We’ve been played. That’s the simplest, surest way to put it.

Now unless you have been living under a rock, news of e-commerce companies jumping on the offline bandwagon would have surely reached your ears. Granted, it started rather innocuously and merits a quick recap.

So, once upon a time there was a startup called Lenskart, which started out with the dream of selling prescription eyewear online. As fate would have it, VC moneybags bought into the dream. Ecstasy followed. Lenskart said it would use the money for marketing and other disruptive services like a phone line and online chat. To quote from a story published back then:

“‘A huge range with all sizes and colors and the ability to get them at a standard price next day at the customer’s doorstep is what we are aiming to achieve. We strongly believe in an approach of educating the customers and helping them choose the right product online. Also, offline space is extremely unorganised in our product categories, where the selling price of a product is determined by the financial status of the buyer, we want to bridge this gap and create disintermediation in the market,’ says 27-year-old Peyush Bansal, founder and CEO, Lenskart.com.”

Moneybags was equally excited.

“IDG Ventures India helps entrepreneurs build category-leading companies in India and globally. We believe Valyoo’s (Lenskart) focus on creating category leaders in product segments that offer disintermediation opportunities by leveraging supply chain inefficiencies and bring value to the customers is a big differentiator.”

And so they went together, hand-in-hand in pursuit of the dream. For a good three years, Lenskart toyed with every possible innovation to sell eyewear online; it toiled and spent money but its dream remained unrealised. So, in 2014, it threw in the towel. Enough. Let’s do what our customer wants, it said. Let’s open a physical shop and go to the customer if the customer doesn’t want to come to us. Stroke of genius. The fortune Gods smiled. And today, Lenskart has grown to more than 200 retail outlets across India. Online took a backseat. Offline became the driver.

Now, even as all this was happening, other e-commerce players were watching.

What started as a whisper in the corridors of search for a sustainable, scalable and profitable business model, took on a voice. Now, in 2017, it has become a rapturous cacophony. Everybody is on it. Flipkart. Myntra. Urban Ladder. Pepperfry. Yepme. Nykaa. Lenskart. Their chorus goes something like this: Being online is not enough. Touch and feel is extremely important to customers in India.

Mazel tov.

A few steps forward, many more steps backward

Urban Ladder is a good case in point.