The scenes inside the Kumaran Silks store at T Nagar that went viral on Tuesday, leading GCC to seal the shop on grounds of violation of COVID protocol, would lead most to believe that shopping fervour in the run up to the festive season has defied pandemic blues. And that there has finally been a revival of cheer among retailers in Chennai after a long, lean season.
Sadly, that is far from the truth for many small retailers in T Nagar and other shopping districts in the city.
Take for example, Kadhar Moideen, a footwear store owner on Usman Road. Kadhar is a disappointed man today; having lost all his business over months of the lockdown, he was eagerly looking forward to the time that he could open his store again. “I had hoped a few loyal customers would still stick with us and come back once we reopen, but it has been a very lean time. We have hardly made any money for months now,” he says.
Not just Kadhar, but most small retailers see little hope of survival for their businesses, if sales don’t improve. From the small shops in the usually busy Ranganathan street to other retailers in T Nagar, and chains in shopping malls, all have been badly hit by poor sales since the onset of COVID-19. The dull response during Aadi gave retailers a sense of uncertainty about the upcoming Diwali season.
Even after the restrictions have been lifted, business has been anything but normal for stores in the shopping hubs of Chennai. “We barely have any footfall on regular days now. We have even reduced working hours for some staff due to the lack of customers,” says Santhosh K, a clothing store owner in the city’s shopping hub of T Nagar.
Most of the shopkeepers have adhered to all COVID-19 protocol, with masks for staff and social distancing measures wherever possible. Yet, fear of the virus is a major driver in the lacklustre sales seen in the area. The dire situation could even lead to closure of many shops.
Stores inside shopping malls, too, are not faring any better. Malls have been opened to the public after four months. But the number of shoppers taking a chance to go shopping has been much less than anticipated.
“We did not know what to expect after the opening. In the initial days we had some buyers, as people were eager to get out. But not much sales has taken place since, despite the Diwali discounts being offered,” says Tharun V, a clothing store manager in Forum.
D Hariharan, Treasurer, Pondy Bazaar Merchants Association, says “We have been seeing only a maximum of 40% of the business that the shops used to get during the season normally. Until there is a vaccine the customers will be wary to visit the shops. If there are any reports of overcrowding or if the customers fear for safety. it is unlikely that they will come to shop in that case.”
The virus has robbed the public of a chance at normalcy during festival season. Customers are yet to return to the shops despite the advertised COVID-19 safety measures as the possibility of spread is still deemed a threat.
“We are a large family that really enjoyed shopping for Deepavali every year. We go as a group to T Nagar. But this year we have decided not to do so, because we do not want to expose the elderly members of the family to any risk. So we have shopped online,” says Sarala N of Anna Nagar.
Another reason for the dull shopping season that looms ahead is the economic impact of COVID-19 being felt across all spectrums. Job losses and pay cuts have been rampant over the period of lockdown, and there has been a decline in the disposable income of most spenders.
“I have seen a 20% pay cut at my job. So Diwali shopping is the last thing on our minds. My wife and I have made purchases for the kids through a family friend. We are trying to reduce such expenses and save funds for any contingent hospital expenses or uncertainties that we may face due to COVID-19,” says Charles A of Anna Nagar.
The new normal of shopping: Have retailers adapted?
Most customers who can afford to do so have now moved their shopping online. The attractive discounts and the convenience of shopping from the safety of their homes have been the driving factors.
“I used to shop online even prior to COVID-19, but would still visit stores occasionally. For as long as the virus is around, however, I do not want to take a chance. So anything I’ve wanted since the lockdown was imposed, I’ve bought online,” says Shireen B of Royapettah
Within a few months of noting the dip in sales, retail businesses tried to make changes in order to win back customers.
Once shops reopened with the commencement of the ‘Unlock’ phase , stores took extra measures such as offering doorstep delivery or in areas other than their outlet to attract customers.
“When the stores opened after the restrictions were lifted, we did not see as many customers as we anticipated. So we thought about taking our business to the doorstep of customers,” says Krishna M, a footwear stall owner in Pondy Bazaar.
Since Krishna sells footwear, it was not difficult to carry the inventory. They called some of their regular customers to enquire if they needed their products. When a few said they did, they were able to deliver the items to them at their door.
“A lot of the stores have also tried to move online because ultimately we want sales. We have to find a way to reach our customers. At times like this, we have to adapt,” says Hariharan as his store Ajantha Textiles made its foray into online sales during COVID-19.
Some innovative pop-up shops have also been used to attract customers. Lifestyle Stores recently set up stalls in a large apartment complex in Selaiyur, PTN Pace Adarsa, hoping to take the shopping experience to customers within the safety of their own premises.
Speaking about the pop-up, A Murugananthan, a resident of the apartment complex said, “The experience was okay. It cannot replace actual shopping, but given the fact that people are still not very confident about how safe public places are, they will not be visiting physical stores for some more time at least. If the situation improves, we may think about going shopping physically in 2021.”
Meanwhile, large retail chains, which have the wherewithal to provide options of online shopping, have increased the focus on e-commerce. The Big Bazaar outlet in T Nagar sees shoppers place orders online and come to the store to collect the items.
“People do not want to spend too much time inside the closed space of the shop due to COVID-19, so we have given them the option of selecting and placing orders on the website. They can then just come to the shop and collect the wares quickly. This offers them a measure of safety and is also faster than waiting for a day or more for delivery,” says a manager of the T Nagar branch.
The pandemic has really hit sales hard in the city. Business for the first two months came to a complete standstill due to the lockdown. Now that stores are now allowed to open though with some restrictions, sales are slowly growing. We are looking at sales numbers go up to 50-60 percent of what we saw last year.
The Centre and State governments have definitely helped retail in the city by allowing stores to gradually open. However, we also expected support in key areas like interest waivers and salaries. That being said, we are opening, and with restrictions easing with respect to store timings and manpower, we are gradually moving to normalcy.
– Suhail Sattar, Chairman, Retailers Association of India, Chennai Chapter
Smaller businesses have however not been able to adapt as well. Most of them lack the requisite knowledge of technology; they also don’t have anyone to guide them on how to take the business online or the capital necessary to recruit consultants and staff for it. Hundreds of small stores that once lined the street of Pondy Bazaar and made shopping here a vibrant experience are on the brink of shut-down.
“We just have to wait and hope that people will come back. Affordable prices and good quality have always been the primary draw in these markets. We cannot offer online shopping or any similar options, but hopefully sales will go up closer to Deepavali,” says Sadagopan T, a clothing stall owner at the retail complex in Pondy Bazaar.
Yes, customers do miss out on the retail shopping experience due to the virus and the economic impact it has had, but a deeper look suggests that fall in sales has been a trend since before the pandemic. A dull festive season was seen even last year, with online shopping taking away a significant chunk of customers.
The pandemic has only accelerated the difficulties faced by the shopkeepers and exposed the new realities that retail businesses are going to have to deal with in the coming years, as shopping habits could be altered permanently.