Aishwarya Ramesh

"There’s lot of weekend dressing happening at home, on weekdays": Uma Talreja, Shoppers Stop

How is this pandemic economically different from the 2008 recession? A conversation on the future of retail and customer preferences.

Retail businesses have been hit hard by the Coronavirus pandemic. Post lockdown, customers may not be able to frequent their favourite retail outlets, as social distancing norms may still apply. Communication is key during these testing times, and keeping in line with this idea, Shoppers Stop has released a new ad on the occasion of Earth Day.

In a conversation with afaqs!, Uma Talreja, chief of marketing and customer officer, Shoppers Stop, says the ad film is intended as a tribute to the working women of the fashion industry. She mentions that the idea came from the brand’s name itself – ‘Back to Earth’. Talking about the visual treatment, she mentions that the entire ad was shot in reverse to show a product going back in time to the point of its origin. Talreja spoke at length about how Shoppers Stop and its employees are coping with the situation. Even though the stores and businesses are closed, the team is still working. “Whether it comes to training, meetings, preparing for store openings, working on different projects, etc., it’s all been pretty smooth in terms of transition,” she says. Here are some edited excerpts from the conversation.

How will the retail sector be affected by the pandemic?

For us, the critical part of our business is that the stores need to open, given how crucial the supply chain is for us. We’ve been badly hit as retailers since there are no sales.

From a retail perspective, there are several categories. Some categories (such as essential goods) will not be as affected as other categories, when it comes to sales. Essentials, food and groceries won’t be affected on the demand side… the demand is constant and is probably rising, since eating out is suffering right now. I’m guessing they will attempt to take care of the supply chain to ensure that the supply of goods is steady and can meet the demand – which will shift from eating out to eating in.

Uma Talreja
Uma Talreja

Can you tell us how the coronavirus pandemic is different from the 2008 recession?

I still remember the recession of 2008 – the sales and consumption of premium ice cream actually went up during this time. People moved away from eating out because it was becoming expensive to eat out, but they were still craving indulgent food at home. Therefore, the sales of premium ice cream went up – at a time when some consumers were even downgrading on their groceries and essentials. The gourmet sector could be poised for a lot of opportunities because people want bigger indulgences at home. I think that’s an insight that will stay with us in the post-COVID era, too.

Whatever categories are considered ‘comforts’ or ‘treats at home’ – in that sense, home is going to be a big category as far as the retail sector is concerned, in terms of opportunity area. Whether it’s home appliances that make cooking easier… or setting up comfortable and indulgent spaces at home. This means adding cushion covers, plants, and desks to help users work from home comfortably.

"I still remember the recession of 2008 – the sales and consumption of premium ice cream actually went up during this time... I think that’s an insight that will stay with us in the post-covid era too."
Uma Talreja

Can you tell us about some other factors of consumption that’s changed, perhaps across sectors?

Thanks to work from home, even the clothes that we wear on a regular basis have changed. Most of the time, we’re wearing shorts or pyjamas. People used to reserve those for wearing on weekends. Now, you need to wash them more often and one may even need to purchase more of those pieces, since there’s a lot of weekend dressing happening at home, during the week, too.

As far as food and experiences you can have at home, I’m sure there will be some opportunities. Retailers will have to find ways to compensate for overall demand. Apparel and footwear and jewellery – these categories will face a challenge on the demand side because I don’t know if people will be willing to go to stores post lockdown. These categories may not see much demand in the e-commerce space either because there might be insecurities, such as income loss, possibly even job losses.

Having said that, I’m sure all retailers and employers are putting measures in place to ensure that their employees and customers are safe. These could include policies on social distancing, mask wearing, sanitising workplaces, observing social distancing norms, etc. We’re also looking at protocols that other countries are observing. For example, Dubai is looking to reopen its economy – so we’re studying their protocols to understand what measures they’re taking to stay safe. In the Indian context, group gatherings, big weddings, festival celebrations will all get impacted, which will, in turn, also affect retail.

In light of the pandemic, what are some of your core business and communication focus areas?

We’re focused on digitisation and have taken it upon ourselves to find ways to operate, even though we’re in lockdown. We’ve been encouraging our team to upskill themselves, too. We’re also focusing on digitisation. As a retail outlet, we were the first ones to go omnichannel and have found that the lockdown has accelerated the adoption of technology across teams. We really want to encourage our members to shop online right now, and are looking at bringing in an expedited delivery system.

Eighty per cent of our loyalty base comes from our loyalty program and it’s critical for us to talk to our customers at this time. Our CSR initiative is titled ‘Citizen First’ and we demonstrate that even though we’re a business, we’re citizens first and that’s what our messages are based on.

We’ve been trying to find new ways to communicate with our core audience – young women and children. We did a series with Penguin, which is a selection of stories brought to life virtually. Crossword also belongs to the Shoppers Stop family, so additionally, we’ve been sending our customers a free e-book every week so they have some reading to keep them occupied.

We’ve also teamed up with Adidas and Reebok for fitness-related content – the latest one being (hosting) yoga sessions with Malaika Arora on our social media handles. We’re also creating beauty-themed content with brands like Clinique on how to look presentable on Zoom calls, etc., and are also attempting to help them prep for life post lockdown. We’ve reached out to nearly 20 lakh customers via our live events in the past two weeks.

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