Despite Being an 'Essential Service', E-Commerce Deliveries Come to a Grinding Halt

Industry executives say overzealous action by local authorities is preventing the inter-state movement of essential goods.

New Delhi: Some of India’s biggest e-commerce players are struggling to deliver essential commodities in cities across the country due to the lockdowns put in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Industry executives say that despite being classified as an essential service by the Centre, overzealous police action on the ground has stopped inter-state movement, which in turn affects the delivery of important goods.

Indian customers also received apologetic messages from a number of companies including Grofers, BigBasket and Milkbasket over the last two days, all of which highlight the fact that they are not able to properly function due to excessive action by state police.

Bigger players like Amazon have also indirectly complained about the problems in ensuring quick delivery, with Amazon India boss Amit Agarwal even tweeting a plea for local authorities to allow the company to work effectively.

On Wednesday morning, domestic e-commerce giant Flipkart also said it is temporarily suspending operations in view of the 21-day nationwide lockdown. It is unclear why it would do so, especially considering the home ministry’s guidelines specifically allow for e-commerce delivery of essential goods.

“Hello fellow Indians, We are temporarily suspending operations. Your needs have always been our priority and our promise is that we will be back to serve you, as soon as possible,” say a message on the website.

The logo of India’s e-commerce firm Flipkart is seen in this illustration picture taken January 29, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui/Illustration/File photo

Employees who work for food-delivery platforms like Swiggy and Zomato also allege that local law enforcement in states across the country are preventing them from carrying out their jobs. Several media organisations also published photographic evidence of the beatings that several delivery boys in Delhi and Mumbai faced for ostensibly violating curfew rules.


“There are a lot of ambiguities. The authorities keep coming up with circulars which are contradictory to the previous ones,” said an e-commerce industry executive. “It is more a miscommunication issue.”

E-commerce companies are facing challenges in delivering essential items such as rice, wheat, pulses, baby food, milk and dairy products, and fruits and vegetables. The other important items include hygiene products such as soaps, sanitary pads, sanitisers, and masks.

As most of the people are working from home, e-commerce industry insiders said that retailers are also finding it a challenge to deliver items like power banks, laptops, routers, headsets, and tables and chairs to their customers, despite a tremendous increase in demand.

Also read: With Three-Week Lockdown, Auto and Aviation Sectors Face Crippling Loss in Revenue

Heeding the challenges, the Karnataka government on Monday put out an order saying that e-commerce and home delivery come under essential services and shall be excluded from the restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the virus. Maharashtra, too, put out an order saying that e-commerce services providing essential goods, including pharmaceutical and medical equipment, should be excluded from the restrictions.

According to the sources, other than essentials, for which demand is huge, most e-commerce categories are witnessing at least a 60%  drop in sales.

Many consumers have reported on community platform LocalCircles that deliveries from e-commerce grocery apps like Grofers, BigBasket, Amazon and Flipkart are not reaching them. About 35% of surveyed consumers could not get most of the essential goods via e-commerce apps because of the lockdown, according to a survey by LocalCircles, which received more than 15,000 responses from consumers. Also, about 17% of surveyed consumers could not find most essentials in retail stores.

“The state machinery must sensitise the police leadership so that officials on the ground do not create bottlenecks in the supply of essential goods to wholesale and retail stores, and homes of people,” said LocalCircles.

“The last thing we as a country want in this COVID-19 outbreak is long queues outside stores or scuffles for who gets to buy that last sugar packet in the store,” stated LocalCircles, which is going to share its findings with the government.

Milkbasket, a Gurugram-based daily grocery delivery service, said the company’s staff, vendors and vehicles are not being allowed to ply on the road by local police, disrupting its operations.

“Yesterday, we had to cancel thousands of orders. We could only operate at 40% capacity in Gurugram. Even lower in Noida. We might have to cancel all the orders today, impacting over 150,000 families across four cities,” the company had stated on Monday. “We are being told to shut down our distribution centres.”

Also read: COVID-19: Journalists Bear the Brunt of Ambiguous Lockdown Rules

The company urged the authorities to look into the matter and support the firm in ensuring smooth service.

Online grocery firm Grofers said according to the directive of the Central government, the firm continued to provide essential goods to customers across the country on the day of ‘janata curfew’. However, because of some confusion over the exemption of the services, many of its delivery riders were stopped and arrested, leading to a delay in the delivery of almost 60,000 orders countrywide.

“This does not only affect the morale of the delivery staff who are working selflessly to support people, but also causes inconvenience to many customers,” said Albinder Dhindsa, co-founder and CEO of Grofers, which is backed by SoftBank.

In a few states, including Maharashtra, the company is facing forced shut down of warehouses. “Our teams are working relentlessly to support people and managing deliveries to avoid any kind of panic among consumers and we request authorities to take measures to ensure that the process of essential items delivery remains smooth,” said Dhindsa.

Saurabh Kumar, another co-founder of Grofers, said on Twitter that despite assurances that grocery is an essential service and Grofers should continue to operate, police and the local authorities keep shutting its warehouses. “All the proactive initiatives of (the) government and central authorities (are) going to waste because of overzealous enforcement agencies,” said Kumar.

E-commerce firms are requesting state governments to resolve various issues. This includes movement of goods for e-commerce by trucks plying state and inter-state. There are letters issued by these companies to truckers, which need to be accepted by the authorities.

These letters say that the products are for e-commerce service delivery ensuring families are getting what is essential for them to have at home “during isolation so they don’t have to leave their homes”, said a source.

These firms are also requesting for the opening of multi-products warehouses, distribution and sort centres. Also, the safe movement of personnel for e-commerce activities after showing the letter and government-issued identification documents. “We request for a strong coordinating mechanism between the central and state governments to ensure that these guidances are percolated down to the ground level,” said an e-commerce industry executive.

The companies are also asking to allow customer and IT support operations, and movement between home and office for operations and logistic services.

Also read: ‘Hard to Plan Survival’: Migrants, Contract Workers on Looming Uncertainty Amidst Lockdown

In response to a query, Walmart-owned Flipkart said while its teams are working with the Centre and state authorities to ensure that it continues to serve people, there are operational issues on the ground. “These impact our ability to seamlessly service the communities as they stay indoors. We are working with the central and state government as an industry to solve these challenges,” said a Flipkart spokesperson. “We are confident that together we not only can fight this challenge but also ensure that customers and communities have access to essentials in this battle.”

All types of milk, milk products and poultry items were out of stock on BigBasket. Everything was out of stock even on Licious, the branded online meat start-up, with no further information on when these items would be available next.

Other Bengaluru-based grocery delivery start-ups, such as Supr Daily and Daily Ninja, were also down with most items not available on their online stores. “We are fully-stocked but are currently experiencing a shortage of manpower to service the high demand,” said online supermarket store Nature’s Basket in a note on its app.

(With inputs from Business Standard and Reuters)