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Southeast Asia delivery services face game-changing moment

Coronavirus restraints create new opportunities for food and grocery couriers

Thailand's meal and beverage delivery market will grow 17% this year, according to one estimate. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

BANGKOK -- Demand for delivery services is skyrocketing across Asia as travel curbs keep more people at home, sending companies scrambling to keep up.

7-Eleven is offering deliveries in Thailand through a smartphone app at 1,500 locations across the country, expanding on a 100-store pilot conducted in Bangkok in January. CP All, the chain's operator in Thailand and a member of the Charoen Pokphand Group, plans to eventually offer the service at 11,000 locations and hire 20,000 delivery personnel.

Commercial facilities, excluding grocery stores and convenience stores, have been closed since Sunday in greater Bangkok. With demand for deliveries surging, CP wants to expand its service to make 7-Elevens as accessible as possible.

Demand for meal deliveries is also growing. Key retailer Central Group has closed its malls to customers, but has set up special delivery docks where restaurant tenants -- which are still permitted to serve take-out meals -- can hand orders to delivery drivers.

Thailand's meal and beverage delivery market will climb 17% to 40 billion baht ($1.22 billion) in 2020, Kasikorn Research Center said Wednesday. The institute had previously projected a 10% increase.

"The spread of the new coronavirus will accelerate the growth of this market," a researcher from Kasikorn told reporters.

Amid surging demand, delivery services are working on ways to limit infection. Grab and Foodpanda are having drivers drop off orders in front of customers' doors or some other prearranged spot, so the parties do not come in direct contact.

Other companies across the region are jumping on the home-delivery bandwagon as well. Angkas, a motorcycle-hailing app in the Philippines, announced Tuesday that it will start food deliveries.

Shopee, an e-commerce platform operated by Singaporean game company Sea Group, is issuing vouchers for free delivery in Malaysia. The platform is providing next-day deliveries for items like masks and hand sanitizers in Kuala Lumpur.

"What we are focused on is ensuring that health-related products and essential household items remain available and accessible to our consumers, and taking the appropriate measures to manage that," said Zhou Junjie, chief commercial officer at Shopee.

Southeast Asia is poised for growth. E-commerce makes up just 2% or so of all retail in Thailand and Indonesia, compared to 23% in China and 7% in Japan.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the e-commerce market across the region's top six economies was projected to quadruple from 2019 to 2025 to $153 billion, according to a research report by Google and others. Actual growth could outpace such projections as more Southeast Asians stay home.

But a rapid expansion may also cause problems. Take India, where e-commerce accounts for 5% of retail. Online grocers BigBasket and Grofers began imposing a one-unit-per-item rule Saturday as their supply and delivery networks struggle to keep up with the surge in demand. BigBasket received double its usual number of orders in certain cities in mid-March, local news outlets reported.

India is under complete lockdown since Wednesday, with almost all offices and stores ordered to close. Food and medication are supposed to be exempt, but many delivery trucks have been denied passage through checkpoints, and some warehouses have been told to shut down. In response, Walmart-owned Flipkart said it will suspend services for the time being.

Thailand is also set to declare a state of emergency on Thursday, which could further restrict the movement of people, while Malaysia has extended the duration of its travel curbs. It is unclear whether e-retailers will be able to keep up with the swelling demand.

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