Hard to deliver

E-commerce can be the best bet for most people during lockdowns. But is that the case in Pakistan?

The emergence of online stores in Pakistan one after the other hints at the huge potential that exists for e-commerce in the country. These platforms allow potential customers to choose products of their choice from the respective websites and place orders online.

In Pakistan, e-commerce has enabled local manufacturers to sell their value-added products across the world. This was not possible earlier because potential buyers abroad had not been introduced to the finished products. However, certain issues have hampered the growth of e-commerce in the country. These include a lack of public trust in plastic money, delivery of substandard goods and delays in delivery.

The importance of e-commerce and online buying during the ongoing lockdown due to coronavirus that has left millions of people confined to their homes cannot be downplayed. Ideally, this should be the time when they are served by online stores. But this is not happening because of restrictions, both formal and informal.

Javed Iqbal, a Karachi resident, tells The News on Sunday that there is a total ban on home deliveries in the city. Even restaurants have been directed to shut down their kitchens. He says the online store he approaches for home delivery has expressed its inability to extend the service saying police and Rangers do not let their riders deliver. Courier companies, he says, are not being allowed to deliver groceries and pharmaceutical products and are told that only stores with physical presence can do that provided that they are issued a no objection certificate (NOCs) by the government.

In the Punjab, where a shut-down is in place, the provincial government has decided to exempt courier companies from the mobility restrictions under Section 144 in place for two weeks. Through a letter, dated March 24, the Home Department has allowed postal/courier services to operate with essential office staff and no public dealing at offices during the closure. The exemption had not been made in the first notification in this regard.

The importance of e-commerce and online buying during the ongoing lockdown that has left millions of people confined to their homes cannot be downplayed.

Despite this relaxation, online stores have limited the services to essential items. Daraz.com has mentioned on its website that it has cancelled its Pakistan Day offers and delivery of products other than health, cleaning products and household grocery items, and that delivery times will be extended.

The announcement on Daraz.com website adds: “We also have a wide selection of digital sahulat, including mobile top-ups, gaming vouchers and Netflix subscriptions which are delivered electronically within 24 hours to keep you occupied at home.”

Cheetay.pk says that food items it delivers are being handled by safe hands. It says that its delivery riders have been given sanitisers, and that customers are being sent information about body temperatures of the delivery staff. Furthermore, it has announced that deliveries will be contactless, products will be delivered after being disinfected, and that strict order exchange and currency handling protocols are in place.

Muhammad Arshad, a business executive, points out that online stores have limited their product range because people are worried and are spending only on essential items. As there is no clarity about the duration of the lockdown, he says, people are saving money and are not spending on clothes, cosmetics and electronics etc. It is also difficult for them to deliver orders in the routinely large numbers because of the mobility restrictions and closure of all but a few manufacturing facilities.

Also, where the mode of payment is COD, the delivery personnel are reluctant to handle cash over fears the currency notes might carry the virus. That is why online stores are encouraging customers to use digital payment options. The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) has directed banks to clean, disinfect, seal and quarantine all currency notes being collected from hospitals and clinics, blocking them from circulation.

In this situation, people have found novel ways to get essential items delivered to their homes. Mudassir, an online marketing professional, says he Whatsapps lists of items to a nearby store and the stocks are delivered to his house. The payment is made in cash or through online transfer.

To make home deliveries safe and efficient, the country’s software industry has developed SOPs some of which include: delivery riders should wear branded helmet, uniform, jacket and cap; they should place parcels at the customer’s doorstep, wipe the handle area with an alcohol swab and then step back and avoid exchange of any items apart from the package itself except when cash has to be collected; the courier company should maintain a daily log of temperature readings and other symptoms of each rider or the company should ask the driver to submit his temperature before logging in online; and delivery riders should intermittently disinfect delivery bags.

Badar Khushnood, head of e-commerce committee of the Pakistan Software Houses Association ([email protected]), tells TNS that these SOPs will be submitted to the Ministry of Commerce so that it can review and take measures to ensure implementation.

The author is a member of staff. He can be contacted at [email protected]

E-commerce facing issues during locdown in Pakistan