COVID-19 has impacted lives, industries and global economies in a massive way. The worst hit are retailers and brands, who have had to shut shops amid a severe lockdown imposed by the government to stop the spread of the virus. Such has been the economic toll of the pandemic that many brands witnessed zero revenue for a brief period as consumer focus shifted to buying essential goods.
According to an article by EY titled ‘Moving Towards a Resilient Retail Sector Post COVID-19’, to mitigate the disruption caused by this crisis, Indian retailers will need to devise strategies for the “now”, “next” and “beyond”. While they need to manage their costs through operational improvement and by evaluating the store portfolio, they also invest in service, experience, and Omnichannel to serve the new consumer.
Talking about the bearing of this black swan event, Vineet Gautam, CEO & Country Head, Bestseller India (Jack & Jones, Vero Moda, Only and Selected Homme), says, “The impact of COVID-19 has been unprecedented and has had an adverse effect on the overall business economy across different sectors. While safety and well-being are of utmost importance, the lockdown has definitely impacted various global and as well local apparel brands. The retail sector has been dealing with various challenges including high cost of goods and piling stock inventory, high rentals, insolvency, overheads, etc. The pandemic has taught us all to rethink and reimagine the concept of retail. At Bestseller, while we continue to prioritize the safety of our employees as well as our valued customers, in accordance with the government guidelines, we have been focusing on a seamless e-commerce experience in order to continue serving our patrons and working on robust strategies with respect to reopening our stores as well.”
Resonating the same thoughts, Vasanth Kumar, Managing Director, Lifestyle International Pvt. Ltd. states, “COVID-19 is truly a watershed moment in the history of Indian retail. This has accelerated many changes and ushered in re-thinking of the businesses to cope up with the ‘new normal’. However, we have also taken this time to strengthen our offering to our customers – curated collections, engaging content and building a sense of community to keep the spirits high, a strong Omnichannel experience; especially through our e-commerce platform lifestylestores.com and more – all with the aim of ensuring a memorable, safe and secure retail experience.”
The Indian Retail Industry is the second largest employer in the country. Given that we are in phase 4 of the Lockdown, retailing and e-retailing activities curbed, the industry has been severely impacted. Retailers are utilising this time to reflect and prepare for the challenges the future holds.
“In today’s times ‘Conserve Cash’ and ‘People First’ are two of our biggest mantras that we are focusing on to tackle the fallout from the pandemic,” says Farah Malik Bhanji, CEO & MD, Metro Brands Ltd.
“Going back to a normally-functioning business will still take a month’s time in terms of supply and more than that in terms of demand recovery. Only those who are quick to change their sales approach and product innovation, especially in retail, will survive with the new norms that have come in place. We are bracing very well to tackle the fallout and have been extremely agile and responsive to the situation. We have re-purposed our manufacturing unit in a quick manner to start making Sterilised Cotton Reusable Masks compliant with government guidelines on COVID-19 to ensure and enable the supply of essential goods. We are also looking at various ways to get the business back on track post the lockdown, both online and offline. We are also revamping our business model, product propositions and operations to tackle the pandemic and ensuring all the hygiene practices that the customer will need, going forward,” adds Ayushi Gudwani, Founder, FableStreet.
Safety – The Key to Survival
The safety of customers and staff is of utmost priority for the retailers. They are stepping up sanitization practices as per WHO guidelines, ensuring a safe and secure shopping environment. Frequent sanitization of stores with medical grade disinfectant, mandatory temperature checks for staff as well as customers, continuous monitoring for health and hygiene and regular steaming and disinfecting of all merchandize and surfaces have become the new normal.
“Regular temperature checks, sanitization of the units, all of our staff are expected to wear masks, gloves and keep their distance while interacting with the customers,” says Vikash Pacheriwal, Co-Foounder, Raisin.
Additionally, hand sanitizers are made available at key touchpoints within the store for frequent use by everyone. Social distancing is the norm that cannot be ignored.
Highlighting the safety measures taken by Lifestyle, Kumar says, “Masks, gloves and self-sanitization at regular intervals for our store staff is compulsory and to minimize contact, our make-over section, assisted trials and our service at the gift-wrapping station has been discontinued temporarily. Our card machines are also going to be disinfected and sanitized before and after every use and to further ensure that the billing and payment process is safe for our customers, contactless payment and e-invoicing options are made available.”
Resonating the same thoughts, Bhanji states, “We are maintaining strict safety measures where we have put in place stringent SOPs to ensure our employees and customers are safe. There are active sanitization plans in place for the warehouse and all our stocks, to ensure all our products are safe to purchase. We have also set up health helplines for all our employees to render them with the necessary support during this crisis.”
Similarly, Bestseller is ensuring steam sanitizing of each garment before and after trial as well as sanitizing trial rooms before and after every use. Furthermore, they are also making sure that each garment that is tried is kept in quarantine in a separate room for a 24 hour period before it is put back on the self again for sale.
According to Sandeep Kataria, Country Manager, Bata India there is a 5-point safety checklist that we are already going through. We have set reminders on the music system in the store every 15 minutes to sanitize hands as well as the store. Also, we are ‘quarantining’ shoes which customers try on for 3 days. We are also procuring try-on socks for trying shoes and using sanitizing spray for seats.”
“At Liberty, we have a digital catalogue in store in order to ease out the selection process for the customers and accordingly we deliver,” adds Anupam Bansal, Executive Director Retail, Liberty Shoes.
Emerging Consumer Trends
The current scenario has forced all of us to live the new normal, which has surely changed many consumer habits, right from the way they consume news, to content, to the way consumers shop. It’s very important to be more relevant to the new COVID customer, as a brand. Most customers have gone digital for their content consumption needs as well as shopping.
“A new trend to emerge is that of e-commerce taking precedence over physical spaces given the requirements of social distancing becoming a norm. There is also a strong demand for masks and other hygiene equipment as a critical necessity to combat the pandemic and eventually become fashion statements over time. Another key trend would be a focus on functionality and hygiene over style as consumers will look at easy dressing and not elaborate, occasion wear such as clothes that can be easily washed, anti-microbial, etc.,” says Gudwani.
“In the post COVID era, work-from-home will be more accepted and widely practiced. Additionally, multi-functional clothing and essentials will also emerge as a new consumer trend that will transform fashion. Given this, we believe that there is immense potential in offering customers with curated collections, styling tips and fashion solutions that will enable them to optimize their looks and feel their best,” adds Kumar.
The pandemic has brought the trend of ‘conscious buying’ to the forefront. Consumers are leaning towards more meaningful purchases and prefer to buy products that are a mix of good quality, reasonable pricing and longer shelf life. “When it comes to apparel, sustainability is the need of the hour,” says Gautam.
“The entire thought of going local by our Prime Minister, will definitely trigger the customers to shop from Indian origin brands,” adds Vikash Pacheriwal, Co-Founder, Raisin.
Will Online Gain Traction?
Retail stalwarts believe that with social distancing becoming a big part of everyone’s lives, online retail will see more traction than what it did in pre COVID-19 times. Contactless deliveries and contactless payments will further make it a preference.
“The outbreak of COVID-19 will continue impact buying patterns and business execution in the coming weeks and months. It has been hitting the country with its global impacts, it’s for sure the most difficult and the trickiest time for the retail sector as the footfall at stores has dropped in leaps and bounds. Therefore, e-commerce has become the solution to the problems of so many out there and is seeing an upsurge in traffic. It has resulted in many traditional offline stores launching their collection online. So certainly, this is an interesting time for e-commerce to boom,” says Bansal.
“We are unsure how soon stores/ malls will open up, so it is expected that consumers will shop online, from the comfort of their homes and need deliveries to be made at their doorsteps,” adds Gudwani.
A major chunk of the marketing spends of retailers is now spent to drive online traffic and to promote online portals. Raisin’s online portal has seen a 34 percent increment in traffic during the lockdown period
“We definitely foresee online as a preferred channel for consumers, however in the long run we do see consumers coming back to shop in physical stores as the ‘Phygital’ retail model gains more importance. At Bestseller, we have been working towards adopting an ‘Omnichannel’ concept which will ensure whether our consumers shop online or offline we will offer a seamless and wholesome brand experience to them. In India, consumers desire experiences and that can only be provided at the store,” opines Gautam.
Elaborating this further, Bhanji says, “Being Omnichannel is the way forward. Customers will prefer online over brick-and-mortar. Additionally, customer service will also be very important. Home delivery and home visits could possibility be another emerging way of shopping, which brick-and-mortar can encash on.”
New-Age Services to Attract Consumers
The pandemic has paved way for the retailers to explore new-age services. They have started working upon multiple business ideas to engage with the consumers.
Elaborating on the same, Gudwani says, “We are creating ‘by appointment only’ stylist area zones within our retail stores to enable engagement with customers in a controlled and sanitized manner, etc. We have also started virtual styling online for customers to address their style queries and assist them with finding the right styles and fits for their body types.
“For customers shopping in our stores, we have introduced a ‘buy and try’ service where they can make their purchase and try it at home at their convenience. This is to ensure a safe shopping environment. For our e-commerce business, we have introduced visual search and enabled voice-based search on our apps which has helped creating a more personalized and convenient shopping experience, enabling customers to find trends and browse the latest collection with ease,” states Kumar.
Apart from this, retailers have also introduced digital catalogues in order to ease out the selection process for the customers and deliver accordingly.
“We have activated a home shopping service in which customers can browse through an e-catalogue and order garments to be home delivered from the nearby brand outlets. We are enabling our store staff and store managers to communicate with the customers and book in-store shopping appointments. This helps us to regulate footfall into the store and assure the safety of everyone. We already had a ‘Shop-on-Wheels’ concept in play with a Jack & Jones container floating around the town. It’s exciting for people to have a mobile shop of their favourite brands on sight, have a brand experience as per their convenience and buy before it drives ahead to the next area of potential clientele. It’s a great way for us to reach our customers to where they are instead of the other way around,” says Gautam.
“We have introduced ‘Shopping on Whatsapp’ feature through our Bata Club and Bata website. The Whatsapp channel allows consumer to look at our portfolio, have a video chat with the store manager from a store close to their house and get products home delivered for trial and purchase on a very short turnaround time,” shares Kataria.
Technology – The Road to Success
Technology will play a key role in providing conscious consumers with safe purchasing means over and above convenience. Keeping this is mind, the brands are looking at building a strong content creation and curation platform as consumers are consuming more content today and are looking for intelligent, authentic and relatable content that they can connect with.
“At Bestseller, we have been working towards a ‘Phygital’ retail model which incorporates various retail technology concepts like VR, AR & AI to ensure a seamless brand experience for consumers. Concepts like Virtual Catalogs, AI enabled Smart Mirrors and Omnichannel retail ensure a smooth shopping experience for our consumers. While AI-enabled smart mirrors offer contactless trials of products for consumers which will assist in a safer brand experience in the post pandemic era; virtual catalogs allow contactless scanning and selection of the product range, and depending on the availability the product can be delivered or picked up from the most convenient store by the consumer,” says Gautam.