E-tailers prepare to deliver non-essentials; seek clarity on guidelines

E-commerce platforms could see slow momentum for non-essentials given that metros and cities like Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Pune continue to be red zones
E-commerce companies are gearing up to start shipping non-essential items to customers in orange and green zones from Monday. However, sales could be impacted as metros and other cities like Delhi, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Pune have been classified under red zones.

According to industry executives, e-commerce companies like Amazon India and Walmart-backed Flipkart have been engaging closely with sellers to help them prepare for starting shipment of non-essential products as the third phase of lockdown comes into effect from May 4.

On Friday, the home ministry had announced a two-week extension of lockdown but said there would be certain relaxations for orange and green zones.

Under the latest rules, e-commerce activities in red zones, which cover large cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune and Hyderabad are permitted only for essential goods during the third phase of lockdown that ends on May 17.

A senior industry executive, who did not wish to be named, said states including Karnataka, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have also notified their guidelines for online commerce platforms that are similar to those issued by the Centre.

The executive said e-commerce companies that follow the marketplace model (like Amazon India, Flipkart and Snapdeal) could face some challenge as many of their sellers are either located or have their warehouses in red zones.

The home ministry guidelines remain unclear on operations of these marketplace sellers of non-essential products, who are in red zones. So, they are dependent on how local authorities issue their guidelines, he said.

E-commerce platforms could also see slow momentum for non-essential products given that metros and cities like Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Pune continue to be red zones where only essentials are allowed to be delivered.

Industry players as well as several consumer organisations have been requesting the government for expansion of the list of essential products to include items like laptops, mobile phones and chargers as well as summer clothing to ensure that people do not have to step out of their homes amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The addition of these categories will help customers, especially in red zones, to continue work and study from home and practice social distancing.

Another industry executive said e-commerce platforms have been engaging with seller-partners to prepare them for resumption in services.

The seller, if in the orange and green zone, will be able to see the locations they can service, while the customer will see products that can be delivered to them depending on their location, while other items may carry indicators saying the item cannot be delivered.

Srinivas Mothey, senior vice-president at Paytm Mall, said the company has already had discussions with its suppliers, logistics partners, and most importantly, offline shopkeeper base and they are all set to go online.

"We would be going live with key consumer demand categories like consumer electronics, laptops, home and fashion. These verticals and catalogues would be open to our customers besides continuing essentials. We would be taking new orders for non-essentials from Monday, May 4, and deliver in all green and orange zones," he added.

Mothey said most of their sellers in non-essential categories have confirmed their preparedness by updating their inventory and would be starting to go live on May 4 and the rest will follow suit over the coming week as zonal restrictions ease.

"We have extended their processing times to pack and ship products by 2-3 days buffer, relaxed SLAs (service-level agreements), and penalty conditions on order processing temporarily. We are in the process of getting inventory updated and cataloguing their SKUs (stock keeping units) on the platform," he added.

A Snapdeal spokesperson said the company expects 80-90 per cent of its sellers in the non-restricted zones to be live in the coming week, while other sellers remain in readiness to commence operations are assessing the local operating conditions in their areas.

"We are providing active assistance to our sellers to help them resume operations. Apart from sharing and interpreting government advisories, we have engaged entities on the ground that can help guide our sellers in securing the necessary operating permissions," the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson noted that since majority of its orders come from non-metros, tier II and III cities, it expects a large part of the country to be available for deliveries.

Walmart-owned Flipkart had welcomed the Centre's move to allow e-commerce companies to offer non-essential products in orange and green zones and said it is working with lakhs of sellers and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) across India and helping them prepare their businesses resume operations.

Message on Flipkart web portal
An Amazon India spokesperson has said millions of small and medium businesses and traders will be able to jump-start their businesses and livelihoods across their workforce after the relaxations coming in from May 4.

Emphasising that the company will focus on maintaining the "sanctity of the new guidelines around the red zones", Amazon India has also urged the government to consider the positive role e-commerce can play to get customers all priority products they need in the red zones as well to enable a stronger economic support for the small businesses while prioritising safety.

Message on Amazon India

Under the first phase of the nationwide lockdown between March 24 and April 14, the government had only allowed delivery of essential goods through e-commerce platforms. On April 16, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued fresh guidelines for the current lockdown, allowing e-commerce deliveries and movement of trucks, but on April 19, it modified its order to allow online commerce companies to deliver essential items only till May 3.

Interestingly, traders' body CAIT had argued that e-commerce companies were misinterpreting the MHA guidelines of May 1 and "twisting (them) in their favour to misguide the various state governments and authorities and to create unnecessary confusion".

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