The business of shopping malls falls among the several businesses that have been severely dented by the COVID-19 pandemic. With social distancing becoming the new normal, are malls ready for a change? What is the impact of the pandemic on the malls? How are they recovering from it? To discuss this, we spoke with Rajneesh Mahajan, CEO of Inorbit Malls.
Are malls sales back on track? What are your strategies to drive consumption?
I’d say they are on the path to be back on track.
The first objective of the strategy was to make customers feel comfortable which is only possible when they are assured that malls are following all the necessary safety measures including social-distancing, and regular sanitisation to bring in the confidence that we are equipped to handle larger gatherings. A lot of communication about it, a lot of sharing of the SOPS, and the on-ground implementation which customers can see and experience that they are in a safer environment.
After establishing safety and communicating the same in the best way possible, the second fact was to ensure that they see it as a joyable and leisure activity. When they come to the property, they find some recreation in shopping so that it is a welcome change from the lockdown and being at home. Since, we want to avoid any kind of event that brings people together and is anti-social distancing activity, a lot of focus has gone into the décor, so that people can see freshness and joy in the environment. Unfortunately, whatever we have been doing in terms of activations, promotions, and events shouldn’t be done because all of these lead to a large gathering at a particular point and we want to avoid.
To drive consumption, a lot of initiatives with retailers have been done to ensure that people can connect, consume, and place their orders even from the comfort of their homes. We have communicated and promoted the contact details of the retailers that have video call shopping facilities, that have the facilities to get the products delivered at the doors of the customers.
Lastly, we are leveraging technology to connect retailers and consumers to ensure that the transactions are happening. We’ve also tried to take the experience of malls to the residential society by monitoring the products that are in demand and then gathering those retailers and taking them to the housing society in Bengaluru and Mumbai. It was an exciting and a good learning experience for us. Some of the retail categories did well with such an initiative.
Have you opened any new brands in the mall recently?
After the lockdown was lifted and people were able to go out, across 5 malls, we’ve some 27 new brands opened up in various categories like restaurants, fashion, accessories.
How has been the response to these newly opened brands?
Some of the new brands to the city like Under Armour in Hyderabad have done fabulous business. Even in normal times, we did not expect that kind of sale that we have achieved right now. Most of the categories are following the normal trend of recovery.
Which categories have played an important role in driving consumption?
The category which has been sailing high is electronics. In the wake of work-from-home and study-from-home culture, the sales of the laptop, printers, scanners, etc., have been booming. Electronics has done very well right from day one of reopening. Next are the sports and fitness categories. The pandemic has been instrumental in accelerating the focus on healthy lifestyles. People have got into yoga, exercising and athleisure. Home decor and furniture are not far behind. People realised the need for home furniture to work from home. We saw a good recovery in the furniture and related home category. Many people picked up cooking as a hobby and needed baking and cooking equipment, so that category did well. Fashion took time to pick up, but towards Diwali, it recovered well. Cosmetics was a little slow initially but picked up later. The skincare category picked up faster, and we saw higher sales from day one. The rest of the categories towards Diwali have shown good growth and are performing better.
How has the mall helped shoppers overcome the safety concerns with their continued efforts to offer a safe shopping experience?
As I said, first it was important to establish that the place is safe to come. By communicating to the shoppers that we are following all the required SOPs like installation of sanitising machines and then implementing those on ground level so that customers have the satisfaction that their safety is our top priority. We have constant monitoring on the ground for instance if someone is not wearing a mask, ground staff would request them to wear it. Thirdly, the announcement that we keep making in the mall constantly reminds people to maintain distance, sanitise hands and wear a mask all the time. Hence, the constant communication has helped bring in the confidence that we are keeping the promise of keeping them safe.
Has the mall come to a consensus with the retailers regarding the rental issue?
It is a collaborative approach. Pandemic has been a major setback for both the parties, and we understand that together we have to sail through the crisis. I think that matter is now over, and we all have started planning expansion and growth strategy. There were consensus and manner in which the commercials are settled for the lockdown period. Support was extended post lockdown to ensure that the financial help is given to lessen the burden of the retailers.
Amid the pandemic, is there any change in the size of the store by the retailers?
We have seen certain corrections happening because retailers are trying to control their inventory movement, which would impact the store size because they might require lesser storage space. This depends from retailer to retailer. But I think to deliver a more personalised experience and to enable social distancing there will be changes in the layout of stores. It is too early to say how retailers will adapt to these post-pandemic customer demands and how they will strategise the entire future planning. But I’d assume they may require a slightly bigger store to give more space to each customer and a better shopping experience.
How has the role of technology changed for the mall post-pandemic?
A lot of initiatives have been done, and some of them are received well. Emphasises were given to connect the consumer to the store of their choice through mobile shopping or video shopping. We tried food payment via QR Code which consumers still have not adopted, so I don’t see much attraction to that technology. The consumer still prefers to place their orders on the counter. Same way booking slots for shopping is not picking up. But we see technology playing a role in understanding and monitoring the footfall movement that would help us understand which corridor requires more intervention in terms of safety and maintenance. We see investment in technical intervention for backhand working. We are investing in the interaction with retailers towards the infrastructure, maintenance, and the upgrades that have gone on the digital platform. Bringing in efficiency, better consumer experience, managing customer data, these areas will see a lot of technological investment.
According to you, can malls go omnichannel?
All the retailers selling to consumers are anyway omnichannel. They are available through their website, e-commerce platform, and now a more advanced way of shopping via the Instagram catalogue. In the future, I think malls will incorporate new features into their business structure that will connect the consumer with retailers. Will this be classified as omnichannel? That I’m not sure of because we do not sell and from a business perspective, we remain a platform. But I do see investment in the new channel opening up where the mall will facilitate a transition that will help retailers connect with consumers through physical and virtual stores.
What are your expectations from the budget?
Our expectation from the budget is that it needs to boost consumption, strengthen the money in consumers' hands so that they come out and spend. It should instill strength in the economy's growth and bring back confidence in businesses to invest in the future. The banking system can help fresh investments or taxation leave more in the customer's hands to spend.