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CEO Special: Soch to add categories, tweak merchandise mix, while keeping an eye on consumer demands in 2021 – Vinay Chatlani

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The pandemic has been a once-in-a-lifetime test of business continuity planning for retail businesses across the globe. Even when things have stabilised 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, the sector turned to those who they have always looked upon to lead them when the going gets tough – their leaders.

One such retail leader was Vinay Chatlani, Executive Director and CEO, Soch, who led by example and helped his brand emerge a winner in unprecedented times…

From your brand’s perspective, how did you fare during the lockdown and what was the consumer response in the initial Unlock phase? 

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on business and with the changes in the local rules on business operations, we were dealing with a dynamic situation and responding to it the best we could. In the initial days of unlocking, sales were low but emphasis was very high on hygiene and safety of the customers and employees, same is now embedded into our standard operating procedures. We also saw that the purchase intent of the consumers who had been visiting stores was high as there was very little casual browsing and comparatively better conversion rates and basket sizes. We did see some momentum during the pre-festive and the festive season. There has been an expected lull in December but we see business picking up over the next 2-3 months.

What steps did you take to bring the brand firmly on the road to recovery?

During the lockdown, there was a build-up of stock cover, and we were able to balance and rationalise new buys and inventory so as to cover the festive requirements with adequate inventory. We were particularly spared from a large stock build up due to our business model which looks at shorter lead times and more frequent buys and drops. Typically, we have 10 drops in a year, and as such we were not in a position where we had committed to the entire summer drops, and had yet to close on our festive buys. This has put us at relatively good inventory levels. While we expect a longer EOSS period again, we will mostly likely have a larger percentage of fresh merchandise in the stores.

We have also had a careful relook at our spends; prioritising the critical spends, delaying some longer-term investments and reconsidering some expenses altogether. The period has also helped us have a rethink about how we look at our business, helping prioritise what is really urgent, critical and distinguishing between good and bad costs. Spends on digital marketing, e-commerce, Omnichannel have gone up. However, they are giving large yields.

Did you emphasise more on a digital presence in this time period or did you opt for the traditional retail model with minor adjustments?

We are looking to build resilience in all our processes. Our offline stores and online business is being stitched together with our enhanced Omnichannel initiative for seamless brand experience. On the innovation front as well, we are working on adding newer categories, tweaking our merchandise mix, as well as keeping a close eye on consumer demands that change frequently these days. We see a few new categories launching over the next 6 months with an online first strategy. Weak wear, fusion dresses and tunics, along with a contemporary saree range are a few of these.

Have you launched any innovative consumer experiences over the pandemic period?

Virtual Shopping. We opened a Virtual Store Lounge in our HO aimed at our loyal customer. We have rolled this out across stores based on feedback from customers and we plan to set up VS bays at the back end. To our pleasant surprise, the average bill size was upwards of 15k.

Does your brand have an Omnichannel / Phygital strategy?

We have had both these solutions in place for a little over four years and given the nature of our business model, we have been able to see significant uptake in sales by having chain level stock exposures. Soon to go live, will be merchandise across all stock points being exposed to external market places as well. Our front facing Omnichannel app in our physical stores will also be rolling out shortly.

How has the consumer response been like in the festival season? Were you able to match the level of business and profit last year?

The entire festive season, and especially Diwali helped pull up the brand’s sale numbers to a large extent. We had taken a healthy like to like target and we achieved it both for October & November. Many weddings have been pushed and we seem to have a healthy wedding calendar over the next 3-4 months as well. As a result, we haven’t really seen any large drops in average ticket sizes. Online, as a medium has also grown multi-fold, as compared to last year, and this continues to be an area of focus for us, and has been for over a year. The COVID scenario has simply accelerated this effort.

Has the brand reached pre-COVID levels in terms of sales? If no, how much more time will be required to reach the same?

Pre-Covid sales have not been reached yet. We expect like to like sales to revert sometime between April – June, although much of this depends on external factors.

How much has the company grown under your leadership during COVID-19?

The fashion apparel business is yet to see a revenue growth over last year. However, we have taken this opportunity to re-visit fundamental beliefs of retail and consumer behaviour. Thus growth for us has come on many fronts, some of which include deeper use of data analytics and in-sights, adoption of an agile model, re-look at our entire buying and supply chain strategy and off course having focused on building a more resilient and dynamic approach in the way we conduct our day to day business.

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