Sudeshna Guha used to call herself old school. A mother of two extremely active young boys, she has always believed that the key to nutritious food lies in good-quality, fresh ingredients. "My mother would never give us food that had been in the refrigerator for too long. She used to say it loses its nutritional value. So when I became a mother, I too decided to give my kids food that was as fresh as it could possibly be for which I used to buy fruits and veggies every other day from the grocery nearby," she says. The added pleasure of personally choosing the best from what was available gave Sudeshna, a Dubai homemaker, a certain sense of assurance that she was giving her growing kids the best as far as quality of food was concerned.

But it all changed in March this year. With the onset of the pandemic, Sudeshna was unable to go grocery shopping as often as she used to, and with her kids learning from home, demanding her attention full time, she realised she had to look for options to meet her needs for fresh produce. "One day I saw my neighbour receive a delivery from a well-known chain of hypermarkets. I asked her for details and decided to give it a try," she says.

Once the initial scepticism about the quality of the ingredients and promptness of delivery were assuaged, Sudeshna became a regular online shopper and her frequent trips to bricks-and-mortar stores have since reduced to a large extent.

Sudeshna is not the only one who is seeing the convenience of grocery shopping online. According to figures released by MasterCard, online card payments for groceries in the UAE witnessed a whopping 252 per cent growth in March and a 316 per cent growth in April: proof that the pandemic might have pushed the growth chart of online shopping portals, and if recent trend reports are any indication, show no signs of ebbing at least in the near future.

Daniel Wanies, co-founder of Carnistore.com, explains, "Covid has vastly accelerated our growth in that the market quickly adopted an e-commerce focus during the initial days of the lockdown. Our demand was overwhelming and we had to adapt quickly."

However, like most sudden changes, this one too did face innumerable glitches. From improving the efficiency of the websites to exploring payment options and ensuring these methods are secure, retail brands across the UAE realised that they had to up their game fast to be able to fill the gap. "Before restrictions in movement were put in place, most of our online sales were coming from third-party portals, such as Noon, Amazon, Insta and El Grocer. We realised our online store was in need of a serious upgrade," says Dhananjay Datar, managing director of Al Adil Trading, who has since invested heavily into upgrading Al Adil’s online arm and the back-end support system.

Online now accounts for 25 per cent of Al Adil’s total sales, compared with 10 per cent last year, says Dhananjay Datar
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The investments seem to be paying off. Online sales have seen an upswing over the past few months. "Online sales now accounts for 25 per cent of our total sales. And if the trend continues, I expect that figure to go up to 30 per cent by the end of the year," reveals Dhananjay. That is a significant increase, considering online sales for Al Adil was a meagre 10 per cent last year.

A bigger share of the pie

For Ashish Khanna, a 28-year-old IT executive during the day and a self-proclaimed gym rat in the night, it was a sprain he suffered in his leg that compelled him to embrace the change in shopping style. "With gyms closed, I was trying to stay fit by working out at home. My carelessness led to the sprain. Since I live by myself, I could not step out to shop for organic groceries that I prefer," he says. The limitation in movement meant Ashish had to surf the internet for best options. Luckily for him, there are plenty. And growing.

According to Ken Research, a company that specialises in generating bespoke industry intelligence, the average value of an online order for groceries has grown to about Dh200 owing to the pandemic, which is about 25 per cent more than last year. The research further states that over a period of time families have begun to trust e-tail stores in terms of quality of produce and have begun to order everything from drinking water to baby food. Ken research forecasts the online grocery delivery penetration to increase to 25 per cent by the end of 2025. This implies the number of players in the market is only going to surge in the future, each hoping to grab a bigger slice of the pie.

Business aside, the burgeoning number of online stores has been a boon for consumers in that an increasing number of stores have begun to stress on quality of products.

"Since I was reluctant to either dine out or order in, I began to browse the internet not just for easy and healthy recipes so that I could try my hand at cooking but ingredients that were of top-notch quality too," says Ashish, who admits he had never made more than a cup of tea before.

Quality matters

The need to build immunity through nutrition, especially in these Covid times, meant families across the UAE began to hunt for good-quality produce even willing to pay a little more if they were assured of quality produce.

"We listened to our customers and optimised our process in sourcing the freshest and most desirable products," says Carnistore.com’s Daniel.

Consumer feedback was crucial in getting the online retail mix right, says Carnistore.com’s Daniel Wanies
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For Shweta Shanker, the change in the shopping pattern has proven to be advantageous in more ways than one. "I have become more mindful of what I buy. Online shopping has not only helped me get over my habit of impulse buying, it has reduced food waste in my house," she says.

The sustainability advocates must be smiling. The pandemic may have had serious repercussions in several areas. But on the flip side, it has also inadvertently led to people being more judicious when it comes to choosing products, particularly consumables.

Sudeshna sums it up well: "The best thing we can hope for particularly during these trying times is to ensure that what we consume is good-quality produce. And if we can be assured of that while choosing the products from the comfort of our house thereby avoiding crowding in supermarkets, that would be win-win situation for all."

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