Since Nepal falls in the high alert zone for pandemic and to stop the spread of the Covid-19, the government has taken stricter measures by imposing lockdown and continues to encourage citizens to stay at home. While the numbers of days mount, businesses take a beating as economic activity is largely restricted. At this time, one segment of business however has shown considerable action and activity – the online business which delivers essential supplies under stringent measures to its customers. Supply of non essential goods by e-commerce still remains prohibited during the lockdown.
Digital platforms like Daraz, Gyapu, thulo.com, Kirana, Smart Doko and Durbar Mart to name a few have been delivering groceries and essentials items while companies like ePharmacy and Jeevee have been delivering medical supplies. In addition, food delivery companies like Foodmandu and Bhojdeal along with companies like Kathmandu Organics and Kheti are delivering vegetables, fruits and poultry during the lockdown.
Customers can order their essentials through the company’s website, mobile application or by directly calling them to place orders. Cash on delivery is accepted but online cash payment is encouraged.
Rahul Kumar Yadav, Business Development Executive of Gyapu states, “Currently, we are providing free delivery to our customers and accept payments in the customer’s preferred format whether it is cash on delivery, eSewa, FonePay, Khalti, IMEpay, PrabhuPay or Visa cards”.
The government has assured that there will be no shortage of essential items in the market and people are still allowed to go to nearby shops to purchase their groceries at specific times of the day. However, the fear of contracting the virus looms large in people’s minds. Online delivery companies are thus experiencing a steady growth.
Operating during the lockdown has not been without challenges for these companies as they have had to restructure and adapt to the situation on a continued basis. Bibek Karki, Chairman and Co-Founder of Thulo.com claims that the virus has completely changed the way we live our lives. “We now have a renewed sense of value for the things that truly matter in our lives. Our platform has seen a great increase in the demand for essentials and we are having a tough time managing the sheer volume of these orders. non-essential products are no longer our concern and we are at the front lines of this battle to enable people to stay safe in their homes while providing them comfort and assurance with on time deliveries,” he explains.
Karki says, “Technology has always been at the forefront of what we do. Our platform was already connected to most of the leading digital payment networks of Nepal so it has enabled us to take online prepaid orders and reduce the need for customers to actually engage at all with our delivery personnel thus minimising contact during this epidemic”.
Nishit Rajbhandari, Director of ePharmacy expresses, “Since we are a digital pharmacy, we were already well equipped to handle online orders and orders through social media. Team members who couldn’t come to the office are working from home handling customer enquiries and managing orders on our backend system. Because of this, we are able to retain customers as well as add more”.
While some companies were partially prepared for the lockdown, Gyapu a relatively new player in the market had to postpone their launch. Yadav shares, “Gyapu is still in its ‘beta-version’ and we were supposed to launch at the end of March but it was unable to do so due to pandemic. But we saw people facing issues in getting essential household and grocery items because of the lockdown and it prompted us to provide service without waiting for the launch date”.
The pandemic has engaged businesses to collaborate. Online food delivery platform, Foodmandu has introduced a new segment, ‘Foodmandu Fresh’, to deliver fresh groceries by partnering with six vendors to collect the fruits and vegetables every morning and deliver them as ordered. Similarly, Bhojdeal another food delivery platform, restructured their model by partnering with KK Mart to deliver essentials.
The partnership between such companies can be beneficial for the companies in tackling unprecedented challenges as well as help keep each other in business.
One of the most notable partnerships in the time of the lockdown is between Daraz and Big Mart. Big Mart has set up their own virtual supermarket branch on Daraz where they display the products and take orders. As Lino Ahlering, Managing Director of Daraz explains, “We help them in managing the orders and deliver them to customers. Big Mart has an excellent supply chain and we have very strong delivery and e-commerce capabilities. This is an unmet partnership in Nepal that no other e-commerce player or supermarket chain can compete with. And both companies and all our employees are proud that we were able to join forces in this critical time”.
One of the major challenges for the companies that are currently operating is managing human resources as most workers are either taking precautionary measures by working from home or have left the city. With the exponential increase in online orders, keeping the supply and delivery mechanism functioning smoothly is not without big effort.
Karki explains, “The biggest challenge during this lockdown has been procuring and trying to provide our customers with the most diverse range of essentials possible. We have tried our best to supply a larger variety of products to really be able to fulfill customer needs. Unfortunately, sourcing has been difficult and unpredictable”. He continues, “Fortunately, our employees have been very helpful during this crisis and many are working from home while others who need to be in contact are managing and working tirelessly 18 hour shifts without any days off”.
Yadav agrees and adds, “The biggest challenge we have is to deliver the goods to our customers on time. It is not easy to shuttle goods to their destinations”. He continues, “All goods that we wanted to sell are not available due to closure of border. Keeping our staff safe is another challenge. After all, the most important thing is to keep our customers satisfied and our staff safe”.
Despite experiencing a sudden increase in sales volume, companies like ePharmacy face shortage in medicines, and price hike in items like sanitizers, masks and gloves. Rajbhandari explains, “In terms of sales, the company saw an increase as more people stocked up on prescription and general medicines. We also saw an increase in new customer signup as people found it safer to order online”.
All business operating and delivering during the lockdown need to obtain permission of operation from the government. According to Karki, “We are permitted to deliver essential items and are issued pass by Department of Commerce, Nepal Government. We need to submit company documents such as Registration, PAN, Tax Clearance and formal request letter to receive this permanent pass. Obtaining these permission-passes and persistently being checked by security forces is tedious but in such times also necessary.
All the online companies mentioned in the piece as well as those who are operating are taking the most strict protocols to ensure that the delivery is safe and does not become another way to expose customers or their own staff to the virus.
Ahlering claims, “We are following the best practices from our Alibaba headquarters, the WHO and the local authorities. All our delivery riders are regularly educated on hygiene protocols, are temperature checked daily, and are also equipped with hand sanitizer for themselves as well as for our customers. For the remaining staff we have enforced a 100% home-office policy. The safety of the nation is the highest priority, so we encourage people to stay safe and follow the guidelines by WHO and the local authorities”.
Moreover e-commerce companies are using their resources to spread information about the virus and how to mitigate its deadly contraction. “Other than making sure people get groceries and essential items to their doorstep, we are also making great use of our resources and reach to inform people regarding preventive measures according to WHO and local authorities. For instance we invited health specialists to educate our followers about the implications of COVID-19 through live stream,” explain Ahlering.
Online business and e-commerce has experienced a moderate traction today and it is likely that consumers will make the shift to online shopping which could open a new frontier for the industry. Karki agrees saying, “This is the start of the e-commerce boom in Nepal. There is a huge demand and with customers getting used to making digital payments and buying online, the shift will be permanent”. Only time will tell whether consumers are willing to make that shift on non essential goods as well post pandemic.
With the government now wanting to focus on increasing consumption of domestic goods and reducing imports, it will also be interesting to note the figures of transaction during the pandemic to understand better how consumer preferences shape the market and whether this move will the harm the e-commerce trade.