Holding together India’s e-commerce growth story with timely, doorstep delivery

E-commerce logistics associates have made the promise of timely, doorstep delivery possible


Two years into the job as a delivery associate, Santosh Kumar shops online, and has started buying branded products as well, but says he prefers his local market. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Two years into the job as a delivery associate, Santosh Kumar shops online, and has started buying branded products as well, but says he prefers his local market. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

New Delhi: Starting 6am every working day, 25-year-old Santosh Kumar whizzes through the traffic on his motorcycle, carrying a big black bag. For the modern-day Indian who doesn’t have the time to go out and shop, Santosh is a godsend—one of more than 100,000 delivery associates seen on Indian roads.

Amid the e-commerce boom in India, shopping malls and chain stores account for only about one-tenth of the total retail sales, according to a recent Morgan Stanley Research report. Already, the combined sales of India’s top three e-commerce sites—Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon—surpass those of the 10 largest modern retailers.

This rapid growth of e-commerce has led the way for the emergence of specialized logistics firms. And holding together India’s e-commerce growth story are delivery associates like Santosh, who have made the promise of timely, doorstep delivery possible.

Santosh joined Amazon in 2014, nine years after he moved to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur district. When he left Jaunpur, his village didn’t have Internet cafes. There were a few STD booths, no paved roads; electricity came when he was sleeping and went by the time he woke up, and phones were a luxury.

In the village school, there were no desks and tables. Children sat on taat pattis (jute sheets)—notebooks, Santosh says, “weren’t the craze”. Everyone wrote on takhtis (wooden slates). The transition from his village to the city was just too dramatic for him.

When Santosh came to Delhi, the Internet for him was something his friends at a government school in New Friends Colony used to search for Bollywood songs. He had no idea that the Internet could be used on any other device or that it could be used for work too. Back then, his family could not afford a phone or Internet access.

Years after his father moved to Delhi, Santosh’s two brothers joined him, and he followed. One started a general store, and the other found work in a car workshop. Both had finished high school. With Santosh enrolling for his bachelor’s now, he is the most educated in his family.

This is his third job. In 2012, he worked as a ward boy for a year at Apollo hospital and then in an export company briefly. When he joined Amazon in 2014, he had no idea what the firm did. “I was told it was an MNC... that I would get two days off every week. The money was good enough. They said it is an e-commerce company. I had heard of the online shopping company HomeShop18 and knew I’d be expected to do the same as the delivery associates there,” he says.

Two years into the job, Santosh shops online, and has started buying branded products as well, but says he prefers his local market. “For the price of one Levi’s shirt, I can buy two or three from the local market. That way, I get more options in different colours, for the same price.”

There are many like Santosh who may not know what exactly the Internet is, or what a URL is, but use it nonetheless.

The Internet has become an integral part of life in modern India, and every second, three more Indians experience it for the first time, according to the Morgan Stanley report. The number of Internet users soared from approximately 20 million in 2004 to nearly 277 million now (according to the annual Internet Trends Report by Mary Mecker of investment firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers). By 2030, it is estimated that more than a billion Indians will be online.

The past two decades have seen a visible change in consumer mindset—people who once insisted on so-called touch-and-feel now have no problems shopping online. The growth of online retail is, at least in part, driven by changing urban consumer lifestyles. It is also driven by access—buyers in small towns shop on online marketplaces because their local stores do not stock what they want—and discounts.

E-commerce companies currently employ more than 100,000 delivery associates. The field is largely dominated by men (aged anywhere between 18 and 28), who spend eight to nine hours in the field and earn Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000 a month. Performance incentives could add another Rs.1,000-2,000 depending on the company that employs them, according to a Mint article.

When Santosh came to Delhi, his family had one black-and-white television. Today, with the brothers working, it has three colour TVs.

“What to do, everyone has different tastes,” he says.

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