-mortar retailer Spice Hotspot to provide access to its exclusive range of phones offline. Its fashion arm Myntra is in advanced talks to acquire brick-and-mortar chain Forever 21, which will allow it to stock its online catalogue offline.

The same goes for rival Snapdeal, which has initiated tie-ups with The Mobile Store and Shoppers Stop for mobiles and apparel, respectively. Amazon, too, is tying up with small retailers across the country in a bid to allow consumers with no internet access to shop online in these outlets. It is also setting up Amazon-branded stores offline.

Additionally, the top three e-tailers have pick-up stores offline where consumers who’ve purchased products online can get delivery of their goods.

Dutta says the online-offline retail marriage follows global trends. “E-tailers abroad such as Amazon, Birchbox and Bonobos in the US, Spartoo in France, Astley Clarke in the UK have all opened physical retail stores in recent years. This completes the picture in a sense and plugs gaps if any,” he says.

Social media to retail

Hybrid business models are not restricted to retail alone. Social media giant Facebook recently entered hyper-local services in India, offering everything from medical and repair to business and personal services. Apart from letting users to browse for these services, the initiative also allows them to leave reviews so that other consumers can make the right choice.

Tech giant Google, too, is on a similar adventure. In recent years, it has ventured into making wearable tech devices, mobile phones and is now piloting driver-less cars. This even as it strengthens its presence online with a suite of services from basic search to online advertising, email, chat, browsing and software for phones.

Harish HV, partner (India leadership team), Grant Thornton India, says that hybrid business models for these companies is a way to ring-fence themselves from competition by marking their presence in virtually every space.

This online-offline merger, he says, will mean that these firms will get stronger as they enter new areas. The world is indeed shrinking.

This article was originally published in Business Standard

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