How Jeff Bezos lost out to billionaire Ambani in poll-bound India

Bloomberg Mumbai/Bengaluru | Updated on February 05, 2019 Published on February 05, 2019

Jeff Bezos, CEO, Amazon

The rules now bar Amazon and Flipkart Online Services Pvt Ltd from owning inventory and Walmart Inc’s plans to dominate India’s online retail landscape have been ambushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political priorities heading into a tightening election.

The elections, which is scheduled to take place in May, has increased the influence of local retailers that lobbied for growth-crimping curbs on the US giants. On cue, India this month rolled out constraints on foreign e-commerce players including Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart. Both companies, together, control 70 per cent of India’s online shopping.

The tighter rules, aimed at protecting small traders, may end up benefiting the country’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, who is building a home-grown competitor.

Among small businesses, which are a traditional support base, the Government’s popularity has been eroded by 2016’s surprise cash ban and the subsequent chaotic roll out of a new sales tax.

The rules now bar Amazon and Flipkart Online Services Pvt Ltd from owning inventory, and require them to treat all vendors equally, throttling discounts and exclusives -- a huge advantage to homegrown companies including Ambani’s new venture.

His Reliance Industries Ltd, which owns India’s largest retail chain and third-biggest telecom network, has the potential to evolve into a local version of Amazon or Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, UBS AG said last month.

Whether serendipitous or not, India’s tightened regulatory regime for online retailers is a huge win for Reliance with its new retail ambitions, said Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief executive officer of consultancy Greyhound Research. This could be a field leveller for them.

Ambani wants his consumer offerings -- covering telecom, fibre-to-home broadband, media and entertainment and retail -- to contribute nearly as much to the conglomerates overall earnings as its bread-and-butter energy and petrochemicals businesses.

He’s fresh from disrupting the nations telecom sector, which he entered in 2016 with services so cheap that rivals have quit, merged or gone bankrupt, including a carrier controlled by his younger brother.

Unique Model

Ambani had, last year, unveiled plans to create a model that combines Reliance’s consumer offerings into a hybrid, online-to-offline new commerce platform.

Analysts at UBS predict Reliance can gain market share in new-age retail given its starting point of 280 million telecom subscribers, a broadband offering, extensive content and a web of 10,000 stores nation-wide. The company also wants to partner with India’s 12 million mom-and-pop shops to create distribution and delivery centres.

Reliance resembles Alibaba in its ability to offer bundled services in a fast-growing, fragmented market with low online penetration, according to UBS.

In retail/e-commerce, despite competition from well-funded global companies, Reliances wide footprint of physical stores along with its omni-channel focus, subscriber reach and regulations governing foreign e-commerce entities, could help it gain market share, analysts including Mumbai-based Amit Rustagi wrote in a Janurary 24 report.

Representatives for Reliance, Walmart, Amazon and India's commerce ministry didn't respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the US retail giants are being curbed in a market where they have committed billion of dollars and, till recently, looked to have already won.

Both will have to cut back on cash-back payments and discounts -- a sore point for smaller sellers, who accuse the pair of predatory pricing. To meet rules, the companies have also removed thousands of products from virtual shelves, must redraw contacts with merchants and brands as well as brace for a full-fledged e-commerce policy that is under review.

Flipkart’s losses may rise 20 per cent to 25 per cent following the changes, according to Morgan Stanley, which said in a report that it didn’t think Walmart was considering walking away from the investment. The worlds largest retailer is financially and strategically invested in India, analysts including Simeon Gutman wrote, adding that it may make sense to exit if Walmart cant see a long-term path to profits.

Other Setbacks

Walmart has suffered other setbacks: During the course of its Flipkart acquisition and soon after, it lost the co-founders of its new purchase. Their know-how and connections would have helped the U.S. retailer better navigate this latest regulatory wrinkle.

Reliance will probably use the opportunity posed by the governments tighter rules to make a grand entry into e-commerce, said Praveen Khandelwal, national secretary general for the Confederation of All India Traders, a lobbying group that had threatened political repercussions if the February 1 rollout was delayed.

Ambani had last month mapped out the beginnings of his strategy, rolling out a shopping platform to 1.2 million store-owners in western India. As the initiative expands, the company will enlist more neighbourhood shops as distribution and delivery centres for products that will be available on its mobile platform, people familiar with the plans said at the time.

An integrated platform will probably be launched within 18 months, the people had said.

“Our agenda is to ensure a level playing field. Players such as Amazon and Walmart are in a major fix post the new guidelines and they will take time to restructure their operations,” Khandelwal said.

Published on February 05, 2019
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