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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

New e-commerce rulebook places online shoppers at the centre

  • E-commerce rules now a part of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, for all goods sold through a digital platform make online retailers more accountable and transparent

BENGALURU/NEW DELHI : When Arun Pushker, 42, a professional photographer in Lucknow, received a mobile handset he had ordered online at a discount of 500, he realized it was a refurbished product. The fact it was refurbished had not been stated in a clear, readable manner in the description and he had missed the fine print.

“I contacted the seller and said I wanted my money back, but they kept transferring my calls to different people and made me wait for extended periods of time," said Pushker. After trying for months, he finally gave up and decided to keep the phone, left with no choice.

Pushker reflects what millions of online shoppers in India often face, and are left with a damaged product or without a proper grievance redressal process.

E-commerce rules now a part of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, for all goods sold through a digital platform make online retailers more accountable and transparent, but more importantly, puts millions of online shoppers at the centre of the new rulebook.

It helps that the new Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) has also been given sweeping powers to book those violating consumer rights.

The law comes at a time when consumer preference is rapidly moving online and India is expected to witness a huge surge in online shopping in a post-covid world.

Arun Saxena, President, International Consumer Rights Protection Council (ICRPC) said the new rules enable consumers to file complaints in their own district instead of previous binding of filing complaints in the district where the e-commerce portal has an office.

“…It would put a great control on shopping websites which used to get away easily after selling bad products. If a seller had sold any defective goods from Kolkata to a person in Mumbai, the buyer had to file a case in the seller's location. Now the buyer can file a case in his city of residence making the seller from Kolkata attend hearings in Mumbai," Saxena said. Many e-commerce sites earlier do not disclose details on return policy, grievance redressal mechanism and product’s country of origin. Making disclosure of these mandatory would help the consumer make an informed decision.

Bhavani Sarkar, 51, a teacher in Kolkata, recently ordered a sofa set at a good price from a reputed e-commerce portal. It promised a 15-20 day delivery and she paid the entire amount online. The 20-day period passed and she received neither the sofa nor any intimation from the seller. When she checked the seller's details on the website, they had disappeared.

"I was shocked. I realised it was probably a fake seller, but I had trusted the platform to weed out such problems. They clearly had not done their due diligence," she said.

Sarkar contacted the portal, as the third-party seller's contact information on it was not complete. After several calls, the customer care executives told her a 15-day investigation would be launched, and if her claim was found to be credible, her money would be refunded. Sarkar finally recovered the amount, but she had to jump through hoops to resolve the issue.

"…The newly framed e-commerce rules shift the regulatory winds and prescribe a host of compliances for ring-fencing the e-commerce activities and preventing unfair trade practices. This fits the Government’s recent pattern to seek even greater control over dotcoms venturing into Indian consumer segment," said Rishi Anand, partner at law firm DSK Legal.

The need for a strong consumer redressal mechanism is crucial to build trust factor among customers. While online platforms have taken initiatives to address issues like counterfeit products, errant sellers, unsatisfactory purchases and continue to do so, the Act will help build further confidence and rigor in addressing customer grievances.

Harsha Razdan, partner and head, consumer markets and Internet business, KPMG in India said the new rules notified have been envisaged keeping consumers and their rights at the centre and to aid informed decision-making via ethical and transparent communication.

A big challenge posing online shoppers is how to identity counterfeits and many don’t have access to information on sellers listed on marketplaces.

“...Now, people can go to e-commerce websites, draw out details of seller and redress queries, file complaints or take any legal recourse," said Sachin Taparia, chairman and founder, LocalCircles, a community social media platform.

These rules essentially enable consumers who are stuck with a fake or damaged product as they now provide a better consumer redressal mechanism; it will help address 30-40% of consumer queries, Taparia added.

C. S. Sudheer, founder and CEO at IndianMoney .com and IamCheated.com, that helps e-commerce customers recover their money if they are cheated, said unless the law enforcement agencies execute the Act in its entirety, it won't make any difference.

“…Large e-commerce companies have practiced these and are part of their user agreement, which 99.9% customers won't read before purchasing. If that is being made as a part of the product listing, then it would be effective. Ultimately, this depends on the law enforcement agencies and awareness among the public," Sudheer said.

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