E-commerce firms seek clarity on non-essentials; gear up for MHA guidelines

Topics Coronavirus | Lockdown

The main problems e-commerce firms are facing on the ground include absenteeism of delivery people and difficulties in getting curfew passes
E-commerce companies such as Amazon and Flipkart, and sellers, have reached out to the government seeking clarity on whether they would be allowed to sell non-essential items under the fresh guidelines.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in the fresh guidelines allowed e-commerce companies to operate without any restriction on their working hours from April 20, provided they ensure strict social distancing.

However, some said there were ambiguities that need to be addressed, because while inter-state transportation of non-essentials was allowed, it was not clear whether e-commerce companies would be allowed to sell the products.

“The ambiguity is still there. It doesn’t say that e-commerce players can sell all items including non-essential products on their platforms. A lot of firms are asking the government to provide more clarity,” said a senior official working with an e-commerce firm.

“For instance, a delivery associate might be carrying a TV (phone, laptop) and the police on the ground might seize these items.

”Industry insiders said the main problems firms faced on the ground were absenteeism of delivery personnel and hardship in getting curfew passes, issued by state governments. “You (government) told the delivery staff wages are valid even if you are not coming to work,” said a person.  Additionally, passes were issued to those carrying essential services and not to firms per se, the person added. “It is the prerogative of the state to decide what is essential and what is not.

”Experts say there was also no clarity in the guidelines on the nature of non-essentials. “If companies are able to follow all the social distancing and safety protocols stringently, then the chances of getting things up and running are reasonably good. Probably some products that were not specifically listed as essentials but are essential in nature, such as grooming, stationery, home essentials like cleaning and kitchen products, will also be allowed to run now,” said Pinakiranjan Mishra, consumer leader at EY India.

Experts said there was no distinction between essential and non-essential with respect to transportation. “If that works, then all e-commerce firms should be able to work, but it depends on how the guidelines are implemented at the state level. There are red zones as well, where movement is restricted. So, firms will have to liaise at the local level to ensure delivery,” said Devangshu Dutta, chief executive at Third Eyesight, a consulting firm.

Dutta said a lot of backend work was required for companies to keep websites running for non-essentials. For example, content work, including photoshoots, text and data support, was provided by external agencies and the work couldn’t be done from home.

“How the backend work would be done is also a question that needs to be answered,” he added.

Meanwhile, online retailers are expecting huge demand for products and are reaching out to sellers to keep stock ready to fulfil pending and new orders after April 20, according to sources.

Srinivas Mothey, senior vice-president at Paytm Mall, said: “We hope to open most of our categories, including electronics, small appliances, clothing, mobile phones, and accessories, among others,” said Mothey.

“The government has just come out with fresh guidelines. We believe things would be far better by the time we restart full-fledged operations,” said Mothey, when asked about the ambiguity related to the selling of non-essential items.Amazon India said it was evaluating the guidelines and had sought clarifications from the authorities on implementation.

“We are committed to the government’s efforts of ensuring social distancing and delivering products that customers need the most at their homes. The resumption of economic activity from April 20 is a welcome step that would nonetheless depend on unhindered availability of labour,” said an Amazon spokesperson.

Flipkart said it would continue to serve consumers to promote social distancing through its sanitized supply chain.“At this critical juncture, the e-commerce industry can ensure that citizens stay indoors and all their needs are met through home deliveries,” Snapdeal said.



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