All that’s fit to sell

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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Can you think of any shop that would sell a toothpaste, or a 67-year-old newspaper, or an aircraft? The curious world of online classifieds
Have colgate active plus toothpaste 200g in seal packed condition. I am moving to other country and colgate is banned there. Please get this awesome toothpaste in just 80 INR where market price is 94 INR

No one really sells a tube of toothpaste because they are moving out of the country and Amit Lakhra, a mechanical engineer from Surat who put up this advertisement on the online classifieds website OLX, in fact has no plans of doing anything like that. The ad itself is however real; he did want to sell the toothpaste. He had just bought it when two days later on a dental visit he was told to start using a medicated paste. Lakhra decided to put up the Colgate for sale and says he added the moving abroad part because he needed to “give some reason”. “I also knew that such a small thing might not get sold. It was a Sunday and I was free and I thought let’s do this,” he says.

It is an unusual item to sell but then what happened later was even more interesting because he did get a response and a somewhat strange one at that. “One Gujaratibhai called and said that the rate is a little high. If you reduce it a little, we will think about it!” he says.

A couple of days later he got another call asking whether the toothpaste had been sold, but by then Lakhra had started using it because his medicated paste had got over and the medical shop didn’t have a new batch. Lakhra has used OLX before too, but that was for mobile accessories. One part of him wanted to test the limit to which it could be used. “Thousand, five-thousand rupee things people are eager to buy. Selling something which is of a cheap price, that is a big question. I thought let’s check the extent,” he says.

In the eastern end of the country, Kolkata, Barun Deb, a wandering trader of T-shirts who picks up the clothes in the city and then goes to nearby villages to sell, has another interesting item put up for sale. The title of the listing goes: ‘The Statesman 15 August 1947 First morning newspaper’ and the text itself, ‘Pages of newspaper very good, side of pages no fracture. Paper is good condition. First page and opposite side also available last page and opposite side.’ The image of the newspaper’s masthead is alongside and the banner headline screams ‘TWO DOMINIONS ARE BORN’.

Deb says the paper had always been in his home but he came across it about 10 years ago. Recently he started noticing all kinds of old things being sold online and commanding huge prices. “I thought I also had something. I will also try to sell it,” he says. The paper cost 2 annas on Independence Day but Deb, somewhat ambitiously, is asking for Rs 33 lakh for it in the listing with ‘negotiable’ in brackets under it. He really has no clue what it is worth. “Whether anyone gives or not (the Rs 33 lakh), it doesn’t make any difference to me,” he says.

On an e-commerce site like Amazon or Flipkart, businesses trade with consumers, money is exchanged online and the product delivered. But online classifieds are different in that they only bring buyers and sellers together over the internet; the transactions happen offline. It is in a sense a free-for-all. The website is just a platform or a meeting place which the two main players in India in this sector—OLX and Quikr—leave free for people to put up goods and services they want to sell. Odd consequences can follow with such freedom.

A couple of months ago, just before Bakri Eid this year, Amarjeet Batra, the CEO of OLX India, suddenly noticed an unusual product being traded on his website—goats. Listings in the form of: ‘…goat of pure breed going very cheep long ears and healthy 17 inch long and 7 inch width’ or ‘we have pink skin goat. 80 kg wait. every goat is white’. It has a pets section where animals are traded, but sale for slaughter was not something it was comfortable with, and soon OLX started discouraging it. But that still indicated the uses that Indians came come up with once they have a marketplace on offer.

“Because we are such a frictionless platform, people are finding creative ways to use the platform. For example, we have a category called ‘pets’ in which we allow the sale of animals like dogs and cats for adoption. We found that people in rural India were selling their cattle also. There are many such things happening over the last year. We were okay with that. Cattle is used for farming, it is more useful than a pet sale and actually improves livelihood. We allowed it to flourish. Suddenly during Bakri Eid we found people selling goats. We stopped this particular thing because we don’t want [the trading of] animals which are there for killing,” says Batra.

Quikr too saw an efflorescence of goats being traded on its site before Eid. To a question on whether it surprised him, Quikr’s CEO Pranay Chulet replies that being a country of jugaad, Indians have found their own ways of using his website. “Nothing surprises me about the use people find for Quikr in this country. We stopped being surprised two or three years ago. At first it was electronics and so on that was getting sold. But over time [there were items like] cattle, ploughs in Punjab… goats don’t surprise me. It is just a reflection of how big our platform has become.”

Batra even remembers an aircraft that was once put up for sale on OLX. “It was there for some time. I saw it one-and-a-half to two years ago,” he says.

Both OLX and Quikr claim to be the biggest player in the market and have arguments to support it. But neither will reveal its numbers, so there is no way to verify which is bigger. Both are however in unison on the market being huge and growing exponentially. Chulet was in the US before coming to India in 2008 to launch Quikr, and saw the power of Craigslist up close over there. “It sort of singlehandedly took the classified business from newspapers in that country. I knew the power of this model. In 2008, when I was looking to come back to India and do something in the digital space, it was natural for me to think about it” he says.

He thought there were elements about online classifieds that made it a better business to get into than e-commerce. For instance, many in India don’t have credit cards or are wary of online transactions. In the online classifieds model, the deal is sealed face-to-face, which Indians are comfortable with. “As a society we like to see a product before we buy it, haggle and negotiate the prices. Categories like cars and real estate, there is no way people will buy these things online. So you can’t have online transactions and it is important to have classifieds in those categories. For all these reasons, I felt something like this would make a lot of sense in India, and over time, it has been proved right,” he says.

Unlike Quikr, which is a start-up, OLX is a multinational that also saw in India a huge market. Batra says that when it launched in India, online classifieds were linked to verticals but not individual to individual (or consumer to consumer) sales. “So people were a little bit more aware of matrimonials, looking for jobs, maybe real estate also. But they were not selling their own cars or mobile phones or sofas. We came in and looked at the market in a different way. We worked the last three-four years to build the market. The metros were the first places where this became popular. Now we are spreading to the interiors of India also, the tier 2, tier 3 towns, and even sometimes rural villages also,” he says.

A couple of factors have led to the growth of this model. For one, the availability of second-hand goods with people as India goes from scarcity to abundance. “People have more stuff today to sell, but they didn’t have an avenue for it. We brought that platform to them,” Batra says. Many of these products, like electronics or vehicles, were good brands that depreciated fast, turning people keen to sell them once they saw they could do it online. Then followed another stage of evolution with people putting up goods that they didn’t need and were cluttering their homes. Especially things that were blocking space, like a large cabinet or almirah. Or if they were upgrading their AC or TV, then they wanted to unlock the value of the old one. Recently, OLX has noticed another trend—of hobbies and collectibles being sold. There are also the seasonal trends, like the goats before Bakri Eid. “When something like a marriage season happens, people sometimes sell their old lehengas also. When colleges are to start, people sell their old books,” says Batra.

Underpinning all this is the explosion of mobile phones and the penetration of the internet via these handsets. Chulet says, “Eighty per cent of my business comes from mobile [phones], and that is where growth is going to be.”

The category that gets the most listings is electronics goods, including mobile phones and accessories. Cars and bikes are also big. Within that, there are interesting sub- categories that are finding sellers. Like Atul Rever from Rajkot, who is in the construction business and recently wanted to sell a vintage Woseley 1944 car for Rs 11 lakh. He bought it ten years ago from the collection of the Maharaja of Jetpur, a former princely state of the region. “That time the car was in a very bad condition. I repainted it, brought tyres from London and refurbished it into a completely original piece,” says Rever.

He also has an Austin 1946 model and is selling the Woseley so that he can buy another. He had been interested in vintage cars ever since he learnt to drive in 1979. Rever put it up online because he wanted to reach out to a wider network of buyers. And he did get enquiries. “I got three calls. One from Bhopal, one from a local Rajkot person, and one from Palanpur. The Bhopalwala told me to reduce the price. I said, ‘You come see the car, drive it, later I will negotiate.’ He said, ‘Nine lakh.’ I said, ‘The Rs 2.5 lakh [discount] won’t happen, but first see the car, I won’t disappoint you, I will make some adjustment’,” he says.

While the numbers of listings and variety have grown exponentially, the online classifieds business is still at a nascent stage when it comes to making profits. Quikr says it is revenue driven and all about premium listings. OLX, on the other hand, says it will only monetise its web traffic when the time is right and that it is not a factor in its calculations right now.

If you want someone to write or round up your PhD thesis, you can find such a service here. There are also ‘lucky donkeys’ on offer that look white in colour; there is the sole goat milk seller in Madurai, though only for local delivery; an invitation card of ‘Her Majesty Queen Mary showcasing Carpet made by her’ which on closer perusal makes itself apparent as an official souvenir; and struggling scriptwriters offering their works to directors and producers. There is also Fatima Poonawalla, a housewife from Mumbai, who has just put up a Cadbury’s pack. Her son’s birthday had been celebrated recently and she found herself with more chocolates than was healthy for the family. “I thought if some other people want, they can buy from me,” she says. Earlier she had put up a fan and a ceiling lamp. And then there was also her mother’s flat in a far-flung suburb of Mumbai. Not exactly in the price bracket of a chocolate, but for some reason, it all seems the same on the website.