Like most Indians, S. Arun Kumar prefers to pay cash-on-delivery for online purchases. But it’s not because he is worried about security issues while doing banking transactions on the Internet. His reasons are different.
Mr. Kumar, a 37-year-old government servant, lives in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a region with poor and erratic Internet connectivity. This means ordering something online requires meticulous planning and a good amount of luck as the process can be interrupted anytime.
Paying online would mean another additional step — the risk of being cut-off from the worldwide Web before the order is placed.
“When you choose the cash-on-delivery option, the order is placed faster,” says Mr. Kumar, who depends on these online purchases to buy certain groceries that are not available in the remote islands. Mr. Kumar’s online shopping woes illustrate the infrastructure issues prevalent in the Andaman’s.
But while his ordeal may end with the order being placed, for others like Sabiha Mulla and Manzoor Ahmed the challenges begin after that. Ms. Mulla and Mr. Ahmed have, through their firm Apt Logistics, helped e-commerce giant Amazon enter these islands, where the brick-and-mortar shopping choices are limited.
From 12 packages per day in July 2015, today Amazon dispatches 500-700 packages to Port Blair (the capital of the islands) and Havelock Island. All consignments to this little city come from Chennai. From here, the consignments for Havelock Island, among the largest islands in the region, are transported through a ferry.
“In 2015, I went around the Andamans and did a preliminary study on how comfortable people here would be shopping online,” says Ms. Mulla, 33, a research scholar from Mumbai who has now shifted base to Port Blair. “The outcome was positive.”
“In July 2015, we joined the Amazon family and from there the journey has been exciting because this is a different market when compared with other cities in India,” she said.
The consignments arrive from Chennai through the air. From the Port Blair airport, the consignments are taken in a van to a 1,500 sq ft delivery centre. A 15-member team unloads the consignment, verifies and scans the packages and then sorts them according to the pincodes. From here, the packages are taken in bikes and small vans.
At Havelock, Apt Logistics has partnered with local players to manage deliveries. Of the total consignments that land at Port Blair, 3-5% is sent to Havelock. Once the ferry arrives at Havelock, the local team picks up the consignments and delivers them through two-wheelers and vans.
Chips, masala packets
Even the orders are interesting. Consumers buy a lot of chips, masala packets, and eatables as well as ladders, brooms, and mayonnaise. Ms. Mulla says one of her early deliveries was a dog bone. “The customer wanted to check how an e-commerce portal works and he placed an order for a dog bone (₹2). He opened the pack and gave the bone to a stray dog and later became our regular customer.”
Mr. Ahmed, her business partner, points out that things would be a lot easier if Internet connectivity improved. “Net connectivity is very slow here and in some parts of the island there is no Internet at all,” he says. “Once that happens, our sales will increase 10-fold.”
The world’s largest online retailer also has plans to expand in this market. “There are plans to expand into untouched geographies. North and Middle Andamans is the target for the year. We are in discussions with local courier teams in these places,” says Ms. Mulla.
Akhil Saxena, VP – India Customer Fulfilment, Amazon India, says Amazon currently delivers in two islands and the numbers could go up with better Internet connectivity. Sales in the region have gone up 15 times in just two years, he said.
“We were well aware of some of the constraints here which were relatively stronger than other remote areas — be it poor Internet connectivity, extreme weather conditions, offloads and the limited last mile delivery footprint. We collaboratively worked with our service partner Apt Logistics to manage and overcome each of these challenges.”
Flight connectivity from Chennai into Port Blair is another major factor impacting deliveries. “During the Chennai floods (2014), the airport in the city was closed for a few days which impacted our deliveries into the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. However, during cyclone Vardah, the airport was closed in Chennai for just a day, and hence we had no impact,” Mr. Saxena said.
Being able to buy online was a great relief, says Amazon’s customer A.H. Harish. “Earlier, if there is anything new in the market, I had to ask my friends in Chennai or Mumbai to courier it to me. But with Amazon, my shopping has become easier.”