UPDATE (at 8PM, March 25): After initial moments of confusion leading to the shutting down of warehouses by various police jurisdictions and district administrations, coordination between the central government and state governments have been cleared, and most online shopping and delivery services are now back online. This includes Amazon, Flipkart, Grofers, BigBasket, Dunzo and all other proponents of e-commerce and delivery services. However, it is important to note that for the time being, the delivery of only groceries and essential services will remain active, as companies attempt to minimise the number of individuals that are required to be on the ground and in warehouses.
If you are thinking of doing some online shopping or waiting for a courier package for an order you placed a few days ago, we would urge you to not hold your breath. As the India lockdown kicks in today because of the Coronavirus pandemic, online stores are still not sure about how to procure supplies, how to deliver them to your home and what the specific guidelines for those processes are. As of now, Flipkart and Grofers, for instance, are unavailable for business. They aren’t the only ones. While Amazon is still offering what it claims are essential items, chances are you won’t get them either.
There are multiple reasons why this is happening with the online shopping stores. First, India is in a first of its kind lockdown which means that more than 1.3 billion people have to stay indoors for the next 21 days, as announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi late yesterday. Secondly, there is no clarity on exactly what comprises “essential services” that the government insists are exempt—expect some clarity in the coming days. Third, online and offline stores aren’t exactly sure how the supplies for essentials would come in. And last but not least, the delivery executives for companies delivering these essential services will need to have clarity on whether their movement is allowed or not. And one of the biggest reasons for this is people have, arguably, done panic buying in the past few hours and days, which has put shopping websites and their delivery partners under tremendous weight to deliver the order while supplies may be restricted.
Let us look at some specific moves by shopping websites this morning, the day 1 of the India lockdown to flatten the curve and curb the spread of the Coronavirus in the country.
Flipkart is completely closed for business. They say services have been temporarily suspended while promising to be back and urging everyone to stay home and stay safe. The company makes no promises on the timeline though, at this time.
Flipkart’s move came after rival Amazon said that it was halting the sales of all non-essential items on its platform so that the present infrastructure can be used for processing orders which include essential items. “To serve our customers’ most urgent needs while also ensuring safety of our employees, we are temporarily prioritizing our available fulfilment and logistics capacity to serve products that are currently critical for our customers such as Household Staples, Packaged Food, Health Care, Hygiene, Personal safety and other high priority products. This also means that we have to temporarily stop taking orders and disable shipments for lower-priority products,” Amazon says in an official statement. Basically, you cannot splurge on a new smartphone or a TV or some such non-essential item at this time—Amazon simply will not be able to fulfill it as the country is in lockdown mode.
However, yours truly did end up having two separate orders of essential items (vegetables and groceries) placed on Monday, March 23, cancelled this morning—around the expected time of delivery. These would usually classify as essential items in most definitions, but we still don’t have clarity on why the order was cancelled—whether the items were out of stock, whether the delivery partner was unable to fulfill the order or Amazon simply didn’t want to take any chances by having its delivery team outdoors at this time. All of which are understandable reasons.
Closed for business is the situation at Grofers and Big Basket as well. Grofers simply says we will be back with the ‘Notify Me’ option when services resume in your area. BigBasket is also not taking new orders, because they have a backlog of orders which remains to be cleared. “We are currently experiencing unprecedented demand. In light of this, we are restricting access to our website to existing customers only,” says BigBasket. Though they do urge customers who are currently not allowed access to the BigBasket shopping platform to try in a few hours to see if there are shopping slots available. Food delivery website Licious also says “due to unforeseen events on ground, we can’t take orders for now. We’ll keep you posted.”
There is also a possible policing issue that may be at play here, owing to the initial lack of clarity on what classifies as essential service and what doesn’t. At least that was the case earlier this week. Online delivery service MilkBasket has sent a communication to its customers, particularly in Gurgaon, Noida and Hyderabad that they would be unable to deliver milk and other supplies to their homes for the next few days. They say that MilkBasket employees were harassed by authorities for “being on the road” on Monday, March 23. They also say that a lot of gated communities and apartment complexes simply did not allow the MilkBasket delivery team access to the residents’ homes—as a result, the company claims they had to dump as much as 15,000 liters of milk and 10,000kg of fruits and vegetables. "Milkbasket are determined to support families with their daily milk, fruits, vegetables and food requirements. However, our staff, vendors and vehicles are being pushed back from the roads by local police, disrupting our operations," says Anant Goel, CEO, MilkBasket on Twitter, before adding, "We are being told to shut down our distribution centers. We humbly urge authorities to look into the matter and support us in ensuring smooth service."
Authorities need to step in at some point to smoothen things out. BigBasket had also posted its worries on Twitter, saying, "We have been trying our best to serve the customers based on the understanding that we come under essential services. However, in light of recent development with multiple statements coming in, we are awaiting clarifications from the authorities basis which we will be able to determine how soon can we get back to serving you. We are grateful for your patience." And they aren't the only ones. "We know how important it is for you to get your essential groceries delivered on time. We are currently facing operational challenges due to a lack of clarity in our listing as an essential service provider," says Grofers, in a post on social media.
Despite the tough times and low supplies, I have to appreciate the efforts put in by a shopping platform called Frugivore—you can find these folks at frugivore.in) who delivered our order of vegetables late yesterday evening, Tuesday March 24, even as panic spread about the upcoming lockdown. A couple of items were available in lesser quantity, for which they issued a refund immediately. Frugivore sells vegetables, fruits, dairy products, non-alcoholic drinks, and essentials and deliver in the Delhi NCR regions.
At this time, shopping websites are not only trying to clear the backlog of existing orders, some of which may have been done by people who were simply panic buying, but also attempting to understand the regulations of who is exempt from the lockdown to deliver essential services to customers. In the meantime, our advice to you is—hold on to whatever supplies of veggies and other essentials you may have and let things settle down. The Government has assured citizens that basics such as vegetables, fruits and medicines will continue to be available during the lockdown. We will simply have to take their word for it, and not stress the system even more. Someone who really needs vegetables right now may not get it because some of us are stocking up a bit too much.