Will COVID-19 create an e-commerce spurt in India?

Some are looking to SARS for answers to a post-pandemic world. SARS opened up e-commerce for China after the 2002-2003 pandemic with the emergence of Alibaba and Taobao, but the global economy left that pandemic in one piece. The internet was also at a nascent stage.

Despite Prime Minister Modi’s controversial demonetisation policies and having the second-largest internet population, e-commerce is still at an early stage in India, with just 3% of retail sales made online. Significant challenges for e-commerce remain, including accommodating the many languages spoken in India, unfamiliarity with technology, and preferences for a wide range of products. Although the pandemic will hit many hard, we can expect this to be a time of shock therapy for e-commerce from which new models will grow.

Crowdsourced platform proves a successful model in lockdown India

India’s COVID-19 lockdown has been one of the most contentious. Its announcement was sudden, leaving many migrant workers stranded in cities and crowds panic-buying at shops.

Essential shops have remained open, but shopping is no longer a simple task for much of India as supply chains have been disrupted, leaving many shops out of stock of certain items or choosing to impose purchasing restrictions. Moreover, many shops are closed or have adjusted opening hours.

To address this, a group of developers in Bengaluru, Karnataka state, and Vancouver, Canada, have got together to build Covid Maps. This non-profit platform shares vital information of shops nearby. The content on the platform is fully crowdsourced, meaning all data is added in real-time by its users. The platform is currently available in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune, and Bengaluru.

Credit: Manish Singh

Covid Maps does not just display information on opening hours and stock; shops also have different rules on mask-wearing and social distancing. The platform allows users to view the safety precautions observed at shops, as well as crowding and wait time information. This gives people the option to shop more safely.

Covid Maps received 50,000 users within its first two weeks and continues to have new information added every day. Meanwhile, the platform has already partnered with top delivery app Dunzo. Its users can check which items are available in shops using Covid Maps data and place orders in-app. 

Google and Amazon pitching in

Google and Amazon have also been helping ease India’s strict lockdown. Google is now showing more than 1,500 food banks and shelters on Google Maps in around three dozen cities. The “Nearby Spot” feature in Google Pay, which was released last year in Bengaluru, is also being rolled out in more cities. Just like Covid Maps, it helps users find shops nearby with essentials in stock.

For those who do not want to venture outside, Amazon has rolled out “Local Shops on Amazon,” which like Nearby Spot only piloted several months ago. The program allows local shops to list their items for sale and deliver independently or use an app to deliver through Amazon. Over 5,000 local shops in over 100 cities have already joined the program.

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