While the Covid-19 pandemic-induced shutdowns starting in March 2020 brought the economy to a halt, it breathed new life into a slowly growing e-commerce market.
Consumers across learned that shopping no longer had to mean going to physical stores. Almost everything was now just a finger tap away.
Even after virus fear eased and errant platforms including Evaly, Dhamaka Shopping, Eorange collapsed, online orders are on the rise, while more sellers from diversified backgrounds are going online not to miss the train to the future of retailing.
Now despite the economy reopening, the luxury of shopping from the comfort of your own home is still a preferred option for many. The online experience is a lesson that will not be unlearned anytime soon.
The growing number of e-commerce businesses, the options in their virtual shelves and the base of online buyers has led to the market nearly doubling in two years since the pandemic, according to the E-commerce Association of Bangladesh (e-CAB).
Capitalising on the spread of smartphones and strong internet penetration across the country, companies betted that the grounds were ripe for investments.
The March-May 2020 shutdown during the first wave of the pandemic sparked online ordering.
And the e-commerce market has not looked back since then.
From dried fish to cars, fashion products to medicines, hotel booking to air tickets everything is available for online orders now.
Amid government restrictions and coronavirus fears, people opted for essential product sellers like online grocer Chaldal and omni-channel retail chains like Shwapno and Meenabazar, all of which were inundated with home delivery orders.
From the pre-pandemic level, daily orders have already grown six-fold for Chaldal, the top grocery online, and more than tripled for Daraz, the largest e-commerce platform of the country.
Chaldal saw orders surge to 16,000 per day in March 2020, up from the pre-pandemic daily average of less than 2,000 orders.
Since then, Chaldal has still managed to maintain orders of 12,000 per day and is expanding its network to other major cities of Bangladesh, according to its Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Zia Ashraf.
"The pandemic literally blessed e-commerce, as it unlocked its momentum," said e-Cab General Manager Jahangir Alam Shovon.
Similarly, e-commerce market leader Daraz, the Alibaba Group concern in Bangladesh, has been registering a much higher growth in the pandemic, reflecting the influx of consumers going online for needed products.
Its average daily orders doubled to around 40,000 in the first year of the pandemic despite a few weeks lost due to being unable to make deliveries during the nationwide shutdown.
Now, the company is delivering 90,000 orders per day, according to Daraz Chief Marketing Officer Tajdin Hassan.
A total of 40,000 sellers have already joined the giant platform -- a ten time hike from its 2018 base. Meanwhile, the number of products it sells increased to 2.5 crore from 10.4 lakh over the same period.
The platform, once focused on non-essential items, added grocery and medicine to its virtual shelves after the pandemic, alongside acquiring the local food delivery pioneer Hungrynaki.
Majority of the e-commerce businesses which do not deliver essential products had to remain closed in the early weeks of the first wave. Reopening after the shutdown they enjoyed a fantastic annual growth in 2020.
Rokomari.com, the top online bookstore, is shipping around 5,000 books a day now, which was around 2,000 before the pandemic.
Consumer confidence remains strong
Despite fears of the virus subsiding and traditional shops running at full swing, the e-commerce boom continues.
Outpacing the global market in the two years of pandemic, the country's e-commerce market is heading for a much bigger jump as the ecosystem is developing here in line with the increasing online thrust of consumers and the sellers, according to the industry people.
Even the rise and fall of Ponzi schemes like platforms Evaly, Dhaka, Eorange and many others has not been able to hurt the market's growth momentum.
Tech entrepreneur A K M Fahim Mashroor, who founded the top job portal Bdjobs, one of the early entrants to e-commerce AjkerDeal and smart logistics firm Delivery Tiger, told The Business Standard that a sizable portion of the e-commerce turnover in the first half of 2021 came from Ponzi schemes masquerading as e-commerce.
What they added was literally wiped away after their collapse since the government made their "pay less now and receive more much later" business tough in July last year.
Jahangir Alam Shovon, general manager of e-CAB, said less than one-fourth of the 2021 online sales might have been by the fallen platforms who embraced a very risky business model.
Even after discarding them, e-commerce has been at a steady annual growth of over 35% since the first wave, which was less than 25% before the pandemic.
Online orders per day are estimated to reach 2.7 lakh, up from 2 lakh in 2020 and 1.5 lakh in 2019, the industry association official added.
It includes the orders delivered by B2C platform companies like Daraz, Pikaboo, Othoba, Fair Mart, food delivery platforms like Foodpanda, Pathao, HungryNaki, B2B platforms like Sindabad, ShopUp, and also the booming social media commerce by around 2 lakh small entrepreneurs on top of the hundreds of successful offline brands and businesses who are making their own online stores after the pandemic.
Logistics a strength and a challenge
Mashroor said at least 25 lakh consumers across the country are habituated to online purchases, be it for a meal, a lifestyle product or even consumer durables.
"Several millions across the country have learned the advantage of online shopping but unlike in India and some other peer countries, they are yet to fully enter the e-commerce purchase wave, especially outside the metro cities," he said.
Right now, half of the online orders are from Dhaka, which was around 70% before the pandemic.
During the pandemic, the best change happened in the logistics arena, said Mashroor.
Seven dedicated companies are delivering e-commerce orders across the country within three days, while in the same city companies are competing for fastest same day delivery.
But the cost of delivering outside Dhaka is still higher -- Tk120 per parcel is being charged by private logistics firms and that is one of the reasons behind rural smartphone users still thinking twice before ordering something online.
Mashroor's company, Delivery Tiger, partnered with the state postal agency that is using thousands of post offices across rural Bangladesh to deliver parcels for only Tk50 per delivery.
Such collaboration is needed within the private sector delivery firms to reduce costs while the post offices can be utilised to revolutionise delivery in the country.
Companies like Paperfly, Redex and E-courier can share their cargo trips, he added.
In India, rural online orders outgrew the urban orders soon after Reliance Jio drastically cut the price of cellphone internet data and Bangladesh needs to do the same to reach its actual digitalisation destination, Mashroor said, stressing the need for lowering internet costs.
Facebook marketplace in boom
During the pandemic, many struggling businesses went online through their free-of-cost Facebook pages. Since then, that particular e-commerce segment has clocked robust growth.
Now, around 40% of the e-commerce orders are being delivered by structured e-commerce platforms and the rest by Facebook commerce and various omnichannel retailers, said Fahim Mashroor.
Roughly two lakh Facebook page-based retailers are engaged in Bangladesh, said e-CAB's Shovon.
The segment grew by 25% a year before the pandemic and it soared to over 50% in 2020 and over 35% in 2021, he added.
The potential impact
Despite some hiccups in 2021 due to errant platforms defrauding or depriving a large number of customers, e-commerce is now moving ahead at speed.
According to Statista, the global e-commerce market grew to $4.9 trillion in 2021, from $3.3 trillion in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, while it is expected to reach $7 trillion by 2025.
Despite a very low e-commerce penetration, the organic growth here in coming years should be higher than that in the last two years.
The ecosystem that includes ordering, payment, delivery, return, dispute resolution and everything else is improving in Bangladesh and the market should grow at a nearly 50% rate in the next few years, said Mashroor.
Many offline shops are investing in their online presence instead of opening new stores in the city. Almost all the big brand consumer durables, and lifestyle brands are selling online, the SMEs are going online, and the number of online buyers is growing, he said.
Both local and global investors are considering big investments in the country's e-commerce sector.
"The revolution is coming; we just need to cordially address the problems," said e-CAB Vice President Shahab Uddin.
The e-commerce sector suffered some confidence crisis initially due to errant platforms, but the disciplined e-commerce players have regained it all.
"The organic e-commerce market's growth is intact and the huge customer base Evaly and the other fallen sites created are the assets of the industry now."
He anticipates that the local e-commerce market will be a trillion Taka industry in the next five years.
"The biggest opportunity is in cross border e-commerce with a $5billion potential and our policies should be arranged to grab it without delay," Shahab Uddin added.