Once upon a time, the only way you could get your hands on a Xiaomi phone was through a ‘flash sale’—where a specific number of phones would be sold only during a certain time frame. You had to register days in advance and still the chances of bagging one were pretty slim. Its Redmi 1S phone sold out in four seconds four seconds Bloomberg The phone sells for 13,999 rupees ($228), but in order to buy it, Flipkart shoppers need to register in advance. Read more . The Mi3 reportedly took even less time—a precise 2.4 seconds 2.4 seconds NDTV Gadget360 Sixth Xiaomi Mi 3 Flash Sale Sees 20,000 Phones Sold in 2.4 Seconds Read more . Back then, in 2014, the action took place on the then seven-year-old e-commerce portal Flipkart, which had an exclusive tie-up with the Chinese smartphone upstart.

“In a platform with a traffic of 50 million active users, the flash sale concept, combined with digital marketing, helped to create a lot of frenzy around the brand,” said Aniket Ghosh Choudhury, a former manager at Flipkart who had worked closely with Xiaomi during his time there. 

Flipkart’s mobile team worked hard to onboard Xiaomi as it had a “superstar product”, according to a former Xiaomi executive. Flipkart offered better terms than rival Amazon—which had set up shop in India just a year earlier, in 2013—and spent big bucks on marketing for Xiaomi. The phone brand became massively popular.

Xiaomi’s success is closely intertwined with Flipkart’s rise as the premier e-commerce portal for smartphones in the country. The company, which began by selling books online, wanted to make the smartphone category its own. The products were small, and hence convenient to ship. And more importantly, pricey. 

Laying the foundation

Flipkart felt that if it could get customers to buy something as expensive as phones online, it could sell anything to them online. It hoped customers would come back to Flipkart through the smartphone it sold them.

The segment grew critical for Flipkart. Until 2017, more than 65% of Flipkart’s gross merchandise value (GMV) came from mobile phones, says Abhishek Bhattacharya, who was a mobile accessories category manager at Flipkart until 2017. The company had successfully convinced Indians to buy their phones online with a slew of schemes like cash on delivery (CoD) and phone exchanges in addition to exclusive deals and flash sales. 

But while smartphones were Flipkart’s forte, they weren’t a fortress. For the first time, in the quarter ended June 2020, a study study Counterpoint Research Amazon held its highest ever 47% share among online channels Read more  by market research firm Counterpoint Research indicated that Amazon outstripped Flipkart in online smartphone sales—47% of the phones sold online came from Amazon; Flipkart’s share was 42%.