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Unlock 2.0: Retail challenges and solutions in corona times

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Two months after enforcing the Coronavirus-led lockdown,
the government of India eased some restrictions and markets have gradually started re-opening in different parts of the nation. But although malls and stores have started re-opening, consumer sentiment is still cautious and as is apparent, luring back customers is proving to be an uphill task. Brands and retailers are compelled to experiment with digital touchpoints, precision marketing and super creative e-commerce strategies to redefining customer experiences in the ‘new normal’.
“With a crisis of this magnitude, it is crucial that we embrace this ‘New Normal’. The next-gen workforce are here to drive the change. A whole new range of skills are going to be required to integrate the pivoted demands of a largely digitally driven marketplace. Emotional intelligence will be the highly required soft skill. Being agile and coming out strong will be valuable to meet the future head on. The team with a winning attitude will help set a tone for the store and dramatically influence the performance metrics. The future is certainly unclear, but change is the opportunity,” says Abhishek Shetty, Chief Marketing Officer and E-commerce Head, Celio India.
Creating a Safe & Healthy Shopping Environment
The Coronavirus pandemic has significantly changed consumer
behavior and buying patterns. Consumers are now gravitating towards ‘safer’ modes of product evaluation and consumption and are preferring businesses which prioritise hygiene and buyer convenience. In line with this, implemented strict measures to ensure a safe environment for shopping has become imperative in the ‘new normal’.
“We are taking all the right precautions prescribed to create a healthy and friendly shopping experience. Temperature checks and sanitizers for both staff and customers are mandatory to enter into stores. All things and places are sanitized after use, every day. We are also encouraging cashless payments and social distancing protocols in our stores. While trial rooms are not operational in any of our stores, we still steam and press every garment before delivery,” says Sanjay Vakharia, CEO, Spykar Lifestyles.
Ethnicity, keeping in mind the health and safety of its customers and staff , has put in necessary protocols and safety guidelines in place for a safe shopping environment for everyone. To curb risk and to quell customer concerns, the brand has adopted extensive safety measures like regular sanitation of stores, stock rooms, fixtures, products, cash tills and all touch points as well as temperature checks, hands-free sanitizer dispensers, etc.
“One of the most important initiative we have initiated is touch free billing, wherein the cash memos are directly emailed to our patrons. As an added measure, we have created guidelines for physical distancing via visual communications and implemented them across all our stores so that our patrons and our staff maintain safe distancing at all times,” says Ameet Panchal, CEO, Shree Balaji Ethnicity Retail Limited (Ethnicity).
For Madame, every possible precaution as prescribed by authorities has been formulated as an SOP which is being adhered to rigorously. “This includes store sanitization, trial room sanitization after every use, steam ironing and isolation of trial product, availability of mask for customers, contactless and digital payments are accepted across all stores, etc. There has also been change in the display concept to more of frontal display to ensure that the customer doesn’t need to touch to browse the product,” says Akhil Jain Executive Director, Madame.
Madame has also been sending catalogues to the customer and door delivery is facilitated in stores in Tier-II and -III towns. The brand’s Omnichannel strategy is under beta testing at 24 stores so that the brand is well prepared to launch their End of Season Sale efficiently. Madame has also facilitated personalized selling at most of the stores so that customers can come at prescribed time to ensure that social distancing and safety as well as trained its staff to conform to prescribed safety protocols.
Zodiac has taken a holistic approach that focuses both on their employees as well as the consumer. “Our plan is simple – keep the customer and the frontline sales team safe. We are conforming by all guidelines laid down by the city municipality as well as the WHO. We are also encouraging contactless payments as well as zero contact home delivery options. In addition, we are focusing on strengthening the customer care team for quicker responses,” says Salman Noorani, MD, ZODIAC Clothing Co. Ltd.
Zodiac Clothing Co. Ltd. has recently even launched a range of anti-viral shirts called Securo. The range is tailored from fabric processed with HeiQ Viroblock, a Swiss technology that kills 99 percent viruses and bacteria, including COVID-19* on contact with the surface fabric. It lasts for 30 home washes at 40°C (104°F).
Employee Training
As stores open, it is crucial that employees and staff are trained to handle the new reality efficiently. The new normal for every retailer would be safety first – safety of the customers as well as staff.
Bestseller India is training its store staff thoroughly on all safety & hygiene protocols. “This situation is new for all of us, consumers included. Educating them on the new safety measures, guiding them through the processes as well as keeping them at ease is what the team has been trained for. Before the store reopens in any state, we internally train all our store staff thoroughly on all safety & hygiene protocols to follow. It is a new world, so we will have to unlearn a few daily practices at the store level and learn to adapt new ones,” says Vineet Gautam, CEO & Country Head, Bestseller India.
Celio* has used the lockdown time to upskill their employees. “We have clocked more than 4,500+ hours of training with our 800 employees. We have introduced pocket learning modules, educated employees on Retail Math, and trained them on new products through video-based learning and introduced ‘Learn with your Manager’ series which had the maximum participation. The brand also conducted LIVE quizzing and coffee table discussions as well as emphasized on developing their soft skills and personalities by giving them projects, book reviews etc.
Madame’s management team is analysing consumer sentiments to ramp up engagement. “We are training our employees about various store sanitizations, trial room sanitizations after every use, steam ironing and isolation of trial product. Our customer management team is working on getting customers engagement by brainstorming customer behavior in current unprecedented situation and simultaneously taking sanitation measures,” adds Akhil Jain.
Ethnicity has provided its store staff with resources to undertake Store Safety Training Programs, certified by the Department of Consumer Affairs, India so that they are completely equipped to ensure the safety of customers at all given times. The brand is also working to redesign staff uniforms by developing a process which keeps the uniform fabric germ-free using the latest garment technology.
The Fitting Room Dilemma
As stores start to re-open, the retail fraternity is faced with a big question – how safe will trial rooms be? Trial rooms are by far the biggest advantage that brick-and-mortar stores have over e-commerce but considering the precarious situation now, the ability to have customers try on clothes in fitting rooms and even touch merchandise has been clouded by concerns.
Hence, most brands and retailers that have re-opened stores are hitherto left with just two options – either keep trial rooms off limits or sequester clothes that have been tried on in a fitting room.
“We are trying to minimize trial room usage as much as possible. We are trying to achieve this by leveraging on past buying data of consumers to give them size suggestions. We are sanitizing and quarantining products which have been tried for over 48 hours to ensure they are safe to be used again. We have re-crafted our return policy to make it more consumer and pandemic friendly. We are also sanitizing the trial room after each usage and limiting the number of garments tried by each consumer,” says Abhishek Shetty.
Brands like Spykar and Madame are sanitizing trial rooms in front of customers before trial and after trial to build consumer confidence. Frequent sanitizations are also done during the working hours. Moreover, garments post trial are stream iron and isolated for the next 24 hours. Ethnicity, as of now, is not encouraging customers to try on the garments.
“In the event that they insist on trying them, all the clothes that are tried on, are disinfected and kept away from the stands for 24 hours before they can be trial ready again. There is also daily sanitization of the trial room and all fixtures at opening and closing time as an additional check, maintained by the store managers,” says Ameet Panchal.
“We are keeping our trial rooms open for customers in select cities and we are taking a call on this state wise, as per the evolving situation. In some of the states our trial rooms are shut to minimize contact. In case the trial rooms are open, we are ensuring strict sanitizing protocols both before and after use,” adds Vineet Gautam.
The Digital Boom
One of the most significant changes that the retail world has registered during this pandemic is the huge shift to e-commerce. Today, online isn’t an option but a necessity for retail brands to survive in the coming days. An increasing no of brands, which were not following an Omnichannel route earlier are making a beeline for establishing their online platforms. Even the most prosperous of brick-and-mortar stores have been forced to experiment with digital channels in wake of the crisis.
“We have been getting all our stores on board our Omnichannel platform and are associating with the right partners to ensure a great shopping delight for our consumers. We have partnered with brands like FYND, Eshops, etc., to create a much better presence in the same,” adds Sanjay Vakharia.
“We have also been an early adopter of the omnichannel business practice which has further boosted our e-commerce business. We have presence across most e-commerce marketplaces and have even launched our own captive website We are currently investing in elevating the consumer experience across our e-commerce channels and are very confident of delivering strong double-digit growth across these platforms,” says Abhishek Shetty.
The brand has also created a multi-stack omnichannel /phygital model which cuts across its sales channel and aids it in driving new benchmarks in customer service as well as build a more effective inventory flow.
Ethnicity too is revamping its digital game with newer innovations to reduce distance between the brand and consumer. “With the ramping up of our e-commerce website, we are bridging that gap by being available nationwide to a wider and diverse audience, which also helps us gain in-depth insight to regional fashion at a local level. With the compilation of Indian customers’ behavior in different regional markets, we gain better data to create geographically customized designs as well as adopt newer tech tools to convey our product stories to the customers,” says Ameet Panchal.
Bestseller has been working towards adopting a smooth ‘phygital’ retail model which incorporates various technology concepts. “Virtual catalogs, AI enabled Smart Mirrors and convergence of offline and online channels ensures a smooth shopping experience for our consumers. In the post lockdown period, as contactless shopping becomes more popular, these concepts also help the consumer to virtually browse through various products, minimize contact and give them an opportunity to choose their preferred mode of shopping,” says Vineet Gautam.
How is Fashion Retail Faring Now
Although the lockdown has been lifted and stores have opened, the state of affairs remain grim for the fashion retail industry. The entire fashion retail industry is still struggling to cope with the aftermath of the lockdown induced stupor and footfalls aren’t still picking up even after a month since the lockdown was relaxed. Apparel retailers with shuttered stores are stuck with a season’s worth of inventory and are now reeling under the pressure of clearing it up. This has compelled them to offer deep discounts on products.
“We’re in an unprecedented crisis, with stocks that have been lined up in warehouses that could not be sold due to the lockdown. The retail industry gets its cash fl ow from the seasonal sale of goods, since that was cut off this year, a cash crunch is natural. However, now that stores and shopping are opening up, things will move towards being normal. We might see some pre-sales to entice customers and kick start the demand,” says Sanjay Vakharia.
On the other hand, the pandemic has exposed consumers to the horrors of an economic uncertainty which has led to a massive shift in consumer attitude and consumption preferences. Moreover, as the spread of the contagion continues to increase by the day, consumers are still afraid of going out and being in a public place. “Since the stores have reopened, the demand has been subdued since people are still wary about going to stores, however, things should look better in the coming weeks. The demand will move towards being more need based as opposed to want based – in our personal experience we’ve seen a demand for casual t-shirts, boxers and denims,” adds says Sanjay Vakharia.

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