With release of e-commerce guidelines, level playing field for e-shoppers

The ministry of consumer affairs has drafted comprehensive guidelines

Online shopping Representational image via Commons

Feeling short-changed by a host of e-commerce websites which are driving online sales, the consumers now have hope. The ministry of consumer affairs have drafted comprehensive guidelines to govern the consumer engagement of e-commerce companies, and any grievance can be taken to the consumer protection commissions.  

Under the new rules, every e-commerce entity will have to appoint a grievance redressal officer, and acknowledge all the grievances within 48 hours, and redress the complaints within one month. The entities will have to provide the location and contact details of even the sellers. 

“No e-commerce entity shall impose cancellation charges on consumers cancelling after confirming purchase unless similar charges are also borne by the e-commerce entity if they cancel the purchase order unilaterally for any reason,” said the new rules released this week.

The feature comes as a huge relief to the shoppers who sometimes have to face cancellation charges without an equal penalty for the seller.

As most of the e-commerce websites tend to revise prices of the commodities based on the demand, the new rules warn against manipulating the price of the goods or services offered on its platform “in such a manner as to gain unreasonable profit by imposing on consumers any unjustified price having regard to the prevailing market conditions...” 

While the new Consumer Protection (e-commerce) Rules, 2020, have been released by the ministry, it may take some time before it comes into force. These rules are part of the Consumer Protection Act 2019, which replaced the 1986 law. The other key provisions of the new Consumer Protection Act 2019 will come into force from July 20. The new act, which has replaced the three-decade-old one, will have provisions for setting up of mediation cells, increasing the pecuniary jurisdiction of the district, state, and national consumer commissions. 

The e-commerce market is growing rapidly in the country, even though it was only 3.5 per cent of the total retail sale in the country. According to a Bain and Company report, country's e-commerce market will reach $100-120 billion in gross merchandise value (GMV) with 300-350 million users in next five years, up from current 100-110 million shoppers. The current GMV was around $30 billion. The government is also preparing a separate e-commerce policy which will govern the operations of such entities with rules on data protection, and local goods usage. The pandemic has also forced the people to rely on the e-commerce websites to do most of their shopping, and the business was rising from the Tier-II and smaller cities.

The e-commerce guidelines were keenly awaited as they provided reprieve to the consumers who gets the protection of the consumer commission, and brings transparency in their operations. Under the new Consumer Protection (E-Commerce) Rules, 2020, each e-commerce entity will have to appoint a nodal officer to ensure the provisions of consumer law, provide full details of its operations, contact details, address, landline and mobile numbers of customer care, and even put in place grievance redressal mechanisms wherein every complaint is resolved within one month.

To present a level playing field for the consumers, every e-commerce entity shall only record the consent of a consumer afresh and not automatically, including in the form of pre-ticked checkboxes. 

In another interesting intervention, the rules say that no seller shall falsely represent itself as a consumer and post reviews about goods or services or misrepresent the quality or the features of goods or services. This has been done so that biased reviews do not influence the consumer choices.

The rules bars the seller from refusing to take back the goods if they were defective, deficient or spurious. The rules also mandate accurate information related to return, refund, exchange, warranty and guarantee, delivery and shipment, cost of return shipping, mode of payments, grievance redressal mechanism, and also about the total price in single figure along with the breakup for all charges.