When CDC invested directly in online shopping business Big Basket for the first time, we could never have envisaged the challenges the company and the country would face just over a year later.
At the time, India’s online grocery market was expected to grow rapidly over the next few years, fuelled by demand from users attracted to the ease and speed of technology-enabled services.
In early 2020, this demand increased dramatically overnight as the domestic response to COVID-19 severely limited customer access to fresh produce and essentials. As Big Basket faced five times its normal number of order requests, many of its drivers moved out of the cities and back home, thinking the situation wouldn’t last long, but became stuck, while those who stayed were worried about working.
“In India you have a lot of domestic migrant labour, millions of people come and work in the cities,” explains Vipul Parekh, Co-Founder and CMO of Big Basket.
“And then something cataclysmic like this happens and they just go back home. Of course, this happened very suddenly, so those people were not able to come back.”
Overall the number of people working for Big Basket dropped by almost a third over the space of a few days. Added to that, the company faced the same issues as other consumer outlets, as supply chains became severely disrupted.
In response Big Basket put in place detailed and stringent processes to sanitise its workplaces and ensure they were equipped for social distancing. It offered employees up to 50 per cent more pay to recognise the current situation and offered comprehensive insurance packages around COVID, in addition to making PPE mandatory.
For the management team, ensuring drivers were not only able to work but felt comfortable and safe doing so was a priority.
“It really put the organisation under a lot of pressure,” says Parekh. “The first thing we did was set about to meet our first target of adding new people and incentivizing them in their roles.”
“All delivery teams who were out meeting customers were given gloves, masks and sanitiser. Then we went out and told people this is a safe place to work.”
As well as direct recruitment, Big Basket’s team formed partnerships with other delivery vendors; using Uber’s cars to meet the increased demand and bringing on board delivery staff from restaurants and smaller companies who had lost their jobs due to the crisis.
“This was a critical time for two reasons,” explains Parekh. “One, our existing customers were relying on us to keep them safe by not making them venture out to buy groceries and they would have felt significantly let down were we to not respond and local governments were relying on us to reduce instances of people stepping out.
“Secondly, we had to keep supply chains running to ensure that farmers and local suppliers who worked with us had a route to market – a lot of them would otherwise have had no access to market and this would have impaired their businesses significantly.”
In total the company entered 57 partnerships in the space of a few weeks, enabling it to rapidly re-scale its operations. However, it was still around 30 percent short of its usual workforce.
“At the same time, we engineered a lot of our operations processes,” adds Parekh.
“We started telling customers we will not deliver on the same day, we will deliver everything on a milk route in two or three days. We started doing only bulk orders and prioritised delivering just essential items.”
The changes resulted in a 50 percent increase in efficiency, with the company now delivering more orders than it did in March but with 30 percent fewer people, and it expects to continue scaling rapidly over the coming weeks while ensuring worker safety remains the priority.
Since the crisis began Big Basket has employed around 7,000 people either directly or through partnerships. For Parekh and the team at Big Basket, ensuring they can continue to employ people is important as it provides a livelihood during this difficult period and allows employees to keep their family safe and healthy via the income they earn. It also provides them work in a safe, hygienic workplace with much lower risk factors.
“The customers have responded with a lot of appreciation of what Big Basket has done,” concluded Parekh. “And I am incredibly grateful to our team for working so hard to make this happen.”