A few months back, I wrote this piece, The Other E-commerce Guys for a portal. In the peak of skepticism about the sustainability of e-commerce business models in India, I argued that the basic value proposition of e-commerce—removing the constraint of time and space from shopping—still remains and that is good enough reason for people to try making it work—even if those ventures are off limelight and do not measure their progress by how much funding they attract.
This is what I wrote, trying to build up a case for these ventures.
But how many of us can say honestly that we don’t crave for something that we have grown up with and something that we do not get anywhere in the superstores? Remember the banana cake that the bakery next to your house in Kollam made so perfectly? Or the auromatic curry powder that the man in the street behind your housing colony in Berhampur sold from his home?
We know the superstores, despite their 20 plus brands in offering, can never match that. Yet, we cannot do anything about it. We are too busy in our everyday lives to do anything beyond craving.
Of course, all the examples in the above piece were about sites selling food items.
But how many of us can say honestly that we don’t crave for something that we have grown up with?—you will agree that the question goes well beyond food.
This piece is about one such thing that I have grown up with; one such thing that I badly crave for; and do not get anywhere in my city: Odia books.
This piece is a celebration of the fact that in recent months, I have seen multiple efforts to fill this gap. There are at least three serious websites selling Odia books. And there are a couple of more who are also trying their hands but have long way to go.
This piece is a short review of those sites. The reason I chose to do that is not because going forward, I want to do a big annual ranking of these sites. But because, as the tagline of my blog says, I love “celebrating the excellence in the less discussed.” They are new; lesser known; let alone being discussed. And I could surely help a bit in their efforts by highlighting the good work.
The two specific objectives of the piece are
- to help my peer groups (whether they are Bangalore or Baltimore or Balasore) who do not have access to a good/any book store that sells Odia books.
- to give some sort of feedback to these companies, who are just beginning their journey with a great objective that will help many like me
And when I do that, there are bound to be comparisons and some criticism (identification of gaps). I hope the entrepreneurs and others behind these ventures will take that sportingly.
These are the three sites I found to be serious about what they are trying to do. Not only are the sites professionally designed, the effort to build good catalaogs is visible, as I have followed all of them from the time they started.
- Odisha Estore (sells multiple products but books are the main offering)
- Odiabook Bazar (focused on books)
- Odikart (the youngest among the lot sells multiple products but books are the main offering; started last month)
There is another one, Fullorissa.com which also sells books but the collection does not have any of the usual books that one would expect such a store to have. So, I am not sure what the model is. I am not including it in the review here.
As a professional researcher and editor, I have done similar exercise quite a few times. For evaluation of any e-commerce site, we take a few things into account.
- product range in offering
- product quality
- user experience of the site (such as search/navigation)
- actual fulfillment (delivery)
- customer service
The last two are measured based actual usage (mystery shopping) or survey and hence, I am excluding them. I will restrict myself to the first four.
- Range: Range, in an evolving business, is often a function of the duration for which the venture has been in business. So, it is no surprise that while both Odisha Estore and Odiabook Bazar have more than 3000 titles each, Odikart has less than 200.
- Quality: While range is good, curation is becoming extremely important in e-commerce, as people have less time. Quality in a standardized product category like books can be measured without actual usage/buying. For measuring this, I created a standard list, based on my brief survey with people like myself, mostly non-resident Odias (so it may be a little skewed against books published in the last ten years or so). The list is a combination of classics and popular titles; old and new; and a mix of multiple genres: poetry, novels, biography, science-fiction and other non-fiction. This is the list I used
- Abupurusha O Anyanya Kahani (Manoj Das)
- Amabasyara Chandra (Barrister Gobind Das)
- Atma Charita (Fakir Mohan Senapati)
- Chandrara Mrutyu (Gokulananda Mohapatra)
- Chhabila Madhu Barnabodha (Madhusudan Rao)
- Chhamana Athaguntha (Fakir Mohan Senapati)
- Chilika (Radhanath Ray)
- Desha Kala Patra (Jagannath Prasad Das)
- Ghara Baida (Raibahadur Laxman Mishra)
- Ka (Kanhucharan Mohanty)
- Kanakalata (Nandakishore Bal)
- Kanamamu (Laxmikanta Mohapatra)
- Karanjia Diary (Santanu Kumar Acharya)
- Nakata Chitrakara (Faturananda)
- Nilasaila (Surendra Mohanty)
- Odisha O Odia (Chittaranjan Das)
- Paraja (Gopinath Mohanty)
- Bhratruhari Shrungara Shataka (Tr: Janaki Ballav Pattnaik)
- Utkala Gaunli Gita (Chakradhar Mohapatra)
- Yajnaseni (Pratibha Ray)
This list is, of course, not perfect—like any other subjective list. But there is no other way to measure. When I ran the search in each of the three sites, I found comparable results; I could find 10 in Odisha Estore; 9 in Odiabook Bazar and 8 in Odikart. Purely from comparison point of view, I must point out that if a month old Odikart with just 157 books in its catalog, could almost match the others with significantly higher range, it illustrates that it is fairly well curated.
But the bigger point that I want to highlight is not who is better in what aspect. It is this. Despite all the considerations—they are all new; publishers are not yet excited; many books are out of print etc etc—I believe it is a low score in general, especially as I tried mostly popular books.
What explains absence of Barnabodha from the catalog? Lack of availability is surely not the reason. Similarly, Kanakalata was a milestone in Odia literature. There was a time when there was hardly any middle class households that did not have its copy of Ghara Baida (Tutuka Chikitsa) by Laxman Kishra. Also, two of them did not have Yajnaseni. Need I say more?
If non-residents are a serious target segment, there is no way that they can ignore serious curation. I expect far better results next time.
- Pricing: By and large, pricing is comparable.
- Site user experience: Though most of them are better than many e-commerce sites, in terms of look and feel, I think all of them have to significantly improve navigation. Books are searched by name, author name, category, and publisher—usually in that order. None of them are complete in that respect. Odiabook Bazaar provides category-based, publisher-based as well as author-based browsing but its title search is really bad, with not even an error message showing that the book is not available. The rest two do not provide author-based browsing—a big gap. Navigation is something that is usually thought through in the beginning; it is not a function of time, considering there are thousands of online bookstores in the world to look for a template. For example, one can well understand that a new site like Odikart has a lesser range of books, but that is no reason for not having an author filter (or any filter for that matter). This is one area I hope everyone will improve on.
Some of the areas of improvement notwithstanding, I see a great start to this wave. I have tried just one site and the delivery has been quite prompt. If others have similar quality when it comes to fulfillment, I think it is just a matter of time before the orders get flowing in, in large numbers.
Now, they just need some effective marketing.