A perfect storm is gathering over the country’s most dominant digital platforms.
Over the last decade in India, billions of dollars have been spent by startups, venture capitalists and tech multinationals as they seek to rewrite entire sectors. In the process, they’ve managed market shares that took their “offline” or “old economy” peers decades to achieve. This has left companies like Zomato and Swiggy; MakeMyTrip and OYO; Flipkart and Amazon the “last players standing” in sectors like dining and food delivery; travel and hotels; and e-commerce.
Their venture capital backers have burned billions of dollars in loss-making businesses in the hope that one day when the fires clear, their companies would end up as natural monopolies. Free to increase prices and reduce spends.
Well, that day has come. The fires have cleared, but there’s a new problem at hand.
A slowing economy, widespread and coordinated supplier angst, and a tightening regulatory regime are coming together to target the largest platforms still standing. Yesterday’s scrappy disruptors, now the incumbents in their respective sectors, are in the crosshairs of numerous adversaries.
In late June, the Kerala Hotel and Restaurant Association (KHRA), a local trade chapter of hotel and restaurant associations from the state, called for a two-day boycott of hospitality platform OYO. Independent hoteliers who sold their rooms via OYO’s platform had a litany of charges against the Gurugram-headquartered company. These ranged from hidden commission fees as high as 40-45% of a booking; rampant deep discounting; one-sided contracts loaded against hotel owners and opaque delays in payments.
OYO managed to head that off by first threatening to take legal action against potential boycotters. It then got the Delhi High Court to pass an interim order banning any hotel association from boycotting it.
As a dominant digital platform, OYO correctly foresaw the risk of tens of thousands of fragmented suppliers (independent hotels) organising themselves for better collective bargaining and action. Hence, its extreme response.
But Zomato, one of the two dominant platforms in the food delivery space, misjudged it. Hundreds, then thousands of restaurants came together under a trade body and accused Zomato and its peers of practices similar to those for which OYO was criticised. Aggressive and perpetual discounts; rising commission charges and arbitrary changes to contracts. Restaurateurs also claimed the food aggregators’ ranking and discovery algorithms were rigged towards discounts and their own services.
The resulting boycott is still ongoing and has forced both Zomato and Swiggy to adopt far more conciliatory tones.
Meanwhile, in the neighbouring world of retail e-commerce, Amazon and Flipkart are under the cosh. The e-commerce leviathans are being targeted by multiple trade associations for the same broad reasons.