One man’s bet to make online shopping smarter

March 08, 2020

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Founder Hammad Khan wants PakistaniStores to be the provider of e-commerce insights.
Founder Hammad Khan wants PakistaniStores to be the provider of e-commerce insights.

Remember the last time you shopped online? Was the experience a bit too overwhelming having to open tens of e-commerce stores just to get the right price? Bring in PakistaniStores.com and it might make your next online shopping experience more tolerable.

PakistaniStores.com is a Karachi-based price comparison startup that lets you choose the best rates for a given product. Using a search engine-themed website with data extracted from 60 stores, they want to make your shopping experience more informed. From mobile phones to running shoes, you can find them all.

Go to the domain, type in the query and bam! It will give all the relevant results right in front of your screen, ordered by price.

It started off as a final-year project in June 2017 by Hammad Khan, a computer science student at Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology, Karachi. “The idea wasn’t to make it an end product and I was simply looking for some data to play around with and this seemed like the right place. With time, it took its own form,” recalls Khan.

If history were to serve as an indicator, price comparison has been a tough industry to crack.

Both JustPrice.pk and Comparebox.pk from Lahore tried their hand and operated for a few years before shutting operations. Then there is PriceOye.pk, which made a fairly successful brand, got more traction than even most of the e-commerce stores the startup had listed and most recently scored a seed round of $450,000 from Fatima Gobi Ventures among others. But few months back, even they pivoted to selling mobile phones with comparison now a secondary offering.

So what is it about this business that makes it so difficult to pull off? Is it the nascent stage of e-commerce that limits the role of price search engines? Or maybe the issues were internal, perhaps more operational in nature?

“The industry requires a certain level of scale in order to monetise effectively, which becomes tricky when the online retail itself is in the early days and this was probably why others had to exit,” says Khan.

Among those still pursuing it as a core business is Shopsy.pk, which raised a six-figure round (dollar) last year and has seen some growth since then. Its searchable interface is quite similar to PakistaniStores too. On the other hand is Cartright, which has gone for a more categorised website and an affiliate business model, and has partnered with brands like Daraz, Telemart etc.

While we’re at it, what’s the more optimal style from a consumer viewpoint anyway: the search engine-themed or the more categorised one modeled after e-commerce stores? “Based on our observations, barely two to three per cent of the users actually filter their queries so it’s not too helpful to go the other way. A good example would be Google’s advanced searches, which are used by only a fraction,” says Khan.

Maybe, but the latter allows more refined data, and that in the end is the brand equity of any player in this industry, especially for this startup that aims to venture into the insights business. “Absolutely, it does make a difference and we do try to categorise the products as much as possible, using machine learning. However, the lack of resources does limit the ability,” he adds.

In this type of environment, what sets PakistaniStores from the rest? “One key feature is the sorting of prices: where others would show products in a random order, our result gives the lowest, highest and the average cost of each product and everything is ordered (either ascending or descending). Plus, they are more locally relevant, so while you are looking for a laptop, you will see more competitive sellers first, thus in a way breaking the monopoly of big players that usually optimise their search rankings elsewhere,” Khan explains.

If monetising has been hard to achieve for others: how does Khan do it? Well, he doesn’t. So far, PakistaniStores doesn’t have a revenue stream in place. With two years already passed since its launch, how long can they go on like this, just running expenses and not making any money?

“The website needs to reach to a certain size before, say, putting advertisements or seeking other channels,” the founder says. In the end, it comes down to data.

Over the two-year period, the startup has amassed sizeable amounts of data and it is those insights that Khan would like to cash in. “If you are starting your own e-commerce store, where do you look for consumer behaviour? Or their preferences? There is no proper, unbiased source and I would like to fill that gap,” he says.

And until then, Khan has kept things extremely lean by managing the website all by himself without turning to any external investor either.

But in the face of well-funded competition, doesn’t survival and growth become difficult? Honestly, it doesn’t seem so. Basic analytics show PakistaniStores well ahead of others in terms of traction at an average of 383,000 visits over the last six months, almost doubling the users during the period.

The writer is member of staff:

m.mutaherkhan@gmail.com

Twitter: @MutaherKhan

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2020