Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Lockdown lessons from grocery retailers in China

Gejha village near Sector 93 in Noida, on the outskirts of Delhi, houses a large-format departmental store for household goods and groceries. Called ELT, it is a boon for the many housing societies in the area as it services their needs for items of daily use, especially, during the ongoing countrywide lockdown to prevent the spread of covid-19. Some other grocery stores in the area have shut shop as they ran out of stocks.

ELT has been quick to adapt to the situation and provides a safe shopping experience. Despite its size, it allows only two customers to go in at a time. Their temperatures are checked at the entrance and masks are mandatory to get in. The queues outside are long, but a distance of 1 metre is maintained between people.

Located in Hasanpur village near Patparganj in Delhi, modern trade outlet Reliance Fresh is following similar protocols. However, customers visiting both these places report that although essentials are available, the shelves look bare as savoury snacks and other such goodies are missing. Even among essentials, the brands, variants and pack sizes are limited.

Clearly, most modern trade stores and even the neighbouring kiranas have been keeping essential good supplies running to meet your household needs. While they should be commended for their efforts in staying open during these difficult times, there are some interesting lessons that grocery and essential commodities retailers could learn from China, where the coronavirus pandemic actually started.

Rajat Wahi, partner, Deloitte India, has been in touch with supermarket chains and retail experts in China to understand how they dealt with the crisis at the store level during the lockdown. He said Chinese supermarkets also witnessed panic buying at the beginning, followed by limited footfall and change in consumption pattern, and finally towards community-based group buying with home delivery services.

“They had a warlike mentality to deal with the situation," he said. The first thing they did was to advertise their store timings and other details via mainstream media. “The most important step was their proactive and timely communication to the public about the range of products available at their stores and their prices."

This was followed by attention to customer experience and product delivery. The supermarkets looked closely at key elements—from sourcing, product range, pricing to safety and hygiene. For starters, the stores were reorganized to ensure that both the employees and customers remain safe. The process entailed marking out areas for customers to move and stand at least 1-1.5 metres apart.

The exercise also included changing the way they stacked products so that they do not display empty shelves. They not only stored more staples, food and beverage items and dairy products, they laid them out so that they were more easily accessible. Importantly, the in-store messaging about regular supplies was used to influence customers to avoid hoarding. “Clearly, they had a heads-up and so they were able to stock themselves up," said Wahi. Many grocery retailers created self-checkout zones with minimal contact through UPI and other QR-enabled payment modes. They offered instant downloads to customers through hoardings and messages of these codes. While most supermarkets worked with bare essential staff, some of them tripled their salaries for the duration. “The Chinese retailers were proactive since they knew that after stocking essentials, customers will look for other products. They anticipated that people will shift to experimental cooking at home. So, they offered ingredients for gourmet cooking," said Wahi.

Aware of the unique needs of the people, they stocked low-fat, low-sugar products for diabetics and senior citizens and baby food and diapers for infants. Supermarkets also entertained bulk deliveries to residential areas by tying up with food delivery and food-tech companies.

In India, too, several consumer goods firms have tied up with delivery companies to reach the consumer directly. Last week, Britannia Industries, the maker of biscuits, bread and dairy products, partnered with Dunzo. Domino’s Pizza and ITC Ltd have tied up to deliver essential items through the pizza chain’s app.

Even when things go back to being normal, for retailers maintaining hygiene practices and for customers maintaining distance should become a force of habit.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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