Virtual Trade

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With the Covid-19 pandemic dictating a new regime, most of the activities of life are getting into virtual mode. Owing to the communication blockade, Kashmir has finally managed its hiccups and is trying to manage the digital deficit. Shakir Ashraf reports about Kashmir’s new online stores

CRPF personnel stand guard on the deserted business street in Maisuma locality of Srinagar, on Saturday, August 1, 2020. Authorities ordered the closure of all major religious places, including mosques and shrines in Kashmir, to contain the spread of Coronavirus. Kashmir has extended lockdown until August 5, 2020. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

The Coronavirus pandemic has upset life for more than a year and crumbled the business world over. It has dictated a new lifestyle. With the high-speed internet as the virtual highway, now everything barring agriculture and manufacturing is happening from home. People work from home and make purchases online.

The blockage of the high-speed internet notwithstanding, many ambitious and energic Kashmir young men have started their online ventures at the peak of lockdown. These online retailers are doing well even when the normal business activity has resumed. They are selling almost everything and ensuring it is delivered in time. The healthy competition within these stores is improving the service. Interestingly, these stories sprung up from Srinagar and now various peripheral towns have their own online retailers.

“There are two types of ventures that Kashmir has seen in last more than a year,” Samiuallh, the co-promoter of Fast Beatle, Kashmir’s first IT-driven logistics company, said. “There are businesses who get orders online and we deliver them to their customers at no added cost. Then there are certain stores who own the products and deliver on their own.”

Samiullah and Abid Rashid, the co-founders of FastBeetle, a courier and door to door supplier, in their Srinagar office. KL Image: Special Arrangement

Samiullah said that in 2020 when they started, almost 300 stores were working through them. “Now it is 600 and these include a lot of people who have started their initiatives using their social media accounts.” Fastbeetle, he said, has 20 people on its rolls right now and is about to re-start hiring for more positions.

“Apart from what we were already doing, there were two major happenings that took place recently,” Samiullah said. “We have entered into a relationship with Amazon, the major online retailer and from May 1, we will be delivering their couriers in Pampore, Awantipore and Pulwama.”

The second aspect of their operations is linked to the investment. “We have diluted 10 per cent of our stakes in the company and raised Rs 25 lakh for expansion. Now three investors – Anuj Sharma (Mumbai), Tabasum Azad (Delhi) and Abrar Asif Yaha Sukuri (Bengaluru) hold 10 per cent stakes in our company. The capital infusion will help us grow faster.”

Kashmir’s online trade is surging almost on daily basis. There are scores of companies selling online, some who own their products, some who source their products from retailers, some who exclusively cater to the requirements outside and many others who sell local products locally. Some of them are delivering the medicines at home as well.

“Many youngsters approached us for products but it somehow did not fit in our system,” Bilal Ahmad, who runs the PickNChoose in Srinagar. “We believe the people normally prefer for physical purchase and usually they purchase online the products which they are unable to find in the local market.”

At the same time, however, Bilal says he is considering getting into online sales and creating a vertical for this because it is the new trend.

At the peak of Covid-19, Junaid Rashid Lone, launched launching Etrolly.

Junaid Rashid Lone, a Baghgi-Mehtab (Srinagar), who said he is running a company, Workoll in Dubai, was holidaying in Kashmir when Coronavirus gripped the world.

“During severe Covid-19 lockdown, when it was very difficult for a customer to move outside and fetch essential commodities, the idea of launching Etrolly came into my mind,” Junaid said. Holding English masters, Junaid had done a course in digital marketing. “I gathered my resources back in Kashmir and thought to give it a start.”

A year later, Junaid is satisfied with the way people responded to his initiative.

“We are receiving 30-35 orders per day and more than 15 boys are working in the company and delivering these orders,” said Junaid. He plans to hire more boys.

His company has tied up with a lot of established businesses for the supply of the item they sell online. These include a variety of food items, grocery, books and other items.

The snail-pace internet was a crippling crisis for these ventures. “We had launched website, android app and IOS app but due to 2G internet,  customers could not use it so the most of work was done through SMS,” Junaid said. He said the in-line stores got attention again when the heavy snowfall restricted people home.

Since the virtual world is vast and growing, new ventures crop up on daily basis. “We exactly do not know how many ventures are there right now,” one insider said. “You only need a GST number and a customer.” Apart from established stores that have a physical presence, there are interesting names in the virtual world who are into online sales – SaharMall, Kashmir Store, Shoppe Hobbie, Hello Shoppee.

Malik Adil runs Groxery- The store next door, an online retailing and delivery unit.

The stories about the emergence of these ventures are interesting. In 2020, at the peak of Coronavirus, Malik Adil, 28, a resident of Bandipora, set up Groxery- The store next door. He did this at a time when the district was being seen as the epicentre of the pandemic.

Adil was working with Grofers, an online grocery delivery service in Bangaluru. After completing his MBA from Alliance Business School he decided to commence his own online store.

“It was the earlier stage of Coronavirus when I moved from Bangalore to Kashmir, so I had to stay in quarantine for almost fifteen days,” Adil said. “I was not used to sitting idle so I decided to open an online store which will help people during Coronavirus.” He knew the entire business model.

In 2015, Adil started an event management company Pro Brandingin Bangaluru. Almost 100 people are working with his initiative that has 10 offices in Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Pune.

For his venture, Adil said 30-35 youth are working and it has ten delivery vehicles. Adil said they are delivering almost everything to their customers including the freshly baked bread – almost 1000 pieces a day. It operates at many places within and outside Srinagar.

“People in Kashmir are not so much used to online stores as compared to outside Kashmir,” Adil said. “I am doing my best to reach everywhere in Kashmir to provide quality things at better prices via online mode.”

His venture has two modes of delivery – the slot that is delivered within 24 hours and express delivery, which takes places within 90 minutes.

Haseeb Khan at the warehouse of his online trading company, Groffils

At the peak of the shutdown and curfew that followed the abrogation of Article 370, Haseeb Khan could not find the baby milk for his newly born son. He rushed to the hospital. When Haseeb left for the hospital, roads were deserted, dotted with forces and armoured vehicles.

“There was no shop open and then I pledged to serve my society by opening an online store,” said Haseeb, an MBA graduate who has been with the hospitality sector since 2007. In July 2020 year he formally launched Groffils an online store of essential goods.

Currently, Grofills cover Srinagar and up to Rs 1000, no delivery charges are applied. “We have almost 25000 products in my warehouse,” he said.

Admitting that online will take some time for mass acceptability, Haseeb said the trend will take care of itself gradually. “New generation is tech-friendly but here the responsibility of buying groceries has been put to the shoulders of elderly people. So, it is a gradual process,” said Haseeb.

Currently, his company is managing 40 orders and it has 15 employees.

“I believe in digital marketing, newspaper hoardings are outdated. We have an aggressive focus on digital marketing,” Haseeb said.

The opening up of this store was a collective process. The brothers and parents supported Haseeb in every manner. “We should encourage and appreciate the youth as well as entrepreneurs,” he said.

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