As the country slowly limps back to normalcy, the latest order from the Centre allowing e-commerce companies like Amazon and Flipkart to deliver ‘non-essentials’ to customers in red zones is an important relief for hard-pressed consumers. In the first two phases of the lockdown starting March 25, e-tailers were allowed to sell only ‘essentials’ like pharmaceuticals, healthcare products and groceries. With most of the country still under curfew, the option of placing digital orders and having them delivered at one’s doorstep will ease the pain of not being able to access thousands of necessary, everyday products. Shops on the high street and in the neighbourhood are just opening up and are difficult to reach.
Consumers closeted in their homes require laptops, computer peripherals and mobile phones to continue to function, as well as groceries and medicines to keep body and soul together. These are the initial hot-selling items on e-commerce sites. But as we advance into summer, there will be a growing demand for coolers and ACs, clothing, personal care products as well as sports gear. With malls and supermarkets tightly shut, e-commerce deliveries are the only option. For the e-tailer too, opening up of ‘non-essentials’ has come as a survival booster. Though orders are a fraction of pre-pandemic times, the opening up of digital orders will save jobs and hundreds of small businesses selling products on these digital marketplaces.E-commerce, the way of the future, has rapidly grown in India doubling from around $20 billion in 2017 to $40 billion at the beginning of this year.
However, relative to other markets, our digital transactions are woefully small. Just about 120 million or around 10% of our population buy online; in December last year, online sales as a percentage of total retail sales were only 1.6% in India, versus over 15% for China and around 14% globally. However, the restrictions on physical movement during the lockdown is forcing people to migrate away from ‘look-and-feel’ buying to making purchases by tapping the images on their cell phone screen. Sometimes it takes a crisis to jolt people in the right direction.