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Bengaluru: Online retailer Amazon.com Inc. is localizing its technology operations in India by freeing up its engineers to launch new features and customize its smartphone app for shoppers.

Amazon India has reduced the size of its mobile app by more than 60% to suit cheap smartphones, introduced near-automated sign-ups for first-time mobile users, made it easier for customers to pay online, revamped its daily deals offering, among other innovations, some of which the company has adopted in its international markets. These changes have significantly improved both the company’s user addition and retention rates, a top official said.

Its efforts seem to be working.

More shoppers installed Amazon India’s smartphone app than any rival’s app in the last three months of 2015, the online retailer said, citing data compiled by App Annie, an analytics company.

Downloads of Amazon India’s shopping app tripled in the key shopping month of October compared with the year-ago period, the company said.

These numbers are significant as a majority of online shopping in India is expected to happen on smartphones over the next five years. Already, Amazon and its rivals Flipkart Ltd and Snapdeal (Jasper Infotech Pvt. Ltd) get more than 70% of their traffic from smartphones.

“Starting early 2014, the focus moved entirely towards mobile," said Amazon India customer experience head Akshay Sahi. “We said we will serve all customers, but focus-wise, what we would build for first is the mobile app. Our tech is hybrid, with a mix of native and HTML. What that means is if I change stuff in one place, there are underlying technology layers which will then push the changes to the app and the mobile site. This gives us a big advantage and allows us to innovate fast because I can get signals quickly from customers across platforms."

Amazon’s tech expertise in consumer-facing products, predictive analytics, supply chain, among other areas is one of the reasons it is catching up fast with Flipkart and Snapdeal.

India is the most important new market for Amazon, which lost out in China to Alibaba Group. Analysts say Amazon didn’t understand the Chinese market well enough and didn’t do enough to localize its strategy and services there.

The company is at pains to avoid repeating its mistakes in India. It has tied up with kirana stores, the dominant retail format in India, and others to launch a grocery delivery service; the India business is headed by an Indian-origin executive, Amit Agarwal; and, most importantly, the company offers cash on delivery, the preferred medium of payment of most Indian online shoppers.

On the tech front, too, Amazon has given flexibility and freedom to its local engineers to customize its app and features to suit Indian shoppers. Now, US-based Amazon is also exporting some of the features launched by the company in India to its other markets.

“Deals are disproportionately important in India compared with our other markets. But we realized that our (previous) deals pages aren’t going to work in India, so we took over the deals pages and redesigned it completely, including some of the underlying technologies. A huge number of components from our redesign is being used in global markets," Sahi said.

Another change was the sign-up process for mobile customers.

“The sign-up process was you enter the email, then password, then you verify it, etc—that was too much. Now, we pre-detect the mobile number and the new user only has to enter a password. You get an OTP (one-time password), which is read and entered automatically. This is another feature we have opened up in other markets. Overall, the goal is to understand where there is friction for the customer and then eliminate that," Sahi said.

Initially, however, Amazon adopted most of the features of its global app in India. Those features included things such as barcode scanning, which were of no use to Indian shoppers. Apart from irritating customers, the features also caused the app to become very heavy in terms of taking up space on smartphones. This was particularly problematic as a majority of Amazon’s current and future customers will own low-end smartphones that offer limited storage space. Clunky apps also don’t tend to work best on cheap smartphones.

“In three months, we cut out the features that weren’t working, removed the bloat, cleaned the tech up and brought down the (weight of the app) to less than 9MB from more than 22MB. We are at 9.8MB right now. The challenge for us is to launch new features and yet keep the binary size low. We also fixed a bunch of other stuff. Now, our crash rates are lowest by far globally for Amazon. After all this, our uninstall rates dropped significantly," Sahi said.

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