Private Contractors Are What’s Keeping Cuba’s Online Shopping Site ‘TuEnvio’ Alive

Storefront at the Carlos III shopping mall processing deliveries of “combos” purchased through the delivery service TuEnvío. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, March 22, 2021 – The Cuban delivery platform TuEnvío could have used the pandemic as an opportunity to develop and improve its services but, after more than a year, the consensus is that the platform is a disaster. Even the state-run news site Cubadebate acknowledges as much. The problems are less technological and more about its supply and business model. The one bright spot is the introduction of private transportation workers, a move which has greatly improved customer satisfaction.

“The use of private delivery services has been very well received. It has allowed delivery times to be reduced to a few days and reduced delays,” admits the news site in a special report published on Monday.

“In the past, deliveries always arrived on a Cimex truck but for some time now they’ve been coming in vans, private motorcycles and vintage sedans,” says a customer who frequently uses the service.

However, an employee at the TuEnvío storefront in the Plaza de Carlos III shopping mall claims that, though the company contracted with a private-sector worker to deliver orders, it never contacted him after signing the agreement. He reports that the store at this location almost exclusively uses drivers from RentCar, who typically work in the tourism sector, augmented with a few freelance drivers.

According to Cubadebate, 772,612 users downloaded the government’s online shopping app. Though more than 96,000 did the same to receive alerts from Telegram, which lists items for sale in stores, sales have totaled only about 14,000 to 15,000 according to figures released by TuEnvío.

The state-run Telegram group not only alerts customers when an order has been shipped but also reviews their comments and complaints. It diligently censors any swear words, which are common, and immediately deletes any criticisms of state institutions.

“All I did was recommend a private food delivery service and not only did they delete my comments, they permanently blocked me from using TuEnvío in Havana,” laments a young woman. Unwilling to accept this outcome, she ultimately found a way to contact the Telegram website administrators directly.

“They took me to task. I had to agree to certain conditions if I wanted to be readmitted. No political comments, no criticism of the government and no ads for private delivery services. I stayed for a few days, got tired of it and left on my own accord,” she adds.

But being censored was not the only thing that annoyed this user. “There’s a bunch of computer scientists, who are friends of the site’s administrators, and they have figured out how to hoard items sold through the app. They control everything so the chance that a user who doesn’t know what strings to pull will come out ahead are minimal.”

“What I don’t understand is how privately run sites like Cuballama and AlaMesa can put a well-balanced meal on your table a few hours after you order it but a powerful state-run outfit like TuEnvio can’t,” wrote one Telegram user minutes before his comments were deleted. “The difference is obvious: private delivery services earn actual dollars while TuEnvío is playing with fake money, Cuban pesos.”

The platform was created by Cimex in 2019. By the end of that year the site had gone from a hundred visits a day to between 6,000 to 8,000. Shortly thereafter, company president Héctor Oroza Busutil realized just how big the impact from Covid would be. After processing 1,356 orders in February of 2020 and 6,000 in March, April’s numbers skyrocketed to 73,386. By mid-May orders already reached 78,893 and demand was growing in spite of technical problems such as “flying combos,” products which disappeard within minutes.

It seems that customer complaints about crashing webpages, delivery delays, closed combos* and lost shipments were not enough to slow the company’s growth. Though problems always seemed to be on the verge of being resolved, nothing has improved. Quite the opposite. There are now fewer products available and, judging by the numbers, the popluarity of the app has fallen sharply at a time when the Covid infection rate is worse than before.

By October, orders had fallen to 20,000. Current sales figures are even lower. On any given day in Havana, there are roughly 7,000 combos available. The Cubadebate article described this as “a figure that, unsurprisingly, helps satisfy the high demand of a city experiencing long lines and crowded stores as well as a high rate of Covid infection.”

The article raises the question of the retail sector expanding through TuEnvío and asks why there is a dearth domestically of locally produced items. It also suggests the site stop promoting imported goods, arguing that this greatly limits consumer choice.

Though the article repeatedly blames the shortages on the embargo and U.S, policies, it takes aim at what it sees as a burdensome requirement, devoid of logic, that “often forces customers to purchase products that are not really useful or essential to them.” As a result, less-used products, such as detergent, fill up warehouses while endless lines of people fill the streets because these products are in short supply.

“A parallel resale market has sprung up, which not only hits thousands of people in their pocket books but also upends government efforts to raise Cubans’ standard of living through higher wages. But just as in feudal times, the exchange and trading of merchandise by online groups has gained followers,” reads the article.

The article also addresses one of the basic problems with the app, which is technological. “In addition to repeated crashes, over saturation and shopping carts emptied before purchases have been completed, there are connection problems with banks and Transfermóvil,” it admits.

Attempts have allegedly been made to improve the situation — more infrastructure, servers, bandwidth, bots to automate the process and longer store hours — but they have not yielded results.

In parallel to what is already happening in the non-digital world, the official press is also concerned about “virtual hoarders.” “The inability to distinguish between a normal user from someone who employs computer tools to gain an advantage in the purchasing process makes a more equitable distribution among consumers impossible. Only a total redesign of the site with the output of an API that breaks out sales through the internet and APK could could solve the problem,” claim the experts.

On the plus side, they point to a geo-location system which will, if all goes well, allow the company to calculate the distance between store and home in order to more precisely determine delivery charges. The company has also opened a TuEnvio Havana and will have daily listings of what is in stock at every store in the country except Havana.

*Translators note: Combinations of completely unrelated products which must be purchased together as a group. These often include a popular item combined with other products for which there is little consumer demand.


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