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#NAMA: How e-commerce companies used technology to solve issues during lockdown

Technology was what allowed e-commerce companies to react, and then adapt, to unprecedented lockdowns in the country, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Faced with the confusing ground reality of differing rules and regulations even in different parts of the same city, companies like Flipkart and Zomato used technology to ensure close coordination within their supply chain.

MediaNama spoke to Amitesh Jha, Senior Vice-President at Flipkart and Mohit Sardana, Chief Operating Officer for food delivery at Zomato last week, to understand what they had to do to keep the show running, and how different their operations are from a year ago. MediaNama hosted the discussion with support from Flipkart. Stanford Alumni India Chapter (North & East) was a Community Partner and the Headstart Network was the Startup Ecosystem Partner for this session.

All quotes have been edited slightly for clarity and brevity.

Automating the mapping process

Sardana said that Zomato had automated the process of demarcating regions with delivery restrictions, so that orders could be stopped from being accepted at those locations. The company had initially marked the zones, but when a rider would report changes in restrictions, this information would be reported centrally to tell everyone that this new area was now off limits. We also had a continuous feedback process with restaurants to see if an area had opened up for deliveries or not.

“You know, there were the Red zones, the yellow zones, right? So we, within our systems had designated certain areas. Whenever a rider used to get stopped, or we realised that police barricades had been put up, and you couldn’t go into that particular area, that used to get reported to us centrally through the riders. We used to verify whether that was the case and very quickly designate those as black zones within our system where we did not take orders and where we informed the consumers that right now deliveries are impacted in your particular area […] All this tech and automation was built within a week of the lockdown” — Mohit Sardana, Chief Operating Officer for food delivery, Zomato.

Ensuring social distancing, hygiene using CCTV

Jha said that another area where automation was useful was in enforcing assurances made to customers that employees were wearing masks, using hand sanitisers and so on. “We have a very distributed workforce. I think, at the peak, we employed around 1.5 lakh people. You have to have zero tolerance in all the cases,” he said.

“So, we used our cameras, we used our systems, the CCTV cameras which are actually there in our warehouses, in our hubs, to make sure that there is full and complete compliances in things like maintaining two metre distance […] It is very easy to do when you are sitting but when it is moving operations, it is extremely hard. So what we did was: the cameras used to anticipate or see what are the gaps that people are doing, to make sure that we are following it not only in spirit but actually on the ground. If you figured out that people are coming too close together or something like that, we know there is an interaction that was unwarranted.” — Amitesh Jha, Senior Vice-President, Flipkart

Jha added that the solutions they had implemented in April wouldn’t even have been thought of in February. “They allowed us to operate with a cleaner conscience, because we know that we are actually doing the right thing,” he said.

Did tech become too intrusive?

During the lockdown, Zomato, along with several other delivery companies, started displaying temperatures of delivery personnel on their apps. While this was done for the sake of customers, was there any opposition or concerns from the delivery personnel? Sardhana replied that the company didn’t face any issues from the drivers. “Because at the end of the day, I think they just wanted to work and earn money, so that they could keep their household running. And I think that they were the first people to realize that safety was a key part of gaining that consumer confidence to ensure that the category came back.”

Sardana added that the company conducted lots of training for the delivery personnel and restaurants, to explain how they would need to operate to bring business back and hence, lead to better earnings for them. All of this training had happened online, he added.

Failure rates and frauds: Has COVID-19 affected them?

Sardana said that Zomato’s failure rate has been improving progressively over the past few months. It is 30% of pre-COVID levels, largely because the company has been trying to solve issues with the aim of bringing back business. “We figured out that when you have a smaller transacting consumer base, each failure actually has a huge cost to it. Therefore, we have gone really deep into solving those issues,” he said.

Jha, meanwhile, said that Flipkart’s successful delivery attempts — when a personnel attempts a delivery and the customer is actually at home and not unavailable — had gone up massively because most people were always at home. However, Jha admitted that this was a transitory phenomenon and he doesn’t expect to see it continue in the future.

On fake and fraudulent listings, Jha said that Flipkart’s “solid technology” solutions take care of the issue, and the company constantly improves them in any case.

Future integration with community managemnt apps

When asked if either company would plan to work with community management apps such as MyGate and Apartment Adda to ease the delivery process, Sardana said that Zomato already has such integration in place. He said that the entire process is fairly automated. At the same time, he added that the company will continue to work on improving the overall user experience.

Jha said that Flipkart, too, considered partnerships with such companies as a “long term thing”. “We always partner with them and work very closely with them. We, in fact, work closely with them on very specific aspects like farm to fresh […] We actually worked with some of these apps but yes, it is a long term thing.”

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