Social commerce will be a game-changer in India, says Bharati Balakrishnan of Shopify

Bharati Balakrishnan, Director and Country Head - India at Shopify, talks of the global commerce platform’s capabilities and what it brings to the merchants on board in India

Srabana LahiriUpdated: Monday, October 03, 2022, 10:37 AM IST
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Social commerce will be a game-changer in India, says Bharati Balakrishnan of Shopify |

You joined Shopify about a year ago. What has been your experience with the brand’s performance so far? Having spent 15 years in offline retail and e-commerce companies such as the Future Group, the Alibaba Group, Paytm Mall, and now Shopify, what are the trends you observe with regard to the future of e-commerce worldwide?

I have spent nearly a decade now in the world of e-commerce, retail and the consumer tech space. I have been on the platform side and built businesses that are online and offline first, and also then sold to these platforms as a merchant. I continue to feel excited that we are just getting started here in India. So much change and transformation is yet to come!

My journey at Shopify is the most exciting phase yet in my journey in Indian e-commerce and retail. I believe deeply in Shopify’s mission to ‘Make Commerce Better for Everyone’. New entrepreneurs continue to join us every day. And many brands who have grown up with us are looking to grow beyond D2C into offline and other channels, with our support.

Finally, the established brands are starting to take their own website seriously and we power these large enterprise transformations in becoming digital-first today.

As a global commerce platform powering millions of merchants in 175 countries, we make it easy for anyone, anywhere to start and grow a business using our commerce tools. I lead a passionate team focused on helping Indian merchants unlock the growth opportunity of global commerce

— including new merchants starting their business on Shopify

— and also partner with large-scale, high-volume retail businesses that are radically transforming their operations to best serve their customers.

Our goal is to remove the barriers to entry for Indian merchants, simplify complex commerce challenges like transitioning from physical to online retail for both merchants and consumers. Today, we’re seeing exponential growth in India, most of which has happened organically as merchants either built their business on Shopify or transitioned to Shopify from other platforms.

We’re also seeing a D2C trend in India as businesses work to create long-term loyalty and relationships with their customers, which isn’t always possible on marketplaces or aggregator platforms.

How have Indian brands been doing on Shopify? Which are the top destinations for Indian merchants looking to sell abroad? Also, what is the volume of international buyers coming to them?

We’ve been in India for more than eight years. During this time, we’ve seen three key shifts:

Firstly, D2C brands like SUGAR, boAt and others who emerged in the mid-2010s are now growing beyond their own website and online marketplaces and starting to build meaningful share in various offline channels.

More recently, we’ve also seen the birth of D2C brands in newer categories like fitness accessories, gardening equipment, kitchen accessories, and costume jewellery - these were really small online not so long ago.

We’re now seeing a lot of established brands, who were more focused on traditional channels earlier, use the power of their brand to grow rapidly on their own D2C website.

These brands recognise that as brand spends move online, the brand’s discovery on its own website is really a window to all channels where consumers engage with the brand. Also, unfiltered feedback always comes from your own channel.

The pandemic changed the way Indian consumers shop. Last year alone, searches for ‘online shopping’ grew 32% and those for ‘online sale days’ doubled in 2021 as Indian consumers became more accustomed to doing their shopping online. Now 80% of Indian consumers prefer to shop from their smartphone, which means if the first-time consumers discover or interact with a brand, they’re almost certainly doing it online.

For brands looking to compete for the attention of today’s consumer, online storefronts are the primary source of brand discovery, marketing, customer engagement, and most important of all, a crucial sales channel.

In 2021, Shopify merchants in India generated a 78% increase in business activity and supported nearly 2,00,000 jobs throughout the year. The opportunity for Indian brands is huge, with many home-grown household names investing in their online presence to reach new consumers that were previously offline or out of reach. In fact, Indian merchants now sell to an average of 10 international markets on Shopify, reaching over 70 million shoppers from around the world with the US, the UK, and Australia being the top three markets for Indian merchants selling overseas.

Shopify website

Shopify website | Screengrab

How does the marketing tool Shopify Markets, launched last year, help merchants? Tell us about your partnership with YouTube to scale the creator economy. What are some of the outcomes you expect there?

We’re passionate about simplification and we’ve democratised international selling by helping merchants achieve similar customer experiences around the world with no expertise or coding required. That’s why we created Shopify Markets which helps merchants:

Enter new markets and then manage these markets from a central dashboard for a unified view of their entire business.

Easily localise content, languages, domains with automatic SEO optimisation, and product availability.

Seamlessly create localised storefronts from one store, which means they can manage all cross-border commerce in a single place in the Shopify admin with tailored consumer experiences in each market—whether that market is a country, like Australia, or a region, like all of Asia.

We’re also helping merchants adapt to technology, with social commerce now expected to have 228 million native consumers by the end of 2022, a 45% jump from 2021 as shoppers discover newer ways of buying goods online through YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram. As the Indian population becomes more digitally connected, especially in the untapped Tier II and Tier III cities and rural India, the social commerce market in India is expected to skyrocket. Social media platforms have been the ‘go-to’ for independent merchants in India to advertise and promote services through the pandemic.

Now, we’re empowering the next generation of Indian entrepreneurs in the creator economy through our new partnership with YouTube, and the recent launch of YouTube Shopping on Shopify. Shopify merchants can now integrate directly with one of the world’s biggest entertainment platforms—reaching over 2 billion monthly logged-in users—to meet their consumers where they already are.

Shopify merchants and creators can now sell their full range of products on YouTube in three ways:

Live streaming: Merchants can tag and pin products at key points during a livestream, and picture-in-picture playback means consumers can watch while they check out

Product shelf below videos: Merchants can show a curated list of products in a product shelf below on-demand videos

Store tab: A new tab will be added to a merchant’s YouTube channel, featuring their entire selection of products.

We’re excited to help more creators and merchants with authentically connecting with viewers and fans in fun, creative ways, while further monetising and building their businesses. Recently, we also launched a Starter Plan in India for just ₹399/month, offering a lighter version of Shopify with a design-ready theme that merchants just need to add product images, details, and descriptions to populate their minimalist online store.

Starter plan helps:

Influencers and creators build an online brand and produce digital content in pursuit of follower growth and new ways to monetise and connect with their audiences. They’ve built followings and cultivated networks, yet many struggle to reach financial independence from content creation alone and need help with monetizing their audience. They are new to e-commerce and have limited time to learn about how to build and manage a business. Starter plan helps these creators test drive their own products or source one from various Shopify options.

Social sellers who sell through chats and conversations across social platforms, and develop personal relationships as a part of the selling process. They are looking for a solution to help them better manage conversations as well as a systematic way to manage and fulfil orders. Starter plan fits their selling style perfectly as they can now easily share links to products within chats, and manage all chats in one centralised place. Also, Starter plan supports powerful Shopify management tools including world-class order management, analytics, fulfilment, and check-out so that social sellers can sell more by doing less.

Aspirational merchants who are not yet selling but are looking to test drive their ideas into commerce by selling online. It could be months before they make their first sale, hence a cost-effective plan is important to them. Starter plan allows them to create unlimited products to test before fully investing in one. Whenever they are ready to scale, they can easily upgrade to unlock more capabilities from the admin they are already familiar and comfortable with.

What are the challenges Shopify faces in the e-commerce marketplace? How does it stack up against players like Amazon, Google, etc? Going forward, what are your plans to scale up the operations of Brand Shopify?

Given the size of the Indian market, I believe there’s a role for many channels. Every brand uses a combination of channels to reach and engage with its audience. We are an enabler for brands who want to not only reach their audience directly, but also connect and interact with their consumers.

In India, we are for the old and the new and the small and the big. Our focus is to help both new merchants starting their business on Shopify, and also partner with large-scale, high-volume retail businesses like GoColors and Duroflex that are radically transforming their respective industries to best serve their customers.

Today, more than 15,000 enterprise merchants use Shopify Plus to manage their volume and complexity. These include D2C brands home-grown on Shopify like boAt lifestyle, SUGAR Cosmetics, Lakmé, Vahdam Teas, among others, and also traditional household names like Duroflex, Colorbar, Borosil and others, that previously focused on more traditional channels and now use Shopify to build their online presence and optimise their omni-channel strategy.

We help these brands quickly launch commerce offerings, connect with their customers, and manage their complexity, instead of focusing on technology implementation. Whether online, offline, mobile or social, brands have the flexibility in approach and Shopify is driving a re-invention of what commerce means for Indian merchants.

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