Coronavirus: How to shop safely on digital marketplaces during the COVID-19 lockdown

Online shopping might be a preferred pastime for many New Zealanders, but buying and selling on digital marketplaces could come at a cost amid the country's COVID-19 crisis. 

While New Zealand's largest online auction website, Trade Me, has effectively shut up shop for the duration of the four-week lockdown, Facebook Marketplace is still open for business - meaning sellers could be breaking lockdown protocol by trading in-person. 

Facebook suggests "following the guidance from your local health authorities and the World Health Organisation (WHO)" for how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while buying and selling items. However, preventing transmission is only effective if both parties are actively practicing social distancing, good hygiene and coughing and sneezing etiquette. Between two traders, it's unclear how these measures can be enforced.

Facebook Marketplace has become considerably quieter since New Zealand went into lockdown on Wednesday night, but there are still numerous active listings from before the announcement. A handful of posts have been listed within the last three days, with many sellers failing to specify how they planned to safely deliver the item. 

As all NZ Post retail agencies, franchises and depots have been closed, postage and courier services are now only available to essential businesses. For the average Marketplace seller, that means in-person delivery and collection is the only option.

One Marketplace seller offered "non-contact pickup" for their Beats by Dre headphones, while another said the item can be collected from their letterbox or posted once lockdown is lifted.

A listing of false eyelashes, uploaded on Saturday night, says "pick up at Randwick Park" with no mention of contactless measures. Another listing from Sunday morning advertises eggplants with no acknowledgement of the lockdown.

Hundreds of other active listings, including a Nissan Presage from three days ago, make no reference to the ongoing pandemic and how they plan to safely trade with potential buyers. 

"Collection of goods would be breaching the non-essential travel ban - ie, you're only supposed to travel to do essential food shopping, hospital or GP visits, essential services workers travelling to and from work and short local journeys for exercise," a Ministry of Health spokesperson told Newshub on Sunday. 

"Any Facebook page encouraging or facilitating non-essential travel during the lockdown would be in breach.

"It might be different if the pick-up isn't to happen until after the lockdown finishes."

What official advice says 

According to the WHO, "the likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low". However, the safety of trading a product via a letterbox or having it left outside the home is not explicitly explained. 

According to the Ministry of Health, "it is okay for friends, family, whānau or delivery drivers to drop off food and supplies. They should leave these at the door". The ministry defines physical distancing as maintaining a two-metre distance from people at all times.

In theory, if a seller delivered an item with clean hands to a buyer's letterbox or left it outside their door, it would adhere to official guidelines. The seller would need to wash their hands before and after delivery and avoid unnecessary contact with other surfaces, including their face. The buyer and seller would also have to be located within the same community in order to comply with the ministry's advice around non-essential travel and movement. However, any deliveries outside of the seller's local area would constitute non-essential travel and would breach lockdown protocol.

What Trade Me is doing

As of Tuesday, Trade Me has implemented new measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"You can still browse listings from casual sellers and place bids. However, you won't be able to complete the purchase while NZ is at alert level 4," says its website. "We're taking these steps because we don’t want to encourage any non-essential travel, face-to-face contact or courier bookings." 

For the average seller, any general items in the marketplace will have their auction extended by four weeks and 'Buy Now' prices will be removed. Members won't be able to buy the item, but can continue to bid, browse and save to their watchlists. 

If a seller is an essential business, they will be able to courier the item. If they aren't essential, the item will be sent when lockdown is lifted. The funds will be held until all courier bookings and pick-ups are able to proceed.

In conclusion 

Based on official advice, sellers who are still utilising Facebook Marketplace should wait until lockdown is lifted before delivering their items. In keeping with Trade Me's policies, potential buyers should still be able to peruse and bid on listings. However, purchases and deliveries should not be made until after lockdown - unless it involves an essential business, who are able to order courier delivery.

If any New Zealanders see neighbours or people within their home facilitating in-person exchanges, they can report the breach to Police are actively monitoring communities and if an individual is found to be in breach of lockdown, penalties may apply. Multiple breaches can be punished by arrest, detainment and fines. 

Guides to dobbing in those who break self-isolation protocol can be found here and here

NZ Police has been contacted for comment. 

New Zealand's self-isolation rules

  • avoid contact with people who aren't in your self-isolation 'bubble' (people who are sharing the home with you), meaning no visitors
  • maintain a two-metre distance between yourself and others when outside the home
  • avoid sharing crockery, cutlery, towels, pillows or beds with others in the home
  • maintain regular cleaning and sanitising of surfaces and household items
  • wash your hands frequently 
  • practice good coughing and sneezing etiquette
  • avoid communal/shared areas in the home as much as possible and clean them well after each use
  • only leave the house for essential reasons, including to buy supplies from essential businesses or to take exercise within your community. Follow social distancing guidelines and avoid contact with others
  • stay home if you are feeling unwell and avoid contact with others in the home
  • if you are ill or have compromised immunity, friends, family members or delivery services can drop groceries and supplies at your door.