Closed mall in Mumbai
Closed mall in Mumbai

The logic of keeping malls shut when the rest of retail is being allowed to re-open in bits and pieces as part of the easing up in Lockdown 4.0, is something I cannot fully comprehend. Even e-commerce has been opened up for both essentials as well as non-essentials, in all of green, orange and red zones, just keeping containment areas out-of-bounds. So, why the step-motherly treatment to malls alone? Because, they are ‘elitist’ says my highly placed bureaucrat friend. And ‘elitist’ always has negative connotations in our country.

As per KPMG, size of total Indian Retail was estimated at USD 854 bn in 2019. Of this, Organised Retail was estimated at USD 94 bn (11% share), Unorganised Retail was said to be USD 734 billion (86%), and E-commerce pegged at USD 26 bn (3%). The overall share of the Retail sector in India's GDP is about 10%, though Retail contributes to approximately 40% of India’s consumption. 46 million people are employed in the retail sector nationally. And 15 odd million retailers nationally generate a business of almost Rs 4.74 lakh crores annually, as per data available till the last fiscal.

The most important statistic for me really is that the Retail industry employs about 46 million people, which sustains the livelihood of at least 250 million Indians, as part of their families. Food and ‘essentials’ contribute to around 50% of the total Retail; ‘non-essentials’ contribute to the other 50%. Not opening ‘non-essentials’ directly impacts 20-25 million employees and perhaps 125 million of their family members. When a substantial amount of Retail remains shuttered, it not only impacts consumption, it also has a debilitating impact on manufacturing, logistics, wholesale and even artisans. Prima facie, therefore, shutting of Retail, traditional or modern notwithstanding, is not such a good idea, especially if the objective is to get the economy going again.

Within modern Retail too, I am intrigued why would malls need to stay shut if the bazaars and traditional Retail are opened, partly or fully? Malls are any day more hygienic, lesser prone to infection, more controllable for social distancing and especially with monsoons now not too far away, are far cleaner and better for consumers to shop at. To get consumer feedback on board, I got some young kids from B-schools to run a short telephonic survey in Mumbai last week. A total of 491 interviews were completed. Almost half-and-half, male-female. Across age-groups. Let us look at the broad feedback:

  • Should malls be re-opened? An overwhelming 91% were in favour. Others were really indifferent.

  • Are malls safer to shop at from a health stand-point? Yes, said 83% of respondents across age-groups. Older respondents said almost a hundred percent ‘yes’ to the question.

  • Should cinemas/multiplexes be re-opened? ‘No’ said 88%. Why? Too many people inside a small space. Social distancing difficult to maintain.

  • If only half the seats in the theatre are filled up? Only 42% supported that. The rest felt screens could stay blank for some more time. There was no real rush.

  • Should restaurants in malls be re-opened? No hurry, felt 78%.

  • Should QSRs be opened? 21% said yes. The rest were quite happy with take-aways as an option.

  • Should food courts be re-opened? Yes, said 58%. The rest were mostly ‘maybe’.

  • What do you want to buy at the malls? Clothes (87%), shoes (72%), gadgets and electronics (55%), packaged foods (31%). Salons were mentioned by 78% as an important service at the mall, they are missing.

While not part of the formal questionnaire, the biggest reservation with malls, voiced by respondents, was ‘air quality’. Many voiced ‘stale air’ and ‘recycled air’ as potentially hazardous. But wouldn’t that apply to offices, hotels and airplanes too? Most of those that the tele-researchers spoke to, concurred. Said that is why they would not take a flight unless faced with an emergency. But what about going back to office? Most demurred, preferring to evade the question.

No other serious negatives surfaced in the dip-stick research. Most consumers would be happy to see malls open again. Multiplexes remaining shut, or restaurants/QSRs/food-courts working at half throttle are fine too with most folks. But the other ‘non-essentials’ are the one most want re-opened.

Specific mention was made, in fact by 78% as mentioned earlier, about salons. There was no specific query in the administered questionnaire but in the free-wheeling post the structured part, a large number of respondents wanted salons in malls to be opened soonest. Perception that they would be cleaner, more hygienic and safer than the ones in regular market-places. Interesting, hmmm!

So, what is the best way forward?

n Malls should be allowed to re-open. The earlier, the better. There is no logical reason to keep them closed. Sure, not all establishments in the malls may be selling ‘essentials’ but then who is to decide till when citizens can, and should, be denied ‘non-essentials’? My wife wants to buy a new oven. And also a new dish-washer. Both have broken down in the past few weeks of the lockdown. Is she entitled to a trip to the nearest Cromā store, or is that too much to ask for?

  • I couldn’t agree more on the salons. The better ones, outside the 5-star hotels, are mostly in the malls. The perception about them being safer and cleaner than most in regular bazaars may not be inaccurate. One would tend to believe that salons should really be part of essentials. A hair-cut after two months is surely a justifiable ‘luxury’.

  • There seems no real hurry for multiplexes or restaurants to go on stream again. So, no debate about them.

  • The concern on air-conditioning may or may not be real. Coronavirus to all accounts is not air-borne. But fears are fears. Real or imaginary, no one can tell. Maybe mall owners and retail associations need to answer this question. Maybe public health authorities need to set new guidelines for stricter air-con norms. But this sure is preying on most minds. And is an issue that needs addressing.

  • Media reports say that all airports will soon have UV tunnels for baggage to be disinfected. Maybe something similar can be mandated at all malls for customers carrying bags.

  • Another simple idea to be put in place would be a common delivery counter at the exit point so that shopping bags are not carried from outlet to outlet.

  • The usual drill of temperature checks for employees and customers; sanitisers everywhere; masks for all on the premises; contactless payments. These in any case, I suppose will be SOPs going forward.

Reopening of malls may not be a major concern for the authorities. Because the ‘elitist’ customer is irrelevant when there are more pressing problems to combat. My view is that there is nothing ‘elitist’ about malls or modern trade…they are at the standard all retail should actually have been in our country by now. In a pandemic where all we are fighting is hygiene and safety, to keep the units that are actually in the Top 10 percentile, is both illogical, and unfair.

This article is the third and concluding part of a series.

The writer is a marketing strategist, and communications expert. He is the author of ‘The Dum Dum Bullet’ and ‘Konjo – The Fighting Spirit’.

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