Online deliveries may still take time as e-commerce companies grapple with backlog, thin delivery staff

Even as state and central authorities have come together to resolve issues of supply and delivery of essential services including through e-commerce platforms, customers may still find it tough to place orders on these online portals as e-commerce companies are facing a huge backlog of orders, and are working with minimal staff on the ground.

After facing massive disruption to services over the last several days as several states went into lockdown, several e-commerce companies including Flipkart and BigBasket had suspended services temporarily. E-commerce players faced issues with the local authorities and the police forcing their warehouses and distribution centres to be shut, while delivery staff were allegedly roughed up in several areas.

On Wednesday, on Day 1 of the 21-day of the nationwide lockdown announced by the Prime Minister, state and central authorities took cognizance of the issue and moved fast to work with e-commerce players and other providers of essential goods and services.

Central agencies such as DPIIT and Niti Aayog assured coordination with states and also set up control rooms to monitor the movement of essential supplies across states, while police officials in cities such as Bengaluru and Gurguram said they will provide curfew passes to e-commerce staff, along with those for other essential services.

Flipkart, which had informed customers early Wednesday that services were temporarily suspended, resume deliveries of groceries and essentials later in the evening. BigBasket, Grofers, MilkBasket, 1MG also said they were resuming services across several cities starting Thursday.

However, industry members say e-commerce companies still face many operational challenges as much of the delivery staff have not shown up since Wednesday due to fear of authorities. The attendance of delivery personnel at several large e-commerce companies was at a mere 5-6 percent of normal operations, thus hampering deliveries. Several third party courier and logistics partners have shut operations, further adding to the problem.

E-commerce companies are also sitting on a very high pile of unfulfilled orders, with backlogs on several of these platforms running into lakhs of orders.

Platforms such as BigBasket will not be taking new orders for the next one or two days due to the backlog, founder Hari Menon said.

“The challenge will be getting people back into work, because of the social pressure. ‘Employees themselves are scared as local panchayat is not letting people move out before the coronavirus scare,” said Anant Goel, CEO of MilkBasket, which had also suspended operations on Wednesday and was forced to dump 15,000 litres of milk and 30,000 kg of vegetables as they could not be delivered to customers.

Grofers said it was starting to take new orders in several cities but was also facing challenges.

“The next challenge is of bringing essential staff back to work and restocking essential supplies. It will take 3-4 days for things to stabilise,” Grofers co-founder Albinder Dhindsa said.

E-pharma company 1MG is also resuming services after temporarily suspending them on Wednesday.

“Since we are seeing high demand, twice the normal load, there is a fair degree of backlog on the system right now,” Prashant Tandon, CEO, 1MG said.

“While we should be able to get intra-city delivery back on track, inter-city is going to be a huge challenge as our courier-partners have shut down,” he added.

Another challenge for the companies over the next few days would be on procuring and distributing of curfew passes across different cities.

Several police forces are now giving out physical curfew passes for delivery staff to carry out their services, but the sheer scale of the process for e-commerce companies will mean it will take a few days to get them for their staff.

Some industry members are now recommending to authorities the proposal fo using digital QR-based passes that can be done through an Aadhaar verification or such centralised systems to speed up the process.

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