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Delivery services strike gold in India

Mumbaiís stressed and sleepless turn to services that run errands for them during the day and shop for them at night.

Last updated: 16 Jun 2014 10:24
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Nishita Kamdar uses a Mumbai delivery service to transport her "Jar Cakes" [Suranjana Tewari/ Al Jazeera]

Mumbai, India A new breed of services is booming in India’s most heavily populated city in response to the growing shortage of a precious commodity - time.

Errand and delivery start-ups are carving out a profitable niche on the busy city’s heavily congested roads where even the most straightforward journey can take hours.

Hard-pressed customers and night owls are flocking to the services in "the city that never sleeps" and there are now even plans to expand to other metropolitan areas.

"Travelling in Bombay is very difficult - you waste a lot of time, you waste a lot of energy and people are very busy in their own lives," said Gayatri Bhuta, operations manager of errand company My Peon.

"So if people can just hire a service that can do all these things, they love it."

Little time for chores

Nishita Kamdar has been baking cakes for two years and what began as a hobby for the 26-year-old architect has quickly become a successful business.

Her company, Jar Designs, receives about 500 orders a month from across India but mostly in Mumbai, a sprawling city of more than 12 million people where congestion means doing business is not easy.

Mumbai is growing in size and population every year and the public transport network is overwhelmed, gridlock, dust and pollution are common, and soaring temperatures make travelling, at best, uncomfortable.

Many professionals work long hours and have anything up to a two-hour commute to work, leaving them with little time to do basic chores and run errands.

"People like me cannot reach out to several places in Bombay on time," said Kamdar. "And the people who are working and have ordered desserts cannot make it to pick them up."

Struggling to keep up with demand for her cakes, Nishita began outsourcing deliveries to My Peon, a concierge service that runs almost any errand - be it delivering cakes, paying electricity bills, depositing a cheque or buying groceries.

For a fee of less than $4, many people in Mumbai are taking advantage of this convenient and affordable option to do their errands.

Expatriate visual arts consultant Elise Foster Vander Elst has been working in Mumbai for five years and uses My Peon regularly to deliver documents, pick up artwork and send money across the city.

One of her main projects involves delivering maps around Mumbai, a task she has entirely outsourced to My Peon.

"I don’t know how I’d do it without them," said Elst. "They’re reliable and trustworthy."

Basis of trust

Trust is central to the success of My Peon, says founder Bharat Ahirwar.

When he started the business two years ago customers wanted basic deliveries, but now they trust his staff with cash, personal documents and even house keys.

Bharat Ahirwar (left) saw an opportunity to make money "errand running" [Suranjana Tewari/ Al Jazeera]

"Our client base is quite huge," said Ahirwar. "The number of clients we’ve seen, the variety of clients we’ve seen, and the way people have used us has changed."

Ahirwar realised there was an opportunity to make money from errands when he switched from the public sector to the private sector.

Unlike larger firms, small businesses did not have a full-time concierge service and performing small tasks in Mumbai took Ahirwar the best part of a day.

Working out of a shared office space in the suburb of Bandra, My Peon now has about 800 customers and employs eight delivery boys who each run between five and seven tasks a day.

Ahirwar says investing in his staff is a key objective: most of his delivery boys are relatively inexperienced and studying or working in multiple menial jobs, and his business provides employment and training.

He has managed to break even ever since he launched the company, keeping operational costs down by having his delivery boys travel on public transport - and now he plans to take the idea to India’s other metropolitan cities.

Abhishek Patil has been working as a delivery boy for My Peon for six months.

He is studying for a degree in commerce while also working towards a diploma in accounting, and hopes to put his salary towards an MBA course.

Patil works the morning shift so that he is free to attend classes in the evening and on an average day walks and takes multiple buses and trains to complete his tasks.

"It’s a daily routine so we don’t find it such a hard job - we know the routes, we know the trains, how to travel and all that," said Patil.

"The hardest thing is going with the crowd during peak hours - going with the traffic on the road. Otherwise, everything is good."

Night deliveries

If Mumbai is difficult to navigate during the day, it’s even harder at night - but another service has realised that this is precisely when deliveries may be needed.

Most convenience stores and restaurants close by midnight, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without access to food and basic items.

A lack of options at night prompted former Google employee, Neha Jain, to launch her delivery service, Fly By Knight.

When considering viable business models, Jain asked herself what people needed immediately and when they couldn’t get it.

"The answer was midnight," said Jain. "It’s not just people partying, 7,000 passengers land every night between 11pm and 6am and there are around 5,000 production houses open."

Fly By Knight delivers anything from hot pizzas to cigarettes and baked goods to contraceptives at recommended retail prices around Mumbai at any time of the night.

Before she launched the service, Jain conducted online surveys to find out how much people would be willing to pay for basic items at night.

She quickly attracted the interest of party-goers wanting munchies and cigarettes after midnight, pregnant women craving muffins, and sports fans watching late-night matches.

Fly By Knight is growing on a weekly basis, according to Jain, who adds that there is great business potential for delivery services like hers.

"It’s a cliché, but this is the city that never sleeps," says Jain. "It’s important to pay attention to convenience."

Convenience is clearly something that people living in this fast-paced city are more than willing to pay for - day or night.

Follow Suranjana Tewari on Twitter: @suranjanasays

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