What’s behind India’s new-found animosity

towards Amazon?

  • The US retail giant holds an imposing share of the world’s fastest-growing e-commerce market, second only to Walmart-owned Flipkart

  • But allegations of anticompetitive practices have now sparked an investigation by the country’s antitrust regulator

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 9:00am, 27 January, 2020

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos speaks at an Amazon event in New Delhi on January 15. Photo: EPA

When Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of international retail giant Amazon visited India earlier this month, the company likely expected his three-day trip to be a resounding success.

It had arranged for him to meet Bollywood stars, attend photo opportunities and even announce US$1 billion of investment in the country.

But just hours before Bezos was supposed to land, an investigation was launched by the country’s antitrust regulator – the competition commission of India (CCI) – amid allegations Amazon and its Indian home-grown rival Flipkart were engaging in anticompetitive behaviour.

Upon arrival, the Amazon CEO was greeted by smaller traders who announced plans to protest against the company

 in more than 300 different cities for trying to kill competition from bricks-and-mortar retailers. To make matters worse, he was denied a meeting with a single top government official, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ministers reportedly snubbed him.

Traders staged a demonstration demanding the closure of online shopping platforms Amazon and Flipkart in New Delhi on January 15. Photo: AFP

Midway through the trip, India’s Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal alleged that Amazon was indulging in “predatory prices or some unfair trade practices” and that it “it is not as if they are doing a favour to India when they invest a billion dollars” if that money is used to take business away from Indian companies.

Bezos’ trip might have concluded, but the dust it kicked up is yet to settle: his company is under investigation and the Indian government appears increasingly hostile.
 

But why is New Delhi taking such a confrontational approach to the retail giant at a time when the country’s economy could use all the help it can get? The answer lies in a curious mix of opaque workings, improper business dealings and political resistance.

As the world’s fastest growing e-commerce market, India is vital for the likes of Amazon and Walmart, which acquired Flipkart in 2018. In a study released earlier this month, the CCI forecast that total e-commerce revenue in the country would reach US$120 billion this year, representing annual growth of 51 per cent.

Amazon’s Indian e-commerce rival Flipkart is owned by Walmart. Photo: Reuters

Some 4,757 e-commerce start-ups are vying for their piece of the action, the study showed, but of the more than 1 million online retail transactions that are carried out in India every day, the bulk are handled by either Amazon or Flipkart, which enjoy 31.2 per cent and 31.9 per cent market share, respectively, according to data compiled by financial services company Standard & Poor’s.

As Amazon pursues an ever larger share of the market in India, its journey has been marked by constant allegations of unsavoury trade practices, from predatory pricing, to favouritism and conflicts of interest with its positioning of subsidiaries as sellers and brands on its marketplace.

Spearheading the campaign against the US retail giant has been the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) – with its 70 million members – and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu nationalist ideological fountainhead of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Praveen Khandelwal, general secretary of CAIT, said the body was not opposed to e-commerce, but had a problem with the way major players like Amazon and Flipkart had tried to “control and dominate” the market.

Police personnel distribute free food during the coronavirus lockdown in Amritsar. Photo: AFP

He gave the example of Appario and Cloudtail, both of which operate as sellers of goods ranging from high-end electronic items to domestic staples on the Amazon marketplace. The US retail giant has confirmed it owns a 24 per cent stake in both companies.

“But, because they are Amazon subsidiaries, when a customer searches for a product, Amazon always throws up listings by its own sellers prominently and relegates all other sellers towards the bottom,” Khandelwal said.

“Most consumers don’t scroll beyond the first 10, or may be 20, listings before selecting, of which most are sold by these two sellers.”

Amazon India’s own internal data confirms as much, with about one-third of all sales – what it terms total gross merchandise value – being handled by Appario and Cloudtail, while the rest are divided between the 550,000 or so other sellers on the platform.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government recently tightened its rules to rein in retail giants such as Amazon. Photo: EPA

The Indian government recently tightened its rules in a bid to prevent such behaviour on online marketplaces.

Another complaint made against Amazon by trade bodies such as the All India Online Vendors Association (AIOVA) relate to the retail giant’s “private-label brands”, which often undercut the competition on price and are difficult to compete against.

In its report, the CCI said such practices worked “to the disadvantage” of other sellers and service providers as “private labels reportedly are typically showcased as bestsellers to customers”.

Amazon India denied favouring its own subsidiaries, saying in a statement that it “complies with all applicable laws in letter and spirit”. “We as a company welcome fair competition, treat all our sellers equally and continue to be committed to an inclusive growth of our small and medium partners,” it said.

Mobile phone traders hold placards as they protest against Amazon outside their closed shops in Ahmedabad. Photo: AFP

The CCI also criticised in its report the “exclusionary” deep discounts offered by major e-commerce players such as Amazon, especially when these result in products being sold at lower than cost price, as this necessarily affects the sales of smaller, bricks-and-mortar retailers.

 

“Companies like Amazon can continue to fund these rates [but] when customers walk into a small business or store looking for such rates and can’t find the same rates, they go back disappointed. As a result, small retailers are losing business rapidly,” said Khandelwal of CAIT.

Viren Shah, head of the Federation of Retail Traders Welfare Association in Mumbai, said the worst affected sectors were mobile phones and other electronics.

“Customers often come to the store and ask us to give them the goods at the rates at which these marketplaces offer them, which is not possible for us,” Shah said.

Amazon India said it does not control the pricing of products listed on its site.

Commercial concerns aside, however, another reason for Delhi’s new-found animosity towards Amazon may have more to do with another company that Bezos owns – The Washington Post.

That newspaper has been fiercely critical of the Indian government’s handling of the recent nationwide protests, which were sparked by an amendment to the country’s citizenship law that effectively blocked Muslim refugees from neighbouring South Asian nations.

The disdain with which Modi’s party seemingly regards The Washington Post’s coverage can be seen in senior BJP leader Vijay Chauthaiwale’s reply to Bezos on Twitter when the Amazon CEO praised India’s “dynamism” and “democracy”. “Please tell this to your employees in Washington DC. Otherwise your charm offensive is likely to be [a] waste of time and money,” Chauthaiwale said.

Some have questioned the sincerity of the government’s recent anti-Amazon rhetoric, with one member of AIOVA, the online traders’ body, saying it is more likely bluster designed to appease small traders.

“We have seen this for the last five years, that whenever smaller traders, who are a significant vote bank, start protesting, the government makes a token statement but refuses to act on it,” said the trader, who wished to remain anonymous. He pointed to upcoming elections in Delhi, which the government “might have an eye on … when making such statements”.

Only time will tell how hard Modi comes down on Bezos’ retail behemoth – if at all – but one thing’s for sure, all eyes will now be on the CCI’s probe to see what it has in store for Amazon in one of its biggest markets.

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