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How Indians lived online during 2020

One of the most significant impacts of the covid-induced lockdown was with respect to work lives, with people being compelled to work from home wherever possible. (Photo: Getty)Premium
One of the most significant impacts of the covid-induced lockdown was with respect to work lives, with people being compelled to work from home wherever possible. (Photo: Getty)

  • Many businesses and lifestyles were upended thanks to the pandemic. What hidden patterns does data reveal?
  • Niche categories like e-grocery and online gaming have suddenly turned into whole new industry segments, which continue to register strong growth even after the end of lockdowns

BENGALURU : This has been a disruptive year, and nowhere has this been more evident than in our lives online. The covid-19 pandemic, which necessitated long and persistent lockdowns, has triggered fundamental shifts in behavioural patterns, especially around how we communicate, work, shop, learn and entertain ourselves.

Even as a semblance of normalcy kicks in slowly, the changes to lives and lifestyles caused by the pandemic will perhaps persist in different degrees over the long haul. Thus, what 2020 did to how Indians use their time, how they access services, and which businesses they prop up will matter well into 2021 and beyond. And there are already ways to quantify and measure these shifts, using emergent data from surveys and digital trace data.

Remote working, a retail investment boom, skyrocketing interest in fantasy sports, and a greater pursuit of learning and entertainment online were some of the broad trends defining the behaviour of India’s digital natives in 2020.

To be sure, the pandemic has affected different communities differently. Far from being the “great leveller" that health crises are understood to be, it has aggravated existing deep-rooted inequalities. Among other factors, the digital divide became a big differentiator, with key services such as education moving online.

According to data from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, a significant number of Indians (an estimated 400 million adults) do not have internet access. Even among those with internet access, large swathes are limited by financial and technical constraints in accessing high-speed internet. The following analysis, however, is focused on the population who can take online access for granted. Their behaviour pivoted online in some fundamental ways.

The big shift
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The big shift

Work and play

One of the most significant impacts of the covid-induced lockdown was with respect to work lives, with people being compelled to work from home wherever possible. Overnight, the popularity of video-conferencing tools skyrocketed. In the quarter till June, when lockdowns were the severest, Zoom was downloaded in even greater numbers than leading social-media applications, according to app intelligence platform Sensor Tower (see Chart 1).

Download numbers for apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams after June are not available yet. But data from Google Search Trends show that while Indians are not searching for video-conferencing apps as much as they did in the June quarter, they are still searching for these about four times more than in pre-covid months. Work from home (WFH) is proving to be a lingering concept.

WFH, however, wasn’t a smooth transition for all. Issues such as patchy internet and inadequate work infrastructure remained a concern. This was reflected in the trends in online purchases during the lockdown. Data released by e-commerce giant Flipkart shows a 2.3 times increase in laptop searches on its website and a three-fold increase in demand for WFH furniture such as study tables, chairs and laptop tables in the period between February and August 2020, as compared to the same period in 2019.

The uncertain economic situation due to the pandemic, and the ensuing lay-offs, has nudged Indians to skill up during the lockdown period and thereafter. Online course provider Udemy reported a 200% increase in course enrollment in India within 10 days of the lockdown being announced on 25 March. According to Coursera, another leading online course provider, India had 9.8 million learners on its platform as of September 2020, the second-highest in the world.

But perhaps no other industry has been disrupted more than entertainment due to the covid lockdown. While cinema halls, theatres and performance venues have borne the brunt of the lockdown, there are other mediums that have gained due to the pandemic.

Over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms, which provide entertainment over the internet, benefited immensely, as people sought entertainment from home. Both the subscriber base and viewership on these platforms surged in the lockdown period. Downloads in India of Amazon Prime, for example, increased from 8.7 million in the March quarter to 12.6 million in the June quarter. Similarly, Netflix downloads in India increased from 4.5 million to 6.8 million, according to Sensor Tower. Further, Google Search Trends data shows that the current trajectory, though lower than the June quarter, is higher than pre-covid levels.

As countries unlocked, live sports returned to television screens. Video streaming platform Disney+Hotstar along with TV channel Star Sports received a huge boost from the coverage of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament, which had to be postponed from its usual start of March to September. Disney India reported this IPL marked the most games watched by an average viewer for any 60-game IPL season. A cumulative 383 billion minutes were watched during the first 58 of 60 games, according to data from television monitoring agency Broadcast Audience Research Council (Barc). This is 24% higher than the record of 326 billion minutes viewed during the entirety of IPL 2019.

The massive interest in the IPL is also matched by a spectacular rise in the popularity of online fantasy sports (OFS) in India during 2020. Fantasy sports platforms, which allow sports enthusiasts to place monetary bets on the performance of players and teams, have been steadily on the rise since 2016.

Increased penetration of smartphones, low cost of internet data and the growing popularity of several sporting leagues in India has meant the OFS sector was already poised for a boom at the start of 2020. A study by KPMG estimated that there are 90 million OFS users in India, as of December 2019, the latest available. Dream11, the title sponsor for IPL 2020, is the overwhelming market leader, with over 75 million registered users.

The increased user base has translated to increasing transactions as well, resulting in an exponential growth in the money spent on these platforms. This figure has increased from 1,743 crore in 2017-18 to 16,467 crore in 2019-20, a nearly 10-fold increase in just two years. Even as the period April to June 2020 saw several sporting tournaments cancelled, the return to international cricket, and particularly the IPL, saw a spike in OFS activity. For instance, the Dream11 platform saw a 44% surge in traffic in the opening match of IPL 2020, as compared to the final match of IPL 2019.

The Indian government has so far taken a benevolent view of the OFS sector from a regulatory standpoint, while the Supreme Court and multiple High Court judgments have ruled that Dream11’s format constitutes a “game of skill", rather than betting. The OFS sector is, therefore, poised for further growth, with more than 140 platforms currently in business.

Shop and stocks

For online shopping, 2020 turned out to be a watershed year. With strict lockdowns, in urban areas, online delivery of essential goods became more pervasive. Covid-19 gave a significant push to the e-grocery segment.

E-grocery platforms such as BigBasket and Grofers struggled to fulfill orders in March and April, but they were able to scale up operations in May. According to an analysis by market research firm RedSeer, their gross merchandise value (GMV) of orders in May 2020 was 45% higher than in January 2020. Redseer has also forecasted that the GMV at the end of 2020 will be 2.5 times that of January 2020. The entry of Reliance’s JioMart is also expected to disrupt the e-grocery market, and also scale up sales in the short term (see Chart 2).

E-commerce in general, however, had a mixed bag this year due to reduced discretionary spending and logistical challenges. With only delivery of essentials allowed during the lockdown, platforms such as Flipkart and Amazon initially struggled. Thereafter, in the shopping festivals and festive season, they boasted record sales.

Food-delivery platforms like Swiggy and Zomato also initially struggled, with orders dropping by 80% in April 2020—as compared to January—due to restrictions on movement, safety concerns and increased preference for home food. However, as many cities unlocked, there has been a gradual recovery in demand. In November, food delivery platform Zomato said the GMV of orders placed through it was exceeding pre-covid levels.

The pandemic also led to a crash in the stock market in March 2020. This, coupled with the stay-at-home orders, led to a surge in the number of people dabbling in stocks. Data from the National Stock Exchange (NSE) shows that India’s top brokerages, led by discount broker Zerodha, saw a surge in account signups—as measured by the unique client code (UCC) assigned by brokers to clients.

The total number of clients increased from 9.4 million in February to 12 million in July. The growth momentum has sustained, with the total count of clients standing at over 15 million in November. Zerodha alone has seen over 1.3 million new clients between March and November 2020, a 92% increase. Another discount broker Upstox (RKSV Securities) has seen a 140% rise in the same period. Retail investors have contributed to the greater liquidity in the stock market, which is one of the factors behind the V-shaped recovery in the stock indices even as the Indian economy struggles to catch up (see Chart 3).

In conclusion, the progressive return to normalcy will test the linear growth trajectory that each of these dimensions has experienced in the past few months. It remains to be seen if these will lead to a permanent shift in behaviour.

Arjun Srinivas is with www.howindialives.com, a database and search engine for public data

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