Gandhi Flip-Flops and Flag Doormats Dent Amazon’s India Goodwill

Amazon couriers in Mumbai, India.

Photographer: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Amazon.com Inc. is having a hard time showing it understands the Indian market.

The U.S. retail giant has found itself at the center of a social media firestorm twice in just the past few days. First, it was forced to apologize and pull doormats for sale bearing the country’s flag after the foreign minister threatened diplomatic action. Then on Sunday, India’s economic affairs secretary tweeted a stern warning against the American company over flip-flops with pictures of civil rights icon Mahatma Gandhi.

Amazon, which has pitched itself as a “local” company, can hardly afford to take such threats lightly. India is its fastest-growing and most crucial foreign market after failing to make headway in neighboring China. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos has committed $5 billion of investment to take on local rivals such as Flipkart.

“Amazon, better behave. Desist from being flippant about Indian symbols & icons. Indifference will be at your own peril,” India’s secretary for economic affairs, Shaktikanta Das, tweeted in response to the $16.99 flip-flops. 

Amazon India didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the footwear, which have since disappeared from its site.

The twin incidents are a major embarrassment for a company known for innovative local touches. It’s splurging on Bollywood content for Amazon Prime, recruiting sellers with carts serving “chai” or tea, and linking grocery stores to local buyers for daily essentials. Officer Bezos was scheduled for a photo op with an elephant during his visit in 2014. When Amazon failed to get a permit for the locally revered animal, Bezos jumped onto a colorfully festooned truck clad in an Indian bandhgala jacket instead.

It’s flourishes like that that’re helping Amazon close in on its nearest rival, Flipkart Online Services Pvt. It may also be why Indian politicians take offense when Amazon runs afoul of local cultural norms -- even when they occur outside the country.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was among those who reacted strongly to Indian tri-color doormats on Amazon’s Canadian website. Demanding the online retailer stop the sale of the product, Swaraj tweeted to seven million followers last week: “If this is not done forthwith, we will not grant Indian Visa to any Amazon official. We will also rescind the Visas issued earlier.”

Amazon’s India head Amit Agarwal apologized and the doormats were withdrawn.

Das said he was tweeting his personal outrage as a citizen and the country remained committed to economic reforms, easing business and opening trade. “Sometimes get touchy when our icons are involved,” he said on Sunday in his three-part tweet.

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