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Everybody Wins
The Economic Times (Brand Equity) - 14 Jan 2004

NIDHI NATH SRINIVAS

ITC’s rural retail venture has already become a marketing case study at Harvard’s business management school. Professor David Upton, who is teaching his students about e-choupal this Fall, spoke about why he believes the innovative model has a bright future

What aspects of e-choupal are interesting from an academic point of view, given that experiments on ways of saving procurement costs are not uncommon?

The combination of the use of Internet technologies in a novel way, combined with a clear social benefit for the less advantaged.

What, in your view, is the value of such a case study for your students of management?

It provides an excellent example of combining social goals with profitability. It demonstrates how a deep understanding of social context, along with a powerful vision can result in a stellar implementation. And it shows how everyone can win when inefficiencies are removed from a supply chain.

Do you believe such models can be scaled up significantly and replicated in other rural economies?

Yes, though clearly they would need to be fashioned to the local context.

What would you say is the biggest flaw in the e-choupal model?

So far, it is hard to see many flaws. It is an exemplary implementation and provides important lessons for American students as well as our international students (30 per cent of our students are from overseas).

Do you foresee a point beyond which models like e-choupals lose their competitive edge?

Well, one could argue that all forms of competitive edge are ultimately temporary. The question really is: how long will the competitive advantage last and how strong will it be. If ITC is able to continue to innovate (which they are well positioned to do), then they could stay ahead of the pack for many years, through first-mover advantage, "stickiness" and loyalty, and growth into unexplored opportunities.

How was the information gathered — did you rely mostly on ITC or were there independent sources?

We used primary sources in all cases, though not just ITC. We were able to meet farmers on their farms, and were able to observe mandis and e-choupals in action.

How difficult was it to write this case study, given its rural location?

Certainly more difficult than many other cases we work on, but not the most difficult! I have worked on cases in Australian slaughterhouses in the remote outback, as well as shipyards on remote islands in my career. We were able (with ITC’s generous help) to get around India and into the villages fairly straightforwardly.

Wouldn’t it have been better to wait till the project acquired a certain size and profitability before analysing it?

No. The model itself is definitely worthwhile as a case study, and it is the brilliance of the concepts (both as an innovation and an implementation) that most caught our eye.