While others such as Amazon have sought clarification from the Centre on whether they can sell non-essentials in addition to food and grocery items, industry executives told ET.
While previous notifications from the MHA had specified that ecommerce firms would only be allowed to sell essential goods — food, pharmaceuticals and medical devices, the guidelines released on Wednesday are devoid of any such classification of essential and non-essential items raising some confusion among online retailers.
A government official told ET that MHA directives on ecommerce were clear and that these firms should start operations based on the latest guidelines.
‘GOVT ASSURES ASSISTANCE’
“For now it is amply clear that these companies can resume services, if there are problems faced at the local level they can be handled later,” the official added.
On a call with CEOs from ecommerce and gig economy companies on Wednesday, officials from Niti Aayog and MHA said that all ecommerce activities will now be permitted, according to industry executives. “We were told that ecommerce in its entirety will be allowed and that we had a job to do for the nation so that consumers don’t need to come out onto the streets,” said a CEO of a leading at an ecommerce firm who attended the call.
When businesses in the grocery and ecommerce space raised concerns about the on-ground challenges they may face, they were assured that companies will get assistance to sort out the issues. “It was made very clear that all ecommerce will be allowed in non-containment zones post April 20. Containment zones continue to serve only essential needs via ecommerce,” said another executive present in the meeting.
Following the order, Walmartowned Flipkart is expected to start accepting orders for all items, including non-essentials from April 20, according to a source in the company. “In line with the guidelines announced by the central government and also in collaboration with all states and local authorities, we will continue to serve consumers,” a Flipkart spokesperson said.
Rival Amazon said while it welcomed the move by the government, it had sought additional clarifications about Wednesday’s announcement.
“The resumption of economic activity from April 20 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,” an Amazon spokesperson said.
Forrester Research estimates that non-essentials comprising smartphones, electronics, white goods as well as fashion and apparel contribute almost 90% of sales for these ecommerce firms. They stand to benefit from the opening of the sector as brickand-mortar retail continues to be shut for sale of non-essential products.
Ecommerce marketplace Snapdeal will also begin full operations on April 20, a person in the know told ET. “At this critical juncture, the ecommerce industry can ensure that citizens stay indoors, and all their needs are met through home deliveries with immense precautions. We look forward to serving the nation in protecting both lives and livelihoods,” said a Snapdeal spokesperson.
Paytm Mall, too, announced that it will resume operations next week.
SMALLER PLAYERS’ CONCERNS
Sellers on ecommerce platforms, however, said they wanted more clarity from the MHA on its guidelines in order to avoid run-ins with local authorities. They said that while large players might be able to convince authorities to allow them to run their warehouses, smaller ones might struggle without clear guidelines.
“The issue of sale of non-essentials through ecommerce needs to be clarified and all grey areas need to be removed, so that there are no problems to sellers at local level,” a representative of the All India Online Vendors Association, which counts 4,000 sellers as its members, said.
Even services marketplace Urban Company said it would open its services in more cities starting April 20, in addition to Gurgaon, Chennai and Kolkata where it has already begun its services with approvals from state authorities. “Safety continues to be our top priority… we will take it slow,” said Abhiraj Bhal, CEO, Urban Company, adding the company is equipping all its service partners with PPE, health insurance and income protection plans to make them feel safe.