Last January, Amazon founder and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos was in India, holding closed-door meetings with top industry leaders including Mukesh Ambani and Kishore Biyani. He hobnobbed with Bollywood stars, visited the iconic Taj Mahal, flew kites with children and also experienced Indian street food. He even delivered a package to a customer from a kirana store in Mumbai and shared the picture on his Instagram account.
A lot has changed since then. In a surprise move, Bezos stepped down as CEO of the e-commerce giant on Tuesday. He would transition to the executive chair of Amazon Board and will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives. Andy Jassy, who heads the company’s cloud computing platform Amazon Web Services (AWS), is expected to take over the role of CEO in the third quarter of 2021.
Under Bezos’s leadership, Amazon identified India as a strategic market as early as 2013. Amazon has so far committed over $6.5 billion to the India market. It has been scaling up its investments in the country at a time when the Seattle-headquartered firm had signed off from China.
“I predict that the 21st century is going to be the Indian century. The dynamism, the energy… everywhere I go here, I meet people who are working in self-improvement and growth. This country has something special, democracy,” Bezos had said during his India visit last year.
Indeed, only 7 per cent of the $1.2-trillion retail market is online, and Amazon and its rivals including Walmart-owned Flipkart and Reliance’s JioMart are aggressively eyeing the remaining 93 per cent. The market opportunities for online commerce in the country are also expected to touch $200 billion by 2028 from $30 billion in 2018.
Not only online retail, under Bezos, Amazon has also forayed into other big sectors including education, digital payments, video and music streaming and delivery of food and medicine.
This year the company launched Amazon Academy to cater to students preparing for the JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) for entrance to engineering colleges. The move would enable it to take on top edtech companies such as Byju’s, Unacademy, Vedantu and traditional education institutes and tap country’s $180-billion education sector which has gone online to adapt to the new reality.
Last year Amazon forayed into food delivery which puts it in direct competition with established local players including Tencent-backed Swiggy and Alibaba-backed Zomato. It also forayed into the online medicine segment and launched Amazon Pharmacy. This puts it in direct competition with established local players including NetMeds, 1mg, PharmEasy and Medlife.
Amazon is at an inflection point in the country, as the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of e-commerce and tech by consumers and small and medium businesses. Last year, Bezos announced that the company planned to invest $1 billion to help bring 10 million traders and micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) across India online, enabling $10 billion in cumulative exports by 2025. The firm also said it planned to create 1 million jobs in India by 2025 through continued investments in technology, infrastructure, and its logistics network.
Industry insiders said this move gave a sneak peek into the business strategy that Amazon is betting on to take on rivals such as Walmart-owned Flipkart and Reliance’s e-commerce venture JioMart by merging online and offline retail. These include millions of kirana and local store owners across the country that Amazon and Flipkart are wooing.
Last year, during a fireside chat with Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, Bezos described going to a kirana store as an “incredible experience.” “It is this tiny little store. We have thousands of these points of presence now, where they do their regular business, but then they also provide a place for people to pick up their packages,” Bezos told Khan. “I talked to this young man (at the kirana) who helps his parents to run the store, about how it has really improved their lives, to have that extra source of income. It was a moving experience.”
During his visit to India in September 2014, Bezos tried to woo the country with investments. Wearing an Indian sherwani, he stood atop a heavily decorated truck flashing a big $2-billion cheque in Bengaluru along with Amazon India chief Amit Agarwal. He had said that the country energised him.
Amazon’s India story is also rooted in Bengaluru. Agarwal, who is a close friend of Bezos, came here in 2004 and started with a handful of software development engineers. He recalled the team was writing code huddled in a tiny office space in Bengaluru. “Imagine a typical scrappy Bengaluru start-up, looking to make a difference,” said Agarwal recently. “ The company drew on the talent in this city," he said.
However, Bezos’ transition comes at a time when Amazon is locked in an intense legal battle with Kishore Biyani-headed Future Group for the retail conglomerate’s $3.4 billion deal with Reliance Industries. The Delhi High Court on Tuesday asked Future Retail Ltd (FRL) to maintain the status quo with respect to its deal with Reliance Retail. In August 2020, the Future group struck a $3.4-billion asset sale deal with RIL. Amazon then sent a legal notice to Future, alleging the retailer’s deal breached an agreement with the American e-commerce firm. It has also been reported that India is planning to tighten foreign investment rules which might e-commerce companies include Amazon and Walmart.
Amazon and its rival Flipkart have also faced court cases related to probe by the Competition Commission of India (CCI) for alleged anti-competitive practises. These kinds of courtroom battles have been backed by trade bodies, the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) and Delhi Vyapar Mahasangh (DVM) and are expected to have a bearing on the upcoming e-commerce policy, according to people familiar with the matter.
All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists (AIOCD), which represents more than 850,000 members across the country have also been opposing the e-commerce giant’s entry into the online pharmacy segment in India.
As executive chair, Bezos will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives but also have the time and energy to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, spaceflight company Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and his other passions.
“This step-down of one of the world’s richest man shouldn’t be viewed by India as a detriment to Amazon but rather as a blessing to other fields of technology which now possess the potential to revolutionise their fields and, possibly, make a similar impact as Amazon has made in lives of billions of people on the planet,” said Salman Waris, managing partner at technology law firm TechLegis Advocates and Solicitors. “India could benefit from his efforts and initiatives.”
* February 2012: Amazon made its foray into the Indian market with the launch of Junglee.com.
* June 2013: Amazon launches its first shopping website in India.
* July 2014: Amazon announces an additional $2 billion investment in India.
* June 2016: Bezos made an announcement of a further $3-billion investment in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
* July 2016: Amazon announced the launch of its globally popular Amazon Prime membership programme in India. It later launched services related to payments, video and music.
* September 2018: Samara Capital and Amazon signed a deal to acquire food and grocery retail chain More from the Aditya Birla Group, in a deal reportedly valued at around Rs 4,200 crore.
* August 2019: Amazon acquires a 49% stake in Future Coupons, the promoter entity of Future Retail, for about Rs 1,500 crore. The firm also opens its largest campus in the world in Hyderabad.
* January 2020: Bezos announces that the company planned to invest $1 billion to help bring 10 million traders and micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) across India online, enabling $10 billion in cumulative exports by 2025. The firm also said it planned to create 1 million jobs in India by 2025.
* August 2020: Future group strikes a $3.4-billion asset sale deal with RIL. Amazon then sent a legal notice to Future, alleging the retailer’s deal breached an agreement with the American e-commerce firm.