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Amid the pandemic, real estate developers focused on technology to navigate several issues ranging from labour shortage to sales and project launches
Amid the pandemic, real estate developers focused on technology to navigate several issues ranging from labour shortage to sales and project launches

Homebuying experience goes virtual, offices turn touchless

  • In a challenging year, 3D walkthroughs and online sales became the new norm for the realty sector
  • Despite low physical occupancy levels, large office developers quickly pivoted to a touchless experience to offer a safe working environment.

The real estate sector stepped out of its traditional ways in 2020 to launch projects and sign rental agreements virtually, sell homes online, and redesign workspaces to make them as touch-free as possible.

The residential sector has been battling a prolonged slowdown and while the pandemic-led disruptions exacerbated the crisis further, the past three months saw a sharp recovery in home sales.

Mumbai-based Godrej Properties Ltd sold homes on its mobile app, which allowed virtual walkthroughs of projects and transactions for buyers. Around 75% of the developer’s projects, across cities, was available on the app.

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“Online home sales is the biggest innovation that happened this year. We sold 2,000 crore of inventory in the four months of lockdown. Customers can see the site virtually, access all possible information on projects and it’s a far superior buying experience," said Mohit Malhotra, managing director and chief executive officer, Godrej Properties.

For international customers, who typically rely on third-party channels to buy homes, this was an advantage, Malhotra said. “We expect a large chunk of sales to move online going forward due to the sheer convenience," he said.

Bengaluru-based developer Puravankara Ltd launched three projects virtually in June-July, including a premium, an affordable and its first plotted development project.

The key features of the projects were shown virtually to around 30,000 prospective buyers, before the e-launch and a live session with an expert. The event was aired on all social media platforms, from where customers were led to an online booking platform with a payment gateway, where they could make a booking.

“It was an interesting but challenging year. We focused on technology to navigate several issues ranging from labour shortage to sales and project launches. We were planning to go digital and launched our home booking platform last year. The pandemic has only accelerated the process," said Ashish Puravankara, the real estate firm’s managing director.

While residential real estate bottomed out in 2020 against the previous peak of 2014, driven by affordability home sales touched 50,900 units in the December quarter, rebounding to almost 86% of the corresponding period in 2019, according to property consultancy Anarock. Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) and Pune drove residential sales, accounting for 53% total share.

“There has been a shift in consumer behaviour, moving to the digital medium significantly. We have seen traffic rise by 75% in the last few months on the housing platform. There has also been a rise in enquiries in tier-2, tier-3 cities which earlier relied on brokers and others," said Dhruv Agarwala, group chief executive officer, PropTiger.com, Housing.com and Makaan.com.

Agarwala said there was huge demand from consumers to see 3D walkthroughs before shortlisting a property, which has promoted 3D content products for online visualization of properties.

“Developers have started marketing properties through webinars and we organize it for them, including live drone shoots to see construction progress. The sale conversion rates post these webinars have been good. We believe these tools will stay even beyond the pandemic," he added.

Swaroop Anish, executive director, business development, Prestige Estates Projects Ltd, said digitization of the home-buying process has also helped make the decision-making time shorter.

Bengaluru-based Prestige, which held five virtual project launches over the past few months, saw a good sales run for its ready-to-move or close-to-ready apartments.

“We have sold 10 crore apartments after a couple of discussions and video calls, which never happened earlier. Premium homes sold very well and that’s because serious homebuyers, who had done their research and had all possible information available online, were clear about what they wanted and took decisions faster," Anish said.

Godrej’s Malhotra, however, said digital adoption has not been easy and can’t be done by all developers.

“In our case, the Godrej brand and credibility played an important role and helped customers to take their decision," he added.

India’s commercial office market also underwent a complete change as workplaces were deserted and work-from-home became the norm.

Despite low physical occupancy levels, large office developers quickly pivoted to a touchless experience to offer a safe working environment. Blackstone Group-owned Nucleus Office Parks launched an app for a touchless, seamless in-park experience. The app can be used for inviting visitors, self-health declarations, ordering food, access to information on traffic at lifts and outside the building, events, e-concierge services and a special emergency medical help number. Turnstiles and lifts were integrated with the app for a touchless entry to parks and traditional water taps were replaced with touchless taps.

Co-working firm WeWork India also offered WeWork All Access to all members, which allowed members to work from any of its covid-19-ready workspaces across 828 locations globally.

It also introduced an on-demand programme allowing individuals to book a desk on a per-day basis through a microsite, or book meeting rooms as per their need and availability.

“The on-demand offering has done well and we got 700 new members using this facility. The app is like Zomato or Swiggy where one can book an hour or a day at a close-by location for as low as 500 a day and no monthly membership is needed," said Karan Virwani, chief executive officer, WeWork India.

Virwani said the on-demand app, which will be launched formally, will add a business-to-consumer (B2C) to WeWork India, which has largely been a business-to-business (B2B) entity so far.

“The eventual goal is to merge it onto one app. But we have seen good response from even working mothers, teachers and small startups who needed to get out of their homes to work for a couple of hours and this offered a great alternative to a Starbucks or any coffee shop," Virwani added.

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