“Sri Lankan businesses need to take a good look at how dinosaur enterprises were affected in bigger markets across the world. They were big, once relevant, but completely outdated when the digital revolution happened and the online buying culture erupted. It became a fast downfall to those dinosaurs. But, we don’t have to repeat the same mistakes here. There’s room to change, but not much time. So, now is the time you need to get behind this, before it’s too late,” says Dulith Herath.
As the man who pioneered the ecommerce sector in Sri Lanka, Herath has a wealth of wisdom to offer any business on how to get their online game right. Right now, he has just completed what he calls ‘Sri Lanka’s first complete e commerce facilitator network’. For years now, Herath has been working in developing the country’s ecommerce sector through his own ventures like Kapruka and Grasshoppers; going as far as meeting Asia’s e-com king Jack Ma of Alibaba.
Sharing more on this, Herath joined Daily FT for an exclusive interview where he discussed the future of e-tail, how Sri Lankan businesses are losing out by not tapping into the online marketplace, and why there are no more excuses left for local businesses to get their e commerce game on point. “It’s a do-or-die really,” he says.
“It’s not even a question to ask whether ecommerce revolution will happen in Sri Lanka; it’s just a question of when, and it’s already happening”
Dulith has studied the e-commerce landscapes in markets all over the world, from US, Canada, India, China to Thailand, observing the common traits. He pointed out that everywhere, the online buying phenomenon was welcomed at different paces— but surely and most definitely, it was always welcomed by consumers to eventually dominate the everyday purchasing habits.
“It’s not to say that people will never go into a shop, but traditional retail will only survive at the more experiential end of the spectrum. For everyday shopping people will always resort to convenience, and online is hard to beat in this matter.”
Herath also added that in every country, the entry of a giant player with major investments would bring about a significant ‘hockey-stick’ spike in the e commerce sales causing the entire sector to grow rapidly. “We’ve seen this in every country, from Amazon to Flipkart… Because when investment comes, the concessions to convert consumers into adapters become possible, and once they convert, it’s a matter of continuing the habit. In Sri Lanka, this happened too, and the ripples of this are felt across the entire chain…and this is exactly what I hope will happen more often here with big companies like Softlogic being present. The share that investors can also gain is massive, because they’re breaking new paths here.”
He assures that it’s only a matter of time for Sri Lankan businesses to realise that without e commerce, they’re not even scratching the surface of the possibilities available in the worldwide markets. “Accessibility to the online market is there now, the question is, are you ready to work towards it?”
“The idea that the markets in the South Asian region are not ready is a myth. About 15% of the Indian market is online. It’s only 22% even in the US”
“If you look at the biggest retailers here in Sri Lanka, they’re not online. And when I say online, I mean really online. For most, getting online is a matter of adding a shopping cart to their website, cutting a ribbon and a cake, releasing a press story and waiting for something to happen. And when nothing happens, they fire the team, start again, maybe give a discount, and have the customers flock, take the discount and never return...so it will keep dying this natural death, and they give it up saying the market is not ready. It doesn’t work like that. For me, even if 99% of my retail is brick-and-mortar, I will still go after developing that 1% because that’s the future. You need to get into it, and be serious about it.”
Herath explains that for e commerce to really work and become a success for a company, it takes the business leaders to understand that it is the future. With global statistics pointing out that online marketplace will only continue to boom, bringing in new accessibility and market shares from every corner of the world, it seems only obvious that e commerce will be the most popular form of buying and selling tomorrow.
“Leaders need to motivate their teams to keep digging at it; keep investing; keep analysing the data; keep communicating with the customer...only then, it will begin to happen. And if you invest in this now, when the primary commercial channel becomes e commerce in the very near future, you will still be in the game.”
“And remember, the world is your competition now…”
Herath spins the conversation to zoom in on another point of view. What does radical accessibility mean to the consumers here? Will Sri Lankan consumers stay loyal to local brands that don’t take the online retail world seriously, when the same or better products are available from abroad, at the click of a button?
“It’s not just the Sri Lankan businesses having access to the consumer markets across the world. It’s the other way round too… our businesses need to remember that the local consumers now have access to products from every corner of the world. They can just order what they want, and have it shipped from the other corner of the world, right to their doorstep—especially with ventures like Grasshopper that we just started where last mile delivery becomes simplified and extremely economical. So what’s stopping your consumers from switching to an international competitor now?”
Herath adds that local retailers who go online and maintain their presence in the e commerce sphere will stay at the top of the consumer mind as people spend more and more of their time focused on screens.
“Everything you need to make e commerce work in Sri Lanka is there. There are no more excuses for failing at preparing your business for the inevitable future”
Herath has connected an entire network of businesses and collaborators that can help any company to start their e commerce success story in Sri Lanka. He says that everything from infrastructure builders to delivery is now available in the country, leaving no room to hold back on the exponential growth that online retail world offers retailers.
“You cannot say that there are no payment gateways in Sri Lanka—it’s there; you cannot say that there is no consumer adaptation here in the island—it’s clearly there; you cannot say there are no last mile delivery—companies like Grasshoppers are international award-winning experts at it. So, Sri Lankan retailers really have no excuses to get their online game right. It’s the future of retail, and with everything you need available in the country, what are you waiting for? Go on, make your business future-proof.”