Dear Sarkar: Why can’t we shop online and stay safe?

Last year, panic shopping during the pandemic became an Internet meme with everyone stocking up extra on toilet paper, toothpaste and tuna cans.

This year, with the highly infectious second wave of the Coronavirus and a third lockdown, things are much worse. Every trip out to buy vegetables is a possible risk of exposure, that you could carry home to your family members.

By this logic, buying more at once makes sense, to reduce the frequency of trips to the market and the chances of bumping into strangers at small local shops. However, a more failsafe, future-focused way of shopping would be online, without dealing with the worries of lack of social distancing, exchanging currency notes and a lot of touching goods and surfaces.

The government has extended grocery runs from 6 to 10AM every morning in Kathmandu Valley, with police patrolling the streets to make sure that people are not hanging around, while also looking out for shopkeepers flouting rules by keeping their shutters open beyond the time window.

The government has also allowed online shopping sites to deliver ‘essentials only’. These stores are allowed to sell food items, cleaning supplies, toiletries and Covid-related products such as masks, sanitisers, handwash, disinfectants, face shields, oxygen cans and even steam machines.

The same online sites would otherwise have also delivered products of other categories, now deemed ‘non-essential’: such as books, clothes and footwear, gadgets and electronic appliances, accessories, home decor and furniture, toys, baby products, sports gear, alcoholic beverages as well as unique, innovative items that make life easier.

There is no obvious reason why products of these categories must not be delivered during the lockdown. With a few rules regarding delivery timings (mornings and evenings only), PPE gear for delivery staff and proper sanitisation of vans, and perhaps even a special permit that e-businesses could procure to prove official permission to deliver as well as their legitimacy, all shops could home-deliver any and all goods safely. This would be beneficial for the customers as well as traders, and the e-commerce economy.

Besides, a lot of physical stores would find the incentive to launch online and explore home delivery, something that stores abroad have been doing since March 2020 to survive the pandemic. The garment industry, bookstores, and nursery shops, for example, have all seen the future of shopping: a hybrid user behaviour where some people (usually busy, working millennials) prefer saving time and shopping online, while others enjoy spending time physically visiting stores to browse at a leisurely pace and personally pick out items for assurance before making a buying decision.

If the government made accommodations for e-commerce to work smoothly during the lockdown, business would not have to take a sharp toll like now, and it looks like the restrictions will be extended until the latest surge is under control -- going by the severity of the situation in hospitals.

E-commerce in US, UK, China and India have all taken off with an online shopping boom during lockdowns, and witnessed an unprecedented spike in orders and revenue. Despite a worrying increase in numbers of Covid cases and fear due to rising mortality rates, their governments have not restricted delivery to ‘essentials only’.

They allow businesses to get creative, focus on their website and app UX/UI improvements and offer prompt, professional home delivery services that cash in on people’s boredom of being stuck at home and desires in picking up new interests and upgrading their gadgets to suit remote work life. People are buying everything from board games to face masks, cake pans to dumbbells, Bluetooth speakers to juice blenders (with batteries as an add-on, of course) online.

There is no reason why Nepal cannot do the same. The Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies, Ministry of Finance and related government agencies should delve deep into this unique opportunity for Nepal’s digital economy to register an exponential rise.

Clearly, Covid-19 is here to stay and needs utmost attention, but ignoring the economy, not empowering the online shopping industry, and letting business face the brunt of this dark period in time is not optimum action either.

For the time being, we, as citizens, can decrease risk of contracting or spreading the virus by a) staying home and refraining from visiting shops outside b) setting up our mobile banking, e-banking and app wallets for online payments and c) shopping online or through Whatsapp/Viber using the efficient e-commerce grocery options we have at our fingertips.

These include e-commerce bigwigs Daraz and Sastodeal, that have websites as well as apps, food delivery startups like Bhoj (download app to order from various food marts and vendors, such as KK Mart and SabjiLand), online supermarket options like Mero Kirana (only taking app orders due to large demand) and Mero Groceries (functioning smartly by taking Whatsapp and Viber orders), and a variety of online food startups like Kheti Food, Kheti Bazaar and Maato.

Kheti Food, developed by tech company DV Excellus, is quickly becoming a crowd favourite for the quality of vegetables, both organic and regular, as well as the focus on directly benefitting farmers of Nepal. Its most innovative offering is the fruit and vegetable subscription box that customers can order repeatedly at regular intervals to routinely and conveniently stock up the pantry without scrolling through individual items.

Kheti Foods has a great website, app and email newsletter, and it has seen immense success between 2020 and 2021 across age groups and demographics. Kheti Bazaar, founded by Subechhya Basnet, specialises in high quality, organic vegetables, rice, lentils, oils, dairy products, spices and exotic healthy grains and seeds.

It is an older startup that relies heavily on its strong but small loyal customer base. It has its own family farm outside the Valley and sells physically from a store set up at Bhojan Griha, Dilli Bazar.

Mato, a Golyan Group agro product, is committed to serving local organic produce, packaged and distributed professionally by a business group that is experienced in scaling up and building a brand by listening to the audience’s needs. During the first lockdown, Mato took the revolutionary move of selling vegetables via a mobile van that travelled across neighbourhoods and parked at a spot for 15 minutes to cater to the residents of the area.

Not only was it a clever business strategy but also worked as a marketing move. Since then, Mato has opened a physical store, and continues to do great business through Facebook and Instagram. Looking forward to seeing what happens if it launches a website or mobile app next.

Saniaa Shah writes this fortnightly column, Tech Away for Nepali Times, and runs Studio Aakar, a film production studio. 

Saniaa Shah

writer

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