In a commerce class in school, I was taught that the point of a business is to earn a profit. Online retail startups have certainly caused me to question this notion.
Money, money everywhere; not a cent to be earned!
I find it quite amazing that there is immense investor confidence in a business that is unable to turn a profit even with millions of users on board. The best (perhaps the only) analogy for the current online retail scenario would be the airline industry.
When airlines started flying people in the 40’s; there was a lot of excitement about growth opportunities, and the loss-making nature meant that governments owned most airlines – more as status symbols rather than viable businesses. Eventually, private companies got into the game and operating running airlines as well. At the time, it was believed that with increasing connectivity between several cities as well as an increasing number of people using airlines, it was expected to become a viable business and a profitable business. But, as time progresses, we can see that this expectation has not been met. On every occasion, other reasons have been blamed for the lack of profitability in the sector: SARS, 9/11, hijacking, disappearing planes, and so on. Nonetheless, airlines have not been able to consistently turn a profit. This has resulted in many mergers and acquisitions, amalgamations, and even bankruptcy.
The only type of airlines that have been successful are the ones which have specialised in a very specific segment (corporate/business customers) or geographical region. The sad consequence is that one of the bigger airlines always acquires the profitable operation and tries to scale it, resulting in its inevitable decline.
Online retail, by comparison, is a far more recent phenomenon. Ideally, it should be compared with retail, which is what it promises to replace. To date, the success (in turnover) of online retail has relied on discounting. Walmart also relies on discounting, and by relying on any means necessary (paying extremely low wages, providing hard terms to manufacturers, etc.), they have managed to run a business that is highly profitable.
With Flipkart securing a funding of $1 billion, followed instantly by Amazon announcing to pump $2 billion, there has been a lot of commentary about online retail and the opportunities that lie ahead.
I think the point of a business is to create value, and that value creation results in profits. A retailer makes it easier for you to explore a multitude of products, compare brands and buy them. The online retail industry provides nearly the same service offering, along with the added convenience of being able to shop from home. The only difference is that the retailer sources the goods at a lower price than the one at which it is sold to you. Unfortunately, the selling price of products on online retail platforms is lower than their purchase price.
Is it not amazing how similar the profitability trends seem? Essentially, there is none.
US Airways Vs. Amazon
Different industries, same struggle.
Now, I understand that for certain businesses, in order to be profitable, you need to have a minimum base of customers. Social Networks are shining examples of how that works. Having said that, if you cannot make something work profitably with 20 million customers, how will ramping that number up to 100 million make any difference? Even if you do make a profit, the margins are going to be in the low single digit percentages. I find it hard to justify investing billions of dollars to generate a profit in the millions (and most likely tens of millions, and not hundreds).
This chart sourced from an IATA’s 2013 report shows how well the returns have worked out for the airline industry. Investor value destruction!
I believe the online retail industry is headed the same way, at least from the point of view of “all-under-one-roof” retailers.
Similar to the case of airlines, there is some oasis of hope. There are online retail firms, not unlike the airline industry, which specialise in a very narrow segment of product offerings. DollarShaveClub, Bonobos, NastyGal, Diapers.com, and closer home, Myntra.com, are examples of models that work well. Unfortunately, similar to the airline industry, these smaller firms, which will never have very high turnovers, are acquired by larger players, since it makes for a nice press release and helps keep investors at bay. At the time of acquisition, the larger firm tries to “integrate the business” and benefit from the “synergies”, and end up running the business to the ground. If they leave it alone, it may just work – it has shown success in its current form after all! This has happened time and again in the airline industry; it remains to be seen how it plays out in online retail.
So why the investments? Well, if we come back to Flipkart, the investors invest a large sum of money into the company because it furthers the company’s chances of an IPO. If the company is sitting on $500 million in cash in 12 months’ time and files for IPO, they will certainly be able to sell through the IPO and exit neatly. The CEO, on behalf of the investors, made clear the hopes that would be sold to IPO investors – A $100 billion valuation. So, even if they project a $20 billion valuation at the time of listing, which would be close to three times the valuation at which the funds were raised (if rumours are to be believed); as compared to $100 billion, it will still appear as though there is still more value to be unlocked. And as far the current investors are concerned, 300% in 12 months is not too bad a deal, is it?
If Amazon were to be used as a benchmark, the possibility of running an online retail business with decent profit margins seems remote. To add to that, Amazon itself has always been ready to enter into a price war with anyone who strays into its territory, since its investors seem quite satisfied even if the company posts a loss. Therefore, if profits ever exist, they will always be extremely low.
Will Flipkart be able to keep hopes up without turning a profit? Well, only time will tell!