Local Language Translations: India’s Next E-commerce Boom

Indian e-commerce sites are rolling out hyper-localised, local language translations of their platforms as they look to attract more rural, non-English-speaking client bases.

India’s relatively young but highly valued domestic e-commerce industry has been the focal point of the country’s recent boom in online sales.

Until recently, however, India’s most successful online businesses, such as the advertising platform Quikr and the internet marketplace Snapdeal, were largely monolingual. Their services catered namely to India’s English-speaking demographic – which makes up approximately just a quarter of the country’s total population when factoring in those segments of the population who only boast a very basic level of English.

Now, leading e-commerce businesses are beginning to roll out hyper-localised, local language versions of their websites as they look to attract new client bases that could reach into the hundreds of millions.

Indeed, this increasing uptake for translation and local language accessibility reflects the dynamic market growth currently sweeping across much of India.

English only: Once the key target, now a missed opportunity

India’s English-speaking demographic has long been considered to be the country’s more educated and affluent class. Online and offline marketing and commerce, particularly for international brands, has therefore dominantly been conducted in English.

For e-commerce firms, the impetus to translate and localise for local languages had been particularly low. Market research shows that, until recently, online spending rarely expanded beyond a very narrow elite group. Indeed, to this day, very little content on the internet caters to India’s 260 million+ Hindi speakers, or its 83 Bengali speakers.

Now, however, India’s 900 million non-English speakers need no longer feel so neglected in the online space. One of the first major platforms to take this crucial first step was Snapdeal. In 2014, it translated its online platform into Hindi and Tamil (albeit four years after it launched). Vijayalaxmi Hegde of Common Sense Advisory predicted that it would set off a flurry of localisation in the Indian online retail market.

Snapdeal now covers 10 languages, focusing its localisation efforts in particular on its mobile website (see below). Senior VP of Product Development Amit Khanna stated that the uptake of usage across the different language versions demonstrated a user preference to use the service in local languages rather than English. Quikr also recently launched its platform in seven additional local languages, almost eight years after launching.

This push towards offering content and products in local Indian language is not limited to just Indian companies. China’s largest search engine, Baidu added four new Indian languages in March and Google is developing and improving their virtual smartphone keyboards across 10 local languages. Companies worldwide are therefore recognising the increased purchasing power and commercial potential offered by these demographics.

This fast push towards local language localisation rests on a desire to be the first in what is a very fresh marketplace. India’s rural areas are only gaining access to the internet for the very first time. And yet, it is anticipated to be the fastest growing user market over the coming years, with Google’s Indian-born CEO, Sundar Pichai, stating that every day thousands of internet users in India go online for the very first time.

Almost all of them do not speak English as their mother tongue. First impressions are often the most important and brands, service providers and online platforms are trying to make sure that they gain the trust of this potential new market base as soon as possible.

Growing value in the non-English-speaking market

This uptake in local language translation reflects the increasing number of India’s lower-income population are gaining web access, and surfing, reading and writing in their local languages. In 2010, only 7.5 per cent of India’s population had regular internet access. This year, the share of the population with web access will reach almost 35%. That’s an increase of 370 million users.

A key driver in this growth has been low-cost smartphones. According to the Financial Times, smartphone sales rose by 12 per cent in 2015, compared to a one per cent slump in sales worldwide.

And yet, internet penetration in India still has a very long road ahead before it catches up with the more developed economies. This only means that online growth and spending will continue to rise exponentially. According to Google India, in 2014 Q1, India only boasted an estimated 35 million online shoppers. That number is expected to triple by the end of 2016 – a growth rate that exceeds China’s e-commerce “revolution” that has been sweeping the country since 2011.

This growth of online purchasing beyond the narrow, higher-earning class is helping drive bullish predictions for Indian e-commerce: Morgan Stanley predicts that total sales will hit $137bn by 2020, up from $11bn in 2013.

The numbers only enforce that the coming years will be marked by online retailers as the era of hyper localisation. Content, advertising and special offers are becoming ever more pinpointed and focused on more specific groups and demographics, and even the individual themselves.