In the last 13 years, that gap grew into UniverCell, a Rs 1,000-core mobile retail chain, with 450 stores in 300 locations, that sells three times more phones than any of the other large retailers in the country, says Babu. But now Babu is faced with another challenge: To ensure mobile retailing stays relevant in the age of e-commerce — and grow UniverCell into a Rs 10,000 crore company by 2020. IT, he says, was key to getting UniverCell to where it is today and it will help it get to the next milestone.
CIO: You opened UniverCell, among the first organized mobile retail stores, back in 2000. What made you think it would succeed?
Sathish Babu: In the early days, the Indian mobile retail market was fragmented with no organized retail chains selling mobile phones. It was also an extremely grey market, remember this was before the dotcom age and much before Google. In addition, call rates were as high as Rs 16.80 a minute, and customers were forced to negotiate to get a good price for a phone.
What they weren't being offered was proper ambience and the right kind of information they needed to purchase a mobile device. That's where I sensed a tremendous opportunity. We could provide customers with a unique platform, which would make the experience of buying a new phone pleasurable and ensure that they paid a reasonable price for their phones. When I decided to open UniverCell's first mobile store in Chennai in 2000, there was a decent amount of apprehension from people close to me. They advised me against taking the plunge as no large companies were investing in mobile retail. Slowly, over the first 10 years, UniverCell opened 10 stores in Chennai. We could do so because we invested in people and IT, and I think these helped us tremendously in building the UniverCell brand and setting us apart.
CIO: The mobile retailing market is worth Rs 50,000 crore and growing. What's your growth been like?
Sathish Babu: Our track record proves that we have been growing consistently. In the last two years, we grew at the rate of 40 percent, despite sluggishness in the market. We are confident that we will continue to grow at around 30 percent till 2020. If we focus on market trends, smartphones will replace most other feature phones and gadgets. According to GfK research, smartphone sales will round off at 163 million units annually by 2015, up from 106 million in 2011. Our smartphone sales have doubled at 60 percent, compared to 30 percent last year. Even the number of UniverCell retail stores across Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad have grown from a mere 100 stores in 70 towns — to 450 stores across 300 locations in South India.
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