We commend the commerce ministry's decision to hold the payment of local e-commerce platforms until confirmation of the delivery of their products. This, when it comes to pass, will mean that online buyers will no longer have to worry about cheating or any unusual delay in delivery of goods as it will be in the interest of the e-commerce sites to ensure safe and quick delivery to have their payment cleared—adding, as our report rightly points out, a layer of "consumer protection" to such transactions. Currently, the merchants' payment is cleared within moments of the customers making transactions through bank cards or the mobile financial services platform. The commerce ministry is reportedly going to send a letter to Bangladesh Bank to work out the logistics of the decision, including how the confirmation of receipt of items would come from the customers.
This is indeed good news and the first step to making online shopping safer in Bangladesh's largely chaotic and still-unregulated e-commerce scene. It comes following complaints of unusual delays in product delivery with some platforms building their business model around advance payments from customers, leaving them at the mercy of the former. The success of the new directive, however, will depend on how effectively the payment gateways can be controlled. It will require Bangladesh Bank, which will play the role of a gatekeeper, to build a functional monitoring and clearance system while making sure it doesn't add to the customers' sufferings by making delays on its part.
This is going to be a gargantuan task, however, given the number of online buyers which saw a rapid increase during the pandemic. According to a report citing data from the e-Commerce Association of Bangladesh (e-CAB), the sales of products through digital platforms went up 70 percent year-on-year in 2020. More than 160,000 deliveries are reportedly made in a single day in the country. Is the central bank equipped and properly staffed to clear payments for such a large number of deliveries each day? Should the directive apply equally to small transactions? What will happen to the platforms that fail to ensure safe delivery of goods? Evaly, for example, reportedly had delivery pending on goods worth Tk 213.9 crore as of March 14. What punitive measures will be taken in such cases? How to ensure the quality of products sought by consumers?
The e-commerce business landscape is still a developing one and there are, naturally, as many questions as there are answers. Its fast expansion means that many directives that now seem fitting may become obsolete in a few years, but the important thing is to have a digital commerce policy in place, which Bangladesh still doesn't. So while we appreciate the commerce ministry's decision on payments and recommend its quick implementation, we would feel more assured if the decision was part of a comprehensive policy with a well-laid legal framework for registration and regulation, rather than being a one-off initiative brought on by consumer complaints. This is what the policymakers must work on. An e-commerce policy is the need of the hour.