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


E-commerce such as Amazon, Flipkart and sellers have reached out to the government to seek clarity on whether online retailers would be allowed to sell non-essential items according to the latest MHA guidelines, according to people familiar with the development.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has come up with fresh guidelines allowing e-commerce to operate, ensuring strict social distancing without any restriction on their timing and closure, after April 20, 2020. While this is an important development, there is a bit of ambiguity because while inter-state transportation of non-essential items has been allowed, it is not clear whether e-commerce would be able to sell them.

“The ambiguity is still there. It doesn’t say that e-commerce players can sell all the items including non-essential products on their platforms. A lot of e-commerce firms are asking the government to provide more clarity,” said a senior official working with an e-commerce company. “For instance, a delivery associate might be carrying a television (phone, laptop) and the police on the ground might seize these items,” he added.

Also, industry insiders said that the main problems e-commerce firms are facing on the ground include absenteeism of delivery people as many of them have gone back to their hometowns and villages and difficulties in getting curfew passes, where State governments need to play a crucial role.

“You (government) have told delivery staff that your wages are valid even if you are not coming to work,” said a company official. Also when you apply for the pass, you don’t get the pass just because you are an Amazon or a Flipkart. You would get it because you are taking the essential commodity from one place to another and that is a state prerogative which decides what is essential and what is not,” he added.

E-commerce experts say in MHA guidelines there is no clarity yet on the nature of non-essentials that will be allowed. “If the 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 which 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 that for transportation, too, there are no distinctions between essential and non-essential in the guidelines. “If that works, then all e-commerce companies 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 e-commerce companies will have to liaise at the local level to ensure delivery,” said Devangshu Dutta, chief executive, Third Eyesight, a consulting firm.

Dutta said there is also a lot of backend work for companies to keep websites running for non-essentials. For example, content work including photoshoots, text and data content support is provided by external agencies and that work can’t be done from home. “So how the backend work would be done is also a question that needs to be answered,” he added.

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

Srinivas Mothey, senior vice president, Paytm Mall said, the company is in discussions with all brands and merchant partners. “We hope to open most of our categories including, consumer 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 on the e-commerce platforms. He said, Paytm Mall has adapted to only deliver essential products, and with the help of its partners and merchants, the firm has been able to operate last-mile in more than 16,000 pin codes. “We have seen a 2X increase in traffic on the platform towards essential products,” he said. The firm said it is working with logistics players including GATI, Ecom express, a Delhivery, Bluedart and FedEx to fulfil the orders.

Amazon India said, it is evaluating the guidelines and has sought clarifications from the authorities on its 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 20th is a welcome step that would nonetheless depend on unhindered availability of labour that is critical to deliver essential products to people across the country and ensure they can stay home safely,” said an Amazon spokesperson.

Flipkart Group said that in line with the guidelines announced by the government and also in collaboration with all State governments and local authorities, it will continue to serve consumers to promote social distancing through its sanitised supply chain, contact-less deliveries and safe last-mile delivery process. “We have further been collaborating with the retail ecosystem including Kiranas to ensure that customers can stay indoors,” said a Flipkart Group spokesperson.

“At this critical juncture, the e-commerce industry can ensure that citizens stay indoors and all their needs are met through home deliveries with immense precautions,” said a Snapdeal spokesperson.

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