Inside India's E-Commerce Battle Royale

(Bloomberg) --

It was a high-octane, multiday, multicity blowout of the kind that India has never seen — and I wasn’t invited. Here’s a limited chronicle of the things I missed: flash mobs rocking to India’s new dance-floor favorite, a remix of Tu Jab Lagawe Lu Lipistik. Endless all-night supply of beloved street foods including my favorites, samosas and kachoris. Basketball on the roof. Foot massages. Costume parties. Standup comedy. Zumba dance-offs.

It wasn’t really a party though; it was a war. This was Amazon and Flipkart pumping up thousands of workers. They’re mostly twenty-something Indians toiling in offices, warehouses and delivery stations across the subcontinent, as the two companies fought for top honor during their big annual sales events. The stakes are sky high. Walmart’s just completed its deal for control of Flipkart, making it the very first time first time the Seattle behemoth is facing off against the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retail giant — on the other side of the globe.

The importance of the clash between the two just ahead of the biggest shopping seasons of Dussehra and Diwali is hard to overestimate. Think India versus Pakistan in cricket. At their offices, ambulances were on standby in case a worker keeled over from the stress.

Flipkart demonstrated that it has lost none of its startup scrappiness. It signed up no less than 47 of the biggest celebrities — cricket and Bollywood stars of the likes of Virat Kohli and Amitabh Bachchan — to tout their sales campaign in TV commercials, newspaper ads and on billboards. Well in advance, it sucked in every single luminary that Amazon could even have gone for. Amazon, meanwhile, played its trump card: for millions of Indians who are members of its Prime loyalty program, it gave 12 hours of early access on the same day that Flipkart’s sale opened. Nowhere was the fight more intense than in the smartphone category where both retailers vied with each other for launch exclusives and to hand out the biggest discounts and cashbacks.

Even before the sales ended, the I-win-you-lose messages started pouring in. Flipkart said it “smashed all records” during the Big Billions Days and said its opening day alone was the “single biggest sales day in the history of Indian retail.” Amazon’s India chief Amit Agarwal declared in a video that he was confident of fulfilling the aspirations of the “largest customer base of a single company ever in the history of India.”

Who won? It’s hard to tell. Both rivals aren’t disclosing sales numbers or any other metrics. That leads me to believe we’ll see more splashy galas until there’s a clear winner. May the best one win.

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