Wednesday 16 March 2016

When the dakiya brings mail, and new mobile

Every weekday, the four postmen at the main post office diligently sort parcels from online retailers. (Representative photo) Every weekday, the four postmen at the main post office diligently sort parcels from online retailers. (Representative photo)
Avijit Ghosh travels to a quiet corner of Rajasthan's Sikar district to see how the postman is delivering on aspirations in mofussil India

Manoj Sharma's small shop sits a little past a demolished haveli and beyond the clock tower in Lachhmangarh's bustling New Market. The Sharmas are among the top wholesale distributors of FMCGs in these parts, and ironically it's this business that took Manoj to the irresistible world of online shopping two years ago. Having exceeded the sales target for a chewing gum brand, he was gifted a Flipkart voucher worth Rs 9,000. The 34-year-old shopkeeper got himself a watch and an electric kettle. He also got hooked to online shopping.

Saris, badminton racquets, shoes, jeans, perfumes, smartphones — the Sharmas have it all delivered to their doorstep, largely courtesy India Post. Elder brother Vinod explains why: "Smartphones allow you to shop anytime, anywhere. In fact, the net makes you buy things you don't really want. And it has more choice than shops here."

About two kilometres away, postman Suresh Kumar is on his way to Islampura colony carrying a bunch of letters and parcels. There's nothing in his bag for auto spares seller Mohd Yunus Qureshi today. But they know each other well. In recent months, Kumar has delivered blankets, bedsheets, kitchen sets and mobiles to Qureshi and others in Lacchmangarh.

Customers such as the Sharmas and Qureshi account for the spurt in online commerce in Tier-II towns and beyond. With few courier services around, there is primarily India Post to handle last-mile delivery in these areas. Not surprisingly, its revenues have galloped in the past year. Department of Posts statistics show that after a 2% decline in 2013-14, parcel revenues shot up by 37% in 2014-15. These registered a staggering 117% growth till Oct 31 in the current financial year. Speed Post revenue too has shot up by 16%. Cash on delivery (COD) collection has already reached the coveted Rs 1,000 crore mark. The figure is likely to cross Rs 1,500 crore by the end of current financial year.

Much of this boom has been powered by a tie-up between 400 e-commerce agencies such as Amazon, Flipkart and Snapdeal and India Post, which delivers pre-paid and COD items in small towns like Lachhmangarh.

"Over 70% of orders on Snapdeal are from smaller cities and towns. The tie-up with India Post has enabled us to service our customers wherever they are," says Ashish Chitravanshi, VP, operations.

As per 2011 census statistics, Lachhmangarh municipality has a population of 53,000 of whom over 14,000 are engaged in business, service or agriculture. About 40% are Muslims and several males working in the Gulf send back remittances. The sprawling Mody University, with over 2,300 students and 200 full-time faculty members, has brought in more purchasing power.

Every weekday, the four postmen at the main post office diligently sort parcels from online retailers. Postman Kishoremal Sharma says he delivers an average of five to eight COD items to students. "I ride a bicyle to work. Sometimes I need three sacks to carry the parcels. In fact, I have even rented a three-wheeler to carry them sometimes," he says. Even in nearby Narodra village, grameen dak sewak Suresh Jakhad gets three to four packets every week.

Postmaster Balveer Singh collates the figures: "In the financial year 2013-14, Lachhmangarh's main post office, pin code 332311, received only 85 COD parcels. It jumped to 451 the next year. Between April 1, 2015 and January 20 this year, the figure had already reached 668. The educated prefer to place orders online; others book from teleshopping channels." The post office has also seen a spurt in orders from niche players like Naaptol, which operates through web, TV and mobile app.

 Vinod Sharma says full page ads in newspapers announcing special discounts bring a sense of excitement all around. "People discuss it at tea shops, dinner tables," he says.

The biggest advantage, says school teacher Vijay Kumar Sharma, 39, is that you get to order the latest stuff. Over the months, he has bought power banks, mobiles — "I even bought five phones for my colleagues,'' he says — LED bulbs, and a TV.

The system is not without glitches, just as it is not in big cities. The register at Lachchmangarh post office shows that several COD items are returned. Many such parcels are returned by the recipient. The postmen say they generally have two complaints. One, the amount charged is more than that displayed on TV. Two, the recipients had only made an enquiry and was stuck with a product instead.

Despite the problems, Lachhmangarh, like many other small towns in India's hinterland, is happy to shop online. Postmaster Balveer certainly likes the extra business. "It's more work but it has made us more relevant." 
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