The Vue Podcast: Leaders in Retail | Sauvik Banerjjee

On episode five of The Vue Podcast, we’re in conversation with Sauvik Banerjjee, CTO of TataCliq and Ashwini Asokan, CEO at Vue.ai®.

Sauvik Banerjjee has been pinned as the man responsible for fuelling innovation at Tata Cliq. He’s the brain behind the technology advancements, rapid scaling of the platform and more. He’s also a VP heading several efforts across Tata industries. This podcast talks about the story of a brand that’s over a 100 years old trying to invest in world-class brand and customer experiences. Through this story, you’ll get exclusive insight into the kind of risks Tata has taken to be where they are today. Sauvik Banerjjee talks about why the company is focused on the quality of brands they host on their marketplace, the stories of these brands and the craftsmanship behind them and why technology and AI has been so essential in driving those kinds of customer experience for them.

Sauvik Banerjjee has often said on multiple publications that TataCliq is trying to solve the most crucial issue of e-commerce. Inventory buying up front, storing in a warehouse and spending billions of dollars have lead to this industry not being profitable. Their model is focused more on Ship From Store, Return to Store and going forward exchange and replacement at the store. So it’s all about the store, brick, and mortar brand augmentation of their products but enabled by the TataCliq technology on the front end.

Listen to the The Vue Podcast for the whole episode.

 

Here’s the transcript, to make your experience easier:

Akshara Subramanian: Welcome to a new episode of The Vue podcast. I’m Akshara your host and today’s episode is going to be super exciting. We’re going to be in conversation with Sauvik Banerjjee, CTO of Tata Cliq and Ashwini Asokan, our CEO at Vue.ai®. Sauvik Banerjjee has been pinned as the man responsible for fueling innovation at Tata Cliq. He’s the brain behind the technology advancements, rapid scaling of the platform and more. He’s a V.P. heading several efforts across Tata Industries. Basically a star studded resumé. It doesn’t just stop there. He was a professional cricketer who represented Bengal in the Ranji Trophy before he decided to pursue his career in technology. Welcome, Sauvik and Ashwini. So today’s conversation is going to revolve around current challenges and retail businesses and the role of A.I. in solving larger retail problems.

Akshara Subramanian: But Sauvik, before we dive right in, let’s start off by talking a little bit about your personal tagline that we spotted on your website. Technology, not just for the heck of it. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Sauvik Banerjjee: So firstly, thank you so much for bringing me as a part of this conversation with a tremendous achiever, Ashwini, who I have the greatest of time and respect for. And Akshara thank you for those wonderful kind words of introduction. Yes, Technology for the heck of it. I actually generally believe it, because in the world of technology, we create a lot of redundant technologies. We think that we are able to change the world. Ideally, one in a thousand actually does make a media movement in changing the world. Technology always was thought as an enabler. Now technology is being thought of as a driver. But at the end of the day, I look at this tagline in a very, very, very different philosophical way forward. What has technology done for human beings? Technology has changed the way we live.The lifestyle part of technology is fundamentally what we all work for. But if technology is not engaged in inventing new things and technology is not software or hardware or computing. Technology resides within the overall ecosystem. Technology is there in manufacturing. There’s a tech which is built in healthcare. There’s genome therapy ongoing. There’s cloning technologies. There’s the rovers being built to travel across the intergalactic space. Technology is just not software applications and hardware.

So overall technology, if it doesn’t make a betterment of our human lives, then it’s not worth it if we go and spend a lot of our time and money and we sacrifice our life in building a lot of redundant technology. If it’s not impacting any thing, it’s not making the needle move any part of our day to day lives, businesses, health care. It’s not worth doing tech. So there’s a lot of tech arrogance, intellectual arrogance of technology. I just don’t buy that. I’m listening to human beings and the lives that are having an impact.

Ashwini Asokan: I think I think that’s a wonderful thing that you just said that about technology arrogance. I think especially in the startup community, especially in the A.I world, especially with folks that have been very actively engaging with bringing technology into every part of our life at some level. I think there’s been so much noise and I think you, Sauvik have been very specifically someone who’s spoken a lot about noise in the industry with reference to like new things coming up right. You’re constantly encountering all kinds of companies out there in your in your daily work. And I think you’ve been extensively talking about just how much noise there is and the kind of effort it takes to wade through the noise, to figure out what’s real and what’s not or what’s impactful and what’s not. I think that itself is a bit of a load in every aspect

Sauvik Banerjjee: I mean, that’s what I would say, that, you know, we live in a bubble. We think every startup in the world is the next big thing. Forget this. Best part about it is we say it’s the next. When it’s a big thing we don’t take that word anymore. So let’s not talk about the next thing. Let’s just make those pieces happen. If is going to be the big thing, let the big thing be endorsed and talked about by everyone. Example, Apple,Pixar,Boston Dynamics,space X,deep mind. They’re all changing the way we live. Right. So they’re not the next big thing. They are the things. So there’s a lot and not every day we are able to build the ones which I just mentioned. So yeah, but there’s a lot of noise. There’s a lot of hogwash. There’s a lot of money making racket using tech. Some people call it out. And I’m a very, very big endorser that in all of the basement technology, several who live and work in a dark room wearing a hoodie and not get discussed, their time has come where technology has to be evangelized in the right way and people need to be educated, made aware and conscious of it, because ten years down the line, my kids or the generations coming, if they don’t know what code and logical thinking is, they will not get a job. That’s the reality we are moving into. So to get to that and ensure that our kids have a better future, we have to put some governance and some proper noise of what is right, what is wrong. The ethics are getting blurred. The ethical part of living this and creating a society where we live in was devoid of this technology bubble, which has come true. And I’m of the opinion that time has come for us to talk and not live in the dark rooms and remain under the shadow of other verticals which ring fence our lives.

Akshara Subramanian: Right. So Sauvik, moving into e-commerce. All right. E-commerce in India has been brutal. You know, the Flipkart versus Amazon was turning into a Walmart vs. Amazon while the death of Snapdeal. It’s been a few years of total chaos. So why did Tata enter this race? Can you tell us a little bit about why Tata Cliq happened and how such an iconic brand like Tata is looking to take on?

Sauvik Banerjjee: So in 2013, the idea got germinated by our ex-chairman. So as we see the executive director for Tata industries,Mr.KRS Jamwal, some members of the founder team of Tata Cliq and they were exploring an opportunity for an e-commerce player to wander around the world. Met all the founders of Amazon and Alibaba and everybody said don’t get into it just like a lot six by sea. And then they came and said, you know what? We have always been businesses, which has lasted over 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, 30 years, 40 years. We will not get into this plate if it’s a short term piece and many models were discussed. And then the model which made more sense was a ship from store model where inventory buying and putting a billion dollars at the commencement of financial year is not required, to keep it asset light and not going to a non inventory buying model and do it by ship from store. The second piece was between the growth of e-commerce. Retail brands have taken a backseat. The large marketplaces, sell anything and everything. Brand is clearly an aspiration for human society. When the wallet share grows in their families and we said that, you know, brands will always be there and there is no positioning of brands. So we saw that we’d be a brand obsessed company and not a normal category or product obsessed or completely sell it obsessed or a customer obsessed company. example if you’ve got Amazon or Alibaba, that’s why the germination started that went into an execution. And then we started with a handful of brands at Marketplace. We saw adoption that there is a community. The target audience was not 18 to 28 or 30. Target audience intended was to be 35 plus to 55 or 60 who have been working very hard in their lives to make a really good standard of living and who can afford to have these brands. And we said that we would cater to that part of the TV and then its journey started. And once the journey started, we saw adoption. As of today, we have thousand plus brands in the marketplace and then we had enough launched global luxury. I mean, we have over 50-60 brands in the global luxury and then we have launched a few days back, our Indian Premier League premier which is a hundred and twenty five brands, and it is catered for that severe brand platform. We are asset light shoot from store platform which brings people back into the stores of these brands. And then the third one is we are a customer access to the detox platform.

Ashwini Asokan: I mean,I can tell you, we’re absolutely in awe of this. We’ve heard this from you and Vikas and anybody coming out of Tata Cliq over the last couple of months, right.And I think and here’s why. I think every single person it doesn’t matter which platform you go on to,whether you’re on Twitter or any  medium or any kind of article that gets written on. Everybody is writing about the death of the brand. Right. And then here comes a company that over a hundred years old and I think, you know, you’re essentially saying the story is the exact opposite story, which is making brand doubling down on that brand experience. And I think I heard that the conversation we were having the other day about, you know, at the end of the day, your assets, your website, especially on the deluxe side, everything is about storytelling. It’s about saying the stories of sustainability or saying the stories of the artist of making brand and the idea of, especially in the context of fashion, the idea of making and creation relevant again. And I think it’s such a bold,fresh move and a vision for a company in an age where every day there’s a new marketplace, every day there’s somebody trying to buy from somewhere else and selling to somewhere else. Right. And it’s a completely online driven, completely algorithmically driven or completely driven by the fact that there are lots of different types of sellers who you have no clue about or a C2C platform. So in an age where it’s all about the numbers,I think this whole approach and strategy has been fascinating to watch in this journey even in the short two to three years.And I think my question to you almost is where do you see this going? Like what about this brand story makes it promising within, say, like the next 5 years when just about everybody saying,it’s not working and here comes a company that’s making it work. What does that five year horizon look like for you?

Sauvik Banerjjee:  So the final horizon looks like for us like a very simple objective to achieve. Tanishq today is common news. Tanishq today is a two billion dollar revenue brand. It’s a 10 billion dollar market cap. In aviation, we are small with this startup but you will remember the experience of a startup. Indian hotels stands out as an experience compared to the nearest competitor with Taj, Vivanta and Ginger. The intent is to become a brand destination and experience destination for a customer who’s on the aerospace line. Maybe for Fitch, maybe not a quarter, maybe two more. But we want to better that. We want to take the experience to the next level of what these online internet businesses which I mentioned have done. Tata Group knows how to build businesses.

Sauvik Banerjjee: They will not bring businesses for exits. It’s hard on Tata Sons investment in the company started to create. They will build a business for 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, and they will build the brand, which will last decades, example of a sort of Tata Steel. These are nation building brands and organizations. Intent is that but the intent is to become absolutely a brand loving destination of experience. That one line objective is clear in all of our heads.

Ashwini Asokan: So much of the conversation on online, offline, and I think especially for again, coming back to Tata Brands, right where traditionally I think most of this has been, a lot of this has been offline. And to a large extent, I think going online from the whole offline strategy has been fuelled by the presence of technology, a very heavy tech adoption as well,right? And Sauvik you particularly have been a pretty big proponent of tech adoption and site data. You are connected with startups in ways I think a lot of senior executives, especially of older brands or companies, large companies are not. I like to tell my team you’re also an expert bullshit detector. There is so much going on in the world of A.I. And I really briefly want to touch upon technology and the role of A.I. in retail. We have had a lot of conversations about the extensive amount of technology that’s available out there that passes off as A.I. from a marketing perspective. Right. You have legacy platforms on one side that are trying to reinvent themselves. Companies that have been around for over 20 years, you know, and we’ve had conversations about how customer segmentation often passes off as A.I.To take really large groups of people, put them into a segment and call it personalization, or to think about the fact that so much of our catalog management, so much of the amount of management and effort that goes in manually in terms of managing your merchandise, like managing all the places different types of merchandise goes to and managing that across brands and I know you guys have taken an asset light approach and yet there is so much in the form of merchandise that you deal with different brands.And you also have category managers in,that are continuously optimizing for different categories and the different user segments that you have in the company now. There’s so many ways to look at how technology can make sure that you are delivering the right kind of brand experiences to the right kind of customer. At Tata, what does that approach look like from a customer experience and personalization standpoint? What is the story there and how are you approaching this problem of making sure the right kind of brand experiences land at the hand of the right types of customers?

Sauvik Banerjjee: That’s one of my favorite subjects. I’ll break the question into two parts: the definition of why I and the hogwash which I always make noise about and what is the view on artificial intelligence going forward. Tata group has always tried to solve the problem of the common man! The ethos of the group is nation building and impact to human life, so technology has always been a part! Artificial intelligence, however, has different meanings for different verticals within the groups. For cancer research, A.I has a different meaning for the group. Deep learning, more. Machine learning, somewhat getting there in automobile engineering. The deep learning and machine learning has lot of granular use cases. TCS as the service provider becoming a tech company with spinning out to be a new artificial intelligence company, has a different message being sent out to the world.

Ashwini Asokan: Yeah, no, absolutely. And I think, again, this story keeps coming back to relevance. This story keeps coming and circles back to what does this mean? How are we going to use it in our daily lives? What is the context of use? Why would anyone want to use it? And what kind of advantages? You know, it can become electricity, but in what form and how long is it going to take for us to get there? Right. And it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to be very binary in its form. Right. It’s not going to be on and off. It’s definitely going to be something that’s creeping into our lives. I think every day and I think as people who are both adopting it and as well as pushing it out into the hands of millions of people and also as creators of the same, I think at some level there’s a huge responsibility on our shoulders. Right. In terms of the design of A.I., in terms of how are you putting it out there, why are you putting it out there? And I think, you know, I’m sure B2C companies have very specific perspectives on this in slightly different forms as well. You guys as well. Right!

Ashwini Asokan:  And in the context of B2C, but for us, it’s been, you know, thinking about working with other companies, thinking about working with enterprise and putting A.I out there. It’s been very, very important for us to truly understand what especially in the context of retail, understand what retail processes look like. Why would a company want to use something like this? What kind of people are they serving? How do we fit into your workflows? How do we not just come in and be like, you know, everything you’ve done is rubbish and we’ve got this magic wand that you can wave and all of a sudden, you know, everybody’s problems get solved. And I think a big portion of the way A.I. gets written about and talked about is like that like like it’s a magic wand. And which which I think is very problematic in that sense of how it’s reported, how it’s talked about. It is not a magic wand.It could be in the long run. It absolutely could be a magic one. But it’s the chances of us looking at that in retrospect and then realizing that it was like electricity and it became a magic wand. I think it is probably more the scenario than us just sitting up today and saying, oh my God, like, you know, and then you and I and a lot of other partners of ours talk about, you know, something as simple as image search. Everybody wants image search. Everybody wants to integrate image search as part of their retail application. And one of the first things we found out as a company very early on, three, four years ago, is while it’s really important as a use case, a lot of us are walking down the road,we see things we want to take a quick picture of if we want to see where we can find it. But as a repetitive use. So it makes a lot of sense from an experience standpoint to fulfill a need. But it’s not the way product discovery is going to happen 24/7. That is not going to be the starting point of a journey when someone’s looking for something. Right. And I think that understanding, context of usage, context of a use case, context of human behavior and where A.I sits or can deliver value, I think is a conversation that’s not had a lot. And I think especially in the B2B or as we sell to enterprise companies, I think this is a fairly huge focus.Its to help companies understand how can you use A.I to deliver value in a meaningful way rather than doing A.I for A.I’s sake?

Ashwini Asokan: So absolutely. With you there Sauvik. We can make a quick transition from here. To the second question, I think that the other answer you are going to talk about it in the you know, in the sense of from your perspective, what are the efforts? Data is a team is taking in data click even more so in terms of embracing this and looking across multiple departments. I know for the fact that you guys are looking at it in a very holistic manner.You’re looking at it in the context of luxury. You’re looking at it in the context of stores. You’re looking at it in the context of marketing, in the context of the product itself. And I’d love to get a sense of, you know, what is the strategy here in terms of how you see technology as an enabler for every single department within the company.

Sauvik Banerjjee: So I think I think it’s pretty evident that we are an Internet business. We want to automate our processes. We want to build, probably robotic process capabilities. We want to take the human intervention away with all the mundane KPI capabilities, and we have to look at internet business with all the processes, whether it’s logistics simple logistics and supply chain to cataloging recommendation tools for business users as well as for our customers. So we are looking at a whole holistic way. We want to be ahead of the curve. We do not want to follow because we are already late in the e-commerce game. So we want to leapfrog in certain areas just as a company not trying to compete or show off, but just which adds value to us so that we can focus on getting what we do best, which is focus on the business mix and the brand. Making this a buzz, a brand destination, building our tech well. So let the rest of the automation piece taken care of by artificial intelligence in its native state. Some in its matured state. And that’s why we have partnered with MSD. That’s why we have partnered with a few other organizations. And one of the best things about what we like about Vue.ai® or Vue Ops or many of the modules which MSD evangelizes in our building is, an internet business talking to an artificial intelligence company, which is building their organization around retail and brands, is a niche and we are a niche. That’s why we’re hoping to have a jury together. There are many, many challenges we will probably come across and we will solve them one at a time. But we are a bunch of individuals in Tata Unistore,Tata Cliq, Tata Cliq Luxury, Indie Luxury. We’re not afraid to take that risk. We went into an uncharted territory where no one was trying to do that and everybody was on me, too. In a very competitive sense and not the typical me too sense nowadays. We wanted to do a not a cloning of each other. We didn’t want to get inspired and just mimic. We definitely tried to break the boundaries at the charted-uncharted territories. And we want to do that with artificial intelligence as well.Yes, we will fail, and if we don’t fail, then we are not doing something right. And when we fail, we learn and then we do it properly. But we have the risk taking appetite, that’s for sure.

Ashwini Asokan: That’s wonderful, I think. In conclusion, I think Akshara has something really fun planned here. Very quickly as a way of getting a little bit more of a personal side to you as well.

Akshara Subramanian: So Sauvik, we have a fun sort of rapid fire round because there’s so much stuff that we found about you on the Internet. So we’re going to ask you a couple of questions and you have to tell us the first thing that comes to your mind. So our first question for you is, what’s your favorite social media to use and why?

Sauvik Banerjjee: It’s the Facebook group page and because it allows me to connect to many, many, individuals with a simple message. I actually used to use it a lot, but kind of came down. No, I mean, I can play around and I can say anything and get back lash and get a slap on my wrist. But you know what? It’s my opinion. If you don’t like it, don’t like it, don’t comment on it.

Akshara Subramanian: Right. And what is the one technology trend that is overrated, according to you?

Sauvik Banerjjee: AR and VR. It’s completely overrated. Who would want to wear a VR glass and watch a personalized movie? No, I won’t. I want to watch it the way I want. I would watch it at 70 mm with thousands of people that clap and laugh and have fun. Yeah,I have my objection. I mean, it has its own place and AR probably has its own place in the health care more. But VR is not taking off.

Akshara Subramanian: And what would you say, you know, in your experience, is the best brand in the world or the best brand, according to you, that we all should aspire to be like?

Sauvik Banerjjee: Apple!!

Akshara Subramanian: Okay. And your favorite book currently?

Sauvik Banerjjee: Yuval Noah Harari’s: Sapiens and Homo Deus.

Akshara Subramanian: And our last question, which is the one thing you tell startup founders about getting the industry to adopt their technology? 

Sauvik Banerjjee: Solve the problem, invent and make an impact. If you start or think of exit, do not be around five kilometres in my space.

Akshara Subramanian: Okay. Well, thank you so much Sauvik for this rapid fire and this engaging conversation. And thank you, Ashwini, also for being a part of this.

Ashwini Asokan: I must take a moment to say Sauvik, thank you so much for joining us here. It’s been an incredible journey working with you and the team for the past two plus years. And I think I can’t stress enough the fact that I mean, we call this podcast series leaders and retail. And there is no doubt you are a leader in retailing. So you know, the folks that are in Tata Cliq that are working to establish a model that’s the exact opposite of where the rest of the world is headed. And I think we wish you a lot of luck. And, yes, to a nice, long partnership.

Sauvik Banerjjee: Absolutely. And more importantly, I felt in genuine august presence when I spent those two days last week in Chennai with you guys and there’s something special brewing there and I’ll sip that coffee as long as it keeps growing.

About The Vue Podcast:

our first ever podcast series on Leaders in Retail is a really exciting space. As we continue interviewing CEOs, CTOs, Investors, heads of product, heads of innovation, merchandisers, buyers and amazing change-makers from brands like Ashley Stewart, Zilingo, USPL and Mercado Libre, we hope you’ll join us for the ride! Stay tuned to this space for details on our next episode.

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Akshara Subramanian is the Head of Customer Marketing at Vue.ai and Mad Street Den. She loves crispy tacos, salted caramel and binge-watching TV shows on Netflix. Parsons NYC graduate and Contributing Writer for Vogue India. Believes she will retire on a beach someday.