It is said that every cloud has a silver lining, but during this challenging period of coronavirus pandemic, hardly anything seems to be upholding any glimmer of hope. It has already been seven months into 2020, and all we have seen are distraught nations quarantining citizens, limiting travelling, carrying out contact tracing, testing and treating patients, and applying mandatory lockdowns all over the world.
But all these extreme measures failed to prevent more than 14 million cases and more than half a million of tragic deaths. Moreover, health officials are warning that the Covid-19 outbreak may last for years. To many of us, this seems like the ultimate doom and gloom for humanity.
On a positive note, it is said that every crisis brings along opportunities for some. Evidently, this gruesome catastrophe has proven to be prosperous for the global e-commerce sector. Online retailing in our country is no exception to this, and has gone through a major change since the pandemic started.
As more and more people are getting used to their newly enforced, contained lifestyle and social distancing norms, they are shifting towards online shopping and home delivery services. In a virtual discussion organised last month by the e-Commerce Association of Bangladesh (e-CAB), Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi said, "While it was unthinkable just a month ago, people are now visiting different sites for groceries and other essentials".
Though there has been a fall in online sale of luxury items, we cannot but notice the boom in the purchasing rate of daily needs, hygiene products and medicines during the shutdown. Chaldal.com was already renowned among the residents of Dhaka as a reliable online grocery platform even before the pandemic. With more than 50,000 household subscriptions, the company delivered up to 2,000 orders per day.
An inside source of the company said their sale has noticeably increased due to the pandemic, almost by up to 30 percent. Again, a significant surge in the number of Facebook-based retailers and consumer interest in them has been noted too. The most promising factor about this is that more and more women are taking up entrepreneurship in a third world country like us.
UN data from many developed countries have shown a shocking rise of 20-40 percent in domestic violence reports. During quarantine, our women entrepreneurs have successfully balanced their never-ending household chores with the tiresome job of answering endless queries, dealing with supply chain issues, and ensuring product deliveries despite the country-wide shutdown.
You may ask for anything from your wish list – from sanitary essentials, clothing, and imported toiletries to home-baked desserts and even fresh vegetables from backyards – and these hardworking ladies will most probably provide you with that at your doorstep, within no time. Not being limited to retailing, many women are also finding their workplace on social media by sharing their experiences regarding various products and services. So, our empowered women are constantly adding new dimensions to the recent trend of work from home.
But like many others, this golden opportunity has arrived with some challenges. For instance, shipment problems and the halt of international flights took a toll on the f-commerce businesses that have little inventories, and are mostly dependent on imported goods. Online retailers operating with local artisans are also at a loss because producers or suppliers could hardly work in the past few months, which further added to the scarcity of raw materials.
Again, people from across the country are not privileged with having online access. Most of the merchants are based in mega cities and so are their business. Shortage of delivery personnel is a major concern nowadays.
Dhaka is considered one of the most expensive cities to live in, and the shutdown has viciously victimised the lower middle class the most. A lot of people employed in the delivery sector have left the capital, whereas those staying are hesitant to risk their lives for their jobs.
Moreover, safe delivery has been another matter of concern in recent times. Despite most of the online retailers and delivery services following strict hygiene measures, many consumers are being skeptical and rejecting this safer option of purchasing.
"While everyone is staying at home, we are roaming around the city to deliver. But customers are often declining to receive the products for hygiene issues. They are not even picking up our calls at times," quibbles Shanto, an employee of Pathao, a Dhaka-based delivery service company. Delivery personnel working during the early phase of shutdown were also often harassed by law enforcers. Another challenge of online business is gaining consumer support as some buyers often have a prejudiced view towards e-commerce, and are uncertain about the quality of the products sold online.
Despite this, in present times, more people are opting for online shopping, and most of them are absolutely satisfied with the service they received. "For daily needs, online shopping has my absolute trust as this has been the key to keeping me and my parents safe through this time of pandemic", said Syeda Murshed, a brand manager at a prominent multinational corporation.
As more days pass in this panic-induced situation, not only the demand for daily essentials, but also that of toiletries, casual clothing and budget-friendly fashion items is rising rapidly. With imports being curtailed, interest of customers has radically shifted towards local products, for instance, Jamdani and Monipuri sarees from the northeastern region.
Moreover, shopping from online stores often offers many consumers a pleasant escape from constantly worrying about the pandemic. This system provided much relief to many parents before Eid as it enabled them to buy new clothing for their children for the joyous ceremony. Shamsunnahar Jyoti, owner of online jewellery store Beevob, said, "It feels wonderful to be able to help people throughout this hard time. Many of my customers gave feedback that shopping from my page has given them solace, a break from the monotonous shutdown." Thus, for multiple reasons, majority of the middle-class households in cities are getting used to online marketing.
Many Facebook-based sellers have become friends with their customers and gradually are getting involved more in communities by utilising local channels, creating creative advertisements on social media and communicating with consumers on a daily basis. Many merchants are coming up with instalment options, promotions and discount offers for their customers to help fulfill all their wishes in these trying times. Some are also being engaged in charity work, and are supporting people in difficulties.
For example, 6 Yards Story, a famous f-commerce site, took a great initiative to deliver essential medicines to people in need in the early days of shutdown. Thus, online retailing has become an integrated part of our society, and all we can hope for is expansion and affluence of this benevolent initiative.
As the Chinese proverb goes, "A crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind". Our online retailers seem to have successfully harnessed this current wind. We, the blessed consumers, may take a moment to appreciate the online retailers for the effort they extended during these trying times to keep ourselves within the safety of our homes.
Delivery personnel, the unsung heroes who risked their lives for our service, must also be praised. We sincerely hope that after the world returns to normalcy, the online commerce sector will continue to grow and help our economy, as it did through the hardest of times.
Mumtahina Kabir is an architect, and a current student of master's in development studies at the University of Dhaka. Ashraful Bhuiyan is a current student of master's in development studies at the University of Dhaka.