Photo: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
Abdul Saleem heaves a 55-pound bag crammed with foot massagers, jeans, kitchen tools and sports shoes onto his shoulders. It’s late October, just days before the annual shopping frenzy that coincides with the Diwali festival of lights. As he does every morning six days a week, Saleem straps on a helmet, straddles his Honda scooter and accelerates onto Bangalore’s gridlocked streets.
Saleem delivers packages for Flipkart Online Services, India’s largest and most valuable e-commerce company. He and thousands of fellow deliverymen are foot soldiers in a hard-fought battle pitting Flipkart against domestic rival Snapdeal.com and U.S. leviathan Amazon.com, all tussling for dominance in a market that Morgan Stanley expects to explode more than ten-fold to $137 billion by 2020 from $11 billion in 2013. Flipkart is clinging to a narrow lead as Amazon pours billions of dollars into India.
Online merchants worldwide, competing to deliver packages in a day or less, are keen to close the so-called last mile. In developed markets, purchases are typically delivered by truck, and there’s talk of using drones to get the job done. In the chaotic cities of India and other emerging markets, companies do whatever it takes to get packages to customers-by foot, bicycle, even boat.
For the most part they rely on people like Saleem, who has been weaving his scooter around Bangalore since closing a money-losing scrap metal business two years ago. During the Diwali shopping rush, Flipkart’s army of 20,000 deliverymen carried as many as 800,000 packages a day. Without deliverymen risking their lives to get the products to the front door, sales growth at Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon would grind to a halt-much like Bangalore traffic.
Saleem’s title is Wishmaster — a nod to his dual role as a kind of deliveryman-customer rep. Saleem usually deals directly with shoppers because many belong to extended families where someone is almost invariably home. Sometimes they’re happy to see him; other times they’re pacing impatiently outside, awaiting their retail fix.
Bangaloreans and other urban Indians have become just as addicted to online shopping as their counterparts in New York, London or Hong Kong and are known to order multiple times a day-even if it’s a 250-rupee ($3.70) kitchen knife they could buy easily from a local shop. “Who would want to brave the rush at the market when everything comes to the door?” Saleem asks.
At 6 a.m. on this sun-drenched Wednesday, Saleem is standing amid thousands of packages in neat rows in a teeming distribution center in the upscale JP Nagar residential neighborhood. On the walls are posters forbidding Wishmasters from sporting gelled hair, ripped jeans, open-toed footwear, moustaches that cover the upper lip and more than two rings on their fingers. Those who violate the code get a warning and a grooming kit. Wearing a orange-trimmed blue company shirt with blue jeans, Saleem at 33 is the second-oldest deliveryman at the center.
The assembled Wishmasters huddle, their manager recapping a zero-tolerance policy on misbehaving with women, talking rudely to customers and stealing goods or cash; reports of deliverymen dropping off bricks instead of iPhones and assaulting ladies home alone have cast a pall over the industry. Then the manager entreats them to drive safely. The 59 men- going door-to-door is considered unsafe for women-throw back tiny cups of sweet milky coffee from a steel dispenser near a sign that reads “Do not Spit” and hit the road.
Saleem has 36 packages, a relatively easy day. His first stop is a two-story home on a quiet lane where the man of the house is dusting a Volkswagen at the gate. He’s a pediatrician and the package is for his daughter, a 26-year-old software engineer with IT outsourcer Infosys.
“This customer gets several packages daily from Jabong,” says Saleem, referring to Flipkart’s fashion store. “She returns many of them, too.”
Saleem knows the buying habits of people on his customary routes as well as Flipkart’s algorithms and bots. “This customer bought a smartphone three months ago and it looks like he has just bought another one,” he says at his next halt.
For many young men who migrate from villages into the big cities, whizzing around on a motorcycle with an ID card lanyard is coveted blue-collar work. “It’s a fixed income and comes at the end of every month,” said Saleem, who earns 13,800 rupees (just over $200), a median salary for a coveted job that pays about as well as working at one India’s many call centers.
Flipkart and its rivals, already spending heavily on discounts and setting up warehousing and payments infrastructure, are also being forced to pay up for experienced deliverymen. It’s unexpectedly hard to find people with a smattering of English (a common denominator in a nation with dozens of local languages) and a drivers license who can use phone navigation and process credit-card payments. Poaching from pizza chains and courier companies is rampant, says Vir Kashyap, co-founder and chief operating officer at Babajob, India’s largest blue-collar job website. Companies were forced to raise wages for delivery personnel 15 percent last year. Online retailers are willing to boost pay because they understand that employees like Saleem are “their only touch point with the customer,” he says. “They are taking these roles very seriously.”
It’s dangerous work in a nation where more than 146,000 people were killed in road crashes last year. Deliverymen brave rain and sweltering heat, breathing polluted air as they dodge erratic drivers, potholes, vending carts, street dogs and the occasional stray cow — all while carrying loads the size of a small refrigerator.
Today, Saleem’s scooter drives into streets too narrow for a car to enter. As three-wheel auto-rickshaws and recklessly piloted buses roar past, he leans on his horn every few seconds. Just days earlier, a new deliveryman was knocked off his motorcycle. Saleem, who says he maintains a sedate 25 mph, has had several close calls. (He pays for his own insurance.)
Many recruits quit while being trained, said Girish Jetty, a trainer at the JP Nagar center. “They complain that they can’t ride while balancing their bag.” Others quit after a few months, saying the routes are difficult. Technology constantly tracks them on their routes and can tell if someone has claimed to stop by a home when they haven’t. The pressure is relentless.
Saleem stops at 11 a.m. to grab his first meal of the day-coffee and masala dose, a crispy rice & lentil pancake stuffed with a spicy potato filling. Barely has he begun eating than his mobile phone rings. It’s the third time this customer has called.
“My customer, he wants the delivery right now,” said Saleem, downing his coffee within minutes. When Saleem arrives, the customer is visibly surly. He needs his package and is late for work.
From then on, Saleem snakes through chaotic lanes, stopping for drop-offs at apartment buildings, homes and offices. At one office, four co-workers ordered the same item but only two are there to receive them. Saleem trudges down the stairs with the two packages he’ll have to bring back the following day. He once again counts the cash-still the most popular way of settling a bill in a nation where credit cards remain scarce and few customers have signed up for digital payments.
At the next stop, Saleem faces a choice he must make several times a day: lug the bag up five flights of stairs, or risk leaving it on the scooter? Theft is a constant concern; in the northern Uttar Pradesh, deliverymen have been robbed at gunpoint. Saleem hoists the bag on his shoulder and begins hiking up the stairs.
Santosh B.C., a nursing officer at a large government hospital, is pacing outside his home for his package: “I bought a smartphone for my wife, it was her birthday yesterday.” His wife is hooked on buying clothes, cookware and electronics, Santosh says. “Why not? It saves time and there are so many discount offers. … The shops are all empty.”
Saleem plods to many of the same homes daily. “Some people shop so much.” He himself is more circumspect with his money and so far has bought only toys for his toddlers and two smartphones, including the Motorola phone he uses for his work. “Because shipping is free, people order small things that are available in the neighborhood shop.”
It is well past 3 p.m. and one of the last deliveries is to Shagufta Hurmath, 28, an effervescent homemaker with a ready giggle.
“This is my fifth package today. It’s make-up,” Hurmath says as she signs for her package, flicking back her styled hair and adjusting her dupatta, the fabric drape typically worn over the salwar kameez. “A sixth package is on the way.”
In October alone Hurmath has bought cookware, a hair straightener, shoes, cosmetics, baby products, lingerie and an LED TV. “It is so addictive, I ask all my friends to check out the bargains online,” said Hurmath, who settles down to shop after finishing her daily house chores. “I surf the shopping sites in all my free time.”
As he winds down, Saleem has a weary smile on his face. Before he closes the day and treks home for lunch, he will return to base, account for the returns and undelivered packages, and deposit the cash received. Saleem doesn’t plan to deliver packages forever-he wants to be a manager one day-but he’s happy to be part of a retail revolution that’s transforming and modernizing India.
“I like to see the smile light up on people’s faces,” he says. “They are so excited to open their packages and look inside.”