E-Commerce in India: Beyond English and Hindi
The Indian e-commerce market continues to grow as the government there encourages its expansion and works to ensure that the country’s local languages are integrated into its Digital India and Make in India programs. Unlike its neighbor to the east – China – the Indian playing field is open to international companies, as the ongoing competition between Amazon and Flipkart and Uber and Ola Cabs demonstrates. Apple, Amazon, and Google have announced billions of dollars in additional investment over the last 18 months, and Apple now manufactures its iPhone SE in Bengaluru.
However, if you’re not a mega-billion-dollar firm, should you be concerned that you haven’t jumped in? Or, if you are active there, should you ramp up localization for more local languages – often referred to as “bhasha” or the “vernacular” – if your products and services are only available in English and perhaps Hindi? We provide some insights and data to help you make these decisions below.
Not Doing Business in India Yet?
A bit of background data is in order to set the context:
- In a report published in April this year, KPMG and Google cite 234 million users of local Indian languages, or 66% of 355 million internet users in the country. Smartphone users are projected to grow from 267 million to around 410 million by 2021.
- The base of vernacular speakers is climbing at a rate of 18% compared to only 3% for English-speakers. Hindi is the majority language in only six of the 24 Indian states and two of its eight Union Territories. KPMG and Google predict that 90% of all new internet users in India within the next five years will prefer their own local language, as opposed to English or Hindi.
- Corroborating CSA Research data from Can’t Read, Won’t Buy, 44% of digital Indians have trouble understanding product information and customer reviews in English. This percentage will continue to increase as the internet reaches more citizens.
As you would for any market you enter, perform the proper due diligence related to language support:
- Step back to make sure that India fits within your global growth strategy. The country is currently the fastest growing e-commerce market on the planet. It is also home to one of the largest audiences for mobile phones – with support for Indian languages now required and its own Made-in-India, multilingual operating system called Indus OS. However, none of this matters if it’s not the right time for your company and language supply chain to jump in with both feet. Weigh the opportunity for this market as you would any other.
- Determine the competitive landscape for vernacular support. Are your Indian, regional, or global competitors translating or providing content in local languages? If so, for what types of content and in which languages? Your best option may still be to enter the market in U.S. or U.K. English at the beginning. However, develop a plan to roll out local language support, based on what you learn from your initial foray.
Have a Presence in the Market, But Only in One or Two Languages?
Consider the following areas as you update your plans to enhance the global customer journey for prospects and customers in India:
- Accept that “English tolerance” and “Hindi is enough” won’t sustain your market share. Both languages encompass a high level of historical and cultural baggage that you may not want your brand associated with in certain parts of the country. The KPMG/Google study pointed out that 75% of Tamil- and Telugu-speakers gravitate to e-commerce sites available in their languages, while only 50% of Hindi-speakers do so. As more and more Indians trade in their feature phones for smartphones, they will expect content in their languages – 68% of internet users in India view content in their mother tongue as more reliable than when it’s presented in English.
- Approach digital India strategically. The country has 22 official languages (Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Marathi, Meitei, Nepali, Oriya, Eastern Panjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu) and around 120 major languages – all of which entail multiple writing systems and fonts. Focus on regions most likely to adopt your products and services. Or, choose the top two or three languages by purchasing power.
- Join the vernacular conversation. Voice-enabled services come with different multilingual requirements. The content supporting them is meant to be read or heard out loud, not read in silence. Customers may be comfortable comprehending and reading a language, but not necessarily speaking it, or vice versa; thus, language support may be required for non-written vernaculars. Indian handset maker Micromax ships a phone with text-to-speed for six regional languages and the ability to swipe to translate. Amazon has already optimized its Fire TV Stick with integrated voice search for Indian customers. If you haven’t already done so, consider how Indian audiences may want to interact with your product via speech.
If your goal is to provide a high-quality customer journey for increasing numbers of Indian customers over time, start developing a strategy today that encompasses at least a few, if not more, of their local languages. The sooner you start, the sooner your products, programs, and services will appeal to those already engaging in digital experience and e-commerce in vernaculars beyond English and Hindi.
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