Speaking in tongues: Amazon targets local languages to win India market

Vernacular may not exactly sound magical in the e-commerce universe crowded with famous investors and top dollars, but Jeff Bezos and his men have a grand local language plan that’s aiming to turn things around in India. In sort of a giveaway, Bezos referred to Amazon.in as ‘India ki apni dukaan’ (the country’s own shop) in his fifth anniversary congratulatory letter to customers. The idea is to reach out to the next 100 million customers who may be more comfortable conversing in their mother tongue and not in English.

What he did not mention in that message was that for the last one year, a dedicated team of more than 200 engineers, data scientists, Indian regional language experts, voice analysts, artificial intelligence, and machine learning engineers have been working round-the-clock on Amazon’s possibly biggest plan for India, speaking the language its customer speaks. In fact, sources indicated that while Walmart was busy fine-tuning the Flipkart deal, Amazon was working hard on perfecting the vernacular marathon. 

If sources are to be believed, Amazon wants to run the India race with Flipkart and Walmart with the might of local language. And how. Alexa, Amazon’s voice-based assistant, would not only understand commands in English but would be able to converse fluently in Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, and Marathi, among other languages, if things go according to plan. Also, the Amazon app and web platform would be available in the language of a person’s choice. Not just names of products, but the back-end support system, helplines, product details would be available too in local language, sources close to the company said. 

The language focus is already visible. 

For instance, at Prime Video, the company’s on-demand video streaming platform, a lot of movies, television shows are already available in Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and others. The choice of content is only set to widen.

Amit Agarwal, senior vice-president and country manager at Amazon India, believes that to win India, the company needs to reach out to the user base which does not speak English, according to people in the know. He was able to convince the top management, including Bezos, that it was the way forward. 

Towards that goal, Amazon plans to launch all its applications in seven different languages in the first phase. Starting with Hindi, it wants to roll out all services in Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, and Marathi, among others, soon.

While the company refused to comment on its local language initiative, sources said the pilot would start in July and Hindi would be the first language in which Amazon.in would be available.

“The company knows that it has now managed to reach out to everyone in the country that knows English. But that would be 15 to 20 per cent of the user base. There are still 80 per cent left who could potentially become part of Amazon’s ecosystem. Local language play will bring all of them into the fold,” said a source.

Not many e-commerce players have managed to bring in regional language into their platform. Flipkart, for example, had almost three years ago said it wanted to have a regional outreach. But things didn’t move as expected.

Among others, Snapdeal was available in a few local languages. But when it was launched, e-commerce was still trying to penetrate the English speaking user base, industry analysts said. So local language was not a priority in the industry. Paytm, however, has launched its merchant services in local languages and is working on extending the feature on its overall ecosystem.

Once Amazon comes with the language features, it will set the local mood for sure.