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INNO-WAIT FOR IT

Groceries become a staple for several non-food startups in India amid Covid-19

A vendor sells groceries to a customer at his roadside shop in New Delhi
Reuters/Adnan Abidi
Food is the word.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Indian tech startups are in survival mode and will do absolutely anything to stay afloat.

Several Indian tech startups, whose core business has nothing to do with food, have started dabbling with the “essential item” to stay afloat amid the Covid-19 lockdown, which has either halted or slowed down most businesses.

From online travel agent MakeMyTrip to property portal NoBroker, tech firms are either coming up with new service lines or tying up with food-related businesses.

“This is one way of staying connected with their customer base since the core activity is not functioning, earn some revenue, and stay afloat as they reinvent themselves to adapt to the new world,” said independent startup sector analyst Harish HV.

Here’s a list of some of these wacky shifts:

With people cooped up at home amid the lockdown, which started on March 25 and has only partially lifted so far, orders for grocery- and food-delivery have boomed. However, most companies who have added food to its services, said they had not done it with the intention of banking big bucks.

In fact, many of them are not making any money form this new business line. Regardless, the move speaks volumes about these companies, experts said.

Quick innovation

For most firms, adding grocery delivery was just a back-end tech tweak with not much effort needed to acquire customers.

For instance, NoBrokerHood, a society management system of the Bengaluru-based realty portal, already had over 2,000 societies, including 500,000 homes, signed up on it. So all that the company did was to tie up with consumer goods maker ITC and e-grocers BigBasket to streamline orders. It did not get into making deliveries. Instead, the residents of a society can place orders on the NoBrokerHood app, and volunteers consolidate these orders to ensure a smooth delivery.

The ingenuity and quick action is a testimony to the strength of these businesses and their technology backbones.

“How quickly they could launch unrelated services at such a short time even when their people were working remotely is quite an achievement and speaks a lot about the technical prowess and vision of some of these firms,” said Yugal Joshi, vice-president of Texas-based consultancy Everest Group. “Just thinking about something and actually executing it is very different.”

Preparedness pays off

While money is not the motivation behind such shifts, there is goodwill and experience to be earned. And some benefits from this quick thinking are already in sight.

For NoBroker, user engagement is on the rise. The time people spend on its app went up three times in recent months as people placed grocery orders compared to earlier when the app was used for more menial tasks such as approving visitors entering the building, founder and CEO Amit Kumar Agarwal told Quartz.

The property platform has now moved beyond groceries and started providing UV disinfection in certain places. Post-Covid-19, NoBroker could continually modify services for societies according to whatever needs arise, Agarwal said.

“The biggest lesson we’ve learned is to be flexible and be ready to adapt to any situation that may arise, and hence, building your team and business with agility so that it can be tweaked for uncertain times,” said Jasmeet Thind, co-founder of fashion re-commerce site CoutLoot, which is working with the likes of Ninjacart, Indusfresh, Villageagro, and Farm Fresh, to facilitate hyperlocal grocery deliveries.

A long play

Just because companies aren’t cashing in on the new vertical yet doesn’t mean the potential doesn’t exist.

Fintech player PayNearby managed to onboard over 400,000 kirana shops across the country for its newly-introduced grocery segment BuyNearby during the lockdown because the wheels on the idea were already spinning well before its launch. The company started engineering on the BuyNearby model back in 2016 and last year, it ran trials with large FMCG and fashion brands, founder and CEO Anand Kumar Bajaj said.

Though BuyNearby is also not charging yet, retailers were willing to pay between 2% and 8% for its services during the pilots.

“What Paytm got in demonetisation is what we should get in this moment,” Bajaj added.

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