Covid-19: E-commerce firms in a fix over definition of essential goods

While delivery of essential items by e-commerce businesses has been exempt from the 21-day coronavirus-induced lockout (COVID-19) called by the Prime Minister on Tuesday, online retailers are struggling with the distinction between products essential and non-essential.

This faced challenges on Wednesday, with many forced warehouse closings and restrictions on deliveries, leading to a temporary halt in operations.

Paytm Mall told Business Standard that it was unclear whether clothing or household items were considered essential. Srinivas Mothey, senior vice president of Paytm Mall, said they had prioritized items like masks, disinfectants, Ayurvedic supplements, immunity boosters, electronics, and household items. “It is unclear whether clothing or household items are considered essential items. Many professionals work from home and need electronics for their productivity. Is this essential? “

Amazon has disabled shipments for lower priority products and is using logistics capacity to deliver essentials such as staples, packaged food, healthcare, hygiene, and personal safety products.

Grofers has selected essential products based on consumer demand. “We prioritize essential high-demand products such as atta, dal, canned food, ready-to-cook food, spices,” said Albinder Dhindsa, CEO and co-founder of Grofers. The company recorded an 80% increase in orders compared to last week.

Meanwhile, a multinational retail giant is reaching out to state governments to sort essential and non-essential items in its stores. “We separate essential and non-essential products upon our request to meet our members. However, our team is speaking with state governments to get a specific definition of essentials, ”said an official.

Guidelines issued by the Interior Ministry on Tuesday after the announcement of the foreclosure exempted e-commerce deliveries of essential items “including food, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment”.

The lack of clarity on the definition led to a rupture on Wednesday, which was resolved with the intervention of the central authorities. Grofers’ warehouse in Faridabad was closed on Wednesday by local law enforcement, which was reopened after intervention by NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant.

Bigbasket sent a message to customers stating that deliveries could not be processed due to restrictions imposed by local authorities on the movement of goods.

Eventually, state governments contacted warehouses and stores to assist in the home delivery of the groceries. “Before the foreclosure was announced, the authorities were forcing the closure of warehouses and stores, but things have changed now. The authorities are trying to work with us to make home deliveries of essential items, ”said a senior manager of a large retail chain.

E-commerce players have also developed flexible policies that allow sellers to meet demand.

Paytm Mall, for example, eliminated late processing fees, increased service level agreements and gave flexibility to process orders in 10 days. “We are also helping them move products to our partner messaging distribution centers, which will help small traders,” said Mothey.

Grofers said it was in constant contact with manufacturing partners and the supply chain to ensure they were aligned and to make prompt arrangements in the event of momentary shortfalls. “We also keep a constant check on how things are progressing and we have implemented a basic allocation request plan to act more quickly for our clients.”


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