On January 2, 2020, Canadian global health journalist Helen Branswell ominously tweeted “I don’t like the look of this” with a South China Morning To post article on an outbreak of “unexplained pneumonia” in Wuhan. It was the first sign of the coronavirus that would soon manifest as a pandemic.
Two years and three very unique waves, the world has changed in many irrevocable ways. Having crossed over to the other side, there is one thing Indian traders now know for sure: uncertainty. Navigating waters that get choppy all the time helped them glean some important learnings along the way.
Surf a wave
Some businesses, such as retail and cinema, suffer more than others from their reliance on consumer attendance. Co-CEO of cinema company PVR, Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, says the company has “become extremely resilient”. Although moviegoers don’t flock to cinemas, there are always fixed costs to incur that strain a company’s resources. Bijli says, “The board decided to do a rights issue and have a war chest to improve liquidity to avoid instability in the face of more waves. Right now we are financially strong. We have a body of funds to fight the waves.
“After the first wave, we created a playbook to deal with the uncertainties of Covid,” says Arun Jayaraman, head of marketing – loyalty, site merchandising and partnerships at online grocery player bigbasket. The playbook covers supply chain, operations, marketing, and product to manage the exponential demand the business receives during a wave. “It helped us improve our services in 2021 during the Delta wave and when the Omicron variant was rampant. Building a business on very strong fundamentals and processes has helped us better deal with this situation,” he adds.
Gulshan Bakhtiani, director of drugstore chain Wellness Forever, thinks every wave is different; there are no ready-to-apply templates for businesses. His company is better prepared politically, in large part due to the growing and rapid adoption of digital solutions, he says.
A new buyer
The pandemic has changed consumer habits and therefore their purchasing behavior. Marketers find that honesty and frequent communication with them helps nurture meaningful customer relationships. Additionally, as Koshy George, CMO of FMCG giant Marico, puts it, “While communicating with consumers about the benefits of a product or brand has always been the norm, consumers today prefer choose brands aligned with their value system”.
There’s no better place to check on changing customer behavior than looking at a brick-and-mortar retail store. Rima Kirtikar, CMO, Viviana Mall, provides an overview with some numbers. “December 2021 surpassed its 2019 counterpart by a 30% increase in sales with only 75-80% attendance. Overall, our spend per customer tells us that buyers’ ticket sizes have increased. The mall has become more of a place for serious shoppers than just a meeting place.
Malls, retail stores and cinemas have done their best to meet sanitization and social distancing standards. Bijli thinks it’s essential to reassure customers of a safe experience, and Kirtikar agrees.
One thing is certain. Marketers now have dynamic strategies in place to help them weather a wave with minimal disruption. They also learned a lot in this tumultuous time.
Jayaraman’s biggest learnings are simple: waves one and two taught him to do more with less, while wave three taught him to plan ahead. For footfall-dependent businesses, enticing consumers through discounts and offers seems to have worked.
Kirtikar believes in small tweaks, like holding the mall’s flagship sale in the middle of the week instead of the weekend. Why? Because it ensures that only serious shoppers have time to drop by, reducing crowds.
This strategy does not seem to suit Bakhtiani and the nature of his business. “Relentlessly scan and explore the platforms and channels that are right for your customers. Convenience and trust are far superior currencies to discounts,” he says.
The customer takes the call
According to George, with social interactions shrinking dramatically, it’s the ‘word of mouth’ factor that has made its way into the online sphere. “This has given consumer reviews even more prominence, making them an integral part of the decision-making process for other potential consumers.” And speaking of online, he also thinks Covid has taught businesses a lot – above all, the power that digital can give them across business functions – supply chain, administration and even marketing. .
For Bijli, it’s a combination of deals on tickets and food and drink, great content and strict adherence to safety standards that does the trick. Looking to the future, he points out: “Humans were not born to be incarcerated at home. We like to travel and go out to the mall and the cinema. You can watch vacation documentaries, but that’s not the same as traveling somewhere, is it? It’s in our culture to go out with friends and have a meal or watch a movie.