Payments systems (or lack of them) are a very big problem for India e-commerce and as much as COD is being touted as the panacea to get over the hurdles of reach and consumer trust, I am just not able to buy the story. To me it seems like optimizations to COD are like trying to make the horse run faster while what we need is an automobile (sorry Henry Ford!). Stretching the analogy, we not only need the automobile, we also need the support infrastructure of petrol bunks, repair shops, credit agencies etc. The equivalent of the automobiles in payments are well penetrated and reliable electronic payment systems, which in turn require good credit rating agencies, trust worthy law enforcement etc. A very tall order to achieve in a few years when there is generally low trust, low penetration and insipid growth if any (credit card penetration is stuck at 20M for last few years) of electronic payment systems.
I am firmly in the camp of people who believe that the e-commerce bubble is going to burst soon and while I think there are many fundamental reasons why this will happen, if you forced me to pick only one I would pick lack of electronic payment systems in India.
Before I explain any further, let me state two key assumptions:
If both these assumptions don't apply to a business then you can ignore my analysis.
Sources of Fixed Cost in COD
I explained the LTV impact of COD in a previous post. Let me expand on this further and list down the sources of fixed cost per collection:
All of these translate to a FIXED COST PER TRANACTION, regardless of the money being transacted. Just this fact can make the business unprofitable unless, and this is important, that the cost of collection can be completely "variabalized". There is no other way to do this except to switch to a completely electronic payment system.
And finally, there is the scale challenge. If the GMV value (not revenues and can we please stop calling GMV revenues, it discredits everyone in the startup eco-system!) of e-commerce transactions in India is to reach $1B annually (so ~$100M in revenues) and the average GMV value is $20 then we need 50M transactions even if 60% of these are based on COD, it means 30M transactions of $20 at a time being handled and reconciled by people. Let me say it again, for $100M in revenues there will be 30M POPLE-BASED transactions to collect and reconcile the money. There will be management layers to manage the team, hiring and retention (and replacement will be an issue) as the company will require low-skilled workers to try and make the math work. A rudimentary calculation assuming 6 collections per person per day means that the front-end collections team will have to be of about 15,000 people and probably half the size of this team to do the backend operations. Most of the front end team will probably earn Rs5-7K/month. To keep a reliable force out in the field (not in a factory where it is easier to manage a team) there will be significant management overhead and constantly having a pipeline of 10-20X the team strength (i.e. 150K-300K people) for replacements. Then there are the costs of career planning and growth for this work force.
It just is really hard to see how this will work when transactions gross margins are low and nothing that I have heard or seen in the last 9 months of this bubble is able to convince me otherwise. The COD payments business is a services business and in order for the math to work, it needs to quickly transform to a products business, i.e. be replaced by an electronic payments system. That will take a lot of time. A.Lot.Of.Time.