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There are, however, some clouds on the horizon. Here we will take an in-depth look at the markets, focusing particularly on the introduction of web content in Indian languages. Our conclusion is that providing this kind of content is no longer just an option to consider; it is vital for future growth of ecommerce in the country.
Today India has around 460 million Internet users; 34.8% of its total population of 1.32 billion. Over the last eight years the number of Internet users has been growing more or less exponentially, with an average increase of around 32% per year, and is expected to continue to grow as shown in Figure 1.
Most Internet users in India access the service using a mobile device. Sales of smartphones in India have recently overtaken the US, and while growth in smartphone markets in most of the world has flattened, between 2014 and 2015 Indian smartphone users increased from 123 million to 168 million. Recent growth in the market along with projected future growth is shown in Figure 2 (data provided by Statista).
The rapid increase in the number of Internet and smartphone users in India is reflected by the booming ecommerce market, which is growing exponentially as shown in Figure 3. In 2012 the retail ecommerce market was US$ 2.3 billion, and it is projected to reach US$ 17.5 billion by 2019. In terms of total retail sales, ecommerce is currently around 0.9% of the market, and is expected to reach 1.4% by 2018. As an indication of how huge this really is, the most successful e-retailer in India is Flipkart, which receives over 62 million unique visits a month, closely followed by Myntra with 60 million, and Jabong, which specialises in fashion, home and lifestyle products, with 43 million. These businesses are already snapping at the heels of Amazon: Amazon US receives around 80 million visits a month and Amazon India 27.6 million.
While the most popular language in India is English, there are huge potential advantages in providing ecommerce sites in Indian languages. Many people prefer using their own language online, and future growth in Internet usage is anticipated to come from people in rural areas who are more comfortable using their own language; there are over 800 million literate non-English speaking Indians resident in the country who would be far more likely to buy from ecommerce websites that provide content in native languages.
No wonder then that there has been a significant growth in the number of websites in Hindi, Urdu, Tamil and many other of the 30 main Indian languages. According to Yahoo, which now provides email in 10 Indian languages, local language Internet users are increasing by around 47% a year. Other statistics suggest that Hindi web content has grown by nearly 100% over the last year, while English content has increased by just 19%. There is, however, a long way to go. Currently around 56% of worldwide webworldwide webworldwide web content is in English, with only 0.1% being in Indian languages.
Although it is still early days, some businesses are rapidly discovering the advantages of providing websites in local languages. For instance, Snapdeal, which specialises in clothing, mobile phone and electronics, now provides mobile ecommerce sites in 6 different languages: Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Marathi, Kannada, and Telugu. It is currently the only major ecommerce website offering this. The fact that Snapdeal’s sales soared after launching their Indian language websites should certainly encourage similar businesses to follow suit; already Flipkart and Jabong have announced plans to provide Indian language content.
Despite these optimistic projections, recent figures suggest that in reality, these growth projections might be significantly over-optimistic. A recent survey of several major ecommerce retailers has revealed that online sales were essentially flat between May 2015 and May 2016. The combined sales of these businesses last year were US$ 9 billion and to May this year they were only marginally up, hitting just US$ 10 billion. While Flipkart reported a 400% growth in 2015, since then sales have been flat at US$ 4 billion.
Perhaps this is just a blip; over the same period Amazon India reported a 150% growth in shipments with no signs of slowdown, and some analysts suggest the reason for the slowdown for other retailers is due to a lack of capital investment and reduced levels of discounting. Certainly this adds even more leverage to the introduction of Indian language ecommerce websites.
While over the last year or so the attitude of the Indian government to the Internet has become a little more liberal, compared with most countries India imposes a fairly high level of Internet censorship, and sometimes shuts down Internet services entirely. In addition to bans on political and pornographic materials, heavy custodial sentences are imposed on people who post “offensive or menacing” information on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Even “liking” a post critical of the government can lead to an arrest. Recently the censorship law has been diluted by the Supreme Court, but overall Internet censorship remains at a level classified as “partly free” by the Freedom House; by comparison, bordering Pakistan and China are classified as “not free”. It has been suggested that this, along with other bureaucratic processes, may be slowing the growth of ecommerce, as is certainly the case in China.
We are seeing a huge growth in ecommerce in India, with indications that it will continue into the future. This is driven to a large extent by rapidly growing smartphone sales, with smartphones being the country’s most popular device for Internet access. As is the case with any market, there are likely to be ups and downs and occasional blips as retailers adjust to the current environment. Perhaps that is what some ecommerce businesses are experiencing currently.
Given that much future growth will be dependent on reaching buyers who are non-English speakers and those who simply prefer to purchase goods using their own language, there are compelling reasons for providing web content in local languages. Doing so may be the only way in which ecommerce businesses can survive and grow. We believe that not doing so no longer remains an option.