Hello! Saritha Rai here from India. If I needed to direct you to my home in Bangalore, instead of simply giving you the address, I’d tell you the name of my neighborhood and that I live in the residential high-rise behind Oracle’s development center. Go past a certain mall and turn right at a friary to get to my apartment complex. The success of many e-commerce enterprises in India, from web retailing to ride-hailing and food delivery, hinges on cracking the code to where customers live.
Why is it so confounding? Because the chaotic streets in India’s hyper-growth cities are a navigation nightmare with their narrow, hidden alleys, half-built structures, ever-changing landmarks and lack of street signs. Addresses don’t mean much, as neither roads or buildings have standardized names or numbers. A path leading to the address may be dug up or may have one-way traffic overnight. So when I call for an Uber or Ola cab, order in a meal on the local Swiggy food app or order groceries on BigBasket or Amazon, I resign myself to receiving multiple phone calls from the driver or the deliveryman asking for turn-by-turn directions. Instead of address, it’s more useful to tell people: “next to the post office… diagonally opposite the bank… etc.”
Enterprises here are desperate to solve this bewildering problem. Earlier this month, I was at Amazon’s largest warehouse in India and the chief of fulfillment operations told me software developers are working on refining ‘address technology’, a localization measure for India. Because addresses aren’t structured, the software provides an extra line for instructions such as “next to the Citibank ATM” or “opposite the Airtel store” which are far more useful than a random number or name. There’s also an additional line for the phone number, in case the delivery man is lost or confused and needs to call the customer.
In fact, Uber drivers calling multiple times to divine a rider’s location ranks as one of the top annoyances for customers, one Uber executive told me last year. To cut down on such calls, Uber introduced an “Intercom” feature in India earlier this month. It lets riders and drivers share directions and information via an in-app chat.
There are startups attempting to crack this on behalf of other companies. Amazon bought a stake in one called Zippr, which creates 8-digit alphanumeric codes as an alternative to traditional addresses, designating precise locations overlaid on a digital map. Rival Flipkart has an investment in digital-map startup MapmyIndia. Apple set up a maps development center in India last year. “It’s a hard problem requiring huge machine learning and AI resources,” said Amitesh Jha, head of Flipkart’s logistics unit.
All this goes to show that any web or e-commerce business that cracks navigation in India will probably have a decent chance to build a robust business there, as more people shop for goods and services online. Then I can finally stop fielding calls from drivers and deliverymen trying to find my house.
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