*Between March and May, India’s hygiene market registered a 24 per cent growth year-on-year
*Demand for hand sanitisers surged by 1,400 per cent on online platforms
*Hygiene audits, a staple of the food business, is now in demand from construction sites, warehouses and even offices
In the pre-pandemic world, Ashwin Bhadri, founder of Mumbai-based Equinox Labs, mostly conducted hygiene audits for food safety. The novel coronavirus has brought about a drastic change in his client profile. “We have received enquiries from segments which we never thought would approach us. From co-working spaces, malls and cinemas, to transport companies and schools, everybody wants to make sure they are taking the right precautions in terms of hygiene,” Bhadri says.
Be it a cab aggregator or a hotel, a multiplex, salon, school or gym, hygiene has become crucial for businesses seeking to woo back the confidence of patrons in the post-Covid-19 world. Not surprisingly, Gautam Dutta, CEO of multiplex chain PVR Cinemas, says, “In the new world, the biggest KRA (key result area) for a cinema manager will be hygiene.” Auditoriums will be filled only to 18 per cent of capacity, as one seat will be left empty on either side of a group. Specialised disinfectant treatment certificates (with a validity date) will be displayed at strategic points across the multiplex, Dutta says.
Similarly, while there’s still no clarity on when school buildings will welcome back their students, Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of Springdales School in Delhi, is in no doubt that their functioning would have changed drastically by the time they open up. “Expenditure should only be incurred at three levels — that is, hygiene, technology, and communication,” she says. Spaces where children converge regularly — such as the laboratory and staircases — and even the furniture will be constantly disinfected, she explains.
From air and surface disinfectant sprays, fruit and vegetable wash to hygiene audits and gadgets that use artificial intelligence (AI) to track an employee’s compliance with sanitisation protocols — a great many services and products are in the market today. Companies hoping to cash in on the hygiene concerns of businesses and other establishments that plan to reopen with the gradual easing of lockdowns around the country. According to market researcher Kantar, nearly 350 new sanitiser brands had entered the Indian market between March and May. In that period, India’s hygiene market registered a 24 per cent growth year-on-year.
Chennai-based CavinKare, which launched its Chik shampoo in sachets for the mass market in a pioneering and successful move in the early ’80s, was also among the first to introduce hand sanitisers in one-rupee sachets on March 30; several me-toos have followed in its wake. DailyObjects, a lifestyle tech accessories brand, has launched a portable ultraviolet ray-based steriliser to disinfect gadgets. Other major companies in the fast-moving consumer goods segment such as ITC, Marico and Godrej Consumer Products have jumped on to the bandwagon with a range of cleaning and sterilisation products. According to a recent report by market research firm Nielsen India, hand sanitisers were a ₹10-crore industry in 2019 and it touched ₹43 crore in March 2020, even as the demand for them on online platforms rose by 1,400 per cent.
An audit a day...
Equinox, which audits and certifies hygiene standards of business establishments, has developed an app that monitors thousands of sites virtually. This includes checking whether the staff are wearing proper disposables from head to toe, and, in the case of a food business, whether raw material is stored safely, utensils are cleaned thoroughly and so on.
Bengaluru-based Food Safety Works,also a hygiene audit firm for food businesses, which started with five clients in 2009, today has over 100. “Earlier we audited only the food industry, but now we are being approached by people from all sectors. We have started doing audits of construction sites, warehouses and even offices,” says Sarika Agarwal, managing director.
Wobot Intelligence, a Delhi-based company that uses artificial intelligence to help businesses monitor daily operations remotely, recently launched plugNplay, an AI-powered video analytics for hygiene tracking. When connected to existing CCTVcameras on the premises, it can keep a tab on whether employees are following the 20-second handwash protocol and social distancing, and on their use of personal protection equipment (PPE) and cleaning/sanitation activities.
“Physical monitoring beyond a point is not effective or is prohibitively expensive. By ensuring 24x7 monitoring and real-time feed on compliance, we are taking the load off business owners,” says Adit Chhabra, CEO. Violations are flagged to the supervisors and staff based on predefined workflows; the system does not use facial or other personal identification to safeguard privacy, Chhabra says.
Sumathi Ravi spends close to half an hour each morning sanitising herself before taking on her first client at Green Trends Unisex Hair and Style Salon in Chennai. A temperature check at the entrance is followed by sanitisation of hands, clothes and shoes. She then changes into her uniform and dons another layer of disposables — apron, gloves, mask, hair net and a face shield. The entire salon is sanitised with a disinfectant every few hours; and the number of clients is limited to just 30 per cent of full capacity to ensure physical distancing, as mandated by the country’s health authorities to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.
One of the most basic services at beauty salons is the reshaping of eyebrows through ‘threading’, where the beautician plucks out unwanted hair using a loop of thread, one end of which she holds tight between her teeth.
Ravi says that until about three months ago, if anyone had told her that she could thread eyebrows without using her mouth, she would have laughed it off. Today, she manages to do just that by looping the thread on a band around her neck to avoid using her mouth. “Initially we were unsure... But with one month of training and several dry runs we are as close to normal functioning as possible,” says the 37-year-old beautician.
In unlock mode
Hygiene ratings, once adopted on a voluntary basis by establishments, have become a badge of honour today.
“From traders obtaining best practices certificates to retailers utilising fumigation, hygiene has emerged as a prerequisite for any business transaction,” says Satvik Jaitly, a consultant with research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. Malls in Bengaluru, for instance, have resumed essential services using industry-grade disinfection processes, he says. Railings, doorknobs, escalator belts and elevator buttons are disinfected multiple times a day. The air-conditioning system too undergoes regular sanitisation. At Forum Mall, ‘hygiene marshals’ have been deployed to ensure there is no overcrowding.
When Select CITYWALK mall in South Delhi reopened last month, it had in place a standard operating procedure, beginning with a ‘disinfection tunnel’ for visitors at the entrance. From about 30,000 a day in the pre-Covid period, the footfall now hovers at 10,000 during weekdays, says Nimish Arora, director and CEO. Only 50 per cent of the stores reopened on Day 1 and the number gradually rose to 80 per cent, he adds.
The stores offer a ‘contactless ordering’ option, where customers can place an order over WhatsApp, pay online and receive the order at home within 24 hours. To shop safely with social distancing, one can pre-book shopping slots on the store’s website.
Safety on the go
In May, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), a lifeline for the Capital, announced a detailed cleaning drive for 264 stations and over 1,100 escalators and lifts. With reports of the Metro resuming operations from August, mechanised cleaning of the trains is underway.
Cab aggregator Uber has distributed over three million masks and 400,000 bottles of disinfectants and sanitisers free of cost to its driver partners. Sanitisation hubs, where its cabs are disinfected before each trip, have been set up at airports in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Pune. Some of the cabs have a protective plastic sheet separating the riders and the driver.
The hotel industry, completely paralysed by Covid-19, is attempting to revive itself through offers of staycations (long- or short-term stay combined with vacation) and workations (work plus vacation) that are marked by ‘touchless’ services. “Hospitality will never be the same again in the post-Covid world,” says Kush Kapoor, CEO, Roseate Hotels & Resorts.
The Roseate Ganges in Uttarkhand, which reopened in July, resembles a dystopian world in many ways. Men and women in PPE overalls welcome guests but desist from applying the traditional tilak on their forehead. Recently vacated rooms are offered to the next guest only after a 24-hour gap to ensure effective sanitisation, and only alternate rooms are occupied to maintain social distancing. The buffet system, which is at the heart of guest relations in many hotels, has become a thing of the past. On the other hand, guests can view their food being prepared using a live-streaming option on their phones.
Co-working spaces — where people working for different employers or self-employed share a common premises — were earlier chosen on the basis of their location and amenities; now the premium is on their hygiene protocols. Neetish Sarda, founder of Noida-based co-working space Smartworks, foresees a demand for flexibly tenured spaces from small and medium businesses hit by the lockdowns. “We have seen a 50-60 per cent jump in inquiries in the last few weeks,” he says. Smartworks members book meeting rooms using an app, which is also used to control amenities such as light, TV and projectors.
Cost of caution
In the post-pandemic world, hygiene has become a commodity, and it comes at a price.
Maintaining hygiene is an expensive affair. “Businesses should realise that there is a tectonic shift in consumer trust,” says Jaitly of Frost & Sullivan. Will the stepped-up costs be passed on to the customer? For now, no one is ready to comment, as getting the business in order is the priority. “The marginal increase in cost isn’t a challenge at the moment. We understand that we have to play a responsible role,” says PVR Cinemas head Dutta. Springdales School principal Wattal wants the government to develop external hygiene agencies to help end-users save on costs. “It will be a financial burden on schools, which will vary from small schools in villages to the larger ones in the metros,” she says.
Will all this become a norm, two or three years down the line? No one knows yet. While some of the changes like live-streaming of kitchen operations and other technological changes will become the norm in the future, other changes such as the use of PPE suits and staggered allotment of rooms may not outlive the pandemic, says Kapoor of Roseate Hotels.
As for Ravi, her mind is on unlearning two decades of beauty training to survive in the new normal. “Today, more than the quality of my service, it’s the quality of my protective gear that matters to the customer,” she says with a laugh.
Health is wealth, indeed.
Smitha Verma is a Delhi-based independent journalist