Online sellers are in a spot because of lack of clear guidelines from e-commerce companies such as Amazon and Flipkart on how to handle returned products in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
What if the returned products are infected? How and where does one store them? How soon can they be put back on sale? In the absence of clear cut directions from e-tailers, the sellers are resorting to hearsay methods to avoid the risk of infection. While some are abandoning the returned products for two days in their storerooms, some claim that they wait for 14 days before bringing the products back into the supply cycle.
Mumbai-based Jatin Badani who sells apparel on Amazon as well as Flipkart told Moneycontrol that he keeps the returned packages in a designated space inside his warehouse for four days before touching them.
While apparel manufacturers have an option of industrial washing of clothes before selling them again, according to Badani most of these places are currently shut down because of the lockdown. "Plus one needs to segregate clothes according to their colour and fabric before washing. That would also be a challenge right now," he said.
Badani, who has resumed work barely 10 days back, said he wasn't sure of how to handle those goods after four days, adding that there was no clear guideline from either Amazon or Flipkart.
A medium-scale seller, Badani receives 30-40 returned products a day.
Mayank Khurana who runs a business of wristwatches from Delhi NCR, said the moment the products come back, a dedicated team sanitises the outer packet using disinfectants and then keeps it in the warehouse for two days before selling them again.
"We take into account the fact that the product comes back to us 3-4 days after it was opened by the customer. Besides, we sanitise our office on a daily basis," he said, adding that it wasn't possible for them to use disinfectants on the watches directly.
According to a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health in the US, the novel coronavirus can lie on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces for up to three days. Additionally, it also said coronavirus could last on copper for around four fours and cardboard surfaces for about 24 hours.
"The risk (of infection) is there for some of these products. While unopened boxes can be sanitised using disinfectants, products, especially apparel, once returned from the customers, will need disinfection and washing before they are brought back into the supply chain again. The interesting thing is to understand how many of these sellers have the capacity to do so," said Sreedhar Prasad, independent e-commerce analyst.
"E-commerce companies should come up with detailed tutorials on how to sanitise these products. There needs to be strong learning and guidance. You don't know what the customer did to that pair of jeans you shipped and got returned, and how many people have touched that garment. It is better to be safe than sorry. It is not just dangerous for the customers who will receive the product post the next sale, but also for the logistics team shipping it back into the cycle again as well as the seller," he added.
Many sellers are also demanding a reduced window for the return of products. Currently, the e-tailers allow customers to return goods within 30 days of delivery.
In a letter written to the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade to state the condition of online sellers during the time of COVID, All India Online Vendors Association has also sought the government's intervention to ensure that e-commerce companies reduce their return window to seven days so that resources and money are not wasted on discretionary returns.
Experts believe that reduced returns will also decrease the instances of potential infection.
"It is time to relook at the current 10 to 30 days return policy across e-commerce platforms. Especially during the current times, a 7-day return policy should be more than sufficient. Currently, more than 30 percent of all fashion products sold in India is returned. Of that, 30 percent is due to defect or size variations; the rest customer may just return it. The reduced window is likely to reduce such instances also," he said.
While Amazon declined to comment, Flipkart did not respond to Moneycontrol’s queries.