A. Nair, Yourstory
5 February 2016
a couple of years ago, the idea of hyperlocal services in Tier
II cities would have been unthinkable. The whole point of hyperlocal
services is instant gratification. A comparatively slower pace
of life, poor Internet penetration, and a reluctance to adapt
technology were expected to be roadblocks for such services. But
the startup boom that India has witnessed over the past few years
has ensured that some daring entrepreneurs have ventured into
these untapped markets beyond the metros.
Of course, this does not mean that they have had a smooth ride.
The biggies who entered Tier II cities have had to remodel themselves,
while local startups are struggling to find funding for scaling.
Then, there were other setbacks. Online grocery app Grofers pulled
out of nine cities Ludhiana, Bhopal, Kochi, Coimbatore,
Vishakapataman, Mysore, Bhubaneshwar, Nashik, and Rajkot
in January 2016 due to lower-than-expected uptake. A few weeks
ago, restaurant discovery and food ordering platform Zomato also
shut down its online ordering service in four Tier II cities
Lucknow, Kochi, Coimbatore, and Indore owing to the small
market there. Understanding the market and devising strategies
for each city have proved essential for the survival of these
players whether it is in online groceries, or logistics,
or tech-based service providers.
Tier II has its own advantages
An undeniable advantage in Tier II cities is that the market
is unorganised compared to Tier I cities. But B2B logistics will
grow regardless of who runs the consumer-facing show. Puneet Chauhan,
Business Development Manager at Bangalore-based logistics startup
Parcelled, says: The Tier II market is untapped except for
in FMCG. Of course, logistics is always in demand in metros and
Tier II cities, but customers are very loyal in Tier II cities.
Parcelled gets about 10,000 orders via B2B and B2C logistics services
from the four Tier II cities they serve in. They provide intercity
and intra-city services for their clients, which include e-commerce
majors like Flipkart, Jabong, Zivame, Lenskart, and Paytm.
However, in the B2C business, the one factor that boosts hyper
local services in Tier II cities is the growth of the city, bringing
in a more urbane tech savvy population. Keralas capital
city Thiruvananthapuram had the first IT park in the country,
yet it has no shopping malls. Shan M Hanif, Co-founder of online
grocery store Kada, says: The techie population must feel
a bit lazy after a hectic week at work; but since there are not
a lot of options for outings, they do grocery shopping on some
weekends. However, they prefer ordering online on weekdays.
Coincidentally, Hubli a Tier II city and the largest after
Bangalore in Karnataka has also seen hyperlocal startups
mushrooming. The city is awaiting an international airport; yet
labour is 70 per cent cheaper than Bangalore. Three-month old
startup Freshboxx which delivers organic fruits and vegetables
to the customers doorstep has had the advantage of
a cheaper labour force too. Founder Rohan Kulkarni says: We
could move to metro cities too, but there are many hyperlocal
startups already. I first want to move to other Tier II cities
namely Belgaum, Dharwad and Karwar and then Goa,
where nothing is really cultivated.
Despite the growth in industry and economy, startups in Tier
II cities still face basic problems. Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive
at Third Eyesight management consultancy, says: Smaller
cities often lack the demand concentration that is needed to create
a critical mass, which can over time provide the foundation to
build a profitable business. Its a long runway of growth
(rather than a rocket-launch), as consumer demand grows across
the country over the next decade, and online transactions become
According to Saurabh Kumar, Co-founder of online grocer Grofers,
although Tier II cities have potential, it will take time to grow
to accommodate multiple players. Currently, it is in a nascent
stage as people still prefer to go shopping themselves. We might
go back [to Tier II cities] after some time; but even then, it
is not likely that the customer behaviour will change to shop
only online or only go out, he says. Incidentally, Zomato
had also said that they would re-launch in the cities where they
have shut down when the time is right. He added that
the assortment of products is important in getting the customers
attention. Grofers is now standardising their inventory, with
their merchants ensuring separate stock in every city.
The key to the success of these services, of course, is customers
being willing to shop online. Tanutejas Saraswat, CEO and Co-founder
at ShopKirana, Indores first e-grocery portal, says: The
change of behaviour among customers was difficult to bring about.
But since expenses are generally low here, we are able to provide
lower prices with no losses. Curiously, Fresboxx gets orders
on their website with payments made in Bangalore for delivery
in Hubli. People who live in metros get it done for their
family in Hubli. About 250 orders out of 600 in a month comes
in this category, says Rohan.
But for long-term success, Devangshu says hyperlocal web platforms
need to rapidly build critical mass, not only on the consumer
side but also in terms of merchant-recruitment. Both these
are expensive and resource-intensive, which few companies can
manage together, while also building fulfilment capabilities that
are cost-efficient, he adds.
Marketing strategies: to each ones own
In hyperlocal services, marketing strategies depends on each citys
consumer behaviour. According to Big Basket Co-founder Hari Menon,
it is a matter of convenience vs assortment. He says: In
Tier II cities, people are looking forward to going out
including grocery shopping. The convenience factor does not work
there. So what can drive online grocery service is a range of
items that they have to go outside the city to buy. Hari
believes that Tier II residents are quite aspirational, and money
is not a constraint for them. Big Baskets express delivery
service, which delivers in an hour in Tier I cities, is not available
in Tier II cities. Their best performing Tier II city Mysore-
gets 150 orders daily.
Additionally, while the primary mode of marketing in metros is
newspaper ads and hoardings, direct interaction with customers
would work better in Tier II cities, says Saurabh. For making
even the lower income classes comfortable with the idea of buying
online, vernacular content will help. In fact, Freshboxx is now
building its app, which will be available in Kannada, Hindi, and
However, e-commerces major attraction discounts-
may not work in grocery and food tech. For instance, in Kerala,
customers seldom care about discounts. Shan of Kada says: They
look for the best quality and customer service. Localisation is
essential here as the online buzz is not as great as it is in
For logistics player Parcelled, marketing is not a headache.
Puneet says: Our customers are not comfortable with apps;
so our marketing channel is the good old telephone. In addition,
we let them choose a convenient time for last mile deliveries
and reverse pick up even on Sundays in Tier I and
Tier II cities. The best performance among its Tier II cities
is in Surat, which boasts of large-scale textile industry.
The one big trouble bothering all the hyper local startups focused
on Tier II cities is the lack of sufficient funding. Kada aims
to focus on Tier-II and Tier-III cities, with an initial plan
to expand in Kollam, Kochi, Thrissur and Calicut since
these cities require lesser investment and personnel, and then
other South Indian states. But despite being the only player in
the sector in Kerala, raising series A has been a hard task for
them. Shan says: They need more traction; so we are launching
some new deals by March, and building on our tech-side too. Hopefully,
they will see the potential then. We already get about 1,800 orders
Rohan of Freshboxx also says that they are now struggling in a
non-responsive market, and hence are outsourcing each order for
cost cutting. We need serious funding to scale up in Tier
II and Tier III cities, he says. Being a pioneer in the
field, Rohan hopes, will give them an advantage. We are
the only player here providing fresh, germ-free fruits and vegetables.
We have even educated our farmers on this, he says. He claims
that cost of customer acquisition is zero, and 90 per cent are
It is a classic tale of survival of the best, it seems. Over
the last year or so, investors have turned skittish about pouring
in funds into businesses that have no demonstrable path-to-profit,
says Devangshu. He adds that most of the current hyperlocal providers
wont survive, unless they change their business models.
Customer re-acquisition also cost a lot, he says. Discounts
may not get loyalty quick, reliable delivery will.
(Published in Yourstory)