With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic continuing to force consumers from around the world to shop from home, online sales in Bangladesh were expected to see turbocharged growth similar to international trends.
Despite some ups and downs, the country's e-commerce industry has ballooned by about 100 per cent ever since the first Covid-19 infection in the country was announced in March.
However, the growth witnessed during this six-month period still falls short of previous projections.
While a number of e-commerce platforms that mainly retail essential goods are overwhelmed by an unprecedented number of orders, those that sell lifestyle and luxury items saw the demand for their products plummet to rock bottom.
For example, Chaldal, Bangladesh's leading online shopping platform for household goods, has defied the volatile economic situation to absolutely dominate the market.
Thanks to an increased demand for home delivery of groceries, hygiene products and other consumer staples, Chaldal enjoyed a 140 per cent rise in its daily delivery count inside Dhaka.
The online retailer now executes 6,000 deliveries each day while the number was 2,500 in the pre-pandemic period.
"The demand for rice, vegetables and hygiene products has been great since late March," said Waseem Alim, chief executive officer (CEO) of Chaldal.
At a time when most businesses were laying off much of their staff in a bid to survive the Covid-19 fallout, Chaldal added 560 new jobs to take its number of employees to 1,400. This a significant feat for any local e-commerce site, he added.
Launched in 2013, the online retail platform makes deliveries all over Dhaka and its adjacent areas, including Narayanganj, with its own delivery mechanism.
However, Alim believes that online sales have not grown as much as was expected.
"All the media hype led people to believe that Bangladesh's e-commerce industry would grow 10 times larger due to the pandemic but this is not true," he said.
The Chaldal CEO also pointed out the inadequacy of their existing delivery mechanisms and absence of a smooth supply chain as the main obstacles for growth in the overall industry.
In an effort to meet the excessive number of orders made each day, Chaldal has had to make some technological and strategic changes to its organisation, including replacing old servers and automating the refund process.
On the other hand, Daraz, another leading e-commerce platform, lost around 5,000 of its import-dependant merchants soon after travel bans were issued around the world in order to curb the spread of coronavirus.
But then in May, the company added more than 10,000 local retailers to its platform.
"Products that had never been sold on an e-commerce platform are now regularly sold online," Syed Mostahidal Hoq, managing director of Daraz Bangladesh, told The Daily Star yesterday.
Even items such as plants, seeds, fertilisers and honey are now on the top selling products list, Hoq said, adding that due to this change in consumer habit, small and medium entrepreneurs can now cater to more people than ever before.
Before the coronavirus pandemic emerged, the top selling product range for Daraz, a subsidiary of e-commerce giant Alibaba, was electronics.
Since then though, the demand for those items has dropped drastically while incoming orders for daily necessities and hygiene products has increased exponentially, according to the managing director.
The company's overall sales fell significantly in the April-May period but business has been on the rebound since June.
In a testament to the country's economic recovery from the Covid-19 fallout, the number of orders made daily surged to 55,000 in August, up 20 per cent when compared to pre-pandemic levels.
To provide customers with a better shopping experience amid the coronavirus crisis, Daraz has completely revamped its logistics technology, Hoq said.
As such, the company improved its integration with bKash, the largest mobile financial service (MFS) provider in Bangladesh, to streamline its payment system.
Customers from across 48 districts can now order their daily necessities or engage in gaming facilities available on the Daraz app, he added.
PriyoShop, which typically retails lifestyle products such as clothes, smartphones and other high-tech gadgets, added groceries to its roster after observing the changes in consumer demand in early April.
"Orders started flooding in during April, particularly for masks and sanitisers. But our suppliers and logistic companies were not able to provide smooth services because it happened all of a sudden and no one was prepared," said Asikul Alam Khan, CEO of PriyoShop.
For instance, the e-commerce platform received a total order for 3,000 units of various antibacterial personal care products in a single day in mid-April. However, the company was able to handover just 1,700 units of the order due to insufficient supply.
Despite the increased sale of groceries, personal protective equipment and sanitisers during the April-May period, profits were offset by a plunge in demand for PriyoShop's lifestyle and tech products.
However, the sale of smartphones and laptops rose sharply from July onwards and is currently 400 per cent higher than what it was ahead of the pandemic.
People are now working from home and therefore need laptops and smartphones to that end, Khan said.
"Although we can't meet the high demand for laptops due to decreased imports following flight cancellations, we are able to meet the demand for smartphones thanks to local manufacturing," he added.
PriyoShop now executes 5,000 deliveries daily, a 128 per cent increase from its value during the pre-pandemic time, when it stood at 2,200.
The online retailer integrated some new digital technologies with its operation, including automatic transactions and QR payments.
Revenue was on a steep decline during the early stages of the pandemic, said Zeeshan Kingshuk Huq, co-founder and CEO of Sindabad, a business-to-business and wholesale online retailer.
The company recently shifted its business model to include selling products directly to its customers.
"As we are a wholesaler, we had a big stock of staples and hygiene products but most brick-and-mortar shops, who are our customers, were closed during the two-month lockdown. So, our employees came forward to take these products to the customer's doorstep," Huq said.
The government had declared a nationwide general holiday that lasted from March 26 to May 30 in a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19 within Bangladesh.
Sindabad, which has a workforce of over 200 people, reinvigorated its business following the dip in sales by directly supplying small and medium sized shops.
As a result, the number of orders received is 2.5 times higher on average than what is was before the pandemic.
"If we had not pivoted, our business would have been in bad shape," Huq added.
Similarly, AjkerDeal, one of Bangladesh's first e-commerce platforms that focuses on customers from outside Dhaka, took a significant hit due to the pandemic as the two-month shutdown of all economic actives led to a drastic fall in revenue.
"Our sales nosedived because we mainly sell lifestyle products, which have decreased in demand since March," said Fahim Mashroor, CEO of AjkerDeal.
Mashroor, a former president of the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services, had hoped the Covid-19 situation would push the expansion of MFS and broadband internet services to remote villages.
Transactions made through MFS platforms hit an all-time high of Tk 62,999 crore in July with an active user base of about 4.3 crore as an increasing number of private individuals, businesses and government agencies have relied on such services since early April.
Besides, the use of debit and credit cards to make digital payments is also increasing.
"Those developments will pave the way for e-commerce to grow further in the coming years," Mashroor said.
Food home delivery and logistics
Online food delivery platforms suffered the most since late March, when all of the restaurants in Bangladesh were closed for the nationwide lockdown.
Till date, those platforms have not been able to recover more than 50 per cent of the losses incurred during that time.
"The situation for every online food delivery platform is dire. With insignificant help from the government and their financiers, many such start-ups are destined to perish," said Ahmad AD, CEO of HungryNaki.
Meanwhile, Shohoz Food had regained 75 per cent of its business, according to Maliha M Quadir, CEO of Shohoz.
"Business is returning to normalcy as we are giving a lot of discounts," Quadir said.
Likewise, Pathao Food, the market leader for this sector, has seen slow recovery.
"But at least orders are still coming in," said Hussain Elius, chief executive of Pathao.
The restaurants were closed for months due to the pandemic and even now, those that have reopened are still not operating on a full scale.
Because of weak logistics infrastructure and travel restrictions, e-commerce consumers suffered a lot at the beginning of the outbreak, Elius said.
But with new innovations and technology integration, business for the logistics services providers has expanded since July.
Paperfly, an e-commerce-based logistics company, witnessed a 10 per cent slump in daily deliveries in May.
In August though the number of shipments made each day surged to 13,000, a 44 per cent increase from its value during the pre-pandemic period, when it was just over 9,000, according to Rahath Ahmed, chief marketing officer of Paperfly.