(Reuters) - India's biggest e-commerce company, Flipkart, has tied up with Mumbai's lunchbox delivery men, famous for navigating cramped and confusing streets, as it tries to smooth the often difficult last stretch of its delivery to customers.
Dabbawalas have for decades collected hot lunches from customers' often distant homes and, using a complex delivery system and overladen bicycles, carried them to offices and schools across the city.
"Their unique delivery system has been smooth, reliable and has survived the test of time - even under extreme conditions," Neeraj Aggarwal, senior director for last mile delivery at Flipkart said in a statement on Thursday evening.
Under the deal - part of a plan by the e-commerce firm to explore new delivery channels - dabbawallas will make deliveries assigned from a Flipkart hub while collecting hot meals from customers' homes.
Privately held Flipkart leads India's e-commerce industry, selling everything from cellphones to suitcases and competing with Amazon's India unit and other home grown rival Snapdeal for a chunk of the fast growing industry.
Online retailing is growing at a breakneck pace in India, which has the world's third-largest population of Internet users even with only a fifth of its population online.
Mumbai's dabbawalas - often semi-literate deliverymen from rural Maharashtra, the state where Mumbai is located - deliver about 200,000 "tiffin," or lunch, boxes every day, according to their website.
Their coding system has been recognized with the Six Sigma level of accuracy, meaning they make only one mistake in 6 million chances, attracting them admirers from Britain's Prince Charles to entrepreneur Richard Branson.
Flipkart said the dabbawalas had undergone training at the company's delivery centers and would start with a paper-based tracking system, moving on to apps and wearable technology.
Reporting by Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Mumbai; Editing by Jeremy Laurence