The scene at Walmart Inc.’s Chennai unit is typical of warehouses across the country. Staffed by hundreds of thousands of workers working at fever pitch ahead of the Diwali holiday season. It kicked off this month and runs through Nov. 4 — the zenith of India’s annual shopping calendar.

This year, the weeks-long festive season is more important than ever for Amazon.com Inc. and Walmart’s Flipkart. They seek to upend India’s retail market. It’s the first Diwali since two brutal Covid outbreaks confined millions of Indians to their homes and forced them online, many for the first time. Internet sales are still a fraction of India’s $1 trillion retail market, but a strong showing this season would pave the way for the U.S. giants’ longer-term success.

THE DIWALI RETAIL RACE

Online sales during the Festival of Lights should leap 42% to $9.2 billion this season. Forrester Research estimates, underscoring the phenomenal speed with which consumers are gravitating toward e-commerce.

“This is a big Diwali for online retail,”

Manish Tiwary, vice president of Amazon India,

Anticipating the rising demand, companies are adding staff in warehouses and delivery hubs at an accelerating clip. Flipkart added 115,000 jobs this sales season, up from 70,000 in 2020 and 50,000 in 2019. They’re also recruiting unconventionally.

The rivalry between Amazon and Flipkart peaks during Diwali. Both offering steep discounts on everything from smartphones and sports equipment to appliances and keto foods. Offers have begun even earlier than usual, during the inauspicious period of Shradh, a fortnight when Indians pray for their ancestors.Importantly, investors will be watching how Amazon and Flipkart — which is preparing for one of India’s largest IPOs — fare against domestic competition such as Reliance Industries Inc.

“The pair also run the risk of further legislative action from the government” said Arvind Singhal, chairman of consultancy Technopak Advisors Pvt. 

THE INSIDE SCENERIOS

Unfazed, both Amazon and Flipkart are declaring early victory. Amazon, whose tagline this year is delivering Khushiyon Ke Dibbe — a boxful of happiness — said it’s signed up 60% more sellers than in 2020, resulting in record single-day sales.

Flipkart, which Walmart bought for $16 billion in 2018, said new sellers during its Big Billion Days sale last week grew 55% compared with last year. Sales of premium smartphones doubled from 2020’s tally, and 42% of these were purchased by customers in small cities and towns. The company sold more than 200,000 iPhone 12 devices at the start of the sale period.

Yamuna Gopinath is one of just millions taking advantage of Diwali bargains. The Bangalore middle-school math teacher stocked up on groceries and household goods on Flipkart. Then went on Amazon to get a OnePlus Nord 5G smartphone. “The e-commerce race helps shoppers get the best discounts,” Gopinath said.

Back at the Flipkart warehouse, Diwali frenzy has gripped everyone from sorters and packers to supervisor Lakshmi — a window into not just the Amazon-Flipkart rivalry but also the broader Indian consumption boom. Clothing tops the list for many of her colleagues — but not hers.

“I have my heart set on an iPhone 11,” said Lakshmi. “I’ll use buy-now-pay -later offers to finance it.”

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