Ashish Kumar’s second venture, Near.store, a product that took about a year to build before launching it in the market, was hit by the lockdown soon after. “It happened a few weeks after our launch, and hence all our operations came to a standstill. However, we were able to put our heads together to keep the momentum going,” says Ashish. Near.store enables neighbourhood stores, popularly known as Kirana stores, to go online without any friction or cognitive adaptation by using its AI-driven dongle and software. Once live, the Kiranas can share their website link on the Near.store platform with potential customers. The company had onboarded over 126 stores before the lockdown.
“We realized a lot of the Kiranas were forced to shut as they were not getting supplies as supply chain was disrupted. We have stepped in organizing passes and are using our resources to supply material to the Kiranas. We are getting calls from Kiranas even during the lockdown to take them online as they realize the importance,” shares Ashish. One week post the lockdown, Near.store tweaked its technology platform and tied-up with housing societies in Mumbai. The residents from these societies could now place their order through shops within their vicinity and linked with Near.store. “This has helped us jump orders for stores from 10-15 per day to over 500 in a week. With an average bulk order value ranging between Rs15,000 to Rs 35,000 per order. So, in a manner of speaking, we have grown revenue for stores and ourselves during the lockdown,” explains Ashish.
Given the tough times and lockdown, Near.store has opened its platform to facilitate direct orders to FMCG brands. Ashish says, “We are focusing on getting frequently used products like cooking oil, chocolates and cookies, personal care products, health foods and dairy products. The partnership with key players like Mondelez India, Marico, Dr. Vaidyas Ayurvedic Products and many more will enable retail consumers to order the products directly through Near.Store.” Other brands on the platform include Too Yumm, Organic India, Epigamia, Raw Pressery and ‘and nothing else,’ a leading protein bar brand. “We also have a host of local ready to eat snacks brands available online,” adds Ashish.
Bringing Back Kirana Stores to the Big Picture
Local retail shops in India have been the backbone of consumer goods, whose business was impacted by the large e-commerce players coming into the picture. However, they are not entirely rendered out of business. One of the reasons for their survival is the technology companies, big and small. They have time and again presented solutions and options for retail shops for multiple functions. This includes inventory management, customer acquisition, e-commerce and many more. Ashish shares, “Our key challenge has been to break the ice with shop owners. They either had a bad experience directly, or one of their close associates had a negative experience with any other tech-based service provider. They tend to associate us with that experience and require a lot more convincing. Keeping the implementation simple and integrating the backend are all hygiene factors for us.”
Near.store was founded by three serial entrepreneurs whose combined experience across various fields helped build out this unique platform that uses proprietary hardware and software: Ashish Kumar, former location marketing company founder; Ramakrishnan A, a former Mindtree techie; and Diwakar Mitr, a former investment banker. The core team knows each other for over 10 years and has worked together in a previous venture while tackling many challenges that they faced together. “What helps us remain motivated is the sheer ease with which our product works at the Kirana store – no additional electricity, software or Wi-Fi required and the sheer value we can add to the lives of Kiranas and customers,” says Ashish.
Within a year of incorporation, Near.store has been able to raise funds from an institutional investor, sauce.vc. The company has also filed a patent for its technology invention. Once they get the patent, it would be an important milestone. “The most important milestone for us is having large popular brands working with us within one month of launch. Customers are also supporting us with repeat orders during this journey,” pinpoints Ashish.
Before the lockdown happened, the focus technology provides in this sector has been on streamlining the e-commerce and inventory management for the Kirana stores. Many startups were focused on bringing in economies of scale for small and medium-size shop owners and using AI to map efficient backend management. Ashish opines, “Post lockdown, we expect options around connecting with customers on a real-time basis and multiple options for the transaction as the new trend. For instance, could a smart washing machine place an order for depleting washing powder to the nearest grocery store? We see it as a possibility very soon.”
As a student, Ashish was always curious and would always find ways to deep dive into a subject of interest. He recalls, “In experiments and classwork I would always try and make processes and methods simpler in case they were complicated. Structuring a problem and then arriving at a solution was a strength that I developed in school.” Shripad Nadkarni, the former market head for Coca Cola India and J&J India and the founder of Maverix Platforms, a leading cloud kitchen platform, had a significant influence on Ashish. “He has been a tremendous influence on me in helping me see the larger picture while focusing on execution of the smaller pictures,” says Ashish.
Today, as we get ready for a post lockdown economy, Ashish believes that they have earned the trust of customers as well as shopkeepers. He knows that this trust will help them expand their business much faster. “The most important learning from this experience is how not to get bogged down by circumstances you cannot control. COVID-19 is an event that a banker describes as one in 25 years risk factor,” states Ashish. As the lockdown eases, Ashish and his team are looking forward to adding more brands and Kiranas to their platform. “We have got many enquiries, and we intend to add on 2000 shops in the next 6 months. Going ahead we intend tying up with Trade Associations, FMCG distributors, FMCG brands, local brands and plan to reach 50,000 stores by 2021,” concludes Ashish.