> Posted by Anisha Singh, Senior Research Associate, IFMR LEAD
Want to receive payments from customers? There’s an app for that. Want to make payments to suppliers? There’s an app for that. Customer wants to pay you one week from now? Scramble to take out diary and note down payment receivable. Customer is not contactable after one week? Oh well, that’s the end of that.
Among merchants in India, widespread awareness of available digital financial services options has not translated into usage of these services. The core challenge here is making digital platforms more inclusive and relevant to their daily lives. While India has made immense progress in transitioning to a less cash-reliant financial ecosystem, recent research concludes that the services on offer in the country do not directly address all relevant merchant pain points and thereby fall short of providing a compelling value proposition for them to make the switch from cash. This shortcoming hasn’t been for lack of trying. Researchers and providers have identified and rolled out various new value-added services that could help increase this value proposition. However, for merchants in India, there is still one key transaction type left unaddressed: how can informal arrangements, such as offering goods on credit, be included in digital services?
What’s at the heart of merchant transactions?
Recent research by IFMR LEAD in the space of digital finance for micro-merchants across urban and rural regions of four Indian states suggests that as many as 20 percent of micro-merchants use extensions of credit as their primary transaction method with suppliers as well as with customers. For the majority of merchants surveyed, over 20 percent of the value of their monthly transactions with suppliers and customers is on credit. Merchants typically extend credit to customers for up to two weeks and receive credit from suppliers for up to a month. Credit from suppliers tends to be more formal than credit to customers. Merchants often sign a promissory note while taking goods on credit from suppliers, whereas they deem a simple note in their inventory books sufficient for extending credit to customers.
What does an ideal digital product look like for merchants?
There is much excitement and openness among merchants to experiment with digital modes and include payment applications such as mobile wallets and QR codes into their daily business operations. However to make it worthwhile for merchants to transact digitally, it is necessary to build a holistic service that includes credit extension. We collected first-hand insights from merchants to understand their preferences and concerns regarding such a service:
- On the supplier side, merchants were not in favor of direct debits from their accounts at a later date for goods received on credit. However, a majority noted the importance of a reminder service to make payments in the form of SMS messages or push notifications. Product provisions to record inventory purchased on credit, make standard monthly digital payments, and record signatures from suppliers for the verbal credit agreements were the next most preferred features.
- ‘Facebook’ for merchants: A significant proportion of merchants also indicated their preference for a networking platform wherein they can interact with their suppliers through personalized user accounts. By logging into their account, they would like to be able to see all their suppliers, open chat conversations with individual suppliers, and send them push notifications requesting additional stock or extension of credit terms and such.
- On the consumer side, merchants are concerned with customers not paying them back and having no way to trace them. The majority of merchants stressed the value of a reminder service through SMS or push notifications to alert customers of their pending payments and allow them to make the transaction digitally without visiting the merchant..
- Surprisingly, merchants did not express a need for an inventory management component to record goods given on credit and payments collected from customers. Merchants believed that a strong back-end system through inventory management with suppliers would sufficiently translate into better management of credit terms with customers.
- Across the board, merchants stressed their requests for these features to come at a low cost with low transaction fees. Furthermore, they indicated that services should incorporate credit limits on the amounts that can be extended in supplier and customer interactions and the potential for credit limits to be monitored and enhanced based on transaction history.
With high awareness but low usage of digital platforms among merchants in India, exploring such value-added services for merchants is a must to ensure greater uptake and continued usage. However, to ensure sustainability of such products, it is equally imperative to explore ‘stickiness’ for customers and other players in the merchant ecosystem as well.
This post draws on IFMR LEAD’s work in collaboration with J.P. Morgan on ‘Digital Financial Inclusion and Consumer Capabilities in India‘ and with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth on ‘The Evolving Financial Ecosystem for Micro-Merchants in India‘.
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