How women are sidelined in India’s e-commerce growth

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India’s internet commerce is seeing explosive growth. But that growth has been mostly driven by what men want, with little less focus on the requirements of women

Sharanya travels thrice a month on work. Over the last two years, her life has become much easier with the proliferation of cheaper smartphones and mobile internet, enabling frequent fliers like her to book rides on cab aggregators such as Ola and Uber faster and for less. While she and millions of other women across Indiashould be celebrating this seamless connectivity, the 40-year-old marketing professional says she does not feel safe in most cabs, even in her hometown of Bengaluru.

Like several other women, she has had unnerving experiences to fuel her concerns. In May, Sharanya, who goes by her first name, says a cab ride home after 5 pm took an eerie turn when the driver kept eyeing her in the rear-view mirror. He then started asking her personal questions and having loud conversations with his acquaintances over the phone. A week later, she had another bad driver experience while in Delhi on work. The driver, for some reason, threatened to drop her off at a lonely stretch of an arterial road around 8 pm. He became abusive when she objected. “I complained on the aggregators’ apps. All I got were templated apology notes.” This has put her off even more. “I feel the internet market is hostile to women, despite the potential it has to reach new customers easily and cost-effectively,” says the marketing professional.

Kanika Iyer, a sales executive with a Gurgaon-based fintech startup, says the internet is of little help for women beyond cab rides and travel bookings. For example, she discovered that while her elder brother could easily find formal clothes online, few e-tailers understood fit and form for Indian women. While companies such as Ajio and Amazon have made some progress, the assortment and fit across categories such as western formals give men shoppers a disadvantage. “Despite the inconvenience, it is easier to shop in old markets in Delhi than hope to stumble across a dress or top that fits online,” she adds.

This does not bode well for internet commerce, a segment that promises explosive growth. Today, that growth is inequitable and mostly driven by what men want, giving less focus to the requirements of women.

India’s internet economy will double to $250 million between 2017 and 2020, says management consultancy BCG. Internet users are expected to go up from 391 million to 650 million in that period. Many of these new users will come from beyond urban India. A key demographic missing from this storyline is women, though they make up about 48% of the population, according to the 2011 Census.

Conversations with consultants, investors and entrepreneurs show that the market has been designed with men as customers — two-thirds of India’s internet users are men. In key categories such as electronics (that accounts for 75% of India’s ecommerce market), nine of 10 buyers are men. Barely 10% of credit cards are in women’s names. They form an even smaller share of owners of new-age fintech products such as digital wallets. Women have been neglected as a target market, says Pallav Jain, country head, PayU Finance, a financial services and technology platform. More so in the financial segment. But, Jain says, the loan repayment rates are better among women than men. PayU hasn’t zeroed in on why that is so. “Even today, women are constrained from accessing capital and credit,” he adds. “Newer lending options are seeing better adoption, but there is a long way to go before we come close to gender parity.”

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