India’s grocery delivery firms are trying to cope with the same issues that haunted them last year

Back to square one?
Back to square one?
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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After suffering and recovering last year, India’s online grocers have once again been debilitated by Covid-19’s relentless resurgence.

The Covid-19 crisis has likely not hit its peak yet, but Indians are already experiencing a deja vu of April 2020 while checking out carts as staple products are running out and delivery timelines have become long.

BigBasket and Amazon on April 18.
BigBasket and Amazon on April 18.
Image: Screenshot.

Unlike last year, both BigBasket and Grofers claim to have access to sufficient stocks. But they admit that same-day and next-day deliveries are being shipped three or four days later. This may be because of night curfews, weekend lockdowns, and curbs on intercity and interstate travel in several cities, including commercial capital Mumbai and national capital Delhi.

There are several reasons for the strain on supply chains, “including unavailability of staff to procure items, problems at the supplier end, as well as lack of delivery staff,” said Yugal Joshi, vice-president at consulting firm Everest Group.

Delivery staff leaving, falling sick

In cities with curbs, there has been a migrant exodus like last year this time around, too—albeit a smaller one.

“Whenever there is an uptick in Covid-19 cases in a given city, we tend to notice that some delivery partners would log off as they intend to go back to their hometowns,” Grofers said in an April 19 blog post. “That said, the average number of migrating individuals is still way too low to impact the overall delivery picture.”

Among delivery executives who are at work, the virus is keeping many out of commission.

“This year, people are falling ill and that’s causing a bit of a problem for us,” BigBasket founder and CEO told daily newspaper The Economic Times. “The moment someone shows any signs of illness they’re supposed to report to us, and now so many people are calling in sick. It’s madness.” Flipkart has also been grappling by absenteeism amid a sudden spike in coronavirus infections among its delivery workers.

At a time when India is clocking over 360,000 new cases daily, companies are beefing up their workforce to avoid disruptions. Grofers has already hired over 2,000 people in the last few months and plans to add over 7,000 more in the coming few months. BigBasket is hiring double the number of workers it needs to create a “bench” of workers to deal with the crisis.

Companies are also expanding capabilities and sorting inventories in ways to keep stock availability consistent.

Keeping customer carts consistent

Sometimes, when platforms show items as out of stock, it doesn’t always point to a scarcity of products, experts say. It can be a tactic to control order volumes so deliveries can keep pace.

Milkbasket in Gurgaon on April 26.
Milkbasket in Gurgaon on April 26.
Image: Screenshot

Many times, though the grocer may not be running out of essentials, because the delivery engine is stressed, they are declining request under the premise of being sold out,” said Everest Group’s Joshi.

Another lesson companies learned last year, which is helping them this time, is to ensure they don’t allow hoarding.

Grofers, for instance, introduces “surge” to manage inventory. When the demand for a product rises in a particular region, a backend algorithm kicks in to limit the quantity of that product each user can purchase in that area.