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India Hotel Market: Long Term Growth And Opportunity

Bar chart showing India hotel transaction volume (in Indian Rupees millions), 2001-2017. In 2017, hotel transaction volume in India reached Indian Rupees 9,709 million, a four year low.

India’s hotel market is a growth market, and the country’s tourism and hospitality industry which contributed about 9.6% to India’s GDP in 2016, has emerged as a key growth driver of India’s service sector and thereby the Indian economy.

India’s hotel industry as a whole has been going through a relatively rough patch over the past few years with distressed loans from the sector jumping 63% over the past three years as a result of overinvestment, cost overruns, and high interest rates among other reasons, which have restricted capital flow into the industry and reduced hotel real estate transactions in the past few years.

 

Bar chart showing India hotel transaction volume (in Indian Rupees millions), 2001-2017. In 2017, hotel transaction volume in India reached Indian Rupees 9,709 million, a four year low.

However, there are numerous fundamental reasons to be optimistic on the industry’s long term prospects, particularly in the mid-scale and budget segment which have not been affected by the financial woes plaguing the luxury and upscale hotel segment. The Development Cost Per Key declines considerably the lower the hotel class, and coupled with robust demand from India’s growing wave of middle class domestic travelers, India’s mid-scale and budget hotel segments have been doing brisk business, a boon to their bottom lines.

Line chart showing the Average Development Cost Per Key in India (in India Rupees millions) by hotel positioning. The Average Development Cost Per Key in India for hotels in the Luxury, Upper Midscale, Upscale, Upper Mid Market, Mid Market, Budget, and Economy categories are INR 22.3 million, INR 14 million, INR 9.8 million, INR 7.2 million, INR 5.6 million, INR 3.5 million, and INR 1.7 million respectively.

India’s expanding population of middle class travelers have also helped boost Indian hotel occupancy rates which have been on an uptrend over the past few years, rising to 66% in 2017, the highest since 2007-2008, according to a report by hospitality consulting firm Horwath HTL.

Bar chart showing all-India hotel occupancy rates, FY 2013 - FY 2017 (E). Occupancy rates have been rising in India; during FY 2013, FY 2014, FY 2015, FY 2016 and FY 2017 (E) hotel occupancy rates were 58%, 59%, 61%, 64% and 66% respectively.

The momentum is expected to continue. However, with hotel demand exceeding supply (according to data from Hotelivate, Indian hotel demand is growing at around 12% while new supply is growing by up to 6% annually) and with hotel rooms per capita in India standing at just 18 per 100,000 people, considerably lower than China where there are 307 hotel rooms per 100,000 people, there is ample potential for expansion in India’s hotel sector driven by a growing middle class, rising disposable incomes, a growing fleet of low cost airlines and government measures to boost the country’s tourism industry such as the UDAN Regional Connectivity Scheme, and incentives such as the five year tax holiday offered for 2, 3 and 4 star category hotels located around UNESCO World Heritage sites (except Delhi and Mumbai) and the establishment of Special Tourism Zones. Further encouraging measures may be expected in the country’s upcoming Tourism Policy as the Indian government works towards its target of attracting 20 million Foreign Tourist Arrivals by 2020 and thereby addressing the country’s imbalance of outbound tourists being four times more than inbound tourists.

India is expected to be one of the fastest growing tourism economies over the next decade and the country is forecast to emerge as the world’s 3rd biggest tourism economy by 2028 according to a 2018 report by the World Travel and Tourism Council. According to forecasts by CARE Ratings, India’s hotel industry is expected to see an increase of 11-13% CAGR in room revenues during FY2017-FY2021. The Indian hotel market is projected to reach US$ 13 billion by 2020 according to a paper by FICCI-Yes Bank titled ‘Tourism Infrastructure Investments: Leveraging Partnerships for Exponential Growth’.

Unsurprisingly, global hotel operators are increasingly keen on expanding into India to grab a slice of the growing pie. International hotel brands already account for about half of India’s 123,000 branded hotel rooms, a dramatic increase in market share since 2002 when international hotel brands accounted for less than 20% of the 25,000 branded hotel rooms in India. By 2020, international hotel brands are expected to account for about 76% of India’s branded hotel room supply according to Patu Keswani, chairman and managing director, Lemon Tree Hotels.

Land scarcity and high development costs in Delhi and Mumbai are likely to encourage upscale hotel developers to focus on Tier II and Tier III markets

For several years after the global financial crisis in 2008, India’s luxury hotel sector struggled with an oversupply of hotel inventory and poor demand leading to lower occupancy and Revenue Per Available Room (RevPAR).

However, the tide may be turning as signs of a demand recovery and a limited supply pipeline push up occupancy levels, particularly in India’s top two hotel markets, Delhi and Mumbai where occupancy rates reached 75% and 70% respectively during 2016-2017, thanks to increasing business and leisure travellers, and a muted hotel room supply.

During the year ended March 2017, new hotel rooms in Delhi increased by just 1.1% compared to a CAGR of 5.3% over the past decade. The situation is the same in Mumbai where new hotel rooms increased 3.4% in 2016-2017, compared to a 5.3% growth over the past decade.

Bar chart showing the number of hotel rooms in Mumbai and Delhi during 2007-2008 and 2016-2017. During the CY 2007-2008, Mumbai and Delhi had 8,454 and 9,019 rooms respectively. By FY 2016-2017, Mumbai and Delhi had 13,494 and 14,296 hotel rooms, reflecting a CAGR of 5.3% in hotel room growth during the decade.

Yet, while rising demand in India’s top cities of Mumbai and Delhi may lure hotel developers, problems such as land scarcity, and zoning laws among other reasons are likely to continue restricting new hotel room supply going forward. While the difficulties may not hinder the expansion plans of some luxury hotel operators such as Jumeirah (which is planning to launch an upscale business hotel in Mumbai), other hotel operators may go down the acquisition route instead, which could drive up acquisition demand for existing hotel assets in these two cities, as high development costs may compel players looking to ride the tourist boom in Delhi and Mumbai to pay a premium for brownfield and existing hotel assets rather than developing new hotels.

With much of India’s luxury hotel room inventory concentrated in NCR, Mumbai and Bengaluru, developers are also likely to explore untapped opportunities in Tier II and Tier III cities such as Jaipur, Goa and Ahmedabad where occupancy rates and RevPAR have shown strong growth. According to JLL India’s 2017 report, Goa remained India’s most expensive hotel market for the second consecutive year, while Ahmedabad enjoyed the strongest RevPAR of 21% followed by Jaipur at 12.2%.

Marriott, currently India’s largest hotel by room inventory, appears to have spotted the potential; the hotel group has plans to expand its current Indian hotel portfolio of around 120 with the addition of 50 new hotels, which will add another 12,000 rooms to its current tally of more than 22,000 rooms in India. In addition to Tier I cities, the company is looking at opportunities in Tier II cities such as Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Kerala.

Ashmi Holdings, which manages the Bristol Hotel, an upscale business hotel in the business city of Gurgaon, (recently renamed Gurugram), has plans to lunch upscale, midmarket and budget hotels in Tier III and Tier IV cities with a target of 1,000 keys by 2020.

Significant upside potential in the midscale and budget hotel segment

India has welcomed rising numbers of foreign tourists, with Foreign Tourist Arrivals exceeding 10 million last year, and the number is expected to grow in the coming years as the government rolls out favorable measures as part of its effort to double Foreign Tourist Arrivals to 20 million by 2020.

However, the country’s tourism and hospitality sector is largely driven by domestic travelers and domestic hotel demand has historically been higher than inbound demand as domestic travelers account for a larger share of India’s travelers.

During the period 1991-2016, domestic visits to all Indian states grew at a CAGR of 13.03%, far outpacing foreign visits which increased at a CAGR of 8.25% during the same period according to data from India’s Ministry of Tourism driven by rising domestic travel among India’s swelling numbers of travel-hungry middle class citizens – a relatively price-sensitive and value conscious demographic who opt for hotels in the mid-scale and budget categories.

This trend is likely to continue as India’s middle class rise grows and their disposable incomes increase, which should increase their propensity to travel as well as their travel spend which currently accounts for about 88% of the tourism sector’s contribution to India’s GDP.

The opportunity in India’s midrange hotel sector has attracted the likes of companies such as Lemon Tree Hotels (NSE:LEMONTREE) and Royal Orchid Hotels (NSE:ROHLTD) which expanded their midscale offerings, thereby driving up the country’s midscale room inventory over the past several years; in 2002, some 6,000 of the 26,000 branded hotel rooms in India – less than 25% percent – were mid-market hotel rooms. By 2017, mid-market hotel rooms jumped nine-fold to 53,200, accounting for 43% of the total branded hotel rooms in the country which increased five-fold to 125,000 according to data from hospitality consulting firm Horwath HTL.

Apeejay Surendra, plans to expand its ‘Zone by the Park’ midscale hotel brand in Tier II and Tier III towns, positioning the hotel as a price and design conscious offering.

Goldman Sachs-backed hotel investment firm SAMHI Hotels Ltd plans has plans to acquire hotel assets around the country, mostly in Tier I and Tier II cities.

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High-Flying Growth Prospects In India’s Domestic Travel Market

Bar chart showing domestic and foreign visits to Indian states, 2006-2016 (in millions of visits). Domestic visits to Indian states grew from 462.4 million in 2006 to 1,613.6 million in 2016 while foreign visits grew from 11.7 million in 2006 to 24.7 million in 2016.

Tourism is booming in India, and the industry is emerging as a key growth driver in India’s service sector. Much of the growth stems from India’s domestic tourism sector which has seen a steady increase in visits from domestic travelers over the past decade; domestic tourist visits (DTVs)  increased 12.7% to 1.613 billion in FY 2016, (the latest year for which data is available) according to statistics from India’s Ministry of Tourism.

Domestic tourist visits have consistently registered positive growth rates over the past decade; during 2006-2016 domestic tourist visits grew at double digit rates every year except in years 2008 and 2013 when growth was at single digits. This compares with foreign tourist visits which mostly saw single-digit growth and sometimes zero or negative growth. In 2012 for instance, foreign tourist visits registered negative 6% growth while domestic tourist visits jumped 20%.

The rise of India’s domestic visitor numbers has been a long term trend; during the period 1991-2016, domestic visits to all Indian states grew at a CAGR of 13.03%, far outpacing foreign visits which grew at a CAGR of 8.25% during the same period according to data from India’s Ministry of Tourism.

Bar chart showing domestic and foreign visits to Indian states, 2006-2016 (in millions of visits). Domestic visits to Indian states grew from 462.4 million in 2006 to 1,613.6 million in 2016 while foreign visits grew from 11.7 million in 2006 to 24.7 million in 2016.

Domestic travelers also account for the lion’s share of tourism earnings; India’s tourism industry contributes about 7% to India’s GDP, and domestic travelers accounted for 88% of the sector’s contribution to GDP in 2016.

India’s rising numbers of domestic tourists have largely been driven by an expanding middle class with rapidly increasing purchasing power (currently estimated at 250 million Indians and counting), infrastructure development, a growing fleet of low cost airlines, and initiatives such as the UDAN Regional Connectivity Scheme.

Yet, there is considerable potential for further growth as a result of demographic, regulatory and economic factors. The number of middle class Indians is small compared to China and their purchasing power is considerably lower than their Chinese counterparts. However, India continues to be the fastest growing major economy in the world and this is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future; the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts India’s Gross domestic Product (GDP) will grow at an average of more than 8% every year over the next five years and this should drive income growth. According to Global Insight Inc, some 150 million additional Indian households are due to achieve real PPP incomes of more than US$ 20,000 by 2026, almost triple the amount in 2016 and according to Steelcase Growth Market Research, India’s middle class population is expected to grow to around 475 million people by 2030.

India’s expanding middle class citizens are expected to drive India’s consumption expenditures to reach US$ 4 trillion by 2025, helping India emerge as the world’s third biggest consumer market by 2025 according to consultancy firm Boston Consulting Group.

India’s domestic tourism sector is also benefiting from an encouraging regulatory environment; the Indian government is planning to turbocharge the tourism sector with tax cuts, incentives, infrastructure development and more. The Union Budget 2018 focuses on expansion of airport infrastructure (a key constraint limiting air traffic growth in the country) and there are expectations of a reduction in hotel tariffs and tax exemptions on investments in new hotels.

Thus, with several growth drivers in place from favorable demographics to a supportive policy environment, India’s domestic tourism sector is poised for greater expansion in the future. Domestic tourism is expected to maintain its dominance in India’s tourism industry through 2021. A report by Google India and Boston Consulting Group projects India’s domestic travel market to grow at a five-year CAGR of 11.2% to US$ 48 billion by 2020 from US$ 27 billion in 2015 opening numerous opportunities for businesses and investors.

 

Airlines

India’s domestic air traffic crossed the 100 million mark for the first time with 117 million passengers flying in 2017, up 18% from 99.88 million passengers in 2016 according to data from India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) making India the world’s fastest growing domestic aviation market for the third consecutive year according to IATA. India was followed by China and Russia where domestic air passenger numbers increased 13.3% and 10.1% respectively in 2017.

Bar chart showing India’s domestic air traffic, 2013-2017 (in millions of passengers). India’s domestic air traffic grew from 61,426 million passengers in 2013 to 117,176 passengers in 2017, representing a CAGR of 17.5% between 2013 and 2017.

The boom in domestic air travel was a boon to local airlines such as Indigo (NSE:INDIGO), Jet Airways (NSE:JETAIRWAYS), Spice Jet (BOM:500285) and Vistara (a joint venture between Tata Group and Singapore Airlines) which enjoyed higher passenger load factors.

In 2017, market leader Indigo commanded a market share of 39.6%, Jet Airways had 17.8%, Air India 13.3%, Spice Jet 13.2%, Go Air 8.5%, Air Asia 3.7%, and Vistara 3.5%.

Yet the growth potential is still enormous; less than 10% of Indians take to flying and at around 0.08 annual domestic seats per capita, India’s penetration rate is relatively low compared to other developing markets such as Brazil (0.6) and China (0.4) according to data from flight information and data company OAG. By comparison, the United States has around 2.8 annual domestic seats per capita.

Rising incomes particularly among India’s tech-savvy millennial generation (those born between 1981 and 1996) which have a greater affinity to travel could propel India’s domestic aviation sector in the years to come. India has about 400 million millenials which account for about a third of the country’s one billion plus population and India is expected to be the youngest nation in the world by 2020 with a median age of 29. A survey by Phocuswright and ixigo revealed that Indian millenials take more trips per year compared to seniors and they also spend more.

The Indian government is also taking encouraging measures to boost efficiency and reduce flying costs. For instance, India is mulling the prospect of breaking the monopoly held by public sector oil companies in the supply of Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) at the Mumbai airport by allowing private refiners to enter the market, thereby improving operating costs and increasing efficiency. Mumbai airport, India’s busiest airport, accounts for about 20% of India’s ATF consumption. With ATF costs making up about 40% of the operating costs of airlines, the move could be a boon for India’s aviation industry, benefiting airlines as well as private refiners such as Reliance Industries (NSE:RELIANCE).

The International Air Transport Association expects India to overtake the United Kingdom to emerge as the third largest aviation market by 2025 (China will be the biggest market followed by the United States).

Morgan Stanley forecasts India to witness a CAGR of 13% in domestic air traffic during 2016-2026.

According to a report by Google India and Boston Consulting Group, air travel is expected to be the biggest contributor to the India’s travel market, registering a CAGR of 15% reaching a market value of US$ 30 billion by 2020, making up over 50% of the projected value of India’s domestic travel market which is forecast to reach US$ 48 billion by 2020.

Hotels

Overinvestment, cost overruns and high interest rates have hampered the financial performance of India’s hotel industry with stressed loans jumping 63% over the past three years.

Much of the industry’s woes appear to be concentrated on branded, full-service hotels in the luxury and upscale segment in Tier I and Tier II cities.

On the other hand, India’s mid-market hotel segment (i.e., two, three and four star hotels) is booming, driven by both domestic and overseas tourists, encouraging brands such as Lemon Tree Hotels (NSE:LEMONTREE), and Royal Orchid Hotels (NSE:ROHLTD) to expand into the sector pushing up the supply of mid-market hotel rooms over the past several years; in 2002, some 6,000 of the 26,000 branded hotel rooms in India – less than 25% percent – were mid-market hotel rooms. By 2017, mid-market hotel rooms jumped nine-fold to 53,200, accounting for 43% of the total branded hotel rooms in the country which increased five-fold to 125,000 according to data from hospitality consulting firm Horwath HTL.

However, there are signs of recovery in India’s hotel industry with occupancy rates rising to 66% in 2017 – the highest in nine years according to a report by Horwath HTL – and average room rates growing by 8% since 2008 according to hotel consultant firm Hotelivate.

Bar chart showing all-India hotel occupancy rates, FY 2013 - FY 2017 (E). Occupancy rates have been rising in India; during FY 2013, FY 2014, FY 2015, FY 2016 and FY 2017 (E) hotel occupancy rates were 58%, 59%, 61%, 64% and 66% respectively.

The momentum is expected to continue going forward driven by a muted hotel room supply pipeline, an increasingly travel-hungry Indian middle class population, and favorable policies such as the Indian government’s UDAN scheme Phase-II which is expected to open new opportunities benefiting domestic mid-tier hotels in particular. Horwath HTL anticipates all-India occupancy rates to be more than 70% next year and mid-market segment occupancy rates will hit 82%.

The annual average leisure hotel spend per household is expected to grow 7% to US$ 18 by 2020 compared with US$ 13 in 2015.

A report by Google India and Boston Consulting Group expects hotels to grow at CAGR of 13% to US$ 13 billion by 2020, making up slightly more than a quarter of the overall domestic travel industry which is expected to be valued at US$ 48 billion. Much of the demand will be fueled by domestic travelers who are expected to account for over 60% of hotel spend in India. The mid-scale segment is expected to retain its dominant share, accounting for about 44% of India’s branded hotel rooms in 2020.

Bar chart showing India hotel spend by domestic and foreign tourists in 2010, 2015 and 2020 (forecast) (in US$ billions). India’s hotel market was valued at US$ 4 billion in 2010, US$ 7 billion in 2015 and is expected to grow to US$ 13 billion by 2020. At about US$ 9 billion - US$ 10 billion, domestic travelers will account for more than 60% of hotel spend in India by 2020.

Online travel portals

According to consulting firm Praxis, India’s online travel market was valued at US$ 5.71 billion at the end of 2015, and is expected to more than double to US$ 13.6 billion by 2021, representing a CAGR of over about 16% driven by increasing penetration of international hotel and flight bookings from travel portals such as MakeMyTrip (NASDAQ:MMYT) (India’s largest online travel agency), Yatra (NASDAQ:YTRA), and Cleartrip to name a few.

Increasing internet penetration and rising incomes among India’s tech savvy millenials as they increasingly climb up the income ladder are some of the tailwinds that are expected to drive India’s online hotel market. The country’s internet user base stood at 481 million in December 2017, up 11.34% from a year earlier, representing an internet penetration rate of less than 40% indicating ample potential for growth. Much of India’s offline population resides in rural India. However, even in urban India where incomes are higher and residents generally have a higher propensity to travel, there is potential for higher internet penetration; about 295 million (equal to about 64%) of India’s 455 million urban population are connected to the internet leaving a potential market of about 160 million internet users in urban India alone. This is equal to nearly one half of the entire population of the United States.

Indian millenials are expected to be a key driving force in India’s online travel market going forward. According to booking data from India’s largest online travel company MakeMyTrip which is often touted as India’s answer to Ctrip  (NASDAQ:CTRP) and Expedia (NASDAQ:EXPE), the majority of the platform’s customers were millenials; over half of travelers who made bookings through MakemyTrip were under 35 years of age.

India has the world’s largest millenial population and as their disposable incomes grow, they are likely to travel more and thereby drive the country’s online travel market as they plan their itineraries online, presenting a major growth opportunity for online travel companies.

Online hotel bookings in particular presents a major growth opportunity in India’s online travel market. According to a report by Morgan Stanley, Indian millenials have shifted a large part of their activities online, for instance through the adoption of digital entertainment channels (to the detriment of traditional channels such as radio) and online shopping. However, online travel booking is an exception to the trend with 63% of all hotel bookings being reportedly made by walking into hotels. Less than 20% of hotels were booked online, and only one third of those were booked using travel agencies indicating tremendous potential for growth.

One third of all hotels are expected to be booked online helping the sector grow at a CAGR of 25% to be worth US$ 4 billion by 2020 according to a report by BCG and Google India.

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Reliance Industries: India’s Answer To Amazon, Alibaba?

Amazon, Alibaba and Reliance Industries have wide business ecosystems - LD Investments

Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Alibaba (NYSE:BABA) are two of the world’s biggest e-commerce companies, each boasting a market value of about half a trillion dollars (specifically speaking, Amazon is more than half a trillion dollars while Alibaba is slightly less).

Both companies boast top-line figures that surpass the Gross Domestic Product of entire countries – Amazon raked in US$ 178 billion in revenues in 2017 while Alibaba earned CNY 250.3 billion or about US$ 40 billion for the year ended March 2018, higher than the 2017 GDP figures of countries such as Estonia (US$ 26 billion), Iceland (US$ 24 billion), Cyprus (US$ 21.6 billion), Afghanistan (US$ 20.8 billion), Jamaica (US$ 14 billion), Brunei (US$ 12.1 billion), Fiji (US$ 5 billion), and Maldives (US$ 4.5 billion) according to data from the World Bank.

Both companies also serve sizeable user bases the number of which is larger than the population of entire countries; Alibaba’s over 600 million monthly active users would make it the third most populous country in the world after China and India, while Amazon’s over 300 million monthly active users would make it the fourth most populous country in the world after China, India and the United States.

Both companies owe much of their initial success to the rapid growth of e-commerce in their respective home countries which make up the world’s two biggest e-commerce markets; Alibaba in China (the world’s biggest e-commerce market) and Amazon in the United States (the world’s second biggest e-commerce market).

Both companies continue to dominate their respective home markets, with Amazon holding a market share of nearly 40% in 2017 while Alibaba commanded a market share of about 55%.

With India emerging as e-commerce’s next major opportunity (Morgan Stanley estimates India’s e-commerce market will grow from US$ 15 billion in 2016 to US$ 200 billion in 2026, representing at a CAGR of nearly 30% between 2017 and 2026), could the South Asian nation join China and the United States in producing its own e-commerce juggernaut?

India’s crowded e-commerce landscape boasts its own share of homegrown online retailers notable examples include Flipkart, Snapdeal, Alibaba-backed Paytm Mall (the e-commerce arm of India’s top digital payment firm Paytm) and ShopClues. With Reliance Industries (RIL) (NSE:RELIANCE) (BOM:500325) and Future Group planning on entering India’s e-commerce sector, competition is set to intensify in an already hyper-competitive market where the majority of players are yet to show profits.

For instance, India’s second-biggest online retailer and e-commerce veteran Amazon’s loss from its international business jumped nearly 30% to US$ 3 billion in 2017 from US$ 1.28 billion in 2016, with much of it due to massive investments in India. Meanwhile India’s leading homegrown e-commerce player, Flipkart saw its losses balloon by 68% during the fiscal year ended March 2018.

With e-commerce making up just 3%-4% of India’s US$ 670 billion retail sector, it is still early days for India’s e-commerce market which is undergoing rapid change. Founded in 2010, local competitor Snapdeal, at one time was India’s number two e-commerce platform after Flipkart, while Amazon India stood at number three. By mid-2016, Snapdeal found itself dislodged from its second-placed position by deep pocketed Amazon India, which began life a couple of years after Snapdeal. With current market leader Flipkart holding retaining its crown (with a market share of 39.5%, ahead of Amazon’s 31% share) the market has so far evolved to be a two-horse race with Flipkart (which was bought up by Walmart this year) and Amazon fighting tooth and nail for gold while ShopClues, Snapdeal and Alibaba-backed PayTM Mall battle for bronze.

Although late to the party, oil-to-telecom conglomerate Reliance Industries possesses several competitive advantages from an extensive brick-and-mortar network to a wide eco-system of businesses which could help it emerge as a formidable player in India’s e-commerce war.

Deep Pockets

Amid stiffening competition, e-commerce platforms are investing substantial sums and burning money heavily as they vie for a slice of India’s promising e-commerce market. Aiming for dominance, Amazon, the world’s largest e-taiiler, has a massive US$ 5 billion war chest while local rival and current market leader Flipkart managed to add nearly US$ 4 billion to its kitty thanks to a funding round from investors such as Softbank, Tencent, Microsoft and eBay last year. The company reduced its burn to just US$ 17-18 million a month while arch rival Amazon continues to burn twice that amount estimated at over US$ 40 million. Against this backdrop, it is likely that smaller, cash-strapped rivals will gradually find themselves edged out by deep-pocketed players. Reliance Industries Ltd being a Fortune 500 company and India’s biggest private sector corporation could have the financial wherewithal to compete against the incumbents similar to the manner in which its telecom arm, Reliance Jio disrupted India’s telecom sector in less than two years of operation to emerge as India’s fourth largest telco after Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular.

Extensive brick-and-mortar store network

Omnichannel retail experiences (offering customers a seamless online and offline shopping experience) are increasingly becoming commonplace in mature retail markets such as China and the United States. India is expected to follow suit and retailers such as Pepperfry, Adidas, Urban Ladder, FirstCry and Nykaa are among the few in India to have already incorporated click-and-mortar shopping experiences.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon and Flipkart have also been busy plotting their own omnichannel retail strategies; last year, Amazon made its first investment in an offline retailer in India when it picked up a 5% stake in Shoppers Stop, a Mumbai-based department store chain for INR 179.24 crore (about US$ 28 million).

Under the partnership, the duo will conduct “joint marketing” initiatives which will see Amazon open Amazon Experience Centres showcasing Amazon’s products across all 80 Shoppers Stop outlets located in 38 cities in India.

Not wanting to be outdone, Flipkart is reportedly in talks to acquire a 8%-10& stake in Future Lifestyle Fashions Ltd (NSE:FLFL), the listed fashion company owned by Future Group, one of India’s largest retail companies with a presence in grocery, electronics, home furnishings and furniture with over 17 million square feet of retail space in more than 240 cities.

Future Lifestyle is one of India’s largest branded apparel retailers in India with a total retail space of over 5 million sq ft across 400 stores in 90 cities.

Flipkart claims to have a 70% market share in India’s online fashion retail space. A deal with Future Lifestyle Fashions could open an avenue for Flipkart to establish an offline presence in India’s fashion retail sector thereby helping it solidify its market leading position as India’s leading online fashion retailer.

While the e-commerce giants have bolstering their offline presence, Reliance Retail already has an extensive brick and mortar store network throughout India which the company can leverage as part of an omnichannel retail strategy. Similar to Future Group which was founded in 1997, Reliance Retail which was founded nearly a decade later in 2006 is one of India’s largest retail enterprises with a presence in grocery, electronics, furniture and fashion. The company boasts a store network of over 3,700 stores across 750 cities with an area of over 14.5 million square feet of retail space according to the company’s December 2017 quarterly report.

Reliance Jio

There has been a noticeable trend in developed markets where media companies such as Google, Amazon and Alibaba which deliver copious amounts of video and other content are increasingly morphing into telecom companies and telecom companies such as AT&T and Verizon are morphing into media companies.

In other words, the “pipe” owners i.e., the telecom companies are increasingly taking control of the content that flows through their “pipes” while the content owners i.e., the media companies, are increasingly evolving into pipe owners.

Google offers high-speed internet service through its subsidiary Google Fiber, Amazon has reportedly been considering the prospect of becoming an ISP in Europe, and Alibaba is reportedly looking at expanding into the telecom sector.

AT&T, America’s second-largest wireless carrier merged with Time Warner while Verizon, America’s largest wireless carrier, scooped up AOL in 2015 and Yahoo last year, and then clubbed the two companies together to launch its digital content subsidiary Oath Inc with the goal building a media business that could compete with the likes Google and Facebook.

Over in India, a similar trend has been unfolding and Reliance Industries has made its moves. Reliance Industries owns the “pipes” via its telecom arm Reliance Jio and the company also offers its own unique content via its plethora of content apps such as JioCinema, JioMusic etc.

In response to rising net neutrality concerns, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) last year proposed guidelines in favor of net neutrality; however, Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) or “content “edge” providers (a network of computer servers set up inside an ISP which can deliver digital content faster to end users) do not fall under the proposed regulations and thus integrated operators such as Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel are poised to benefit as they could leverage this CDN exemption and offer their content at lower prices to their subscribers.

Content Delivery Networks are often built and owned by third-party companies such as Akamai Technologies Inc and Cloudflare, however, some deep-pocketed content providers such as Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft and Alibaba have built their own private CDNs. The net neutrality debate focuses on ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and not CDNs.

Wide ecosystem of businesses

Amazon, Alibaba and Reliance Industries have wide business ecosystems - LD Investments

With businesses spanning cloud computing to video streaming Amazon and Alibaba are much more than just e-commerce companies. Interestingly, Indian stalwart Reliance Industries also boasts a highly diversified ecosystem of businesses which combined could prove to be a powerful force.

In brick-and-mortar retailing, Amazon owns the Whole Foods grocery chain, Alibaba owns Hema Supermarkets (盒马) while Reliance has Reliance Retail.

All three companies have logistics arms – Amazon with Amazon Logistics, Alibaba with its Cainiao and Reliance Industries with Reliance Logistics.

In video streaming, Amazon has Amazon Video while Alibaba has video hosting platform Youku Tudou. Relince has JioCinema.

In music streaming, Aamzon has Amazon Music, Alibaba has Ali Music and Reliance Industries has JioMusic.

All three companies have ventured into production of digital video content; Amazon through Amazon Studios, Alibaba through Alibaba Pictures and Reliance Industries via its partnership with Roy Kapur Films (RKF) which will produce original digital video content as “Jio Originals”.

In the mobile wallet space, Amazon has Amazon Pay, Alibaba has Alipay and Reliance has Jio Money.

In messaging apps, Amazon has Amazon Chime, Alibaba has DingTalk and Reliance Industries has JioChat,

All three companies have their feet in the cloud business as well with Amazon offering cloud services through AWS, Alibaba through Alibaba Cloud and Reliance through JioCloud.

All three companies have a direct or indirect involvement in media as well, with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owning the Washington Post, Alibaba founder Jack Ma owning the South China Morning Post and Reliance Industries holding Network 18.

Such a wide eco-system has several advantages; the businesses will reinforce each other as existing consumers and companies become more likely to use their platforms which not only generate diverse sources of revenue but vast quantities of consumer and business data as well, which ultimately could be used towards further business expansion.

RIL Chairman Mukesh Ambani famously said, “Data is the new oil and India does not need to import it”.

While Reliance Industries is a latecomer to India’s e-commerce arena and the company’s success depends on several factors such as execution, Reliance’s entry into e-commerce cannot be taken lightly; the Indian giant could be a formidable competitor, disrupting the current status quo similar to the manner in which it reshaped the Indian telecom sector within a few years of operation.