It has been a tough one year for the Retail Sector. The onset of COVID-19 and the shutting down of stores and malls indefinitely was a challenge no one had predicted. Millions of retail employees lost their jobs. Retailers were left with little manpower as workers migrated to their native places, and with each day turning up huge financial losses, the situation has been chaotic and worrisome to say the least.
The task for the leaders in this unprecedented crisis was to offer perspective on major concerns, find measures that proved most successful in mitigating the human and business impacts of the virus, and to lift the operational emphasis shifted through the pandemic.
One foodservice titan who stood tall during the pandemic was Manish Aggarwal, Director, Bikanervala Foods Pvt Ltd. He spoke to IMAGES Retail Bureau and detailed how the team worked steadfastly during and after the lockdown to ensure sales stayed up…
From your brand’s perspective, how did you fare during the lockdown and what was the consumer response in the initial Unlock phase?
Although COVID-19 did impact several sectors of the economy, by virtue of being an established and popular packaged snacks brand, we remained relatively insulated. As a matter of fact, our sales shot up remarkably in the early phase of the lockdown on the back of panic buying that characterized the consumer response initially. And in due course as businesses as well as consumers settled down coming to terms with the pandemic, our sales volumes remained steady. And now that Unlock phase has been initiated, we witnessed a similar flurry of consumer buying as in the early phase of the lockdown. The difference was that this time it was a somewhat buoyant mood triggered by the lifting of the lockdown that prompted high purchase behaviour unlike the panic-driven purchases of earlier.
What steps did you take to bring the brand firmly on the road to recovery?
During COVID, the logistics and procurement of raw material as well as packaging material was a challenge; however we were able to address that. We didn’t really have to contemplate any special steps since our business volumes remained steady and consistent through the last few months. In fact, we seem to have performed even better than before.
Did you emphasise more on a digital presence in this time period or did you opt for the traditional retail model with minor adjustments?
There is no doubt that the digital medium has been very critical to our business in recent months. However, what we had was more of what is called a phygital model, a combination of online and offline channels. While the digital shaped our business in big cities and metros and even overseas markets, the physical channels served our customers in Tier II and III towns. Our wide network of distribution outlets embracing GT, major modern trade outlets, CPC and CSD stores and even railway stations and trains remained largely functional due to a strong and reliable supply chain system that we have always had in place. In fact, e-commerce played a vital role during the festive season of Rakhi and Diwali.
Have you launched any innovative consumer experiences over the pandemic period?
Yes, we carried out a few direct consumer engagement exercises one of which involved presenting our brand and products through direct interaction with Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) in Delhi/NCR. By setting up ‘Bikano Zone’ in several different areas across Delhi/NCR, we reached out to a considerable number of our existing patrons as well as new patrons. Furthermore, launching multigrain chips as a one-of-its-kind product, peanut ball and offering several sweet variants during the festive season were all aimed at providing innovative consumer experiences during the pandemic.
How has been the consumer response been like in the festival season? Were you able to match the level of business and profit last year?
Yes, Bikano is known for its festive season gift hampers and this year eventually turned out to be no different. At the same time, I must admit that we were slightly conservative while planning as that exercise happened 2-3 months even prior to the actual festive season. It was difficult to anticipate how the market would behave during Diwali but the response was overwhelming. As it happens every year, we launched as many as 17 special gift hampers during the festive season catering to nearly all tastes and palates. From traditional sweetmeats to spicy and tangy-flavoured offerings to baked snacks and cookies to dry fruits, we had all grounds covered. Notably, lending a shoulder to the government on account of the pandemic, Bikano contributed ₹ 1 to PM CARES Fund for every gift hamper sold this season.
Stores in malls vs streets, which ones are bringing in more revenues/raking in more footfalls? Why?
I think the answer to this question must be put in a context. For instance, the frequent mall-hopping consumers in metros and big cities are making purchases in malls and big department stores. However, in the smaller towns and the rural hinterland, people are still flocking to street-side or neighbourhood small kirana stores and other smaller retail outlets for our products. Considering 55-60 percent of sales contribution comes from non-metro towns, so this chunk cannot be ignored. However, metros drive the trend. So both markets are equally important.
Has the brand reached pre-COVID levels in terms of sales?
Yes. Actually, our sales never really went down for them to pick up again.
What are your future plans?
As for our future plans, even as we are looking to penetrate deeper into our present markets, we are also looking at south India starting from Hyderabad. Our recent product launch for multigrain chips and Peanut Ball has been done with a view to offering healthy snacking options to our customers. In addition, we wish to give equal attention to the tier 2 and 3 cities and rural areas. The overarching goal is to be present in every neighbourhood store in the country. Now with Covid exhibiting signs of subsiding, we also have plans to expand our footprints in export markets further bolstering our current presence in 45 countries. Also, in addition to completely digitizing our supply chain systems, we are regularly recasting the logistics, the supply chain and distribution networks. In the near future, we are also going to announce more products in the ready-to-eat and packaged sweets segments while also focusing on the single serving packs. All this is being done in order to deliver the best possible service experience to our patrons.
How much has the company grown under your leadership during COVID?
I have been directly associated with Bikano for about 20 years now and during these years, I have seen the company grow several-fold in terms of market presence, revenues, profits and above all, customer connect. Yet, we are Team Bikano, comprising some extremely competent and hard working professionals. I would like to give credit to each one of them for the company’s growth and success.