Shoppers go online

May 27, 2020

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This has been the strangest of all Ramazans. Little to no street cricket, no sehri plans and, much to the dismay of the chief justice, no markets flooded with eager buyers either (initially at least).

But it was hard to tame the consumerism of those with means as people increasingly turned online for their shopping.

“After the lockdown, our entire business came to a halt except for Dfresh (groceries and fresh produce), which instead saw an eight-to-nine times increase in demand. But as things started opening slowly, we noticed a 20-25 per cent bump compared to the pre-coronavirus days — part of the broader shift towards online,” said Daraz Pakistan Managing Director Ehsan Saya.

“Then came the Eid factor where we saw a more than usual increase in demand for fashion and health and beauty (compared to the same season last year). Also, due to the sudden increased online adoption, customers weren’t as price sensitive and instead focused on the convenience aspect,” he added.

“Another major difference we noted was that it didn’t require much marketing or use of discount mechanisms on our part to get more users,” continued Saya.

Marketplaces as well as online stores of major retail brands have reported an uptick in demand since the lockdown, which has further accelerated owing to the Eid factor.

‘We would’ve made arrangements from our side had the e-commerce players given us a heads-up about growing demand,’ says the CEO of Trax, an e-commerce–focused logistics startup

Speaking to Dawn, Gul Ahmed Textile Mills Director Ziad Bashir said, “Customers have become more accustomed to our website. Orders kept coming in even when our warehouses were shut, so we started with a backlog. And even now, because of the limited hours and the SOPs, it has been extremely challenging to fulfil them.”

However, unlike e-commerce stores, brands like Gul Ahmed have only a fraction of their overall sales done online. So even a doubling of the volume doesn’t help much.

“On average, online sales make up for around 5pc of our total volume. But after Covid-19, some players have seen that figure go up to 10pc. However, that doesn’t even come close to compensate for the lost revenues through outlets, which were already in decline compared to the last year’s level.”

Mr Bashir, who also serves as chairman of the Retail Council of Pakistan, said members of the representative body cumulatively sell around $120 million of goods online throughout the year. It’s difficult to estimate how much of the sales are during the Eid period, he added.

But despite increased demand and a higher number of orders, the operational capacity of the supply side hasn’t been able to catch up. “Despite the ease in the lockdown, plenty of restrictions are still in place such as the number of hours road movement is allowed. That can have an impact on the regular customer experience in terms of fulfilment,” Mr Saya said.

“Starting from April 13 when the restrictions were eased, our numbers almost quadrupled within three weeks compared to the lockdown situation and twice our normal levels,” said Hassan Khan, CEO of Trax — an e-commerce–focused logistics startup.

“In normal days, we deliver around Rs250m worth of goods a month. But in Ramazan, we have more than doubled that to Rs516m (May 1-21). So there definitely is a surge in online Eid shopping,” he remarked.

Again, apparel (already the second most popular e-commerce category) saw a major spike in demand, along with shoes that many would previously prefer to buy in stores.

In terms of shipments, Trax saw the number jump from around 7,000-8,000 a day pre-lockdown to over 14,000 by the end of April/beginning of May. And that increased load has been hard to keep up with.

“We had to refuse some big names or meet only part of their needs because there wasn’t enough time to push our capacity. It would have been helpful had the e-commerce players given us a heads-up about growing demand at their end, so we could make the required arrangements from our side,” Mr Khan added.

However, according to Mr Saya, even the e-commerce players didn’t predict such a steep increase in demand all of a sudden. “This is more of an industry-wide challenge that we will have to adjust to accordingly.”

The trend isn’t limited to the general Eid-related items like apparel and beauty products. According to Moazzam Kamran of Symbios.pk, an electronics-focused e-commerce website, there has been a rise in orders since the beginning of the holy month.

“Air conditioners are generally high in demand during Ramazan. But this year we saw an uptick in the purchase of items like food factories, air fryers etc since dining out is not an option and people try to recreate similar experiences at home. More recently, there have been quite a few orders for mobile phones as well,” he said. A similar version was offered by Mr Saya, who attributed this trend to vendors trying to clear their stocks by offering discounts.

Given the overlap of the behavioural shift that began to take place over two months ago and the more recent seasonality factor — which has always been associated with higher sales — it is hard to distinguish what has been the major driver for increased online demand during Ramazan.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 25th , 2020