In March when coronavirus started spreading in India, Abhishek Sayam was forced to close his two Books By Kilo stores on the outskirts of Mumbai.

The company, which sells books by weight and not by printed cost, also had to stop holding exhibitions to avoid putting customers and teammates at risk.

“Due to (the) uncertain nature of lockdowns and curfews we can not confirm the date of delivery,” reads a popup on Books By Kilo’s website. This situation could have led Sayam’s two-year-old venture to collapse. But like for many other entrepreneurs, technology came to his rescue.

Books By Kilo has seen a 40% increase in sales and customer interactions since March thanks to WhatsApp Business, a free-to-download mobile app that acts as a storefront for small businesses on the world’s largest instant messaging app.

Sayam has been using the app since 2018, but during the lockdown, the app was particularly effective as Books By Kilo could offer virtual tours of its collection to customers via video calls.

“Due to its conversational nature, WhatsApp helped us in creating positive connections between our customers and has given us a distinct identity,” Sayam told Quartz. Now, the six-member team at Books By Kilo is catering to more than 10,000 customers even as its stores remain shut.

WhatsApp Business is among the 30 most downloaded apps in India in August so far, beating popular music-streaming apps such as Jio Saavn and Wynk, according to Nine Triangles, a Noida-based consulting and marketing firm.

Globally, the app has over 100 million downloads.

Photo credit: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

A popular platform

While e-commerce websites have gained some ground in India in recent months, their popularity is still just a fraction of WhatsApp’s.

This year, around 110 million Indians are expected to shop on e-commerce websites, in comparison, WhatsApp has over 400 million users in the country. But so far WhatsApp’s use in India has been limited to interacting with friends and family, and particularly for the famed “good morning” messages that are clogging the internet.

This makes WhatsApp Business an effective tool with massive potential for businesses.

“It is emerging to be the single most reliable customer communication tool even though it started out as an instant messaging tool,” said Pushkina Nautiyal, founder of Tech Outspoke, a Bengaluru-based media consulting firm.

The ubiquity and large scale of WhatsApp make the business app “a preferred choice when compared to other apps in this category,” as per Krishna Jha, founder of Nine Triangles.

Google My Business and Facebook Marketplaces are the other apps in the segment, but neither of them matches WhatsApp Business’ popularity.

Small businesses can self-register on the WhatsApp Business app by providing potential shoppers with details such as operating hours, business address, and category of business, among other things. The app has a free-to-use quick reply feature, which lets businesses send predefined answers to frequently asked questions and simplify the shopping experience.

It also allows companies to add a “send message button” to their websites, online ads or newsletters, and drive direct conversations with potential customers.

“One of the WhatsApp Business’ features that many businesses find useful is automated messages,” said Ami Shah, head of ZanDigital, a media marketing division of a Mumbai-based firm. “This feature, if used well, improves a small entrepreneur’s productivity.”

One of ZanDigital’s clients, a high-end boutique providing exclusive embroidery work, has been using WhatsApp video calls since 2017 to demonstrate finer details of fabric and stitches that cannot be done by just posting images on an online marketplace, Shah said.

At present, WhatsApp supports more than 15 million business app users every month in India and over 50 million monthly users globally, a company spokesperson told Quartz.

The Facebook-owned app has recently introduced some new features such as catalogue links, QR codes, and sticker packs, as it hopes to lure more users. In February, the company got a regulatory nod to start its own payment service in India, which will make it even more convenient for businesses and shoppers.

The potential of WhatsApp as a business tool has led to a growing trend of companies building products around the messaging app. In April, Reliance Industries, owned by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, said it will dedicate a WhatsApp number for consumers to buy groceries and vegetables on its service, JioMart.

Besides WhatsApp’s own advantages, the company is going to benefit from the growing popularity of business-to-business (B2B) apps, experts said.

The business of business apps

Small businesses in India are struggling with manpower shortage and broken supply chains due to state-level Covid-19 regulations in India. In the long-run, this will encourage large businesses to invest in technology to better communicate with their smaller partners.

For instance, consumer packaged goods companies are likely to build digital platforms to interact with kirana stores, said Anurag Gupta, managing director and lead of strategy and consulting at Accenture in India.

“This situation catalysed a large-scale adoption of B2B apps and digital platforms as retailers started using them to place product orders,” Gupta said.

This means apps like WhatsApp Business will find many more takers as business owners start realising the “convenience and efficacy” that technology brings.

Harpreet Singh, a 35-year-old bakery owner from Noida, is one of those who have recently realised these benefits. Singh, who lost most of his customers due to the pandemic-related lockdowns and was struggling to attract shoppers without spending on advertising, started using the app recently.

“My finances are running dry, and even if I am allowed to open my business now, the footfalls are next to nil,” said Singh. “My customers do not know if I am coming up with new offers or about the healthy changes I have introduced in my menu. This is where the business app comes in handy.”

“I look professional without spending a bomb on marketing and keeping myself busy with orders and engaging with customers,” he said.

Sonusingh Kartarsingh Choudhary, the owner of Pune-based Wheatmart India, which provides doorstep delivery of freshly milled flour, has also seen a 10-fold spike in his business during the pandemic with help from WhatsApp Business.

“Since the only source to reach out to customers was using digital modes, WhatsApp proved to be a reliable mode to communicate, sharing updates, and taking orders,” Choudhary said. “It helped us acquire a lot of new customers too.”

But as the app penetrates small cities and towns, its challenges will increase. Experts said the first thing the app needs to ensure is better security features.

“A lot is yet to be seen as the ecosystem in digital space itself is evolving even after having over 100 million downloads,” said Jha of Nine Triangles. “However, to begin with, one has to be careful about spamming and being blocked or reported on the platform.”

This article first appeared on Quartz.