Indian e-commerce portal Flipkart recently announced it has clocked US$1 billion in sales. Others such as Snapdeal and Myntra are expected to follow. These figures may be small compared when compared to Amazon or eBay turnovers or Facebook’s valuation of WhatsApp, yet they are significant milestones for a country such as India. For one, they underline genuine Internet users in India, not just fake profiles, trolls, memes, hackers, spammers, Modi followers and those that regularly spoof Arvind Kejriwal or Rahul Gandhi in the run up to general elections in a few weeks time. There is some serious money to be made in the online space. It is projected in the next decade India’s e-commerce retail market would amount to US$60 billion. I count myself among the very active Internet users in India, the number of which is expected to cross 250 million this year. I operate my bank account, pay bills, purchase insurance, invest and plan my travel on the Internet. I buy online clothes that usually fit nicely, books much cheaper than at stores, music and movie CDs that work fine, and even fresh groceries well within expiry date on the Internet.
I am one of many I am sure, evidenced by shutdown of most music, movie and book stores in Gurgaon, where I live. The only DVDs that continue to do brisk business are pirated. These are good value for money and decent quality, but they are illegal. A popular music outlet close to my home that has existed for as long as I can remember closed down recently to offer laundry services. I spoke to the owner, who I know. His answer: “In a progressive fast growing city like Gurgaon, everybody downloads music from iTunes and we can’t match the prices.’’ However, my friend was not worried. He was sure his new laundry business would do well, given disposable incomes floating around in a city such as Gurgaon replete with high earning professionals. Change does open doors for newer opportunities. I would like to debunk any theory that my online usage makes me an anti-social person in any way. It saves me a whole lot of time, allowing for more face-to-face interactions with friends and family, instead of just Facetiming or liking Facebook posts.
Visiting my bank to book a fixed deposit, for example, would otherwise be a nightmare involving negotiating traffic, parking and sweet talking insurance agents masquerading as customer relationship managers. Is there any bank manager who has not tried selling an insurance policy when all a person wants is a new cheque book or some small administration matter dealt with. I would also like to debunk any theory the Internet makes me lazy, akin to a TV couch potato. Rather, I am able to do more with greater efficiency. I am, however, still not fully confident about buying electronic or very high value items on the Internet, though there are many that do. I believe some of the redressal mechanisms of Indian online retailers are still not world class, like, say, Amazon. I have heard some harrowing tales of damaged TVs, mobile phones, cameras and laptops that are usually not available on Cash on Delivery arrangements. A friend recently told me that it took almost a month to get a refund on a printer she ordered online that arrived broken. She was repeatedly told by customer care to send multiple pictures of the item, the courier company assigned to pick up the dysfunctional printer never arrived and finally the refund process itself got lost in a bureaucratic maze.
“It was so difficult to get through on the phone to customer care that I had to call many times. I was always in queue,’’ she told me. We castigate government departments for red tape. Private entities can sometimes be worse. E-commerce retailers need to trust their customers more, not focus on making money only. It is about putting in place an effective process that assuages an unhappy customer quickly. Maybe, it is a good idea to allow foreign players more leeway in the market to improve standards and customer deliveries. I believe there is plenty more that can or should be possible via the virtual world. The government can surely make more efficient use of the Internet. Politicians such as Narendra Modi do. The Aam Aadmi Party does. I believe Lok Sabha candidate Gul Panag kept herself relevant via thousands of tweets, even as her movie career nosedived. So far most online state-backed services are mostly limited to downloading forms, which is not saying much. Any government document, whether passport or driving license involves layers of approvals and interactions that can easily be streamlined online, provided antecedents of an applicant are verified. I believe even voting should be possible via a virtual click, thus saving the exchequer huge expenditures and avoiding deployment of security forces on such a large scale. E-democracy could re-define democracy. There could be ways to minimize foul play, like it is with online payment gateways that encrypt credit card details. This can only be wishful thinking for now. But who knows. Did anybody imagine the power and reach of the Internet even a decade back?