Are all smartphones in India sold online? Not really. This is something which should come as a surprise to the cyber-savvy buyers of gadgets and gizmos.
A study from Google, published in 2012 but still relevant, says that 70 percent of Indians decide about the brand and variant during an online search before going to a retail store.
Although the study was done in major cities and would have sampled a few people researching online before going shopping offline, both the parameters -- the number of people researching online as well as coming prepared with their choices -- must have gone up considerably by now, especially for a category like smartphones.
Smartphone sales haven't crossed 40 percent through online channels in any of the best seasons so far in the country. There are still limitations to online channels in India.
Research Online Purchase Offline (ROPO) is no alien concept to the smartphone industry. This is an established trend how smartphones are purchased across the globe, including in India.
In 2017, one of the key focus areas for all emerging smartphone brands has been to expand offline (the latest example being Xiaomi which has a great online presence but is now trying to make inroads into the offline segment).
With smartphone purchases being mostly replacement or upgrades in nature, exposure to online research has increased, making ROPO impact even stronger in India.
In such a scenario, will the massive offline expansion plans help smartphone manufacturers?
The biggest challenge in the offline space would be to mirror the exact online availability of models. Online is just a catalogue, be it Flipkart or Amazon, and with a robust logistics back-end, a person can choose any model, variant and colour and that will be delivered as per the shipping policy, irrespective of from which warehouse the online seller has to deliver.
This is not going to be the case in offline. There are going to be situations, especially when a brand has several variants in specifications and colours, where the particular model and variant for which a buyer visits the store may not be available.
ROPO could efficiently be taken care of by handful of brands like Apple, Google and OnePlus, where the users are evolved, models and variants are few and inventory can be exactly mapped offline.
For other mass-market brands, it's going to be challenging. This becomes even more significant in a case where buyers tend to be impatient and would not want to visit the store again till the retailer arranges for the desired model and variant.
Streamlining the lag between availability of a new launch throughout the length and breadth of the country via offline is also going to be challenging to match the online expectations. This may eventually lead to a different connotation of ROPO with regard to the India market -- Recce Offline Purchase Online.
What usually stops someone researching online from clicking that 'Buy' button would be an interesting research to undertake.
As offline expands, should the online players like Flipkart and Amazon be worried? To a certain extent, because the brand that was so far enticing people to purchase online with discounts and other offers would not tell buyers to visit stores.
Creating smartphone experience zones also won't help much because it wouldn't make sense for someone to experience a smartphone offline and then buy it online.
What are the options for e-tailers like Flipkart and Amazon?
What they and others could do is to take the showcase right to the doorsteps. A prospective buyer can select a few models that are in his/her zone of consideration.
The delivery boy could be doubled up as a brand in-store promoter, answering queries from the buyer. For more technical queries, a video call could be initiated with the technical sales executives. Once the buyer is fully convinced, he or she may purchase the smartphone.
A single channel won't work for any brand. It has to be an omni-channel approach that is going to bring sales. However, as ROPO is triggering expansion into offline, the online mediums also have to look into reasons why the final call is not made in the cyber domain.
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