Is Indian e-commerce ‘stone’ hearted?

Yesterday, there was much mirth around a stone delivered to a customer of Letsbuy, when in fact he was expecting a mobile phone. The photo posted by the customer was indeed funny and thanks to some push by influential online Twitter participants like Vishal Gondal and Mahesh Murthy, the news spread far and wide.

There were some interesting questions raised too and I was an unwitting participant to a mighty vigorous argument involving two other ladies, on Twitter.

This is the time I need to add the disclosure: I work at Flipkart and Flipkart acquired Letsbuy some time back, though the operations have not yet been integrated and both entities continue to run as 2 different companies, at least for the time being.

So, why this post? It is to simply put a set of perspectives to counter the argument about how e-commerce is not trustworthy (anymore) and how e-commerce stores need to do ‘quality check’ before shipping anything to customers, using just this stone-delivery example.

Scenario 1: You go to a store (physical store, like say, Planet M) and ask the sales guy to show you a particular phone model. If he has a working display piece, he could show that to you. If you like what you see, you place the order for the phone and buy it. He gets you a new, sealed piece and opens the warranty seal in front of your eyes. If, by chance, you (and him) find a stone inside the pack, who would you blame? Technically, you as a buyer don’t need to blame anyone since the stone happened in front of your and the seller’s eyes. You seek a replacement and he’ll give you a new pack. It’s a funny incident, but you don’t lose anything.

Scenario 2: You do your research and order a mobile phone online. You get the delivery a day or two later and you open it to find a stone inside. In this case, you, the customer, opened the warranty seal. The seller is not in front of you when you opened the pack. You call the seller (e-commerce store) and even though the store need not believe you immediately (they could use basic checks – like your past orders from the same store, if possible; if there’s none, they have very little reason to believe you), they are largely forced to trust the customer on his/her word and send another box of the same phone. I believe Letsbuy did that.

If you notice both these scenarios, it is not very different. The delay between you getting a stone and the seller replacing it with an actual phone is the only major difference.

Some of the argument put forward by two spirited ladies yesterday on Twitter made for interesting thought, but, in my opinion, defied logic.

1. E-commerce stores should do a basic quality check before shipping any product.
Most e-commerce stores worth their name do these checks for most product categories and it is an integral part of the e-commerce process, but what can anyone do in case the product is a manufacturer-packed/sealed item like a mobile phone? The warranty seal is meant to be opened by the buyer, or the seller, in front of the buyer. Can e-commerce stores open the seal, in the name of quality check, and then ship the product to customers? That doesn’t make much sense, since a customer can claim anything between, ‘You put in a 2nd hand/used phone’ to ‘I got the wrong phone’ and use the ‘warranty seal was tampered with’ logic to blame the store. So yes, quality checks are indeed done for all products where the complete packing is in the hands of the e-commerce store (things like books, CDs etc.), but it becomes impossible in a few categories like mobile phones or laptops.

Plug: Having seen the warehouse and packing divisions of Flipkart, I can add that we even check books for torn pages, wrong cuts etc. before shipping. Still, a few wrong ones could escape these rigors and in those cases all we can do is respect the customer, trust his/her word and replace the product, and get the faulty version back.

2. The stone-incident can be blamed on the e-commerce store.
I argued that it would ideally be the manufacturer’s responsibility (let’s not call it blame, shall we?) to do this quality check simply because it comes pre-sealed. And e-commerce stores, much like any offline stores, need to trust the manufacturer when taking delivery of mobile phone stocks. I’m not entirely sure if the retailer (online or offline) can be blamed for this; they can be, if it were other product categories like apparels, for instance. Delicate items (like perfumes), if they arrive in a broken bottle, should most definitely be blamed on the retailer and a replacement sought at the earliest.

3. The delivery network.
This is the missing element and was not discussed yesterday on Twitter. If the e-commerce store uses a third party courier for delivery, there are chances that someone could have replaced the phone with a stone at the courier center level. In such cases, the buyer would be equally responsible to ensure that he’s getting a pack that doesn’t seem to be visibly tampered with. This is not new, after all – we all check this before buying it even in an offline store, with a, ‘Bhaisaab, naya piece dena!’. But even in this case, the e-commerce store, like a retailer, needs to trust the customer and absorb the cost, and replace the product to the customer, preferably through another courier :)

Any suggestion on how better e-commerce stores can manage this ‘stone’ type issues? Am I missing any point in my logic? Or, is it completely justifiable that customers just go and blame retail brands alone for such instances? My point is simple – the stone photo makes for a fun watch for its sheer bizarre-ness quotient, but where the customer has a really valid reason to complain is when his/her order is not replaced by the store after they escalate such instances – just like in the offline model, when the shop guy refuses to replace the item. Though, there’s really no cap on why or when a customer should or could complain, particularly in the age of social media.

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  • Abhinav Alok

    I knew tablets were all the rage, but this is ridiculous! :-P Puns apart, even with the best systems and checks in place, slip-ups can, do and will happen. To quote an example, I once  initiated a purchase of a book from Flipkart (no plug intended, as I have no relationship other than being a highly satisfied customer !) on the basis of the product description given, but actually received a review of the book rather than the novel intended. The honest mistake in the description of the product was accepted, a reverse pick up arranged and credit provided smoothly and painlessly. Not sure if the e-tailer could have done anything more. Taking to the social media as the first option IMHO should not be default response, unless the intent is publicity rather than resolution…

    • http://itwofs.com/beastoftraal/ Karthik Srinivasan

      Honestly, even I would have shared this ‘stone’ example, if it had happened to me – just worth so much, in humor value alone and is highly apt for social media sharing; for publicity or not.

  • Abhishek Mathur

    Customers  hell bent on ‘rock’ bottom prices deserve a few stones now and then. (Personal Opinion)

  • http://www.facebook.com/ronny.goel Rohan Goel

    As a consumer, if my grievance gets handled in a professional and emphathatic manner, I am inclined to understand. ( Indian consumers are the most understanding/tolerating if we are compared to consumers in the developed economies )

    I guess we are used to personal help/assistance and hence dont like IVRs also

    Positive experiences get highlighted a lot lesser than negative ones.However, in social media, both have the opportunity to reach the right people quicker.

  • http://fulfillmentcenters.com/ Stan

    The problem is that workers in ecommerce warehouses are so underpaid that they often times will pull stunts like this to either get attention for their troubles or to deliberately mess with the consumers. If you want this to be better, prices will have to be raised. But then, consumer would be complaining. There’s just no happy solution.