I am among those early users of online shopping. My first online merchandise purchase was made way back in 2002 at baazi.com which later went onto become eBay.in. During this intervening eleven years, I had shopped with various portals across the globe. With a smart phone in every other hand, ever improving internet connectivity, coupled with vigorous advertising push, the online shopping phenomenon had taken India by storm between end of 2013 and 2014.
I had procured a wide range of products online. From microwave (2002), Digital camera (2003), handycam (2004), Books, Watches, camera accessories, mobiles, kitchen accessories, bags, voltage stabilizers, etc. The list goes on. Internationally I had used services of amazon.com, alibris.com, aliexpress.com, etc. ordering items from US, China and Hongkong. Fortunately all of them got delivered without any fuss at Delhi. On domestic front, I had availed the services of bazee.com, ebay.in, tradus.in, flipkart, snapdeal, amazon, infibeam, firstandsecond, myntra, yepme, jobong, printavenue, zoomin, and few other standalone single vendor sites which I do not recall now. Thus I had availed services across a wide gamut of e-commerce platform, from the one selling a single specialised product to those selling almost everything. Needless to say that I had come across an equally wide range of experiences to share. This article is the first of two articles I had penned to share my experiences.
I was never worried about buying something online, until recently. An incident that had changed my opinion about online shopping. I would be wrong if I say there were no issues during the 2003-2010 period when I had mostly traded through bazee and eBay. In fact, online shopping was looked upon suspiciously by most because of cheap imitations sold online during those days. However, both bazee and, later eBay, had a very strict customer protection policy. At some point, a seller in ebay would automatically get banned for 3 negative customer feedback. The system had changed somehow, yet you see those pleading lines from seller requesting you to contact them directly before leaving a negative feedback. As a customer I was always allowed protection and all issues were resolved with prompt refund. I still vouch for eBay’s time bound issue resolution policy. On two occasions in last 6 months eBay had offered me refund with 150% of price I had paid within two days of lodging complaint– once for defective product and once for part of the order missing. In these ten years, I also had come across fraud site like booksorbit.com. They have a perfectly working website even today with secured payment facility. However once you place an order, they neither delivers, not respond to your mails and more importantly not reachable over the phone mentioned in their website. Our laws are so lax that the site is still online and God knows how many have fallen victims. I was rescued by my credit card company from the booksorbit scam.
December 2013 saw something beyond the regular 10-20% discount online, offered often on selected items only. For 3 days, the most stupendous online sale ever happened in India, promoted by all major credit cards. The discount was on final cart value, not on specific items. I remember buying even wildcraft items on this sale at 20-30% discount. None of the sales that followed offered even 10% discount of wildcraft goods. Before this sale, Jobong used to deliver in less than 24hrs in Delhi. I kept receiving apologies for delivery delay for items purchased during the sale and it took 7-10 days for delivery of all items. Success of this event led to several such hyped sales like GOSF, Black Friday sales, etc. in the last 12 months. It also include the botched sale by Flipkart leading to issuing an official apology. But nothing had matched that sale of Dec 2013.
If awareness creation was the objective, then these hyped sales had achieved it. Diaspora now believes that things are available cheaper online. Everyone now seems to be doing online shopping. The delivery boys lugging a huge bag on back riding zipzap through city traffic are ubiquitous these days. Scammers saw this as opportunity to make some quick bucks. They setup shops on sites that do not have any customer protection policy. You can be held responsible for not dispatching an item, but it will be tough on customer to prove if a similar imitation is sent, or even a blank box.
Despite occasional smaller issues, my brush with online purchases had generally good. My first real issue came with snapdeal in 2014. I had ordered a camera lens – Tamron 90mm macro VC. The item has a MRP of 39K and was available at snapdeal for about 32K, which is close to its street price. For me the reason to buy online was payment by credit card with emi option. The item was delivered 7 days after I had ordered. To my horror the item sent was ‘similar’ but not the exact item I had ordered. The product delivered was Tamron 90mm macro non VC. Tamron has two different version of the leans – non VC and VC where VC stands for Vibration Correction, similar to IS – Image Stabilisation. These lenses have distinct product code and MRP of also differs. The non VC version is priced about 10K lower at 29K. SO I was delivered a product which costs about 24K in market as against my payment of 32K. This is too big a ‘mistake’ someone dealing with photo goods to make. It was a well-planned fraud. Fortunately the bill. Which invariably was for the VC lens, also had serial no of product mentioned for warranty. The product label on cartoon where this serial no is printed clearly indicated the item code and item description as non VC version. Even the MRP sticker substantiated the ‘mistake’. Without bothering to break the seal, I called up snapdeal helpline. The lady on other side keep reiterating that I should not worry as the purchase is covered under ‘protection’ and promptly sent me a mail asking for photographs of items, bills, etc. Little did they realise that it was a high value item of 30K plus value at that time. Without wasting time I sent back images within couple of hours of receiving the mail. But that was it. I had received a system generated acknowledgement. I had gone through such experience once for a smaller value product. So I had kept proof of everything – my communication, their mail, system generated acknowledgment, snapdeal policy of dispute resolution, etc. There had been no response back from sanpdeal even after couple of days. I kept calling them at helpline and I kept getting information like your issue is being addressed, we have written to the seller who is to respond back, etc. Finally I lost my patience on 7th day and called my credit card company to lodge a complaint of fraud. They asked for evidences to be submitted with dispute lodging form. As I had everything ready with me, I did it promptly. But before submitting I wrote to snapdeal once again informing them about the action I am initiating with my bank and gave them 2 more days’ time to respond. Still snapdeal did not reply. Thus on the 10th day, I lodged a formal dispute with bank submitting all proof of communication. Bank was satisfied with my proof and reversed the charges on my card. I could breathe easy now. I got my money back.
2 days after that snapdeal awoke from its slumber. It was the 12th day since deliver and my reporting of incident. Some idiot from their Okhla office called me up and said that they had asked the seller about the dispute and he had confirmed that he sent the correct item. I lost my cool and gave him a piece of my mind. It was quite evident that they did not bother to look at the evidence submitted by in form of bill and images of packet, its item code, etc. Customer bought an orange, the seller sends him a lemon; customer lodges complaint with evidence of lemon being delivered, they ask the seller again; he says he had sent an orange, and you as customer care relay it back to the customer! Then I told him that I had already got my money back. This is your item lying with me which you can get picked at your leisure. 3 days after that it was picked up as a 'reverse pick up'. The pickup slip said ‘defective item'. My ordeal had come to an end.
Few days after this incident I came across another photographer friend from Mumbai who had exactly the same issue, and with the same product. I asked him if he bought on snapdeal? He said yes. So we both were victims of a well-planned con, on the same portal and apparently by the same seller. Unfortunately, snapdeal never bothered to apologise to us, forget about taking some action against the seller. Little do they understand that these sellers are ruining their reputation.
This problem is unique to snapdeal. Few weeks later, one of my friends shared a youtube video in facebook. He had ordered a pendirve from Flipkart. When he opened the box, there was nothing inside. When he called up, Flipkart did not agree to his version. But as he wanted the item and it being a low value product, he ordered again. Ditto same time. Empty inside. Flipkart disagreed again. So he setup a trap. He ordered it a third time. This time on COD. When the delivery boy came, he paid the money as you have to do for COD orders, and recorded a video of opening the box in front of the delivery boy. Your guess is right. It was empty again. And this time he had proof. I had no follow-up of how Flipkart finally settled it. Another image I saw on a social networking site is someone receiving a bar of soap instead of a mobile. But that was a still image, hence veracity cannot be established.
But the bottom line is that fraud is happening across several platform which allow independent sellers to set up online shops. This has seriously dented customer confidence. I have stayed away from snapdeal since the incident. There had been sporadic incidences of local traders in second tier cities holding protests over proliferation of online commerce. Such protest with vested interest is not going to rollback e-commerce. Whether you like it or not, e-commerce is going to stay here for the convenience, choice and savings it offers. It is like the supermarkets that has become part of our life because they sells almost everything below MRP. What is going to hold back e-commerce’s further progress is the failure to stem the rot within. Once bitten twice shy. And with social network fuelling, a duped customer will spread his message to thousand others. I do not agree with the point of view of banishing online commerce so that customer’s continue to buy items on bloated MRP at a local shop, that is part of a longer than required supply chain, that add to the cost to the customer. However, the idea of a legislation is welcomed. Besides regulating the business, this should seek also protect customers from these frauds. Not only that customer gets back his money instantly, but also the portal should get penalised. In turn they will pass on the penalty to the seller which will eventually discourage them. Right now, the fraud sellers are having a free run without any fear of crackdown. Most sites do not require a seller to register with a PAN or TAN no, which will establish their identities with a verifiable address. Are they carrying out checks on sellers? Did they forget the incidence where eBay India chief landed in jail for someone selling porn though his portal?
If any of these e-commerce portal comes up with such a system where they can claim that all their sellers are verified, and they offer a time bound dispute resolution process, and also provide feedback to the buyer in case of a proven fraud, then everyone will be happy to pay a premium for their services. As such a utopic situation is unlikely and a legislation is a distant shoot, a customer should trade cautiously as you do not know when you will slip and found yourself staring at an abyss. You will cry for help, expecting succour from the portal to pull you out of the mess, but it may never come. Till that time, safe online shopping in India is likely to remain limited to only cloths and shoes, and may be books. Till that time, think twice before ordering anything above couple of thousands rupees.