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When India went into a lockdown last month, S. Sandeep who runs a provisions store in Bengaluru’s crowded BTM layout, struggled to stock his shop. The sudden curbs paralyzed distributors. Movement of trucks stopped and most migrant workers left for their hometowns.

A month into the lockdown, things appear to have improved vastly for Sandeep. The store’s narrow aisles are now stacked with rows of chips, cookies and noodles, the way it has been for the past eight years since he started.

Sandeep, 37, now sources supplies from several big wholesalers, and business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce startups such as Jumbotail and Udaan. While he has been on these platforms earlier, Sandeep’s frequency of usage has only gone up as he struggles to get a variety of supplies from one place.

Each day, he also fulfils 5-10 deliveries via Swiggy and Dunzo, and takes orders over WhatsApp.

As millions of kiranas face unusual supply constraints, especially as movement of distributors remains restricted, and they scurry to meet rising demand for household staples, neighbourhood grocery stores have partnered a new set of suppliers and startups for online orders and deliveries.

The move is vastly different from the way they have functioned for years, that is relying on a fleet of salesmen and distributors who make weekly visits to their stores to place orders, and then deliver supplies of everything from milk, bread, chips to detergents.

As the lockdown has proved kiranas to be more agile, startups have built businesses around digitizing kiranas by helping them order goods online, and even making digital payments.

Delhi-based MaxWholesale, a B2B e-commerce platform for kiranas to source online inventory, claimed it generated sales worth over 1 crore in a single day last week. It has seen its average order size triple post the lockdown.

The company’s founder and CEO, Samarth Agarwal, believes India’s millions of kiranas are efficient and profitable, and all they lack is technology.

“We are committed to making kirana stores comfortable with technology by solving their core problem of dependable supply," said Agarwal.

During the lockdown, the four-year-old startup that serves 13,000 stores in Delhi and NCR deployed its own vehicles to evacuate inventory stuck in the warehouses of FMCG distributors.

“We have even procured inventory from distributors and delivered that to stores as part of the assortment we usually sell," said Sachin Chhabra, founder and CEO of Peel-Works, which works with 20,000 retailers in 16 cities. He said that small single-person establishments have struggled to organize passes, delivery trucks and other infrastructure. But as a “B2B selling essentials, we worked alongside city administration to keep this supply chain moving", he said.

The firm works as an online distributor, delivering essential goods to shopkeepers who place orders on its platform. Even MaxWholesale has launched Radius, a local app that allows customers to get in touch with kiranas and retailers in their neighbourhood.

In Indore, which is currently witnessing one of the harshest lockdowns due to surging casualties, shopkeepers have been told to shutter their shops. To be sure, the local authorities have given permission to several stores asking them to make home deliveries. They are taking orders via WhatsApp or through local municipal workers.

As companies, kiranas and brands rush to try new models of ensuring last-mile delivery, the strength and agility of these models post-covid, however, remains to be seen.

Everyone seems to have a kirana strategy today. “Suddenly, kiranas have become far more important, and they don’t have bandwidth to handle more work," said Abhishek Bansal, co-founder and CEO, logistics company Shadowfax.

There are some inherent challenges to kiranas being “digitized". They are not tech-savvy, they work on handwritten bills, and ledgers, and smaller stores lack point of sale machines. “As a result, technology adoption remains an inherent challenge," he said.

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