On March 25, India went into a Covid-19 lockdown. On March 30, I walked for 20 minutes to the nearest Foodhall supermarket, where I stood in line for my turn anxiously for 35 minutes, as many fellow-customers violated social distancing norms. Once inside the store, it took me just 10 minutes to pick up all the groceries I needed, and then I walked back for 20 minutes under the scorching sun with three heavy bags.
That was the last time I stepped out to buy groceries in the past four months.
No, the much-celebrated e-grocers did not come to my rescue. In fact, BigBasket and Grofers did not serve my area—Juhu in Mumbai—even until early June.
What saved me were lesser-known local brands.
Shopping via Instagram, WhatsApp, and GooglePay, I’ve managed to stay indoors safely even as Mumbai became the epicentre of Covid-19 in India with over 100,000 cases and counting.
In fact, the convenience offered by some of these small brands and services is so good that I’ll stay loyal to them even once all other options are available again.
For the first few weeks of the lockdown, local fruits and vegetable sellers near my home would take orders over call and leave the delivery at people’s doorsteps. Gradually, these vendors started struggling to get fresh supplies as their trucks were stopped by the local police. This supply-demand mismatch led the vendors to charge at will.
Then one day, while scrolling Instagram, I came across something called “Snackible.” The brand offered a wide assortment of gourmet snacking options from popped chips to jalapeño peanuts and wholewheat pizza sticks—items that I could only dream of laying my hands on to at the time.
Several other local brands in and around Mumbai also rose to popularity during the lockdown as they innovated to meet customer demand. For instance, in April, restaurant chain Pack-A-Pav, which had to shut its two outlets in Mumbai and one in Pune due to the lockdown, started selling packaged cooked kebabs by the kilo. The chain promoted this offering via Instagram and found many takers.
“A lot of people who live away from families and had no cooking skills, and suddenly no staff to cook, were stranded and surviving on packaged food…we wanted to provide more to these people,” 34-year-old co-founder Rohan Mangalorkar said. “We started preparing our existing range of kebabs and fillings by the kilo, as well as some curries that we reserved for specials.”
In April and May, the eatery was selling nearly 400 kilograms of meat a week. It has managed to retain all of its 20-person staff despite changing the business model.
In fact, a number of new local businesses, such as organic grocery store YoDeli and artisanal cheese-maker Feel Free India, were launched during the lockdown because the existing stores and services could not meet the demand amid pandemic-related restrictions.
YoDeli sources fruits and veggies from nearby farms and the Feel Free produces its own cheese at a farm in Karjat, around 80 kilometres from Mumbai.
It’s not just local food players who stepped up. Four-decade-old Vriksha Nursery has found many customers as it managed to continue taking orders via WhatsApp and delivering to nearby areas.
“We were active on social media the whole time, doing live sessions with daily updates on how people could take care of their plants, how they could grow some fun stuff from kitchen scraps and so on,” said Shaan Lalwani, the 34-year-old director of the nursery that was started by his father.
These small businesses tasted success during a period when the Covid-19 pandemic brought the Indian economy to its knees. And experts believe such innovation is the need of the hour.
“The pandemic is a great time for innovative ideas,” according to Yugal Joshi, vice-president at consultancy Everest Group. “Today’s disruptors such as Uber and Airbnb trace their roots to the global financial crisis. Therefore, even in India, these models will become increasingly prevalent.”
Besides the proximity, which allows them better access to customers, small local businesses provide an added layer of satisfaction. For instance, while disgruntled customers of JioMart struggled to even keep track of their orders, the management teams of Pack-A-Pav and Vriksha are readily available for a chat on WhatsApp or Instagram. They often offer personalised advice on upkeep and storage, and are more than willing to send substitutes in the event something goes wrong.
These advantages, however, also work against these companies.
A hyperlocal business model has little room for expansion, and it can be hard for such a business to scale beyond a few localities or cities.
“Though it can give good consumer experience and be close to customers, it’s a difficult model to run perpetually,” said Everest Group’s Joshi. As these businesses scale, they’ll need bigger partners to handhold.
Plus, for a lot of these businesses, delivery is just one facet of their business—and often, the least lucrative one.
Doing Instagram lives and deliveries around town has not been a money-spinner for Vriksha, for instance. Income hasn’t been up to the level of pre-lockdown days. Since sales restarted on June 1, the nursery fulfills between 50 and 80 orders a day but a lot of the services—home visits, landscaping, maintenance services—are still stalled.
Pack-A-Pav earns a bulk of its revenue from festival participation and catering. “With both those out of the question still, we have a pretty big obstacle of how to gain back our business and profits,” said Mangalorkar. “Sadly rent also remains a big challenge.”