No matter how the coronavirus pandemic pans out — single wave extended over a period of time, series of waves over next year or two, or whatever else — one thing is clear: Vaccine or no vaccine, no one is in a hurry to leave home to grab that fancy dress, to dine out, buy that cherished gadget or simply to fetch that bag of wheat flour from the local grocer. Consumers will prefer products and services to be delivered to their doorstep, hygienically and safely. It does not matter whether you are a big-box retailer, transnational consumer goods marketer or the neighbourhood mom-and-pop kirana shop. Footfalls will invariably come down to a trickle even after lockdown restrictions go away, and the only way to prevent someone else from poaching your consumer is to go down to the consumer herself.

Though currently the ecommerce players like Walmart-owned Flipkart, Amazon and specialists like BigBasket, Netmeds, Milk Basket and Daily Ninja are in the limelight as they navigate delivery across the country’s green, yellow and red zones, stirrings of change are already being felt. Shorn of all hype, what is biggest strength that the $5.6-billion deal between the world’s biggest social network Facebook and India’s numero uno telco, Reliance Jio, will unveil? All analyses point to the teaming of Facebook’s ubiquitous social messaging app WhatsApp, with 400 million users in India, with not just Reliance’s retail network (around 11,000 stores at last count) but the six million-odd kirana stores across the country, riding on Jio’s 400 million telecom subscribers, to become perhaps world’s biggest direct-to-home channel for everything from staples, electronics, clothes, food and gadgets.

Not to be outdone, the world’s biggest etailer Amazon too announced expansion of onboarding local shops to its platform — Local Shop on Amazon — to hundreds of cities across the country. Even before the crisis, the country’s original retail king, Future Group’s Kishore Biyani, was testing home delivery of daily essentials in milk, bread and eggs from thousands of his Easyday, Nilgiris and Heritage stores. 

Restaurant-food delivery firms like Swiggy and Zomato too are getting into groceries delivery. Right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Swiggy opened its grocery delivery service across 125 cities. Why, Zomato even announced, policy permitting, that it would like to deliver liquor to consumers’ homes. And even a fitness player like Curefit, otherwise focussed on gyms and exercise trainers, thinks the panacea out of this crisis is to get into grocery delivery.

Will big consumer marketers too bite the delivery bullet? To be sure, some of the country largest fast moving consumer goods firms in Hindustan Unilever (HUL), Procter & Gamble, Dabur and Marico have already collaborated with the likes of Swiggy to make their products available to stuck-at-home consumers. The moot question is, if delivery becomes a competitive edge, will big firms like HUL and ITC, which pride themselves on their distribution muscle, stay out of the game.

Some may point to the early 2000s failed attempt by HUL (then HLL) in Sangam Direct, an experimental online groceries delivery platform, to say that big-box retailers and marketers will stay out of delivery altogether. There are two reasons why I think they are wrong. One, Sangam did not make much headway back in 2001 as it was an idea ahead of its time. In the last decade or so, the success of ecommerce with the likes of Flipkart, Amazon and sundry others and fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza has changed consumer habits vis-a-vis doorstep delivery forever. And two, the Covid-19-led habit change amongst consumers to minimise touch-points means going forward not trying doorstep delivery may no longer be an option for big marketers who are anyway grappling with a scenario of huge demand destruction.

So do not be surprised the next time your doorbell rings, it is your familiar soap, noodles or shirt brand marketer out on delivery. First off the blocks is Baba Ramdev, who once gave the scare to consumer goods multinationals with his Patanjali range of foods and other consumer expendables. This time, the yoga guru is ready to kick off an ecommerce, direct-to-home swadeshi goods business in OrderMe, which will also deliver made in India goods from micro, small and medium enterprises apart from its own Patanjali range.

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