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How Covid-19 is pushing e-commerce firms and online vendors to innovate

Last year, Padit Borkar, a tomato farmer in Bengaluru, made a profit of Rs 5 lakh by selling his harvest. This year, when the time was ripe to sell his produce, the Covid-19 crisis gripped the country forcing it to go for a complete lockdown. Borkar’s tomatoes were rotting at the warehouse when he got to know about the ‘Harvest The Farms’ scheme launched by fresh-product supply chain firm Ninjacart. 

Under the HTF initiative, a customer can buy directly from farmers who are struggling to find a purchaser, on platforms such as Zomato, Swiggy and Dunzo, which have tied up with Ninjacart. The Walmart-backed company also takes care of the supply chain cost. Borkar started selling the surplus tomatoes to Ninjacart at Rs 5 per kilogram, which has now gone up to Rs 9 per kg as demand picked up. “I now supply 1-2 tonnes of tomatoes everyday to them,” says Borkar.

Ninjacart’s is just one of the several innovations in business models, service offerings and platforms that the ecommerce firms in India have introduced to continue to prove their value to customers during the Covid-19 pandemic and stay afloat. 

Amazon Business, for example, introduced the Covid-19 Supplies Store to provide easy access for businesses to buy Covid-related supplies on Amazon. Frontline organisations such as healthcare and government can pick up Covid-19 related essentials in bulk from the store to effectively fight the virus. “The store seeks to serve bulk buying needs of healthcare professionals and organizations as the nation continues to fight the virus,” said Manish Tiwary, Vice President – Category Management, Amazon India. 

Amazon has also launched a Pay Later credit line for high value purchases, recharges and even groceries. Using this service, a person can avail a credit of up to Rs 20,000 and pay later next month or over EMIs ranging from 3 to 12 months. 

Major firms like Flipkart, Amazon, Bigbasket, Swiggy and Zomato among others have set aside their differences and are collaborating by banking on each other strengths and unutilised capacities. “During these times of business strife, the collaborative model is an ideal way to learn from each other, share the risks equitably, gain together from new models, and most importantly minimise cost due to scale,” says Nirupama Soundararajan, Head of Research and Senior Fellow at Pahle India Foundation (PIF).  

Walmart-backed Flipkart for example has announced a pilot programme with retail chain Spencers to introduce hyperlocal deliveries of groceries and essentials in Hyderabad. "It's not that the innovation quotient of the company has suddenly changed over time. It happened because it is the need of the country at this time. A lot of the essentials in the country today are actually managed by a lot of our partners in the ecosystem, and we wanted to work with them,” said Kalyan Krishnamurthy, CEO, Flipkart. 

Not just the e-commerce players, even the sellers listed on these platforms have also adapted to the new normal in order to survive. While several apparel manufacturers have shifted their focus to make masks and PPEs, others have come up with novel devices such as a unique posture correcting device that helps you to maintain the correct position and avoid backaches even while working for long hours from home. A seller, Daily Objects, has launched a portable multifunctional UV sterilizer that can help in disinfecting smartphones and other accessories that can be a potential carrier of the virus.

Seeing the key role small offline retailers are playing, Amazon is rolling out a programme that will bring thousands of small shops in India onto its platform to deliver groceries and essentials. 

“These new models of e-commerce players partnering with offline retailers are unique to India,” says Soundararajan of PIF. “This is probably because India remains one of those few countries in which offline small retailers continue to thrive even after the advent of large organised retailers and e-commerce players entering the market.”

According to data analytics firm GlobalData, the Covid-19 pandemic will accelerate the growth of India’s e-commerce market, taking it to about Rs 7 trillion by 2023.

The e-commerce firms are also forging partnerships with the government organisations and local authorities for various services. In May, Flipkart and Karnataka State Mango Department and Marketing Corporation, Government of Karnataka (Mango Board) formed a tie-up for, enabling mango farmers to sell their fresh produce online through the Flipkart platform. In Mumbai, Amazon India is providing delivery services of essential items to residents in containment zones, in collaboration with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). It has expanded similar programmes in containment zones in other cities such as New Delhi and Hyderabad.

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