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.
In this crisis situation, every employee, be it a different business/company/store, looked up to its management for a solution, a way forward and a time frame assuring their future prospectives. The heads of companies who had the authority to make decisions were in the line of fire to take their brands away from the crisis and direct them on to a path to normalcy.
One such leader who everyone looked up to was Ankit Patel, CEO, The Belgian Waffle Co. He spoke to us about not just leading but also succeeding in tough times…
Excerpts from the exclusive chat…
From your brand’s perspective, how did you fare during the lockdown and what was the consumer response in the initial unlock phase?
The last eight months have been very challenging and unprecedented phase for the retail industry. Travel, hospitality, airlines and restaurants have been some of the most affected industries and some are plagued with uncertainty even now. We at The Belgian Waffle Co. too have been through turbulence for a few months now, starting from March last year. During the peak lockdown months, with our stores temporarily shut or running on restricted timings, material transport pan India and logistics suffered. Managing an on-ground operations team, ensuring team motivation and incentivisation, and sustaining without footfalls for a couple of months while adhering to the government notified safety protocols, etc., all of it integrally was very challenging.
There were multiple internal and external challenges but our BWC family really came together and stepped up. The consumer response, with the eased lockdown restrictions, was very encouraging and as soon as things started opening up, we too saw a good bounce back rate.
What steps did you take to bring the brand firmly on the road to recovery?
The first few very urgent steps were to execute the necessary measures to ensure the safety of both our customers and the staff. We immediately implemented safety SOPs pan India including sanitisation mandates, double packaging of products, digital payments, social distancing norms, among others. We worked to ensure that these measures were scaled and upheld seamlessly as we ramped up. We launched our own DTC platform through our website and WhatsApp for orders. We also concentrated on innovation and worked on initiatives such as diversifying into FMCG with our premixes and ready-to-eat range (which will be out soon); multi packs and bundling to help increase AOV since the consumer behaviour in lockdown was to order for a larger group of people. We also engaged in product innovation for new flavours, stroopwafels, savoury waffles and cakes.
Did you emphasise more on a digital presence in this time period or did you opt for the traditional retail model with minor adjustments?
Our model is hybrid. Although we like to promote an instore product experience that is fresh off the iron, the online purchase behaviour over the last few years has hinted us to evolve to make our product delivery-friendly. Our focus through the lockdown was more on online delivery platforms and digital sales as customers were using this as a preferred mode of interaction. We saw a lot of organic engagement on social media in the initial periods of lockdown and capitalised on the same. We worked with our online partners on data-driven approaches to market online, innovate and also launched our own DTC platform in certain test geographies via our website, WhatsApp, QR codes and so on to make the ordering process easier.
Have you launched any innovative consumer experiences over the pandemic period?
During the pandemic period, we launched our own platform that offers contactless ordering system that helps the customer to order via our website directly or through WhatsApp, scanning of QRs, etc., for takeaway and delivery. Customers can place their order and reach the outlet to pick it up directly. This reduces contact and idle waiting at our outlets. In the initial months of the lockdown, we had also launched a DIY section online with our premix and toppings to ensure that customers could make and enjoy our product in their homes should they choose to. Besides this, we also launched some innovative packaging with curated festive multipacks which have worked well.
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 year 2020 saw people celebrating majorly indoors that too with limited number of people and were happy to indulge in some “small joys” in the form of desserts and snacks. We introduced a Fireworks pack of 6 Mini Waffles customised for the Diwali season to add some excitement and allow for more options within the group celebration. This curated box of various mini waffles with different flavours was a big success. We also created some custom festive combos that were well received. During the festive months we saw an uptick in our waffle cakes. Overall, at the end of the year, the festive response has been encouraging and we have managed to reach our previous numbers.
Stores in malls vs streets, which ones are bringing in more revenues / raking in more footfalls? Why?
In the initial months, our individual stores saw more footfall and revenue as compared to those in malls. With malls being shut for the first half of the year and people being sceptical to visit high footfall areas such as malls, we saw more customers preferring to frequent outdoor, high street locations. Malls have picked up now though and the sale is a factor of the prevailing situation in each individual state/city.
Has the brand reached pre-COVID levels in terms of sales? If no, how much more time will be required to reach the same?
We have, thankfully, already seen the sales almost come back to what they were, albeit with a higher share of online. In fact, with the past few good months, we have reached 100 percent of last year’s same month sales. Our store footfalls have also seen a good recovery but are subject to state restrictions currently. The situation has already improved considerably and we think the worst is behind us. As the contagion’s caseload reduces, restrictions ease and consumer confidence reinstates, I think things will look up and there will be a good bounce back.
How much has the company grown under your leadership during COVID?
As aforementioned, pre COVID, we had been expanding rapidly to grow from our 240+ outlets spread across 60+ cities all over India. Those plans came to a standstill in the initial months of lockdown, however we are lucky to have seen only a few permanent outlet closures and have reinitiated our expansion journey to maintain our foothold as the Original and Leading Waffle QSR Chain. We have opened around 18 new outlets from June to October. This includes COCO and FOFO stores, new locations such as Srinagar and Rajahmundry as well as Bangladesh and some more work towards international expansion. We are also receiving a great deal of new franchisee interest.
What are your future plans?
We have plans to increase our domestic and international footprint as well as launch our range of premixes and ready-to-eat snacks which will be the first few products as part of our FMCG range. We are also innovating with a new store menu with new flavours, stroopwafels, savoury waffles and cakes.