Pandemic, E-commerce & The Aftermath

Covid has changed habits that would have taken longer in the e-commerce space. Both the customers and the businesses had to switch to online and this is going to stay, believe experts

When the lockdowns were announced, chaos ensued from unpreparedness and the magnitude of change that was perhaps needed. Not only people, but many of the businesses closed down forever too. This Black Swan event compelled businesses to rethink their strategies to thrive and survive.

Consumers, on the other hand, who had been used to going to a brick-and-mortar for their shopping needs, switched to digital for overall needs. While the companies may not have been ready for this sudden change, all they were left with was to adapt to the modern methods. On this, Damodar Mal, CEO, Grocery and Retail Business, Reliance Retails says, “The lockdown came as a habit breaker. Everybody reconsidered how they buy and consume things. All business systems and dashboards were broken at our end.”

Abhijit Roy, MD & CEO, Berger Paints also agrees, “We being non-essentials, the first month was a disaster for us when the announcement of the lockdown was made. The stoppage of every economic activity other than the essentials affected the paint industry very badly.” He further adds that the company witnessed a huge decrease in demands after the lockdowns but is now catching up with the demand and revenue growth like the pre-pandemic period.

Digitalisation: The Game Changer

Though the pandemic invited problems, it has also brought some positive changes for the market that could have taken longer- primarily the digitalisation of the market.

We are witnessing it develop at such a fast pace that not only businesses but customers are adapting to digital methods to meet their needs.

Roy explains how digitalisation has been a very important characteristic that evolved during the pandemic, “Digitalisation was something that did take off in a very big way in the lockdowns. We had to adjust because we have to supply, we have to keep the things running, and all that has to be digitalised to keep the functions running.”

Mal further mentions how the pandemic pushed his company to go omnichannel to meet the demands and cope with the situation that the lockdown brought. “We went omnichannel in grocery, literally in a state of shock. If everything had happened through a plan, it would have taken us a year and a half to get in but we just reacted as per the need of the market, which turned out to be a good decision.”

Srinandan Sundaram- Executive Director, Foods & Refreshments (F&R), HUL & Vice President, F&R, Unilever South Asia suggests that the data collected from the customers in the online space is helping businesses to understand their habits and prepare a better experience for them, “Our processes have become better because they are delivering faster, our customer and consumer collaborations on data have moved forward by five to seven years. Otherwise, we'll have gone at a snail's pace.”  He further expounds how companies are also becoming more respectful of the data of customers, “After Corona, we have become a lot more agile and a lot more respectful of collecting, harnessing and leveraging data, keeping in mind the privacy restrictions that rightfully are there.”

Surge In E-Shoppers

Owing to the multiple lockdowns, the business of e-grocery stores has skyrocketed that further contours new examples of customer-business relationships.

With the collaboration between the customers and businesses increasing during the lockdowns, Sundaram observed a very interesting trend, “We found very innovative ways of collaboration between companies and customers which we never saw before. Customers tried to stretch out to pick up goods when our supply chains were struggling during the lockdowns. We found value in both customers and our end in forging new collaborations.”

Mal also notices something similar- surge in people committing to shop from these unconventional platforms. “We saw premiumisation happening in the supermarket customers. We saw people moving to different channels for shopping. They were coming less often, but when coming, they wanted a lot more from our stores, whether physical or digital,” he points.

Roy summarises with an important point saying that the move to e-commerce was a result of a big concern. “We saw a rise in the consciousness of health, hygiene and safety that escalated to a level at that point of time when the pandemic was raging.” He also believes these concerns have stayed even though the pandemic has weakened in its impact, “As soon as they know it ebbs, people tend to go back to their normal lives, but to a larger extent, the concern for safety and hygiene is still there, but at a much lesser level.”

*The speakers were present at a recent industry forum.

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