Amazon’s JV Cloudtail is its biggest seller in India

The joint venture between Amazon India parent and N.R. Narayana Murthy’s Catamaran Ventures contributes at least 40% of sales


As India bans FDI in online retail, e-commerce firms Amazon and Flipkart operate as marketplace platforms that connect small merchants with buyers. Cloudtail India and WS Retail are the firms’ largest marketplaces respectively. Photo: AFP
As India bans FDI in online retail, e-commerce firms Amazon and Flipkart operate as marketplace platforms that connect small merchants with buyers. Cloudtail India and WS Retail are the firms’ largest marketplaces respectively. Photo: AFP

Bengaluru/New Delhi: Cloudtail India Pvt. Ltd, a joint venture between Amazon.com Inc. and N.R. Narayana Murthy’s Catamaran Ventures, has become the biggest seller or merchant on Amazon India’s platform, underlining how the world’s largest online retailer has used loopholes in the law to deploy a mix of the marketplace and the direct-selling business model in India.

Cloudtail is now the key growth driver for Amazon India, generating at least 40% of the company’s sales in some months, three people familiar with the matter said. Cloudtail is particularly dominant in electronics and fashion sales, two of the three largest categories for Amazon India (promoted by Amazon Seller Services Pvt. Ltd).

Since it launched as a seller on Amazon in July 2014, Cloudtail has expanded aggressively. Its capital was increased to Rs.500 crore last month from just Rs.500,000 last July, according to documents available with the Registrar of Companies (RoC). The equity capital has been pumped in jointly by Amazon Asia and Catamaran through an entity called Prione Business Services Pvt. Ltd.

Apart from the Rs.500 crore in equity capital, Cloudtail has access to secured loans totalling Rs.300 crore, RoC documents show.

“Cloudtail is an independent seller on the platform that sells products across various categories and gets the same privileges as any of the other sellers on our platform,” an Amazon spokeperson said in an emailed response.

Cloudtail representatives didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

As India bans foreign direct investment (FDI) in online retail, Amazon and Flipkart, the country’s biggest e-commerce firm, operate as marketplace platforms that connect small merchants with buyers. Amazon and Flipkart aren’t allowed to sell directly to shoppers.

India’s industry department is yet to define the term marketplace and also elaborate on just what constitutes retail and wholesale trading on such platforms. Many traditional retailers allege that most online marketplaces are actually involved in the retail business.

Marketplaces are defined as websites that connect buyers to sellers, offering services such as warehousing, logistics, and payments. This falls under the definition of so-called B2B or business-to-business e-commerce. India allows foreign investments in firms engaged in this business, but not in retail firms.

Like Amazon, others have tried to get around this problem too. Flipkart India, for instance, has devised a complicated maze of many inter-connected and some purportedly independent entities.

WS Retail is one of the most important entities in this structure. To get around FDI rules, Flipkart created WS Retail in 2009 as a seller on its site. As part of a complex arrangement, WS Retail bought goods from Flipkart India Pvt. Ltd, the B2B (business-to-business) arm of the main group holding company, and sold the same goods to customers on Flipkart’s site. WS Retail also owned and ran Flipkart’s key logistics business called e-kart that delivered products to customers.

WS Retail was owned by Flipkart co-founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal, both of whom were also on its board, until September 2012. The Bansals were forced to sell their stake in WS Retail to former OnMobile Global Ltd chief operating officer Rajeev Kuchhal just weeks before Indian regulatory agencies launched an investigation into Flipkart’s business relationship with WS Retail.

After the stake sale, the Bansals resigned from WS Retail’s board, but two of Flipkart’s early employees, Sujeet Kumar and Tapas Rudrapatna, both of whom are considered to be close to the Flipkart founders, controlled roughly 46% of WS Retail. Kumar was the de facto head of WS Retail and ran the logistics business until he left the company earlier this year.

Flipkart has since bought back the logistics arm, as reported by Mint on 22 September.

In Amazon’s case, the company prefers to deploy a mix of marketplace and direct sales in most of its international markets because this allows the company to expand sales rapidly as well as maintain consistency in customer experience. To achieve this preferred mix of market place and direct sales, Amazon set up Cloudtail as a seller on its platform with the help of Catamaran Ventures, the family office of Infosys Ltd co-founder Murthy.

Cloudtail brings significant benefits to Amazon India.

After Cloudtail’s aggressive expansion, Amazon India is no longer solely dependent on other third-party sellers to drive sales. The e-commerce giant has stopped giving guaranteed returns to some sellers on the inventory they commit to Amazon, the people cited above said.

For other sellers, too, Amazon has reduced the amount of guarantee it gives on their goods, the people said. These measures have helped Amazon save tens of crores of rupees. Earlier, Amazon promised a monthly return of 1-3% on the value of goods sent by some sellers to its warehouses. This helped Amazon obtain significant product commitments from sellers even before customers placed orders. The easy availability of inventory then helped the company deliver goods faster than rivals and differentiate itself in a market where it is desperate to succeed.

The timing of Cloudtail’s launch as well as its frenetic expansion are also partly connected to the tax troubles faced by Amazon in Karnataka.

In July-August last year, tax authorities in that state cancelled the licences of many of the third-party merchants that worked with Amazon India, bringing the company’s operations to a near halt in the state, one of the largest markets in the country. The tax dispute, which revolves around whether Amazon or its sellers should pay sales tax, is still unresolved.

Among other things, the dispute showed Amazon the degree to which it was reliant on third-party sellers. With Cloudtail’s expansion, that dependence is much lower.

Amazon India country head Amit Agarwal and finance director Raghava Rao joined Cloudtail’s board of directors last July.

The money that Amazon Asia is pumping into Cloudtail is separate from the thousands of crores of rupees received by Amazon Seller Services, the wholly-owned Indian unit of Amazon. In July 2014, Amazon.com Inc’s chief executive officer Jeff Bezos promised to pump in as much as $2 billion into the company’s India business over time, as it seeks to become the dominant e-commerce firm in the country.

mihir.d@livemint.com

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