O2O and D2C may become preferred channels for retail

Rajat Wahi, Partner, Deloitte India, believes that there will be huge pentup demand in the initial period post the COVID-19 lockdown. Omnichannel will become a reality, but marketers will need to be mindful of delivery costs.


TPCI: In your view, how will the onset of COVID-19 and the emphasis on social distancing impact the outlook of consumers towards retail post-lockdown? 

Rajat Wahi: Post-lockdown, I feel it will take a few weeks/months for normalcy to return and for shoppers/consumers to start returning to shopping mall and high streets. In markets like Germany and China, according to what we are hearing from retailers there, 60-70% of shoppers have returned to malls within a month of their opening. My sense is that it will be the same here, as people will want to get some normalcy back in their lives after having been locked in for so long. But all this will be in the backdrop of social distancing, fewer shoppers being allowed in a store, and with masks and hand sanitizers, etc.

A lot will also depend on whether we have a second or third wave of infections, and how that is handled by authorities, etc. It takes months and even years to change consumer and shopper behaviour, and while there will be an increase in cautiousness among shoppers/consumers with regard to health, hygiene, and cleanliness, and shoppers will return to normal behaviour across many categories in the coming months.

E-commerce and contactless deliveries are expected to continue to witness strong growth as consumers are likely to move online for shopping for both essentials and discretionary categories, but given the strong presence of Kiranas and local mom & pop stores, essentials, especially perishable and packaged food will likely move back offline, while other non-essentials like fashion, electronics, apparel, etc. will likely to continue to grow online. This will also be driven by further penetration of digital payments in form of UPIs, e-wallets, credit cards, etc.

TPCI: The COVID-19 crisis is expected to lead to greater economic uncertainty, and frugal purchases. What kind of product categories will be in greater demand in your opinion when the lockdown opens? How will this change the product mix strategy of retailers?

Rajat Wahi: Easing of lockdown restrictions is expected to lead to an immediate increase in the overall demand for goods across many categories. As most non-essential categories were not allowed to be delivered during the lockdown even by ecommerce/online players, there is a lot of pent up demand for these categories. We are likely to see a major rebound or retaliatory buying across both premium foods and categories like apparel, accessories, personal care, shoes, etc., as people look to replenish stocks and also fulfil their needs.

In markets like China, the first few days and weeks saw almost 50-70% increase in purchases as consumers returned to offline and online channels. Post the retaliatory buying, things should come back to a lower normal, with more focus on essentials and affordable categories. With the economy softening and many job losses expected across industries, people will likely trade down across categories to conserve cash and protect their savings. This is likely to continue till the economy gets back to a growth trajectory. In addition, with a lot of workers moving back to their towns/villages, offtake is likely to go down in cities/metros, and we may see a corresponding increase in demand in tier 3 and rural towns where a majority of the labour has moved back to.

In terms of pack sizes, we are likely to see 2 opposing trends – we may see urban Sec A & B consumers buy larger pack sizes for pantry loading and to reduce trips to shops and super markets, and at the same time we may also see low income consumers across town and rural markets turning to smaller pack sizes/sachets across categories to conserve cash.

TPCI: How is this crisis going to affect channel strategy of retailers, particularly with respect to the utilisation of online channels? 

Rajat Wahi: Post the lockdown, we are likely to continue to see an increase in online shopping, from both existing consumers and also new consumers who would have experimented with online shopping during the lock down. But as kiranas were the main source of supply during the lock down, and most consumers were buying from their local kiranas and fruits & vegetable vendors during this period, that is likely to continue and may have even got strengthened during the lockdown.

But all brands/manufacturers will be looking to expand their distribution network and find new channels [online-to-offline (O2O) and vice versa, direct to consumers (D2C), etc.] to reach consumers directly, given the disruption they have seen during the lock down. Omni-channel, which was more of a buzzword before the crisis, has become a reality and most brands will pay a lot of attention to this now. Many brands are looking to use apps for last mile delivery from the local kirana shops, and have also rolled out mobile shops that are delivering products to the end consumers/communities by taking orders through mobile apps. But cost of delivery will be a the major deciding factor that will determine the success of the these direct-to-consumer (D2C) models going forward.

During the lockdown, companies are willing to pay almost anything to get products shipped out to retailers and consumers, but as last mile delivery costs have sky rocketed, this is not sustainable, and once retail opens up, many brands will re-evaluate the D2C models to see if this is feasible. We are also likely to see a continued focus on health and hygiene products for the foreseeable future, and we will see many brands enter this space through new products launches and by changing existing products.

TPCI: What supply chain disruptions are affecting business and how should players address them?

Rajat Wahi: Most brand and retailers are witnessing major supply chain challenges due to lack of labour, lack of raw material and packaging,  closure of factories and production units located in hotspots, transport restrictions, etc. Logistics and distribution to retail and end consumer are also significantly impacted due to shortage of staff and city/state-wise restrictions.

To address these supply chain disruptions in the short term, manufacturers have taken many steps:

o They have re-routed the sourcing of raw materials, packaging, etc. to the factories that are in operation, and also set up direct sourcing from suppliers and farms where possible.
o Developed alternate sources of supply so as to avoid future disruptions.
o They have set up new lines in plants that are operational to ensure that adequate production and scaled up the production capacity in existing facilities.
o Partnering with various 3rd party suppliers for both primary and secondary distribution, and look at leveraging any available sources of last mile delivery.
o Using technology to build visibility of the entire supply chain and build safety stocks across the value chain to ensure availability.

TPCI: In what ways can retailers assure customers about safety and hygiene of the supply chain, particularly in food products, given heightened concerns of contamination and infection?

Rajat Wahi: Following are some of the ways in which marketers are addressing this challenge:

• Various companies have launched contact-less pickup and delivery of products, self-collection and self-checkouts to ensure there is less human contact, and are also training their staff to maintain social distancing from the consumers.
• Staff are being provided with protective masks, gloves, sanitisers, etc. and are also being educated about maintaining hygiene and social distance so that they can in turn inform the customers/shoppers.
• Restaurants and food delivery companies are sharing updates on the temperature and hygiene of all human touchpoints (chef, delivery personnel, etc.) to address concerns of consumers, and also ensuring that the delivery team are following strong hygiene standards (masks, gloves, contact less, etc.).
• Retailers are also looking to set up makeshift counters at entrance to encourage takeaway and self-pick-up, and to use ewallets/UPIs for payment to avoid any contact or cash being transacted.
• Retailers are also looking to put in more measures around traceability of food products, by building awareness of the touchpoints from the source to the retail store.
• There will be an increasing use of technology for frictionless supply chain with zero touch points to ensure safety, through the use of RFID technology for inventory tracking, use of IoT to maintain and track SKUs, etc.
• AI/ML can also help companies to analyse data to achieve real time value chain optimization, improve labour allocation, and help cope with sudden increase or decrease in demand.

TPCI: What changes are you anticipating in operational management of retail stores post-COVID on a day to day basis and its impact on efficiency? How can retailers prepare themselves for these changes? What role can technology like AI/ML and robotics play?

Rajat Wahi: Post lockdown, retailers will have to work towards building the confidence of people by ensuring safety of employees and customers and will have to make certain operational changes to ensure safety

o Designate different entrances and exits to ease the flow of shoppers through the store.
o Restriction on the number of shoppers in-store at any point to avoid over crowding.
o Floor markings for payment and check out and using queue management apps to reduce crowing during peak hours and weekends.
o Number of store employees and promoters will be reduced to create way for shoppers/consumers.
o Measuring temperature of customers when entering the mall or store.
o Restriction on the testers/trial products to avoid contact, especially in the case of cosmetics and personal care. We will also see that in apparel for clothes/outfits shoppers can try, with a need to disinfect each outfit after every trial. Similarly food product trials in-store will need to be reassessed and new ways of getting tasting etc done.
o AR/VR can is likely to be used to reduce trials in-store and to also create experience without the physical touch and feel.
o Delivery of products can also be automated by using drones or robots, as was done in China, which helped the country to ensure contact-less delivery of products during this pandemic. This may be possible only for rural markets in India where delivery of essentials/lifesaving products could be done through drones.

TPCI: What changes do you expect in marketing budgets for retailers in the period post-lockdown? How would the media mix need to change and what channels would gain greater relevance?

Rajat Wahi: Marketing budget of retailers is likely to  shift to digital/online to connect with the online consumers, but with major sporting and other high visibility events being cancelled, brands are also likely to look at going back to main stream TV and outdoor advertising to connect with their consumers. In addition, social commerce and live streaming on social media platforms with short videos using influencers and key opinion leaders (KOL), interactive video shopping, and peer to peer advertising is likely to gain prominence among retailers and brands to directly promote their products to end-consumers.

Brands will also move towards using technology to provide physical or in-store shopping experience through digital channels, and we can see the use of AR/VR and endless aisles going up to enable shoppers to engage with each other.

We could also see a  move to shopping at home, through “trunk” shows at  customers’ home (high value customers). This is likely to be prominent in high value products like fashion, watches, jewellery and bags/accessories.

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