The COVID-19 pandemic has, in the three-odd months since it began in India, changed our outlook towards pretty much everything in our personal, professional and social lives.  I personally believe that the meaning of  ‘normal’ changes with every passing day as the society evolves. As businesses are gradually looking  to recover from the effects of the pandemic-induced lockdown, they should base their approach on this underlying predictability. A recent survey conducted by the Retailers Association of India (RAI) to gauge consumer sentiment has yielded a few key insights that retailers in the country could use as the cornerstone of their revival strategies, at least in the short-to-medium term.

Shopping expenditure will undergo significant changes after the lockdown as consumers will now be more value-conscious vs. price though few product categories will continue to see high levels of interest.

The economic downturn that the pandemic has brought about will make most consumers wary about their shopping expenditures, particularly their ‘discretionary’ spends. We could expect consumers to be cautious while  spending, and when they do purchase something, it will be a value-conscious decision if not a price-conscious one. There are few who will spend as much as, or more than, they did before.

Food and grocery products will obviously continue to be top priority in the purchase list. With working professionals and students going about their work and studies from the safety of their homes, devices such as smartphones, laptops, routers, dongles, headphones – to name only a few – will become more important than ever. We are already witnessing a rise on the home-office furniture segment as ‘work from home’ models are likely to continue for a while. 

It might be a while before consumers feel comfortable visiting stores….

The long period of lockdown has made people yearn for the carefreeness when they could step outside their homes for shopping and enjoyment without worrying about exposure to a dangerous virus. Given the current scenario, they will probably refrain from visiting retail stores for a few months, even after the restrictions of the lockdown have eased. Unlike before, there is not a chasm but a thin, invisible line between being foolhardy and being over-cautious during these times, and most people will presumably prefer to err on the side of caution. 

However, in-store retail could continue to be relevant for high-value product categories and online will continue to play a key role

There is a curious divide between Indian men and women when it comes to the preferred mode of purchasing certain high-value products such as consumer durables, electronic goods, sports equipment, entertainment systems, furniture and home décor. Women are inclined to purchase these items online, while men prefer to buy them in retail stores. As per the RAI survey, men more than women, elders more than youngsters, and small-city consumers more than their big-city counterparts – all show a preference for shopping the old-fashioned way by visiting stores, however only with safety measures in place. The online engine will continue to play an integral part in the retailer’s growth journey. Hence we expect a co-existence of both formats to continue.

So how can retailers get the balancing act right – focus on safety, value, price to boost sales?

Retail has always been about consumer choices, about convenience, about experiences. Now it must, more than before, be about safety and hygiene too. It is expected and understandable that consumers – even those who are keen on resuming in-store shopping – will feel hesitant and tense about visiting stores. The onus is entirely on retailers to give them the confidence that their shopping experience will be as safe as possible, with no risk of exposure to infection.

Consumer fear will be allayed to a considerable extent if retailers observe practices such as regular sanitisation of stores, daily body temperature checks for staff as well as customers and minimal interaction between customers and staff. Apparel stores might want to consider installing virtual trial rooms. Although the technology hasn’t really caught on in a big way in India yet, the pandemic might just prove to be the tipping point in its adoption.

It’s not that safety and hygiene weren’t important before; we had simply taken them for granted. The pandemic, if anything, has brought them into the spotlight for business and consumers alike to focus on. The pandemic will die out eventually – it must, at some point – what will thrive is a reinvigorated and even more resilient retail.

A version of this article was carried by The Economic Times - on 6 July 2020