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Urban Indians are increasingly stepping out of their homes, but are still not thronging places of retail and recreation such as restaurants, cafes, shopping centres, theme parks, museums, libraries and movie theatres
Urban Indians are increasingly stepping out of their homes, but are still not thronging places of retail and recreation such as restaurants, cafes, shopping centres, theme parks, museums, libraries and movie theatres

Will retail and recreational sectors get a boost as cities unlock?

Be it at home, or in retail and recreational places, mobility in metros is now closest to the pre-pandemic normal, but sustaining it will be a challenge

During the pandemic, the confines of a home was the place for all activities—work, shopping, exercise, arts and entertainment. However, as cities came back to life, people began stepping out for some of these pursuits.

External nudges have played a part. The Centre allowed Metro train services to resume from 7 September and allowed open air theatres to stage shows and functions from 21 September. It also allowed cinema halls, theatres, entertainment parks and business exhibitions to start operations from 15 October.

In the six major metro cities, mobility at retail and recreational spaces is now at its closest to the pre-pandemic levels, shows Google data. This is also true for residential areas. However, each incremental step on the ladder of potential gains also increases human proximity, posing a challenge to making and sustaining those gains.

In April, when the lockdown was complete, city residents spent 30-37% more time at home than they did before the pandemic. It is now at 12-17%. Since mid July, Delhi led other metros, such as Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai, in the extent of reopening.

Urban Indians are increasingly stepping out of their homes, but are still not thronging places of retail and recreation such as restaurants, cafes, shopping centres, theme parks, museums, libraries and movie theatres. In April, footfall at these places in the six cities were down about 90% from their pre-pandemic levels. It is now down about 50%.

The numbers show much ground remains to be covered on the road to normalcy. However, they also indicate that this is the best it has been in the last six months. The trend points to reopening of more establishments and greater inclination of the public to venture out. Even in retail and recreation, Delhi has recovered more than the other five cities since July, while Mumbai has consistently trailed.

Fatigue is setting in with the pandemic and work-from-home is testing work-life balance. A Microsoft survey covering 6,000 workers in eight countries, including India, identified the lack of separation between professional and personal life and longer work hours as leading reasons for work stress. Further, data from Microsoft’s video-conferencing app Teams showed that people were doing more meetings and more chats between 5pm and midnight than before.

Household incomes came under pressure, but there was always no downward adjustment in big essential spends. Data from real estate portal 99acres.com showed between the March and June quarters, rental values either increased or were constant in 189 of the 271 localities surveyed across the six cities.

Cooped in at home, screens of many hues have been companions. Both leading video- and audio-streaming services posted healthy additions to their subscriber base in India in the June quarter, according to technology research firm Sensor Tower.

During the lockdown, urban Indians streamed more content. They shopped for goods and services via payments systems such as Unified Payments Interface (UPI). They looked online for search terms like worry, workout and recipes.

However, after restrictions were lifted, more and more urban Indians were willing to look beyond the options at home. They have begun to engage with some external spaces they initially avoided. A good example is food delivery. The sector is doing 75-80% business of pre-covid levels in value terms, according to a report on 19 August by restaurant aggregator Zomato. This rose to 85% by 23 September. The number of restaurants offering food delivery in its August report was at 70% of normal.

However, eating out at restaurants is still not a preferred option on scale. The Centre allowed restaurants to reopen in June. The Zomato report, released two months later, showed that only 17% restaurants had opened for dining in the five cities surveyed. Kolkata led with 29%. However, in Delhi-NCR, where retail activity has recovered the most, only 12% of the restaurants had opened for dining.

The restaurant experience shows that even as cinemas and theatres reopen, bringing back audiences is a barrier they will have to contend with. A survey in September by online ticketing company BookMyShow, covering 2,000 respondents across 120 cities and towns, captures this paradox of interest and caution. As much as 80% of the respondents said they would step out within 60 days of the lockdown being lifted. 77% also said they preferred an outdoor venue.

Going out and doing things they would normally do is still something that a large percentage of Indians remain circumspect about. Data on homestay marketplace Airbnb shows that the number of nights for which properties in the six main metros were booked had steadily increased from about 60,000 in January 2019 to about 75,000 in January 2020. This crashed to about 26,700 in April and 17,000 in August.

In the three months to August, the number of booking nights on Airbnb across the six metros was down to 63-84% over the 2019 levels. The impact of the pandemic has been felt the least by properties at the upper end of the price band, generally upwards of 10,000 a day, and most by properties at the lower price range.

The Airbnb and dining-out data shows as the degree of human proximity increases, so does the reluctance to engage. Urban India might have a sniff of recovery but the road back is long and complicated.

howindialives.com is a search engine for public data.

This is the second of a three-part series on post-covid life in India’s biggest cities. The first part looked at shifts at work.

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