As we enter a period of worry, uncertainty, and reduced physical mobility thanks to the global Coronavirus pandemic, online services are going to be put under immense strain. We're already seeing reports from around the world that online retailers, communications networks, and content services are seeing spikes in usage. The number of people relying on such services and the underlying infrastructure is obviously likely to increase and stay high for a while. Plus, with retail stores running out of products and people unwilling or unable to leave their homes, e-commerce might be the only hope a lot of us have to stock up on essential commodities.
While Indians don't shop online as much as, say, those in the US and UK, we can see what's happening there as examples of what to expect here very soon. Of particular significance is how Amazon in these countries has not only hired more people for its warehouses and packaging operations, but has also stopped restocking what it calls non-essentials – anything other than groceries, health and wellness products, baby supplies, and household provisions.
It's against this backdrop of rationalising priorities that we at Gadgets 360 have been hearing about upcoming smartphone launches in India that might be announced over the next few days and weeks. There's also no shortage of official teasers posted by manufacturers. Yes, this is usually a very busy time for the industry, and companies cannot afford to let their competitors remain unchallenged. However, apart from matters of taste and tact, we have to wonder about the practicalities involved in launching new products at this time.
For the past few years, electronic retail has been absolutely pivotal to the smartphone industry in India. Amazon and Flipkart, the two largest players, have both been used as exclusive sellers for a huge number of online-only models over the past few years. It's their logistics networks that have allowed a lot of companies to trim margins and cut prices – effectively creating the highly competitive budget smartphone market that we all benefit from today. The flash sales model, as frustrating as it can be, has also allowed for small batches of products to be stocked, coordinated, and delivered centrally.
While pretty much every on-ground event, press conference, or even one-on-one briefing over the past month has been cancelled, the products they were meant to promote have still been launched. (Companies using video conferencing and live streaming tools on this scale instead of in-person events are just another example of how online services have gained traction.)
Online sales, including flash sales, have been proceeding as usual. That has to consume some part of Amazon and Flipkart's resources – especially when interest in a new phone is so great that stocks run out in just minutes or seconds. It also means that thousands warehouse workers and delivery people need to be working and constantly interacting with strangers, rather than staying safe indoors. We aren't yet prioritising essential commodities like other countries are, and we aren't considering the people behind the scenes who can't work from home. We're putting our own gratification above the greater good.
Of course smartphones are essential to some people, but let's be honest – a lot of these sales are going to people looking to upgrade just to satisfy an itch or because they've spotted a great deal.
What does this say about the current state of our market, and the roles that manufacturers, buyers, and intermediaries are playing in helping manage this crisis? As the situation evolves and more people are confined to their homes, will Indian online retailers take the initiative to pause non-essentials like smartphone flash sales without being forced to? Why is the industry crowing about canceling events out of a sense of responsibility to fans and consumers, while those behind the scenes labour as usual?
Situations like the Coronavirus pandemic should make a lot of people change their routines and preconceptions. Those who have never tried online shopping, or have only grudgingly used some services before, are likely to see new reasons to do so now. This has happened before – comparisons have already been drawn to online payment services immediately after India's demonetisation exercise. Cloud kitchens and food deliveries could take on new importance as groceries run out of produce and restaurants remain closed.
We can't be too privileged to see what and who makes all these companies work - even Prime Minister Narendra Modi specifically acknowledged that some professionals are out and about, potentially exposing themselves to danger while others isolate themselves at home, in his address to the nation on Thursday evening.
There is a lot of opportunity for online retailers and service providers to create habit-forming moments and cement their value, but that won't happen if everyone's priorities are skewed. What we have to remember is that other people right now might need things that are slightly more important than the latest shiny objects are to us, and maybe it's time to step back a little. Most important of all, we have to consider what's best for the humans who package our purchases and carry them to our doors.
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