Burning Cash, Ultrafast Grocery Delivery Ramps Up in India

A new TV commercial in India features white-clad mourners grieving at the funeral rites of a departed loved one. The object of their grief is a refrigerator. “” —Or “What use is a refrigerator?” – ask matching full-page ads for the campaign touting instant grocery brand Dunzo, which offers delivery of fresh items in minutes.

India is fast emerging as a global leader in a new type of online retailing: quick commerce. Big investors including Google, Reliance Industries, and SoftBank Group have poured billions of dollars into startups promising to bring that next order of curry-ready chicken, cat food, or crunchy aloo bhujia chickpea snacks within minutes, rather than hours or days. Relying on discounts and free delivery to woo customers who make purchases through mobile apps, the companies fill orders at neighborhood warehouses called dark stores, then use algorithms to send drivers on the fastest routes through the crowded roads of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru (formerly known as Bangalore), and other cities.

Although groceries sold online account for just 2% of all grocery retail sales in India, they’re one of the fastest-growing segments of commerce and are considered essential for anyone dreaming of dominating e-commerce. And in a country where food and daily necessities — tailor-made categories for get-it-now delivery — make up about two-thirds of the $ 1 trillion in annual retail spending, startups are wagering that quick commerce can change grocery shopping habits and make them rich in the process.

As the shine comes off China’s internet giants, which face increasing government oversight that’s slowing their growth prospects, investors view India as the next big e-commerce opportunity. The global pounding of technology stocks is forcing some Indian companies to recalibrate their initial public offering pricing, postpone funding rounds, or reset valuations, but investors remain bullish after plowing billions of dollars of capital into startups. Among them: Alphabet’s Google-backed Dunzo, the Naspers-funded Swiggy, the SoftBank Group-backed Blinkit, and the Y Combinator-backed Zepto.

All that investment has fueled a race to grab market share in quick delivery despite the simultaneous online grocery push in India by behemoths Amazon .com Inc. and Walmart Inc.-backed Flipkart. “This is about upturning age-old planned purchasing habits in favor of spur-of-the-moment buying,” says Saloni Nangia, managing partner at retail consulting firm Technopak Advisors, based in Gurgaon, near New Delhi. The nation of almost 1.4 billion people leads other markets in the adoption of fast delivery, according to a note by Rahul Malhotra, a senior analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, which estimates that quick commerce’s share of online grocery sales is 13% in India, vs. 7% in China and 3% in Europe.

The industry has seen plenty of challenges elsewhere. Buoyed by demand from couch-bound customers early in the Covid-19 pandemic, rapid delivery companies raised $ 9.7 billion globally in 2021, according to research firm PitchBook. But the companies’ cash burn has cooled the interest of some investors in the US and Europe now that tech stock valuations are falling and interest rates are rising. Bloomberg News reported on June 17 that German quick delivery startup Gorillas Technologies, which was valued at $ 3 billion in October and makes deliveries in New York, has discussed the prospect of merging or selling its business, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the talks are private. It had already dropped plans to expand into Chicago and Los Angeles.

In India, some see the delivery-in-minutes game as a passing fad or worse — a reckless, money-guzzling game. Customers aren’t loyal, and there’s heated competition. Discounts and free delivery mean none of the startups are profitable, and their businesses could swoon when funding dries up. “It’s very, very hard to make money,” says Vivek Gupta, co-founder of online meat and seafood retailer Licious, which is avoiding instant delivery for now. “A full catalog for fresh supply chain within 10 minutes across hundreds of delivery centers in Bangalore is impossible. It will burn cash like insane. ”

Nonetheless, capital is pouring into Indian ventures. In January, Dunzo raised $ 240 million from retail and energy conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd., which runs hundreds of offline grocery stores. That same month, Swiggy raised $ 700 million from the Middle East sovereign fund Qatar Investment Authority and others to expand its Instamart service, giving it a valuation of more than $ 10 billion.

In May, within nine months of being started by two 19-year-olds, Zepto inched toward a unicorn valuation, when early backer Y Combinator led a $ 200 million round at a $ 900 million valuation. “Instantly delivering right-priced, fresh items is making quick commerce the fastest-growing consumer value proposition in India,” says Aadit Palicha, co-founder and chief executive officer of Zepto. He credits rapid urbanization, dense city neighborhoods, and a youthful working population that easily adopts tech-driven businesses for spurring the trend. As urban dwellers take to nick-of-time deliveries, the dark stores of Blinkit, Dunzo, Instamart, and Zepto are popping up all over.

Palicha and Kaivalya Vohra, his Zepto co-founder, dropped out of Stanford’s computer science program to return to India and pursue an entrepreneurial dream in quick delivery. The company — its name is derived from zeptosecond, the smallest unit of time — is live in nine cities, Palicha says, and growing 50% a month. He expects it to reach $ 1 billion in annualized gross revenue by March 2023. “Some micromarkets, small neighborhoods serviced by dark stores, are already at breakeven,” he says.

In a back alley in the HSR Layout neighborhood in Bengaluru, home to a half-dozen of the country’s newest unicorns, stands a nondescript dark store of Google-backed Dunzo. Its aisles are stocked with curry-cut goat and frozen seekh kebabs, baby food, energy drinks, hair-removal strips, and condoms. Overflowing crates of onion and potato, key ingredients in Indian cooking, are strategically placed near the entrance. Open for a couple of months, the store averages about 7,000 orders daily, delivering products within 19 minutes to the young tech workers whose homes are clustered within its 3 mile radius. “In cutting-edge e-commerce, you should be able to tap your phone and have your wants arrive within minutes,” says Kabeer Biswas, co-founder and CEO of the Bengaluru-based startup. “That’s why the internet exists, and that’s where this is headed.”

Biswas, who has an engineering degree and an MBA, worked for a telecommunications company before teaming up with three others to start Dunzo as a local courier, ferrying documents and delivering goods. The pandemic was a turning point. Hordes of Indians were “Dunzo-ing” purchases from local stores, and Biswas saw a future in instant commerce. “Quick commerce is the dopamine rush of online retail,” he says. Dunzo, which operates from 130 stores in eight cities, plans to more than double its footprint within 18 months.

Inside the warehouse, workers take each order on a dedicated app, picking out items in minutes. Once vetted, the order goes to an area of ​​the store where riders sporting polo shirts in Dunzo’s trademark green and black are assigned. Data tools forecast order demand, and maps predict time of arrival at the doorstep with 97% accuracy. “Quick commerce is an opportunity to build a $ 50 billion brand in India,” says Biswas, who is aiming for a 2024 IPO.

Although Amazon is well-schooled in delivery logistics, it’s avoiding instant delivery even as it makes a huge push into selling groceries in India. But its leaders are keeping an eye on the newcomers. “Quick commerce startups are pushing the laws of physics to offer ever-faster deliveries,” says Sameer Khetarpal, director of grocery at Amazon India. “In a $ 650 billion grocery market, the biggest grocery player in India is no more than $ 5 billion, so there’s huge headroom.”

There’s also plenty of risk. Blinkit announced in March it had shut down several of its 200 dark stores, citing cash burn. Rival Swiggy is ending its subscription-based delivery service Supr in five cities. And Dash, the 10-minute grocery delivery arm of ride-hailing service Ola, said in April that it would put on hold a 20-city expansion plan and focus on just three cities — Bengaluru, Delhi, and Mumbai.

Dunzo’s Biswas isn’t fazed. “The rules of how people shop locally are being rewritten,” he says. “The size of the India grocery prize is so big, entrepreneurs can not help but chase the quick commerce dream.”

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