E-commerce majors leveraging technology to power biggest festival sales

The innovations range from setting up virtual war rooms, where thousands of employees coordinate the sales from their homes, to safeguarding customers from Covid-19 with the use of artificial intelligence
On a sunny day recently, Amazon India vice-president Manish Tiwary arrived at a 5-star hotel to address thousands of customers, employees and ecosystem partners. Tiwary was there to talk about the e-commerce giant’s flagship sale ‘Great Indian Festival’ (GIF) which would be hosted for a month for the first time. Unlike previous such addresses, the difference this time was that the whole event was a virtual experience which became necessary due to the challenges thrown by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Amazon, along with event firm Wizcraft, created the experience by using 3D animation and VFX technology to bring alive a simple Chroma shoot done in the restricted set-up of a hotel. Colour keying, visual effects and 3D animation teams took over in the post-production phase, all working from different parts of the country.

Given the unique challenges posed by the pandemic, e-commerce companies such as Amazon and Flipkart are leaving no stone unturned in leveraging technology to woo customers and sellers for their biggest sale events. The events, which started over the weekend, are being  hosted remotely for the first time to cater to a much wider audience as the pandemic has pushed online shopping to an unprecedented scale. 

The innovations range from setting up ‘virtual war rooms’, where thousands of employees are coordinating with each other from their homes, to safeguarding customers from the coronavirus using artificial intelligence (AI). Communication platforms such as Google Hangouts and Amazon Chime are being used to handle these events.

“Our delivery associates and operations team have innovated furiously to put in place a complete business contingency plan. No BCP (business continuity plan) could have anticipated this kind of a pandemic. But they have done an awesome job for both operations and customer service and are running at full steam,” says Tiwary.

During GIF, over 650,000 sellers will offer millions of products to customers. Amazon has even created a virtual Great Indian Bazaar. A user browsing through the store can click on any item in these virtual stores and access the stories of sellers behind them. Earlier Amazon used to physically connect with sellers before Diwali and share learnings. “Now sellers too have adapted to the virtual ways of working,” says Tiwary.

Rival e-commerce firm Flipkart is also hosting its ‘The Big Billion Days’ (BBD) sale remotely. The six-day event will bring offers from hundreds of thousands of sellers and brands across categories. The Walmart-owned company has done a series of chaos tests to ensure the smooth functioning of the critical components of the platform. This includes injecting faults or simulating failures in order to test system resilience and plug holes, if any.

“The entire tech team has rallied behind running these tests, scaling up the systems and executing various failure scenarios,” says Jeyandran Venugopal, chief product and technology officer at Flipkart. This is crucial because, when deals unlock for categories such as mobiles and laptops, there is typically a 150X surge in traffic. The systems have to instantly scale up and be very elastic to be able to serve this sort of demand.

The festive sales this year are very different this year as the need for social distancing and contact-less shopping have accelerated the shift to e-commerce. According to research firm RedSeer Consulting, increased demand during the festive sales this year is expected to push up the annual GMV (gross merchandise value) of goods sold by e-commerce firms to around $38 billion, a 40 per cent growth over the previous year.

Analysts say that e-commerce firms are hoping to tap into the latent demand to go up to pre-Covid sales levels. “Online players are betting big on front and back-end technologies to enable seamless integration, transaction and fulfilment from millions of users across pin codes,” says Ankur Pahwa, partner and national leader, e-commerce and consumer internet at EY India. “On the consumer-facing front, technologies (are being implemented) to enable better personalisation, accurate vernacular interface, voice integration and gamification.”

Such technologies have become more relevant as e-commerce companies are expecting huge demand from consumers in tier-II and tier-III cities and even semi-urban and rural areas. To cater to this, several innovations have been introduced across platforms such as voice, video and vernacular. 

For example, Amazon has introduced a voice-enabled shopping experience powered by AI-assistant, Alexa. The company claims that the number of customers using voice to shop has now grown by 4X and utterances have grown by 9X in the last six months. Flipkart’s ‘voice assistant’ is also expected to play a key role during BBD.

Vernacular innovations are important as India has over 20 official languages and over 6000 dialects. And customers prefer to communicate in the local language. According to Amazon, in the past five months, the adoption of Hindi shopping experience by its customers has grown by 3X. Seeing this trend, the firm has expanded Indian language shopping experience by including four new languages - Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.

For BBD, Flipkart has also focused on technologies to enhance consumer experience around vernacular languages. Besides Hindi, the platform is now available in Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu.

Technology is also being used to ensure the safety of customers and employees against Covid-19. Amazon has developed a ‘Crisp’ (Covid risk score prediction) mobile app to detect and tackle the spread of Covid-19. This aims to provide a safe work environment at its fulfilment centres. The app uses Bluetooth signals from mobiles to track social contacts between users, generating an infection risk score for every employee. If an associate has a very high infection risk score, they can be prioritised for testing. Similarly, with the help of machine learning algorithms, Amazon has been able to launch virtual pickup points for containment zones that allowed residents in these areas to get products on priority.

Amazon has also introduced Proxemics, a CCTV-based solution to enable social distancing using AI, at its facilities. Images from CCTVs placed in high-density areas in fulfilment centres (FC), sort centres and delivery stations are being captured every five minutes and processed, using an image-processing algorithm. These images are filtered to identify those which have more than two persons in a frame to ensure that at least 6 feet distance is maintained always.

Flipkart has also leveraged video analytics intelligence combined with security systems like CCTV to detect social distancing and face mask non-adherence. Its data science team has created a face mask detection module which has been integrated with the last mile delivery app to make sure that delivery associates are properly masked.

Payments are another big area for innovation. This year, Amazon introduced Amazon Pay Smart Store which is now enabling over 15,000 neighbourhood shops to provide a contactless shopping experience to their customers. They can scan the store’s QR code using the Amazon app to explore the products available there. After selecting the products they wish to buy, they can check out with Amazon Pay, which gives them a choice of using UPI, balance, or credit or debit cards.

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