China’s top food delivery apps, Ele.me and Meituan, are currently going head-to-head in a legal dispute over an alleged patent infringement. The First Intermediate People’s Court in Chongqing will hear Ele.me’s case against Meituan on March 6th 2023, according to an announcement published online on January 31st.
The lawsuit is the latest move in the ongoing power struggle between the companies behind the two delivery apps. According to the South China Morning Post, Meituan and Ele.me have been locked in a smart locker arms race since the beginning of the pandemic when “contact-free” delivery became a necessity. The case was first opened back in April 2022, when Ele.me sued two Meituan subsidiaries for infringement of patents Ele.me had filed for specific uses of smart locker technology.
Smart locker technology allows customers to access delivered goods via lockers located in retail outlets or supermarkets, usually using a passcode or order number. This delivery method, also known as “click and collect” in the Western world, has the advantage of usually incurring no delivery fees and has no requirement for customers to be at home at a particular time.
Ele.me’s attempt to level the playing field through patents is well-timed as the Chinese government has been ramping up anti-trust regulations over the course of the pandemic. Meituan was previously fined 3.44 billion RMB (500 million USD) in 2021 for reportedly forcing merchants to commit to using Meituan as their sole delivery service, which constituted gaining an unfair advantage over competition.
Despite the ongoing controversies, Meituan remains the dominant delivery app in China, consistently occupying roughly 70% of the market share over the last few years. The lawsuit coming in March may well not prove costly enough to Meituan’s reputation to topple it from its well-established position as food delivery king.