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Paradigm shift in consumer behaviour towards e-grocery to last forever

Arabian Business Wednesday, Mar 28

Gaurav Bansal, CEO of Swan, explains how user centricity, a seamless app experience and easy diversification potential are helping Swan thrive in the UAE’s multi-billion-dollar online grocery space, and discusses the long-lasting shift this pandemic has brought in consumer habits

With people spending more time than ever before at home in 2020, online grocery platforms have seen sizeable gains in orders and revenues over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. However, in a highly competitive market, what are the best ways to stand out and thrive?

“This year will have a focus on improving user centricity,” said Gaurav Bansal, CEO of online grocery delivery platform Swan. For the company, that means investing in tech that delivers users an end-to-end personalised shopping experience, while offering relevant recommendations and exclusive in-app discounts. This not only benefits the shopper, added Gaurav, but also Swan’s store partners – “They can understand buying patterns and refine their inventory management.”

Covid lockdowns: When the going got tough, the tough got going


The UAE National Sterilisation Program in March of last year raised a formidable logistics challenge for the company, which only launched in late 2019. Gaurav said, “I still remember that evening we all were brainstorming in the office while going through mixed emotions – daily order traffic had quintupled, but how do we ensure their fulfilment?”

He takes great pride in the fact that his team converted this phase into an opportunity to further strengthen the bond with its customers as well as with partners. Their Operations team ramped up the fleet within a day, and even supported the self-delivery partners – stores that deliver directly – with Swan’s riders.

“Our Customer Support spoke to every single customer to reassure them they would get their deliveries. Moreover, Swan customers were extremely understanding, and weren’t expecting urgency in deliveries given the movement and timing restrictions implemented by the authorities.”

A household brand within a year of launch


One might ask how Swan built a loyal association with such a large number of UAE shoppers within a year. “Because from day one we understood the two aspects which really matter to the customers: a seamless overall experience from browsing on the app to actual order delivery, and the quality of products being delivered,” elaborated Gaurav.

What sets Swan apart is its non-stop focus on customer experience metrics, thus leading to high adoption rates.

“From the very beginning, we involved our customers in app design as well as feature prioritisation. Each user feedback was taken seriously and validated – to ensure Swan offers what users need the most. It doesn’t come as a surprise that our customers love the app experience.”

In addition, hand-picked groceries are Swan’s forte; every Swan picker is trained to carefully pick the freshest fruits and the latest expiry-date milk bottles, and involves the customer to confirm substitutions in case of out-of-stock items, explained Gaurav.

In fact, he emphasises that Swan shoppers prioritise experiential factors beyond delivery time. “Unlike the food delivery business where the customer is hungry and anticipates the delivery within 30-45 minutes, groceries are usually planned in advance in most households. Our team focuses on the overall experience and quality, instead of vanity metrics like delivery under 60 minutes”.

Within a short span of time, Swan has partnered with several hundred stores to provide a wide spectrum of choice, from groceries to pets supplies and from pharmacies to fresh produce. In most cases, the entire last mile is owned by Swan with its own fleet of cars, thus also ensuring the freshness and integrity of the products delivered to the customers.


A ‘local’ approach

Swan is a locally brewed brand. Everything about the brand is centric to the UAE, be it the genesis, product, employees or partners.

Gaurav added, “Unlike its peers, Swan was launched in both Arabic and English from day one. An immense focus continues to be on onboarding local supermarket and hypermarket chains that have a wide assortment and a deep connection with the residents of UAE, rather than having only big brand names.”

Gaurav likens Swan’s AI-driven personalisation engine to the local neighbourhood grocery stores you went to growing up. “They understood you and remembered your preferences, just like we do.” With every order, the app understands your needs better, which in turn helps refine the quality of recommendations being served. And, as with a regular store, you can add or remove items from your shopping basket even after you’ve made an order – something akin to changing your mind at the supermarket checkout counter.

Another unique aspect is that Swan gives the flexibility to plan well in advance, just the way our parents planned their weekly buying in all these years. One can build and maintain parallel open baskets across multiple stores on Swan, and choose a different delivery date and time slot (either same day or even seven days later) for each order.

When asked about Swan’s exclusive store partners, Gaurav said, “We partner with stores in a true sense and actively discourage exclusive tie-ups, because they throttle a store’s reach to the wider population as well as deprive users from freely accessing their favourite stores. Getting tied up in an exclusive partnership with one digital platform hurts the business of such stores – no wonder that of late these stores have actively removed the exclusivity clause imposed on them for the last few years by one of the other well-known online grocery platforms.”

2021 – the next phase of growth


Following last year’s explosive growth in e-commerce, several digital platforms diversified their offerings. Many food delivery aggregators rushed to include groceries, while grocery delivery apps added new service categories as well. “Every app wants to become the super app of the region,” explained Gaurav. “However, it is not as easy as it sounds. Building a user base for one vertical is strenuous and launching a new vertical is even more laborsome. That is why we see a lot of apps burn out trying to branch from their core strengths.”

While Swan does keep an eye on what its competition is adding, Gaurav feels that a focus on its own users and product offerings will pay off in the long term. When it comes to expansion into new verticals – Swan recently added in-salon and at-home beauty services, with over 200 partners. “Organisational agility is important, as is co-ordination from every department. From strategy to product to marketing, every team is constantly on the lookout for a change in user habits and market requirements while working on building the initial framework for new launches simultaneously.”

In a bid to differentiate itself, Swan has applied the same principles of user convenience and personalization to its beauty & wellness section: “In a few clicks, our customers are able to explore salons in their city, go through the services, make appointments, choose preferred stylists, pay online if they wish, manage their past bookings, and rebook in one click.” Equally important, he adds, is the fact that the basic wireframes of the Swan app were designed to allow easy diversification from the outset.

For Gaurav, the pandemic-driven changes to online shopping represent a shift that will last a very long time. “In particular, the e-grocery market in the UAE itself is anticipated to grow to nearly $8-10 billion by 2025, with more than 50 percent growth year on year.”

2021 is going to bring amazing challenges, which Swan is rigged out to take head on, in addition to expansion to other verticals. “That doesn’t mean we stop improvising on our grocery delivery offering; we are committed to double down on investing in tech as well as improving the operations to further improve their overall app experience.

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