Although some consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturers may be left in doubt, today, all forward-thinking B2C manufacturers are at least investigating how to build and maintain a solid brand in our digital age and how to develop a long-term direct-to-consumer (DtC) strategy. High-end shopping streets are, as a result, increasingly populated by flagship stores of your favourite brands. And online as well, most brands have had their first flirt with e-commerce.
Manufacturers have very little say in how their products are being marketed by retailers, while most traditional brick-and-mortar stores are performing worse every year. Some claim that today’s retail for consumer packaged goods is inefficient, too. And that a lot of food is wasted by trying to reduce empty shelves.
According to Consumers International, there are only four retailers in the UK that serve all together 25 million households with products from only 7,000 manufacturers. Other countries show similar numbers. Let’s welcome the new kid in town: INS. INS is a blockchain powered direct-to-consumer marketplace in the FMCG industry, claiming to cut out the middle man with respect to end consumer communication, loyalty rewards and order fulfilment of sales.
According to INS, some retail chains are abusing their buying power. Grocery retailers are conducting intense negotiations for better terms from their manufacturers and no one – not even giants like Procter & Gamble, Nestle, and Unilever – is in the right position to win those negotiations. In 2016, for example, Wal-Mart’s total sales were about five times bigger than those of its largest supplier, Procter & Gamble. Now imagine the position smaller manufacturers are in. Besides the obvious price and payment conditions, supermarkets are squeezing out their suppliers on terms and conditions like quantity, quality, delivery schedules, packaging and returns policy.
DIRECT SALES MAKE SENSE
When manufacturers communicate, reward or sell directly to their end customers, they are in full control of the brand experience: from the product’s packaging to its delivery. Also, everybody agrees: many digital natives head over to the internet for their shopping and are interested in a stronger relationship with their products, using tools such as instant messaging. Other reasons to sell directly are a growing importance of consumer feedback and data, pressure on profit margins, new possibilities in the supply chain, and so on. And consumers? According to INS, consumers more and more appreciate direct contacts with their brands and bypassing retailers may cut prices up to 30 percent.
So, when a start-up led by the founders of Instamart (a large venture-backed online grocery delivery service) claim they are building the world’s first global decentralized ecosystem directly connecting grocery manufacturers and consumers, it is almost natural they are getting a lot of attention. And when they publicly ask “What would grocery shopping be like without grocers?”, the room gets silent.
Within a few months, INS has signed an impressive list of (non-binding) MoU (memoranda of understanding) with manufacturers of all sizes. To name a few: Aviko, Bake Five, Borjomi, Donald Russel, Dubro, Gulden Krakeling, Henri, Reckit Benckiser, SoPure, Storteboom, Valio, Zijerveld and 2Sisters. Furthermore, hundreds of other (local and global) manufacturers from all around the world expressed their interest to join the INS ecosystem.
We agree with INS when they say that digital will disrupt grocery shopping, like digital has disrupted media. Amazon has acquired Whole Foods in the US and is close to offer online grocery in Europe. In many European markets, the close proximity of supermarkets makes sure that offline groceries are still the best choice – but fulfilment and delivery partners all over the continent are working hard to overcome that last mile to bring fresh apples and pears to your doorstep. Some consumers already have concluded subscription services like Marley Spoon, which are offering them a better combination of price, availability and convenience.
But will it be INS’ way? Keep reading to find out.
AND: DOES BLOCKCHAIN MAKE SENSE?
Blockchain is in essence a database technology controlled by a peer-to-peer network (‘nodes’).
A blockchain is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography. Each block typically contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp and transaction data. Once recorded, the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without the alteration of all subsequent blocks, which requires collusion of the majority of the network.
Blockchain technology, known and notorious because of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, is one of the key technologies of our decade. Numerous parties are experimenting with blockchain technology, for different use cases.
One of the advantages of blockchain technology is its low price for transactions. In INS’ case, the proposed transaction fee amounts to only one to three percent of the order value.
One of the downsides of blockchains is the time it takes for a transaction to be validated by the network. For bitcoins, I have been told, that nowadays takes seconds to hours. Obviously, within the context of e-commerce, that is not acceptable. INS is therefore developing its own private blockchain network where trusted (and professional) nodes are invited. According to documentation of INS itself, they will implement a superfast algorithm from the BFT family, enabling up to thousands of transactions per second.
By using blockchain for supply chain management, INS claims it will streamline fulfillment processes and reduce human errors. Also, INS tokens can be used as loyalty points or other rewards. Manufacturers can for instance use them within a consumer’s saving program or the INS’ operators can use them to invite consumers to the network.
According to INS’ documentation, manufacturers will be required to hold a balance in INS tokens which is equal to some portion of previous month sales to guarantee the ability to pay all types of rewards. Manufacturers can either keep tokens after receiving them from consumers or buy tokens on exchanges to comply with the requirement.
Similar to an IPO (Initial Public Offering), INS held an ICO (Initial Coin Offering) in December 2017 as a way of raising funds for the development of its business. At that moment, the price of an INS token was set against that of Ethereum (an alternative to bitcoin). INS tokens now can be traded at several exchanges. One of the risks of cryptocurrency for participating manufacturers might be the volatility of the market. While we were talking with INS at the beginning of April 2018, the company said it has a hedging strategy to limit the effect of price volatility of the INS token on manufacturers and consumers. But will it be good enough?
We have understood that INS is not planning to use blockchain for payments by the consumer.
So, INS is on its way to become a decentralized marketplace that allows manufacturers to communicate, use marketing and sell directly to consumers. Additionally, it allows them to execute sales promotions, conduct loyalty campaigns, and get feedback from those very same consumers.
Besides being a marketplace, INS intends to offer a software development kit (SDK) to those manufacturers so that they (or companies like EMAKERS on their behalf) are able to build their own branded web shop built on the system.
According to Frank van der Tol, INS’ business development manager for the Dutch market, no decision has been made yet on where to (geographically) launch first. In a discussion we held in the beginning of April, it was confirmed that the INS promotional platform is scheduled for a soft launch at the end of the third quarter of 2018. The INS marketplace will be launched in the first quarter of 2019. The geographical region where INS will be launched first could be the Benelux, as recent press announcements might suggest. Expected is a rather opportunistic approach to launch in a significant market with sufficient participating manufacturers.
INS believes that, for the platform to succeed, there is a key role to be played by fulfilment partners. In February 2018 it therefore announced a strategic partnership with PostNL, the leading logistics provider for parcel delivery in the Netherlands that also holds a significant position in Belgium and Germany. INS is actively recruiting partners with great expertise in fulfilling consumer packaged goods. These could be ‘traditional’ e-commerce fulfilment parties, but possibly also supermarkets and wholesalers that take on a new role within the supply chain.
THE END OF RETAIL
The one-million-euros question obviously is: “Will INS mean the end of retail?”
The sale of CPGs through e-commerce is still relatively low, but expected to grow fast in the years to come. Recent research from GfK shows in particular that the close proximity of supermarkets in The Netherlands is preventing growth in the segment.
In the Dutch market (for example) all major supermarket chains already have their e-commerce operations (AH, Jumbo, ..) and also know a ‘pure’ e-commerce player named Picnic.
Currently, the traditional supermarkets still hold a dominant position in the Dutch e-commerce of consumer packaged goods. They provide a service in line with their retail and master delivery. We expect them to grow towards marketplaces too, like Tesco in the UK.
While the Dutch market is relatively efficient with low margins, one can also expect Amazon to step into the game. In the US, Amazon has acquired Whole Foods Market and Amazon has already confirmed to start a grocery service in France, too. Amazon is the world’s most powerful marketplace and might - from a consumer’s perspective - not be much different than INS. The reasons to choose against Amazon are as big as those in favour. Amazon is known for copying popular products, which will not turn out in your favour in the long-term. In the short term, however, Amazon can exponentially increase your sales.
In the end, the success of INS will be determined by its capability to compete on price, availability and convenience.
EMAKERS is impressed by the talent INS has attracted in a fairly short time and the MoUs it has closed with major players in the market. We are a bit cautious though: INS is obviously receiving a lot of press coverage due to embracing blockchain as an enabler. But technology, as we know, is just one small part of internet success. Many startups rose to stardom overnight - but left the stage long before they managed to make any money.
INS’ biggest opportunity will be for those companies that have very little shelf space at retail chains. There is a rationale for brands that are well presented in supermarkets, too, but they are probably too dependent on such channels at this very moment.
In our experience with selling FMCG with a relatively low value (such as food and beverages) online, logistics will largely determine INS’ success. Supermarkets ship their orders from one place. The costs for delivery typically amounts only a small and acceptable portion of the total basket value. Now imagine a marketplace with decentralised logistics. It might well be that an order is dispatched to several parties resulting in multiple (and more expensive) deliveries. (This, obviously, is the case for all marketplaces.) To overcome this, INS is currently planning to consolidate orders in their smart fulfilment centres before sending them to the consumer. At first sight this sounds to us as selling through Amazon and being obliged to use FBA. This is a very interesting part in the INS business model to us and explains PostNL’s eagerness to collaborate with INS. On the other hand, this might make working with INS an even more strategic decision for direct to consumer brands and hurt the insertion of manufacturers within the network.
While direct sales is a strategy that no manufacturer can ignore in our opinion, selling through INS might also add an additional interface to your business operations - thus making your operations more difficult. While several services exist to automatically connect your own infrastructure to (for instance) Amazon, such a connector is not yet foreseen for INS. When manufacturers don’t have their own webshop yet, they might consider using INS’ software development kit.
One thing that INS understands perfectly well, is that customers are key. Talking with INS, we found out that they are currently - and possibly in close co-operation with supermarkets - developing a large system for customer loyalty programs and sales promotions using their INS tokens. This system is planned to go live in fall 2018, so by then we will find out in which market (and under which brand) INS will go live for its direct sales offer. You can trust that EMAKERS will be prepared and here to inform and advise you.