When Amazon decided to enter the Indian e-commerce market, it was clear from the outset that something would have to give. That something was the very business model that had made Amazon an internet powerhouse in the U.S.
Amazon.com debuted as an online bookstore in 1994. Founder Jeff Bezos’s initial business model was fairly simple: Source a single product type from wholesalers and publishers and sell it directly to consumers on the then fledgling internet. Thanks to Bezos’s vision and a highly successful, user-friendly website, by 1997 Amazon.com was the first online retailer to boast one million customers. As the company added more titles and expanded its product line, it developed an ecosystem rooted in the wholesale purchase of goods; huge, strategically located fulfillment centers; and contracts with national and regional carriers who shipped its products throughout the U.S. and to other countries.
A decade into the new millennium, India, with its billion-plus people and largely untapped e-commerce market, beckoned. The country posed a classic case of good news, bad news. The good news included a very young populace — more than 65% under age 35 — rising levels of disposable income, and ubiquitous cell phone ownership (80% of the population, by one estimate).
The bad news: 67% of the population lives in rural areas characterized by an underdeveloped infrastructure. Only about 35% of India’s population is connected to the internet. Cash, not credit cards or checking accounts, is still the rule. And, determined to protect its own, India enacted a rigid FDI policy restricting foreign multibrand retailers from selling directly to consumers online. That meant any venture would basically be a third-party seller for Indian-made products.
Challenges, possibly even hurdles, for Amazon, but not insurmountable ones — they just required an innovative business model, beginning with finding products to sell.
There is no shortage of goods produced by Indians, but most vendors in the country are small. Three years ago, relatively few retailers there sold their products online because they believed e-commerce to be too complex and time consuming. And India’s cash economy did not facilitate online transactions.
To respond to these challenges, after launching its Indian website in 2013, Amazon developed a program to recruit an army of suppliers and convince them it was a trustworthy partner that could help them increase the market for their products. Amazon wheeled out a program called Amazon Chai Cart: mobile tea carts that navigated city streets, serving refreshments to small-business owners while teaching them the virtues of e-commerce. The Chai Cart team reportedly traveled more than 9,400 miles across 31 cities and engaged with more than 10,000 sellers. To help these sellers get online quickly and address their objections to e-commerce, last year Amazon created Amazon Tatkal, a self-described “studio on wheels” that provides a suite of launch services, such as registration, imaging, cataloging, and sales training.