Sanjay Patel, an 18-year-old labourer at a glass factory in Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, spends around two hours a day on the short video app TikTok. Last month, while watching a video, he came across a link for Bulbul Shop, an e-commerce platform with a difference—Bulbul uses videos to sell products.
In one of the videos, a woman host showcased a phone from a brand Patel hadn’t heard off. Its unique design—the phone had a sliding flap that allowed users to end calls—coupled with its bargain-basement price appealed to him. “At Rs 744 ($10.5), I thought it was a good deal. I could not find these features in the offline market here. Besides, she explained every function really well,” he said.
Patel’s experience is exactly what video commerce companies Bulbul, simsim, WMall and Mall91 are counting on for success. They believe that by using short videos and influencers to win a customer’s trust, they can take e-commerce to India’s tier-3 towns and beyond.
This is a feat that even e-commerce heavyweights like Amazon India and Walmart-owned Flipkart haven’t managed. While internet users in India have grown to 450-500 million from 150 million a few years back, the number of regular online shoppers has grown to only 30 million in the same time, says Amit Bagaria, simsim’s founder.
Bagaria’s definition of “regular” is someone who shops online at least three times a year. He estimates there are another 40-50 million who may have transacted online just once. Even the regular shoppers, though, are only buying certain categories online—mobiles and accessories, electronics, and to some extent, fashion. All this leaves room for entrepreneurs to create a business around internet users who still haven’t bought into e-commerce.
Their target demographic is vernacular-speaking, literate or semi-literate people from tier-2 and -3 towns. These are aspirational users, usually aged between 18-45 years, who still do the bulk of their shopping offline. Most of these users are also video-first—their first interaction with the internet has been through video, making it the medium of choice for these e-commerce platforms.
“Shopping is a very social experience in India. There’s a lot of guided buying—people rely on recommendations, and there is a trust in the shopkeeper you are buying from,” says Bagaria. As such, he believes, the self-serve methods of traditional e-commerce—browsing catalogues, researching, and understanding products is intimidating for people who aren’t used to online shopping.
Despite other players like Snapdeal and Shopclues trying and failing to tap into this market, investors seem convinced that a video-based approach could be the solution.