Zia Ashraf, founder and chief operating officer of Chaldal, talks about the pandemic-time business boom and how the online grocery store maintains product quality
In 2012, two graduate friends were on the hunt for jobs.
One of them, Zia Ashraf, found his fortune as the head of operations at a readymade garment factory. While managing operations of the factory, Zia felt the workers were getting paid less in terms of their workload and living conditions.
A thought popped up in his mind that he should create jobs for these people, where the workload would not be as hectic, and they could work comfortably.
His school friend Waseem had always wanted to do business. One day, Zia phoned him and told him that they wanted to do something interesting in Bangladesh and then they decided to do Chaldal together along with their other friend Tejas Viswanth.
They spent hours after hours, days after days on planning what business they should go for.
At one time, they thought of setting up a garment factory. But the Rana Plaza incident and strict compliance requirements of Accord and Alliance changed their mind.
Back in 2013, the concept of digital business was new. While having dinner at a restaurant, some people sitting at the next table were discussing running a business through a website. They take orders and provide home deliveries.
Zia liked the idea. Foreseeing the possible growth in this type of e-commerce globally, the duo decided to bet on it.
Then began the real struggle of picking the right business which would click and make the lives of people easier. As going to the kitchen market is hectic and time-consuming, they felt they should start a grocery business online.
One day, Zia, while riding a rickshaw, heard passers-bys and the rickshaw puller discussing the price hike of chal (rice) and dal (lentil) – two basic everyday needs. From there, he picked the name Chaldal for their e-grocery business.
"The story may sound funny, but this is how Chaldal emerged," Zia reminisced about the initial days of the business.
Asked whether his job at an RMG factory helped him in business, he said, "Grocery business is not so easy. You have to deal in perishable items. To ensure quality, you must strictly comply with some parameters. I understood commercial management and safety issues from my job experience."
"In RMG, some parameters are set by international buyers. It helped us in the branding arena of our business. For instance, we do chemical tests before selling any grocery and this is how we brand our start-up - that we do not compromise on quality."
Zia is a business graduate. But he feels academics and entrepreneurship are two different fields. "At my university, I was never taught how e-commerce works."
But many theories and formulas helped him in his entrepreneurial journey.
One of his brothers is a child with special needs, and he wants to help these people. Chaldal has a customer base for differently-abled people. They have customers who have hearing and speaking disabilities. They introduced a chat option for these people.
When the deliveryman reaches the doorstep of these people, they call the call centre and inform them about the delivery through text. The company is planning to introduce sign language for those who cannot speak.
"We want to give our customers a humanistic experience. We never make our call automated. You can speak with a human being instead of a bot. Some customers seek advice about a product. For instance, some mothers ask our customer care service providers which milk or diaper would be better for their children. Only a human being can say this. So, the human touch is important for customer satisfaction," Zia explained.
Regarding the boom during the Covid-19 pandemic, Zia told The Business Standard, "The business model of Chaldal or any e-commerce is to make sure the goods are delivered to the doorstep of customers. We built a relationship with our customers before the pandemic. We maintained our service quality from before. So, when the pandemic started, people already knew how Chaldal functions. We did not need to do marketing separately. We had growth before the coronavirus breakout, and business grew by 100 percent during the pandemic."
"We would have 2,500 orders daily before the pandemic. And during the pandemic, in the first few days, we got around 16,000 orders daily. Now it is 6,000. So, we had to increase the number of customer representatives (we do not call them deliverymen) and warehouses," he said.
Zia continued, "We are trying our best to provide the best service to our customers. We set up five more warehouses during this pandemic. We are looking for more spaces to activate our service and expand it to more areas. Fifty to 60 people work at a warehouse. We have a total of 14 warehouses. We have one mother warehouse through which we distribute to the others."
Chaldal believes in quality. They do not sell food items that are not Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) certified. Also, if they do not have direct contact with the manufacturer, they do not sell the goods.
"For meat, we have a deal with Bengal Meat. So, quality can be ensured. We negotiate with our manufacturers and try to sell products at almost the market price. We are doing the same with fish. There is no giant like Bengal Meat in fish business, but farms are taking an interest in this," Zia said.
He said the vegetable sector does not have any formal parameters. "So, we bring these perishable goods from the kitchen market. We also offer a refund policy. If any customer complaints about any product, we refund them."
Trust, Zia said, is important in any business. "We developed a network called Chaldal Vegetables Network which directly source from the farmers and also ensures quality."
Chaldal does not just focus on its own growth; it also helps other start-ups grow. It is always open to consultation. It does not see any other similar ventures as a competitor or a threat.
"Chaldal can fulfil, say, 5 percent of orders in Dhaka. To meet the demand for the remaining 95 percent, more ventures are required. We do not want anyone to go outside and risk their lives during this pandemic. So, we welcome other businesses to help these people," Zia said.
"We want other people's businesses to grow properly. If any of these businesses gives bad service, the entire industry will be affected. Our image will be tarnished, and trust will be broken. So, we need to ensure quality service collectively," he added.