Big message for small businesses

Multimedia messaging can be a stepping stone for stores going digital during the pandemic

For over 16 months during the pandemic, businesses have been going through transformative change with a steep learning curve. They have had little time to prepare for how the Covid-19 crisis has irrevocably altered customer behaviour.

Many people are unwilling to make visits deemed inessential, which has impacted older small businesses that have always relied on footfall and traditional retail presence to make sales. As the pandemic stretched from weeks to months to years, emergency funds have worn thin. Many businesses have shut shops, unable to handle the overheads, staff salary, among others.

Without government help for digital literacy, local businesses are having to take matters into their own hands and use social media and online platforms to maintain their presence, as more people seek services from the safety of their homes.

Businesses with family members of the younger digital-savvy generation can cope with the change better, with children helping them set up or managing their online presence. But most businesses used to the traditional sale methods are grappling with somewhat outdated establishments that would have done just fine, if not for multiple lockdowns.

Businesses that spent years sticking to hand-written bills and paying vendors by cheque have now been forced to switch to digital substitutes and online payment systems like mobile wallets (eSewa or Khalti), Connect IPS and banking apps.

Facebook and Instagram stories are now daily staples for posting updated menus of services, products and business timings that tend to change as the government issues new Covid-19 safety policies, in response to the evolving health crisis. If there is a sudden lockdown, some businesses find ways to cater to their customers, but many are forced to go on hold until further notice.

Small businesses now are seeing up to 25% of revenue generated directly from their Facebook and Instagram pages. Many of them are active on Messenger and use DMs to answer customer queries, confirm orders and coordinate delivery, using casual yet highly effective language styles (most commonly, typing in Roman Nepali) coupled with genuine pictures and videos to clinch sales.

With thousands of Nepalis engaged on WhatsApp and Viber every day for both personal and professional purposes, small businesses are also able to use these communication platforms to stay in touch with repeat customers. Most do not even use the WhatsApp Business app because regular WhatsApp does the job without having to upgrade to the proper channel WhatsApp has launched for business inquiries, complete with fancy features such as an automated chatbot and a product catalogue.

Technology is already at our fingertips, but user behaviour and audience willingness to adopt new methods of sales and marketing communication stand in the way of digitalisation of traditional businesses. The audience may already be comfortable with e-commerce websites and apps, but business owners often are not, because they are not familiar with the technology and its possibilities.

Not to forget, that setting up a website alone requires a team of people to handle online orders, and with that comes logistics to sort out the entire sales process.

Moreover, low literacy levels mean that many small business owners do not feel confident handling customer care online by typing words on a virtual keyboard. WhatsApp, Viber and Messenger are ideal training wheels for such small business owners because, besides text messaging exchanges, they also offer audio-visual data (voice notes, phone calls, image and video sharing) for free.

Let us take a look at some traditional businesses that could do with a beginner level digital transformation:

Pharmacies: Drug stores are important during the pandemic, yet these small family-owned shops struggle when Viber could very well be their virtual shop counter. While some shops have switched, many have yet to start selling medicine via messaging apps, sending photos of tablet strips without having to type out complicated names, as well as having delivery to residents within a 3km radius.

Flower/Plant Sellers: Gardening was a booming hobby during the first few months of the pandemic, during which nurseries saw new customers interested in setting up rooftop gardens to grow their own vegetables. Restrictions on gatherings also meant that flower sales saw a sharp decline with no weddings, or events. Online flower businesses could help with important family events being held at home as well as those looking to gift fancy bouquets without visiting a flower shop. Product photos can be easily sent over, and video calls can help make colour and wrapping choices. Even better, a flower vendor in Kathmandu can cater to a wedding at home in another district, provided they tie-up with an inter-city delivery partner.

Book and Stationery Shops: The publishing industry was already suffering before the coronavirus crisis. But now many people would rather download an e-book or watch a movie. But books, unlike clothes or shoes, are a product category that enjoy low chances of getting returned, with customers usually receiving exactly what they saw on the WhatsApp image. The same goes for stationery items like notebooks, pens, staplers, geometry sets, etc. These business owners need to get going by collecting contact numbers of regular customers and asking Facebook page visitors to message them with the title or category of the book they are searching for. This is only the stepping-stone towards e-commerce websites, which some Nepali online booksellers like and already have. Nepal could someday have its own, an online store of a global retail chain that houses stationery and office supplies.

Paper Products: Thanks to e-commerce, plastic packaging is contributing to mounting piles of garbage. Nepali paper, recycled paper or lokta are a part of our cultural aesthetic, and an industry that needs revival – especially due to the sharp dip in tourists buying creative paper goods made in Nepal. If paper goods manufacturers used multimedia messaging to take orders, the market may see an upward trend in affordable paper lampshades, pretty gift packaging and photo frames.

Festive Decor: With Raksha Bandhan, Krishna Asthami and Tij around the corner, as well as major festivals like Dasain and Tihar coming soon, festive decor, puja items and related paraphernalia will force people to visit crowded markets in Asan and Patan for affordable deals, further spreading the virus. But what if small businesses chose to pre-book orders via WhatsApp and Viber, bundling both decor and puja goods for customers to shop efficiently without wasting time and risking their health? is your one-stop-shop for religious ceremony requirements, but festive shopping is a massive, rich territory that is yet to be properly tapped.

Hair, Skin and Beauty Services: Neighbourhood barber shops, kiosk-based mehendi artists and local beauty parlours have all seen a drastic decline in customers because they need physical proximity. Home visits and doorstep services might be the way forward for them. After all, smaller businesses thrive on their efficiency, not their brand experience. These businesses can benefit greatly from booking appointments using messaging apps, and carrying a kit to their customer’s home, while also charging extra for personalised at-home services. With innovative platforms like UrbanClap and HouseJoy seeing tremendous success in the Indian market, Nepal could also get started. But for now, getting a haircut on the home driveway, thanks to a simple Viber message to a trusted barber, is a solid beginning.

If you want to help your local small businesses take a step towards post-Covid Nepal, volunteer to help set up their phone, teach them to create a Facebook post or show them the magic of in-stream video and voice messages, and see where it takes them.

Who knows, this could be a ‘one tiny phone tap for a Nepali shopkeeper, one giant leap for Nepal’.

Saniaa Shah


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