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Mall developers remain steadfast on collaboration, digital innovation to ride out Covid-19 resurgence

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Even as Indian retail real estate and retail sectors were on verge of recovery and normalcy with business back to 80-90 percent of pre-pandemic levels, a devastating second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought back the horrors of shutdowns, curfews and lockdowns. Delhi and Maharashtra have already ordered shutdowns of malls, FEC and cinemas until April 30 and with cases soaring pan-India, other state governments are expected to follow suit.

But most developers are projecting a picture of sturdy resilience and collaboration in the face of the unfolding public health devastation across India.

SCAI, RAI, MAI and all other associations are in touch with the government to push through the fact that malls are safe places and it has taken a herculean effort for the industry to get back back on its feet. “The first month after opening we were operating at a 50 percent recovery, and through immense efforts, we were able to touch 80 percent by February 2021. After which the government started random antigen tests, curbs on timings which again put a big dent in March’s performance,” says Gurvineet Singh, Chief Executive Officer, .

“We’ve all had to take on a lot of additional spends, with minimum or no support from State and/or Central Governments, to ensure safe shopping/dining/entertainment experiences for customers, while adhering to all COVID protocols. After a long struggle, over the past five months, we’ve seen footfalls and sales stabilising. The last quarter of this financial year wit-nessed most brands achieving 95-100 percent of the revenue attained in 2019-20. It was a great comeback!,” says Shibu Philips, Business Head, .

However, with the second wave, malls are again being unfairly targeted by governments, Philips admits. “It is important to evaluate where the problem areas are, instead of killing businesses with blanket lockdowns,” he adds.

Abhishek Bansal, Executive Director, Pacific Group notes that shopping centres have already been adhering to the strictest of norms and safety protocols to ensure visitor and staff well-being at all times. But Pacific Malls has also had some learnings from the 2020 crisis, and is well-placed to ride out possible fallouts from the ongoing second wave. “Since this time, it does not come as an unprecedented shock, as it did last year, we have our digital retailing plan ready.”

“This is a very difficult time for all stakeholders. We had an extremely cohesive and great mutual understanding with all our retailers and partners the first time around and we expect it to continue in the future,” says Sanjeev Mehra, Vice President, .

Arijit Chatterjee, COO, , Durgapur analyses the situation with a positive approach. Thanks to the harsh challenges of 2020, we have learnt to fight back and stand strong as a team together with retail partners. As far as financial health is considered, we – both retailer partners and mall operators — will have to compromise on rentals for a healthy, stable survival. The lockdown situation will be another bloodbath, but we will overcome it.”

Stating that no shopping centre can fully prepare for a lockdown, Aman Trehan, Executive Director at Trehan  IRIS notes that a clever mix of tenants and services can help shopping centres stay relevant and operational in restrictions. “The only silver lining for a mall in a lockdown situation is to have the right mix of essential services — hypermarkets, pharmacies, restaurants — that have good delivery systems in place or are connected well to delivery apps. We were able to ride out the last lockdown because of this right mix of essential services and hopefully, in any eventuality, will be able to continue servicing the needs of our customers.”

“What 2020 taught us all, not just as individuals but also as brands and corporates, is to hope and pray for the best but prepare for the worst. Crisis management implemented in practical lives did prepare every business to some extent for an exigency such as this. The importance of digital acceleration was for sure another important takeaway for businesses from 2020,” says Rehan Huck, VP-Retail, .

Going forward, we all have to work together to ensure that if there is a halt in the revenue stream for the retailers, the mall owners may need to come in as their saviours by making sure that there is adequate discounting in the rentals, Only through hand-holding and working together will we be able to fight this pandemic,” Trehan notes.

Keeping the situation in mind, Infiniti Malls will be focusing on long term relationships with their retailers. “We have long-term relationships with brands and do not see any major challenges in creating win-win situations, even under the current circumstances,” Kumar states.

What’s Next?

Commenting on how the situation could unfold in coming quarters/months, Gurvineet Singh explains, “We are focusing on recovery. We hope that with the vaccination drive which is now a priority for the Government the day will not be far where our city and our country will have herd immunity. Also like other countries, the second wave is expected to show a downward trend in the next 45-60 days, which should again infuse the confidence back in customers. We expect full recovery of sales by July 2021, provided there is no lockdown.”

The focus will definitely be on providing an environment where customers feel safe to shop and dine. After a year of the pandemic, people yearn for social experiences and will readily consume it, if assured of a safe experience. We believe that malls should create reasons for consumers to return to in-store shopping by focusing on safety and convenience, while balancing it with consumers’ desire for social interaction. Hence, we intend to launch some premium brands, for the first time in Kerala, giving consumers new experiences and something to look forward to,” Philips says.

“We are focusing on our marketing strategies. These strategies involve motivating shoppers to shop more, with incentives like getting more returns, discounts and offers every time they engage in shopping. Regular marketing activities are also going on. Our motive is to give them an eventful experience to cherish for, so that they can fully dive into the high street retail options available in our malls,” says Bansal.

Keeping in mind the COVID scenario, the future plans are very much similar to the one how we have been managing so far post the first phase. We will be restarting with the ‘Pre-Book a visit’ feature on the Quest App, Zoono surface Sanitization technique, Pickup Porter services, Contactless payments, Frequent Temperature Check-ups at the entry points.  Also, in terms of marketing promotions, there will be a lot of activations on the digital front because consumers would prefer going contactless and hence, digitaliation would be the way forward.  We will be following ISHRAE guidelines for ‘Safe Air-conditioning environment’ which will be adhered to wherein we have to maintain the temperature and humidity at certain levels for a virus-free condition,” Mehra explains.

We are in expansion mode and are on verge on launching a ‘High Street Mall’ in Greater Noida West and another shopping centre in Gurugram in the coming quarters. That being said, we will have to monitor the situation patiently on a day to day basis,” says Trehan.

For Mukesh Kumar, the focus will lie strongly on enhancing Infiniti Mall’s image as a safe shopping destination and work out better marketing support plans for its retail.