Brave New World

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Brave New World

Saturday, 16 May 2020 | Ayushi Sharma

Brave New World

There is no going back to business as usual when we emerge from the pandemic. Amitabh Taneja, chairman of SCAI, Pushpa Bector, executive director of DLF Shopping Malls, Rajneesh Mahajan, CEO of Inorbit Malls, Rashmi Sen, Group COO — Malls of The Phoenix Mills Ltd, Pankaj Renjhen, COO of Virtuous Retail and Mukesh Kumar, CEO of Infiniti Malls, describe how we shop, eat and spend our leisure at malls is all set to change. By Ayushi Sharma

You enter the mall parking area and are waived away by the attendant that there is no space. Deciding to subvert the inconvenience, you park in the nearby area and walk towards the mall, where you are halted at the entrance and asked to wait as the number of people inside is already one customer per 75 sqft Gross Leasable Area (GLA). After more than 45 minutes, you enter the mall but not before thermal checks and passing through a sanitisation tunnel. Once inside, distance markers indicate where to stand. Deciding to pick up clothes? You can take assistance of the virtual mirror, which will show you how a garment looks on you without trying it on. If you want to grab a quick bite, be prepared for plexi sheets in front of the Quick Service Restaurants in the food court. And yes, if you want to head to the washroom, you might have to wait there, too, as only the alternate urinals are in use. Welcome to the new normal.

Earlier, a plan to pick up shoes, clothes and grocery would inevitably mean a trip to any of the malls that dot the city’s landscape. Whether we picked up the things that we had set out to or not was always debatable but what we did end up doing was venturing out, socialising and eating — rituals that we took for granted. It was a part of the normal, as we knew it, before a microscopic virus turned the idea on its head.

Amid the life of absolute uncertainty, fear and concern, the Coronavirus pandemic has left nothing untouched and thus, severely impacted every business. It is not easy to imagine the post-pandemic scenario, however, experts say that it will take a long time for retail to return to normal.

The Shopping Centres Association of India (SCAI) recently hosted the third of SCAI Mondays, a series aimed at redressing the unprecedented challenges posed to the Indian shopping centre development ecosystem by the pandemic. Many retail leaders feel that the idea of opening shopping malls can actually help accelerate the economy, of course, keeping a stringent and comprehensive set of measures to ensure a safe and hygienic environment.

The virtual roundtable, titled Retail and Shopping Centres: 2020-21 and Beyond, was moderated by S Raghunandhan, president-commercial, Bhartiya City Developers. The panelists included — Pushpa Bector, executive director of DLF Shopping Malls, Rajneesh Mahajan, CEO of Inorbit Malls, Rashmi Sen, Group COO-Malls of The Phoenix Mills Ltd and Pankaj Renjhen, COO of Virtuous Retail.

Going by the news that the situation will take some time to return to normal, it will be quite interesting to see how shopping malls would welcome consumers post-lockdown. On the other side of the spectrum, as per the surveys and research conducted by DLF Shopping Malls, it was found out that there will be two categories of consumers post-lockdown — first being those who desperately want to get back to pre-pandemic life and the second category would be of those who will be more cautious of visiting malls.

Pushpa Bector, executive director of DLF Shopping Malls, shared that it appears that people’s anxieties won’t settle anytime soon. But that does not mean that the consumer will not return to malls. In fact, according to a recent survey done by NFX for SCAI, approximately 70 per cent of consumers are willing to return to malls within a fortnight of their opening up. Shopping priorities might change and preference may be given to essentials, but the activity will definitely take place. “We also see interest in segments like electronics and beauty, which could attract a large part of the consumers visiting malls after these open up. The fact remains that there is pent up demand, consumers are looking at ways to release their energy and what better place than malls?,” said she.

One change that Pushpa predicts in consumer behaviour is a rise in nationalism where ‘Made in India’ brands would be preferred more in the first three months.

In the larger context, one must also understand that people visited malls not only for shopping. “It was a place for socialising, getting together and spending time with family. Malls are a social infrastructure. We must give people some time before they return. We are ready and plans are in place to make sure that the consumers get a safe and hygienic experience when they return,” she added.

As far as the retailers are concerned, Pushpa told us that they are very eager to open their stores. Some are little skeptical and worried, while others are confident of coming out stronger once the lockdown ends. She said, “Currently, they are also concerned about their inventory. Despite having so much stuff, their spring and the summer collections are lying in stores, untouched and unsold. We need to sort this out together by helping them ease it out. Marketing in the coming days will become one-to-one in nature, with lots of data exchange. A lot of digital marketing along with hyperlocal marketing will come into action.”

Now, the question arises if the lockdown phase would affect the Indian retail consumption growth rate? Rashmi Sen, Group COO — Malls of The Phoenix Mills Ltd, believes that India is the most attractive retail market of the world today and its consumption story is very strong. “I don’t think two months of lockdown can dent the consumption growth rate of India. We have seen that during demonetisation too, the sales rate picked up by the end of the year,” said she.

“If you look at the Indian economy, agriculture and Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) are large components of the GDP. If these two sectors continue to run strong, I think the recovery will be fast,” added Rajneesh Mahajan, CEO of Inorbit Malls.

Rashmi feels that the challenge is similar worldwide. It is not only India. Be it forthcoming malls or established ones, this phase of slow or almost zero growth will be short-lived. “For us, the safety and the confidence of consumers are priorities as we will be initiating strong protocol measures for our retailers and consumers. I would not be worried about whether the consumers will be coming or not but our main concern, in the initial period, would be restricting footfalls actually. The shopping behaviour in the short-run will be very subjective and necessity-led rather than leisure-led,” she said. Moreover, there would be people concerned about venturing out into crowded places initially. In order to overcome this, Rashmi explained, “The focus would be on inculcating confidence in consumers that malls are a safe place for shopping.”

Phoenix’s marketing budget earlier was huge with many activities and events — which would not take place now. For the next three months, they won’t organise any outdoor activity. The focus will be on the loyalty programmes to stay connected with the consumers so that they can get real-time information.

Similarly, communication would be Virtuous Retail’s first strategy. “The first bit of marketing will be giving out a message emphasising on developing comfort and confidence of the customers to visit the shopping mall. We will also be highlighting the steps and measures that we would be taking to ensure their safety and making the consumers aware of them. Moving forward, we know we cannot go with the traditional marketing strategy which we had in the past. I think this is going to be a much more focused approach,” shared Pankaj Renjhen, COO, Virtuous Retail.

Asked about the steps mall developers are planning to adopt for ensuring the safety and sanitisation of the place and people, Amitabh Taneja, chairman of SCAI, shared that the organisation has developed a stringent and comprehensive set of SOPs. These guidelines have been developed after several consultations with captains of the industry and taking references from global best practices implemented by countries like Singapore, Germany and China, where the malls have started opening slowly. For instance, he pointed out, “Thermal screening of every customer will be done before s/he enters the malls. There will be controlled entry and exit. Malls will be operational from 12 pm to 9 pm on all days initially. At any given point, we would have only one customer per 75 sqft Gross Leasable Area (GLA), which is the amount of floor space available to be rented in a commercial property.”

However, the checks would not end here. Anyone entering the mall including staff, visitors, contractors would have to undergo mandated temperature screening and checks. Distance markers will be installed at the entry points, cash counters and help desk. There would also be category-wise opening in various phases in accordance with government directives. The first phase will be dedicated to essential services and products in super market, infant clothing’s, eyewear, WFH electronics, apparel, personal care, salon and spa with 50 per cent of capacity and prior appointments only. The second phase will be dedicated to food court and F&B outlets. The last to open would be multiplex and entertainment centres. In case of dine-in outlets, the seating arrangements would be reduced to 50 per cent, where contact less menus and digital invoices will be encouraged. There would be repeated sanitisation and cleaning of all the common areas of the mall premises including toilets, lifts and entrance areas every 30 to 60 minutes. To restrict the entry, only 50 per cent of total parking capacity would be operational. The number of customers allowed in the washrooms would be restricted according to the size and only alternate urinals would be allowed to be used. Quick Service Restaurants (QSR) would have plexi sheets (transparent sheets) at front areas with separate cash and serving windows to minimise physical contact. “These are some of the recommendations and top-line measures I have highlighted. A detailed 48-page SOP is in place and circulated across the industry for implementation,” he said.

Major portion of any mall is dedicated personal shopping — clothes, shoes or accessories. And trying before buying has always been the norm when readymade garments are being purchased. Here comes in the aspect of touch and feel. So in a situation, where maintaining distance is the only solution, how will customers ensure that the outfit or the accessories they are trying out is safe? Mukesh Kumar, CEO of Infiniti Malls, has a solution for this, too. He said, “We don’t really see a big challenge for top wear, which can be purchased without even trying. That completely depends on the customers. However, for bottom wear, one usually prefers the concept of ‘try and buy’. To tackle this issue, retailers are working on a model where customers can take two to three garments home and return those which don’t fit. Then those tried pieces will have to be sent back to the manufacturing unit to be sanitised. Meanwhile, the fresh stock can be used for trials. This is pertaining to the size. Disinfecting of all such goods will become a normal and routine procedure for each and every other shop, be it footwear, apparel or jewellery. Here, trust on the brand you are purchasing from will become very important.”

“Also, there are technology available where buyer can just place the garment on them and see in the mirror how it looks. It’s know as virtual fitting rooms,” added he.

COVID-19 has changed everything, right from the way we travel to how we shop. So will there be a rise in online shopping as well? And can virtual reality, a welcome escape from the pandemic, ever be a substitute for the real thing? Well, there is no denying that online shopping has seen quite a surge. But that is also owing to limited options in the brick and mortar space when the lockdown was first announced, feels Amitabh. He said, “We must understand that online is yet another channel for retailing and it will always co-exist with the traditional ones. Some categories could work better online, while some would be preferred in the brick and mortar format. We are still a country that believes in touch and feel. This is a phase that will pass with time. More and more people will perhaps start looking at online for shopping for essentials, medicines, home furnishing products, women’s accessories and more.”

Malls have experiential offerings like cafes, theatres, entertainment zones and a few other things. However, these would not attract visitors now as these were the first casualties of social distancing and public health protocols. It is likely that these would be the last to emerge from the lockdown as well, feels Mukesh. “But if we will go by the guidelines that the government finally sets out for the opening of malls, it could be the other way round. As part of the exhaustive SOPs we created, abundant precaution has been taken to ensure safety, social distancing guidelines are adhered too and reopening will need to be done in a calibrated manner,” said he.

From a consumer’s perspective, it seems like the next six to seven  months are all about surviving and reviving. Rajneesh concluded the webinar saying, “I think we would be able to see the consumption level going higher from what we had in FY2019. On the shopping centre supply side, I see a slowdown and most of the malls which were ready to open now may have to delay a little. Their progress will be derailed due to this lockdown.”

Normal, the word, is all set to be redefined when it comes to all our experiences.

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