In January 2020, the Chinese government announced a complete lockdown to contain the spread of the deadly Coronavirus. The lockdown restricted the movement of approximately eleven million Chinese citizens, clogged the arteries of the retail system, and disrupted the supply chain beyond repair. Later, the spread of the virus compelled other countries to impose lockdown as well, disturbing the flow of goods and services all over the world. The initial burst of panic-buying stripped the shelves empty in grocery stores and supermarkets, and people locked themselves in their homes to avoid contamination by stepping outside. But what about the essentials?
The severe problems posed by the lockdown got delivery service providers across the world scratching their heads to come up with intelligent solutions to keep the citizens supplied during the quarantine period. From drones to adequately trained delivery personnel, companies are taking matters in their own hands to provide seamless delivery of groceries, essentials, and food amid the novel COVID-19 pandemic. Their solutions are characterized by highly intelligent ideas, flexibility, and practical usage of technology, skills leveraged, and the wide range of goods and services provided.
Digital logistics giant Alibaba was the first move and identified all manufacturing partners to deliver N95 masks and other medical supplies across China and other parts of the world. The company was also able to stock warehouses and provide fast-track shipping in Wuhan while leveraging its digital payments platform Alipay. At the same time, AliPay also collected online donations of USD 1 million from all over the country in the first eight hours.
In terms of physical delivery, other companies such as Amazon and Alphabet have already been experimenting with new automated technologies to help citizens survive the quarantine-life. Since the lockdown blocked all the major highways and roads, in a moment of creativity, the logistics teams proposed deploying drones that did the job in less than 20 minutes.
But drones are not enough, are they? As the lockdown increased the demand for staples, companies started facing problems regarding the shortage of human resources. To curb this problem, companies like Freshippo, a subsidiary of Alibaba, began hiring workers from shuttered restaurants and supermarkets to staff the supply chain. Other companies like JD.com’s 7Fresh branch were quick enough to follow the pursuit by providing limited training to the staff to leverage their supply chain. Similarly, restaurant delivery platform MTDP in China partnered with over 7,000 local supermarkets to process digital orders to deliver to individual households.
In the west, Alphabet's "Wing," a drone-delivering company, is witnessing a severe rise in demand for essentials and groceries in recent weeks as people are strictly adhering to social distancing rules. According to reports published by Business Insider, in the last two weeks, the drones have successfully made over 1,000 deliveries across the United States and Australia.
Wing is currently offering delivery services in selected nations worldwide, including Virginia, Finland, and Australia. The company has partnered with local retailers and supermarkets for deliveries, and customers use Wing's application to place an order. The drones fly at 65 mph, and the customers get their supplies delivered within minutes, thanks to technology.
India’s two most popular food-delivery apps Swiggy and Zomato, have now started delivering groceries in tier-1 and tier-2 cities. Swiggy also launched Swiggy Stores in February for groceries but only in Bengaluru and Gurugram. A similar application Dunzo, which is backed by Google, lets customers order products from retail stores, and get them delivered.
Following Dunzo, Swiggy has now launched a section dedicated towards groceries on its app and also plans to partner with other FMCG companies like Marico to deliver its products that fall under the Safolla brand umbrella. The application has also been rebranded to Swiggy Genie that provides pick-up and drop-off services from one point to another.
Last week, Swiggy’s rival Zomato also launched the all-new "Zomato Market" tab, which offers delivery services of groceries and essentials along with food. The minimum amount is INR 300 for each order, and the maximum order capacity is 12 kgs. The increased demand for doorstep delivery of essentials and groceries has also compelled these companies to expand their operations in other remote parts of the country. Sensing these opportunities, other Indian companies such as Snapdeal, JioMart, BigBasket, and ShopClues have opened their portals for ordering essentials.
Delivery executives come in contact with a large number of consumers daily, putting their health at risk, and creating a medium for transmitting the virus. To reduce these risks, companies across the world are effectively training their human resources to adhere to the safety guidelines issued by WHO. The delivery executives are not only equipped with masks, hairnets, gloves, and disinfectants, but they are also going through regular safety processes, such as daily temperature checks, necessary disinfection before and after the delivery, and mandatory disinfection before and after the last drop-off.
The last step of delivery also required some modifications. The delivery of goods typically required taking the customer's signature after the delivery is made. Social distancing restricted the delivery executives' entries in gated communities since the lockdown was imposed. As a result, many companies faced significant losses as the delivery executives were forced to take back the "undelivered" packages.
To tackle this new challenge, companies like JD.com installed deposit boxes inside gated communities and changed the entire delivery process. Once a package is placed in a box, the customers will receive a bar code through J.D.'s mobile application, reminding them to pick up at any time. Some companies have also recruited volunteer residents to help deliver goods to those who are quarantined and cannot step out of their apartments at any cost, managing the operations through mobile applications. Several companies have also introduced “contact-less delivery” to ensure effective social distancing.
As governments and businesses across the world are continuously fighting the COVID-19 crisis, the rapid responses of e-commerce companies can offer guidance to smaller start-ups and medium companies on how tech-savvy retailers can access the mass markets across the U.K. and the U.S. and play their role in keeping the supply chain running. Companies like Alibaba, Alphabet, and Amazon show that the most valuable contribution would come from those who are leveraging technology for seamless delivery and quickly recruiting human resources with transferrable skills from various shut-down sectors. E-commerce players who would choose to follow these new protocols will find themselves well placed on the map to compete in the post-pandemic world, not only in terms of trade and goodwill but also in terms of opportunities and strategic competencies.