Once a year, between December and February, brides-to-be and their families from all over the the US and Europe flock to India and Pakistan to escape the cold, wintry weather, visit family and, perhaps most importantly, shop for wedding outfits.
Designers and retailers prepare for the influx of non-residential Indians, or NRIs, by setting up sales, pop-up events or previews of their upcoming lines of lehenga cholis, anarkali and saris.
But the pandemic has slowed down NRI season, with surges in infections and limitations on travel making it hard for parents of soon-to-be brides and grooms to make the long journey to cities such as Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi or to the state of Gujarat.
In response, many retailers have moved a growing part of their businesses online, increasingly turning to two platforms to facilitate the close collaboration between designer and customer that is often required to complete a purchase of a single dress: Instagram and WhatsApp.
Click through many major Indian dress stores’ websites these days and you’ll find a WhatsApp icon on the corner of the page. Want to customize a specific product? Click on the link to start a WhatsApp chat with the store.
With 2 billion users around the globe, WhatsApp for years has been ubiquitous in many parts of the world, though Americans have been slower to adopt the messaging platform as a primary means of communication. Even among second-generation South Asian Americans, WhatsApp is often seen as the platform on which their mothers and aunties receive and spread misinformation and chain mail.
The pandemic has expedited the adoption of WhatsApp as a place to not just communicate but to coordinate expensive and personally significant purchases among South Asian diasporas. While Instagram serves largely as a discovery platform for retailers, WhatsApp has been where customers and store owners communicate.
Papa Don’t Preach is known for bold colors. Photograph: Papa Don’t Preach
Shubika Davda’s label Papa Don’t Preach, known for its bold colors and modern takes on the lehenga choli and other traditional attire, was one of the first to start as an e-commerce brand back in 2011, according to Davda.
Davda is introverted and she was looking for a way to launch a brand without having to interact too much with clients in person. “It would drain me,” she said. “Because with Indians, especially when you’re getting a customized outfit, one meeting can take up to three and a half hours with the entire family.”
She launched Papa Don’t Preach on Instagram, using her account as a medium to tell her company’s story without input from fashion critics and without needing to wait until fashion weeks to showcase her lines. “I finally felt like I was taking the power back in my own hands,” she said.
But she quickly learned that customers needed a means to instantly communicate with the store. “No matter how much information you put on the website and however accessible your phone lines are, people want to converse with you, especially if they’re buying an expensive outfit, especially if it’s made to measure,” she said. So in 2018, the company integrated WhatsApp on to its platform. Since then, the brand has received 50 new inquiries a day. Each inquiry can span several days before the client purchases the dress.
Davda, like many other retailers, uses a WhatsApp business account, sharing catalogs on a contact page and products via the app’s “stories” function. The brand also uses WhatsApp to walk clients through the clothes over video chat and discuss the fit. Clients often respond to pictures the brand sends with a screenshot the company can mark up directly on the platform. Davda has one person dedicated to answering WhatsApp messages and plans to add another to work the late shift in order to quickly respond to international clients.
When shopping for dresses, South Carolina-based Kena Patel never had many brick-and-mortar options. Like many in the South Asian diaspora, she relied on her dad to bring suitcases full of dresses back from his trips to India each year.
When it came time to buy outfits for her cousin’s wedding during the pandemic, Patel felt she had no choice but to shop remotely. She didn’t want to take any chances – her father connected her with a contact at a factory in India whose dress quality he knew and trusted. Still, shopping online for intricately designed, tailor-made lehengas that can cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars was a new experience. And early in the pandemic, not every shop was equipped to support international online sales.
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To show Patel her options from 8,500 miles away, a shop owner in India went through his racks item by item, Patel said, showing her several options at a time over a WhatsApp video call. Patel specified the “exact embroidery” she wanted and the shades she was looking for. It was almost like she was browsing the store herself, she recalled.
While coordinating sales over WhatsApp is not an entirely new process for India-based retailers, it took the pandemic for many to figure out the kinks. Shreen Khan, a Los Angeles-based journalist, said she had designed her wedding dress from a store in Hyderabad over WhatsApp in 2019. Similar to Patel’s, her family also knew the shopkeeper. Still, she wouldn’t have recommended the process to anyone, though she concedes that it may have improved over the years.
“There was time difference. There were language barriers, there were connectivity issues, and then it was also Ramadan,” Khan recalled. “So, your physical and mental capacity is different when you’re fasting and when the shopkeepers are, too.”
Khan, too, showed the shopkeeper different styles, embroideries and colors she wanted and the shopkeeper would send her pictures or video call her to show her fabrics and other options. But communicating over WhatsApp appeared to be a new concept for the store, making the barriers to understanding what exactly she was buying that much harder. Did the time of day influence the color of the fabrics in the photo? And how could she gauge the feel of a fabric over video?
Khan ended up being happy with how the dress turned out, but she said the color of the top had come out differently from what she expected. “It was still beautiful but I think that was one of the things that was lost with being in person and being able to physically select this exact fabric.”
To this day, many retailers are still figuring it out and some are more reliable than others. And unlike in the US, there is no comprehensive review culture where shoppers can see what other people’s experiences were with products, designers or retailers. Patel, who has been shopping via WhatsApp since the start of the pandemic, said she had seen it all.
“I feel like none of my experiences were just average,” Patel said. “They were either really good or really bad.”
Two and a half years in, Patel has gotten her online shopping experience down to a science. She doesn’t buy anything without a bit of sleuthing. She Googles each brand and even uses Google Lens, the company’s image recognition software, to determine if images of the clothes on some websites or their designs were lifted from elsewhere. She tests brands by buying cheaper items before investing in anything more expensive. “It’s a lot of experimentation,” she said.
“For boutiques in the US, you are likely to find something about them on any social media,” Patel said. “Whereas with these boutiques in India, you can’t find anything sometimes. So I’d much rather spend my money at somewhere I’ve already worked with.”
Indiaspopup.com is a Dallas-based retailer that distributes high-end Indian designers in the US and Europe. Photograph: Indiaspopup.com
Even for US-based brands serving South Asians, WhatsApp has at times become the preferred method of communication. Archana Yenna, the founder of Indiaspopup.com, a Dallas-based retailer that distributes high-end Indian designers throughout the US and Europe, said the company had decided to use WhatsApp after experimenting with several other customer relationship management platforms. “Trust me, the innovation really kind of sucks at this point,” Yenna said.
She said Instagram’s shopping option was not well-suited for Indian e-commerce because if the retailer does not ship the product within seven days, the customer gets a refund. Many of her orders can take eight weeks.
While transactions still occur on company websites, WhatsApp, unlike these other platforms, had several benefits, Yenna said. The chat history made it easy to pick up conversations with customers where they left off. It was also much easier to share large numbers of files and assets over WhatsApp than over Instagram or email. Group video calls enable the parents of the bride and groom, who in South Asian families often do the lion’s share of the shopping, to pull in their daughter or son on the call when they want their opinion.
In fact, Yenna said, she had found the fastest adopters of WhatsApp as a means to design and discuss purchasing clothes were parents of millennials who were already used to communicating with their own families and friends all over south Asia via WhatsApp. “Our market is expensive so you’re dealing with moms and aunts,” Yenna said. “These aunties and the clientele that we deal with, they’re very much used to WhatsApp and they love that. They’re not used to email. When we ask them to send any details to us on email, that’s alien to them.”
There are hurdles, too. WhatsApp is still limited in how it works with bigger brands. Yenna said it was not easy for customers to sift through her company’s massive catalogs of clothing. It’s not possible for multiple staffers to serve the same number. WhatsApp also still does not enable transactions on the platform, though a company spokesperson, Adam Landres-Schnur, said that was in the works.
“WhatsApp is definitely a powerful platform for customer service,” Yenna said. “Not for e-commerce.”
This article was amended on 10 April 2022 because an earlier version referred to Gujarat as a city whereas it is a state.