Fresh fish e-tailer SeaToHome solves a real problem in a tough-to-execute space

7 Sep, 2012

It can be called 'Fishkart', Mathew Joseph's answer to Flipkart. And just like Hemingway's 'Old Man' proved beyond a doubt that landing a great catch required both determination and 'territory' knowledge, Joseph, too, did his homework well and took a bold step to launch India's first fish e-tailing site SeaToHome.

A veteran who has been in the business for the past 25 years and successfully runs Atelier Exports, the 45-year-old had ambitious planned to sell the highly perishable 'local produce' online and pan-India, but was aware of the huge risk attached to it.

But not the one to give up, Joseph had worked on the nitty-gritty for nearly two years. The initial funding came from Joseph's family and SeaToHome came live in June this year. His USP: You get fresh, chemical-free fish home-delivered within 20-35 hours of the catch landing at the harbour.

However, it's still early days for the business and home deliveries are only available in Kochi, Trivandrum and Delhi-NCR (an Italian restaurant is one of the regular customers there). SeaToHome has tied up with SpiceJet and Air India to air-ship products to the National Capital Region while Mark Logistics does the last-mile delivery.

The company is also planning to expand its online footprint in 25 major cities, including Bangalore, Chennai and Jaipur, among others. "On an average, we get 20-45 calls a day from various cities and Bangalore tops that list. So in another two-three months, we will start operating there and Bangaloreans can buy fresh fish online," said Joseph. Chennai, too, will be a key location as it happens to be the port of call for importing fish from far-away places.

As the portal is all too new, only cash on delivery is available now, but it will soon introduce online payment facilities. Still, no two fish are alike and the weight of the actual shipment may vary a little from what has been ordered. So COD might be a good option in this case as customers pay the exact amount for what they are getting and none stands to lose. Also, if one places an order before 3 pm, it will be home-delivered the very next day.

What's so 'fresh' about this fish biz?

We don't mean the business model this time, but the healthy items that the firm is promising to deliver – ranging from everyday buy of rohu, catla and pomfret to lip-smacking tiger prawns and exotic seafood items.

"Unlike others, who mostly use chemicals like formalin, ammonia and chlorine for preservation, we only use chlorine-less ice – making sure that fresh fish reaches our buyers. And our produce is packed in thermocole containers to preserve it well," explains Joseph.

SeaToHome does not operate its own fleet but has partnered with local fishermen and country boats to procure the catch. As of now, it does not own a plant either, for cleaning and processing. "We have outsourced those things but have set up a chill room to preserve the catch till it is dispatched," adds Joseph.

Fishing for growth on the web

Selling fish online is undoubtedly a niche segment but what drove Joseph to explore it in the first place?

The exporter-turned-e-com retailer is quite candid in his reflection. For the last 2-3 years, there has been a decline in fish exports due to volatile global markets. In contrast, the Indian story has flourished and the overall demand across local markets has not dwindled.

"Even when the entire world deferred their purchasing decisions, Indian consumers did not stop shopping. And that prompted us to launch an online platform for domestic buyers," says Joseph who is already exporting to seven countries – Singapore, Thailand, Taipei, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Australia.

Of course, he had sniffed an opportunity to grow the business by netting domestic buyers. But Joseph still could not figure out how to cash in on it. "Lots of ideas came to my mind, like setting up shops in various cities. But finally, I zeroed in on e-commerce," he says, adding that the recent spurt in e-com startups has also inspired him to launch a retail venture online. "I need to stay ahead of the curve and hence this portal," he explains.

The incubation period had been long, though. Apparently, Joseph had been pondering over the idea for two years or so. He is an industry 'insider', has a business background (prior to Atelier, he used to work as an accountant with another fish exporter) but the web part of the new venture – running and maintaining a portal – seemed somewhat overwhelming. But he decided to give it a shot and the portal clicked, getting a fair amount of response from all over the country.

"Out of the total enquiries we get on a daily basis, 17 per cent comes from Delhi, 13 per cent from Kochi and 11 per cent from Thiruvananthapuram. Those who experienced our service kept coming back and we have a handful of regular customers now," says Joseph.

SeaToHome currently caters to 1,000 customers or so and Joseph claims that as many as 500-800 people visit the site on a daily basis. "Our online business is not profitable yet but what we see is encouraging and we are eyeing Rs 4 crore in turnover for the next fiscal. The site also handles around 10 per cent of the total export business of Ateliers and in future, we would like to migrate around 50 per cent of the entire export business to online space. That way, we can grow that business as well," he says confidently.

So far, the media has literally done the entire 'marketing job' for the company. "We didn't use any special marketing tool to promote our online business. But from this month (September) we are entering the market with some aggressive plans like putting up hoardings in select cities and using our own vehicles with our logo printed on them. We will also come up with an online marketing strategy in the coming months," details Joseph.

The company is now planning to raise around Rs 10 crore to launch its own packaging and processing facility. "We have purchased a plot to set up this plant, which can process up to 15 tonnes fish a day and that will help trip the operational cost in the long run," adds Joseph.

But what do investors feel about online retailing of perishable food products – especially those who have interest in similar domains? According to Prasanth Prakash of Accel Partners, selling chemical-free produce is a huge challenge for an e-commerce company like SeaToHome in the long term. "Setting up the infrastructure to handle cold-chain in India is quite difficult and it could add up to the expenses. Moreover, Indians are not yet ready to pay extra for such perishable items and that can pose a huge challenge," noted Prakash before signing off.

(Edited by Sanghamitra Mandal)