Order placed! Food is being prepared.
The fast-paced lifestyle that leaves today’s millennial workforce in constant pressure of tight timelines also instills in them the restlessness to get things done in a quick time, even if the expectation may sometimes be unreasonable. And this need for quick gratification is often passed on to businesses when it comes to digital consumer services such as online shopping orders, food deliveries and more.
Take, for instance, the estimated delivery time for Zomato and Swiggy food deliveries that pops up every time customers place an order. The concept of guaranteed delivery was popularised in India in the early 2000s by the pizza giant Dominos. It promised a 30-minute delivery from the moment you place the order or a refund. But this policy witnessed changes as delivery boys ended up breaking traffic rules and riding recklessly, often risking their lives — and the pizza — in order to meet the time expectations.
While Dominos introduced India to sitting back and expecting food in a jiffy, this phenomenon took on a new colour with the launch of Swiggy and Zomato. With thousands of deliveries across cities every day, incidents of unruly behaviour from delivery agents and customers — expecting food earlier — have become common. And they put the spotlight on whether such expectations on the behalf of the consumer are actually because of impatience or whether the promise of fast delivery is not being kept.
Several media reports have popped up in recent times to highlight how customers had gotten violent with delivery agents for delays in delivery — most recently in Chennai — while other incidents of adulteration, food theft, and other crimes such as assaulting customers to being involved in theft. This raises the question of who is actually responsible for such incidents. Is it Zomato or Swiggy who would be held liable, or will their delivery agents be in the dock?
Speaking about this, a Swiggy spokesperson told Inc42, “The safety of both of our customers and delivery partners is of utmost importance to us. As a process, every delivery partner undergoes a mandatory background check through reputed third-party agencies. Details such as identity, address, and criminal background are verified.”
As for unruly behaviour, Swiggy says it takes steps to train delivery boys to handle situations pleasantly. “Their training also includes a behavioural component where they are trained to communicate with the consumer in the best possible manner. For any unforeseen issues, both our customers and delivery partners can place their complaints via the app and speak to a dedicated team 24/7.”
Talking about incidents where customers or delivery agents are involved in disputes, a Zomato spokesperson told Inc42, “We have safety teams in place which perform a detailed RCA (root cause analysis) for each and every case. This includes reaching out to all stakeholders to ascertain the most appropriate action, in line with our policies.”
For more serious matters, Zomato takes a less proactive approach. “We believe it is important to understand the nuances of a case before deciding who is liable for it. In the case of criminal offenses, we trust the law enforcement authorities to take necessary actions and offer our complete support in the investigation,” it said.
Are Delivery Agents Zomato, Swiggy Employees?
The food delivery aggregator marker has turned into a behemoth and is expected to hit $2.5-3.5 billion by the end of 2021, according to RedSeer Consulting. Naturally, as food delivery platforms scale up and expand to newer cities, they would need to engage a lot more delivery agents for their operations. The keyword here is ‘engage’, as delivery agents are not employees of the platforms.
At a tech conference in October this year, Swiggy CEO, Sriharsha Majety announced that the company plans to become the third-largest employer of the country by on-boarding 3 lakh delivery executives in the next 18 months. Interestingly, unless Swiggy changes its contract for delivery agents, they would not be typical employees.
On the status of employment of their delivery executives, Swiggy told Inc42, “Every delivery partner engages with Swiggy on a principal to principal basis and has access to additional earning opportunities, incentives and benefits.”
Same is the case with Zomato, which only differs from Swiggy in the language it uses to describe the contract of employees. “Delivery partners are independent freelancers,” it told us.
However, as per High Court advocate Jasbir Bidhuri, whether the delivery agent is on the payroll of the food aggregator or not, it does not exempt the company (principal) from holding the responsibility for the actions of the delivery personnel. This puts the food aggregators in a space where they are accountable for the mannerisms and behaviour of the delivery agents who are the face of their organisation.
Bidhuri, however, added that although the employer is responsible for the actions of its employees or agents, the company shall not be held accountable for criminal offenses committed by the delivery agents as per the Indian Penal Code.
Food Aggregators Under The Scanner
Food aggregators have been in the limelight with regards to their services for a while now, be it the #logout movement by partner restaurants in August due to deep discounting and freebies offered by food aggregators, or the numerous complaints against delivery personnel for breaking traffic rules.
But there is a human element within the foodtech chain and it is important to understand the delicate relationship between humans and technology in the food aggregator business.
In cases where conflicts arise based on stipulated delivery timelines and non-adherence to the same, the question is whether delivery platforms rely too much on technology and artificial intelligence to make estimates about delivery time and ETA.
While the app may show a certain time based on a range of factors — dish-preparation time, restaurant’s efficiency, the average speed of delivery, time of the day, changing traffic conditions, un/familiarity of surroundings etc, as Swiggy told Inc42 —- customers may not always get the order in that stipulated time. That’s because the estimate is determined by a machine, while the on-ground challenges may delay the humans delivering the food.
Here it also becomes important to understand whether the companies are penalizing delivery personnel for such delays or enabling them to make a more appropriate time judgment by assessing the on-road conditions and monitoring them.
Zomato also told Inc42 about the various factors involved in estimating delivery time. “We have algorithms in place to calculate the estimated delivery time keeping in mind factors like food preparation time, traffic conditions, distance from the restaurant to the customer’s location and glitches.”
The company said that none of the delivery partners are told to rush orders to meet the delivery time estimate. In case the delivery personnel is unable to meet the timelines they reach out to the support team using the app, who then inform the customer. “The live order tracking feature allows full transparency at every step of the order process as well as in case of delays,” it added.
Swiggy emphasised the benefits that it provides to the delivery agents and said, “In addition to a minimum guarantee, a delivery partner receives a fixed payout for each delivery along with incentives. They are kept extremely fair by factoring in parameters like distance of travel, peak hours and are not penalised for late deliveries. Delivery partners are also provided with benefits such as accident and medical insurance, doctor on call and educational loans.
While allegations against delivery agents are common, food aggregators also claim to face a rising number of cases where customers register complaints only with the motive of getting cashbacks or replacement, irrespective of whether they actually faced any misconduct or experienced unsatisfactory service.
Inc42 reached out to representatives from the Ministry of Labour and Ministry of Consumer Affairs for comments on the status of disputes between customers of food delivery platforms and the delivery agents but did not receive a response until the time of publication. Interestingly, food delivery platforms are increasingly coming under the scrutiny of government agencies for a range of issues.
Will Drone Deliveries Arrive As Relief For Customers?
Technology has always been chosen over the human element when it comes to minimising errors. One such step is the ambitious plan of introducing the drone delivery system which Zomato and Swiggy are supposedly experimenting with. Will this increase the expectations of customers in getting food faster?
Different questions of security and performance would arise if and when the drone delivery systems get implemented. However, this will not completely eliminate human involvement as food aggregator companies would need to focus on penetrating deeper into Tier 4 and 5 cities and rural markets.
With the likes of Amazon gearing up to foray into the food delivery space, the company with its deep pockets will be able to compete toe-to-toe with Zomato and Swiggy making it difficult for the incumbent market leaders thereby forcing them into the pit.