The pandemic has been a once-in-a-lifetime test of business continuity planning for retail businesses across the globe. Even when things have stabilized to an extent and economies are gradually opening up, the industry is being confronted by a hard question – what’s next? With little to no revenue in sight for months, brands and retailers turned to those who they have always looked upon to lead them when the going gets tough – their CEOs.
IMAGES Retail spoke to Farah Malik Bhanji, MD, Metro Brands Ltd, to find out how she led the change in a crisis year with the way she managed her company, integrated technology in the workspace and let consumers be the voice of the brand.
From your brand’s perspective, how did you fare during the lockdown and what was the consumer response in the initial Unlock phase?
Just like every other retail organisation, the lockdown was tough for us as well. Most stores were closed. By end of May 2020, we had taken a call to work from home till December and put down a revised actin plan for the rest of the year. The pandemic led to a surge in online spending, speeding up the shift from physical stores. Understanding the consumer sentiments, through analytics, right communication, new ways of reaching customers, e-commerce focus, and effective customer relations has helped us survive through these trying times. The consumer response was very slow in the initial stages. Two things stood out for us: convenience and cleanliness. We launched special services to reach out to our customers – Home Visits, Drive-Thrus and also setting up Pop-Up stores. All along, we kept the safety and well-being of our customers, staff and showrooms always the priority, by equipping our stores with sanitizers, disposable socks, masks and shields for our staff and continuous training.
What steps did you take to bring the brand firmly on the road to recovery?
We focused on solutions that could meet the need of the hour, whether it was through our collections or various channels to reach out to the customers, thus making the brand more relevant. We were quick to anticipate the demand for comfort, home wear and casual wear. We also saw a spike in active wear. We had split out strategy into three stages: Forming, Norming and Storming.
During the ‘Forming stage’, we focused on usage of technology, making work from home smoother, ensuring employee engagement, safety of customers and employees, consistently engaging with customers via various social media channels and ensuring that the brand continues to be relevant to the changing consumer habits. We curated the Saniteasy Collection, introduced brands that had a large collection of homewear and introduced a range of masks and face-covers.
In the ‘Norming Stage’ we relooked into many of our current processes, assortment, invested on technology for omni channel, home visits and ecommerce, to ensure readiness for the Storming stage. People were also buying more colourful footwear and keeping with that we launched our neon collection which did very well. Employees are the most important pillar to ensure road to recovery. As an organisation, we ensured consistent communication with the employees, to give them the required confidence and keep them motivated all through out. We had a COVID response team set up to ensure the safety and swift response for any need of our employees or their family members.
Did you emphasize more on a digital presence in this time period or did you opt for the traditional retail model with minor adjustments?
We surely emphasized and invested more in enhancing our digital presence. We drastically shifted from traditional marketing to digital and social media marketing to connect with our customers. We also focused on our own ecommerce sites and enhanced our presence on marketplaces.
Have you launched any innovative consumer experiences over the pandemic period?
We launched multiple innovative ways of reaching out to our consumers like ‘Home Visits’, Drive- Thru and Pop-up stores. Our ‘Home Visit’ service, allowed the customer to choose his / her favourite footwear via a virtual tour of the store over WhatsApp. Customers could the ‘Try and Buy’ their favourite footwear at their own convenience, from the comfort of their home. Our Drive-Thru service allowed the customers to Try and Buy footwear from the comfort of their car.
Our team also set up ‘Pop-up’ stores in many large residential complexes across the country, giving customers a store shopping experience in their own premises.
Which are the new technologies – both in-store & online – that you have introduced in an effort to go contactless?
We have initiated several technology projects during this time for the following: Revamping our websites to improve customer experience, investing in omnichannel by upgrading our order management system, enhancing our loyalty program and offering, initiating WhatsApp for Business for stores and our customer care team to provide a better experience for customers.
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?
The festive season brought in a strong wave of positive sentiment in the market. We witnessed a positive trend in sale both offline and online. However, we were still below last year in November and December.
Has the brand reached pre-COVID levels in terms of sales? If no, how much more time will be required to reach the same?
The brand has almost reached pre-COVID levels during the festive season. This is largely due to the positive sentiment of the festive season. The real test will be in the last quarter i.e. from Jan to March. We believe we will still take 6 months to reach and surpass pre-COVID like-to-like sales.
What are your future plans?
We are getting ready for ‘Stage 3– The Storming Stage’ now. In this stage we have plans to aggressively expand our footwear and accessories portfolio through strategic partnerships with reputed and upcoming brands engaged in technology & innovation, sustainability, and the health space. We will continue to expand our geographic footprint entering more Tier II & III towns.