A trip down the 2021 consumer lane

Harish Bhat | | | Updated on: Dec 12, 2021
image caption

Reflections from a consumer on an unusual, challenging, interesting, roller coaster year in the world of retail and shopping

The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson famously said, on the eve of the New Year — “The year is going, let it go. Ring out the old, ring in the new.” But before we let this year go and ring in the new one, here are my personal reflections on this unusual year, viewed through a consumer lens.

Changing moods

Many of us, including me, began the year with optimism, driven by our view that the pandemic of 2020 was largely behind us. During the first two months of the year, near normalcy had returned, consumers were out in strength, and my neighbourhood stores were buzzing once again with the joy of traffic. Social distancing and masking norms had taken a relative backseat.

Then, the terrible second wave of the pandemic came upon us, reminding us that the coronavirus was still active and all around. Consumer confidence dipped, and people retreated once again to the relative safety of their homes. The apartment complex in Mumbai where I stay got sealed for several days at a stretch, because of the number of Covid positive cases. So we had no option but to use e-commerce or home delivery for most of our purchases.

Kirana trends

Interestingly, by this time, our neighbourhood kirana stores had built out their home delivery infrastructure very well. They were in a position to deliver groceries to our home within a couple of hours of an order over WhatsApp, through a known delivery person whom we were comfortable with. Not once did our local store fail us, thus cementing the role of kirana stores in our lives. Similarly, our enterprising local technicians demonstrated their agility by promptly repairing our microwave oven and airconditioner, both of which broke down during the peak of the second wave.

My conversations with a few kirana stores revealed an interesting trend. At the start of the year, many consumers had moved from unbranded loose commodities to branded products, driven by the need for health, hygiene and safety. However, as the year progressed, and food inflation began pinching pockets, a large number of middle-class consumers actively sought far more affordable options, and shifted to non-premium brands and non-branded products in many categories. For instance, the most recent report from Kantar, a market research agency, suggests that premium toilet cleaners declined by 22 per cent during the July-September quarter, while non-premium cleaners gained by 20 per cent.

Online is king

For a variety of non-grocery products — a wide and interesting range that includes Jockey innerwear, garments, N95 masks, books, plants and soil for my wife’s terrace garden — digital purchases through e-commerce ruled the roost. That trend has continued even well beyond the second wave, as the convenience of buying online has sunk into our brick-and-mortar minds.

I love movies, and since we could not visit movie theatres for most of the year, I finally succumbed to the charms of Netflix. A bout of illness which I went through re-emphasised the importance of health and fitness, which has thereafter impacted my choice of products and brands. My elderly mother’s online consultations with her doctor, from the safety of her bedroom, brought home the convenience of digital medicine. In the meanwhile, a number of other new fangled digital things were also rising to the surface.

New faces of digital

I wondered whether I should invest in cryptocurrency, but I am still struggling to understand its fundamentals. Every learned economist I listen to on this subject ends up adding a new layer of confusion. I have read with some amazement that millions of Indians have invested in this virtual currency space, and I wonder whether we have a tulip mania sort of bubble on hand, or the beginnings of a new variety of gold.

I have also been grappling with digital non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which are making waves in the western world. What exactly are NFTs, do they have any lasting value, and should I buy them? Then, there came along Mark Zuckerberg’s declaration of the Metaverse being the place of the future. What impact will this have? What sort of buying behaviour will our digital metaverse avatars exhibit? What will the metaverse versions of our favourite brands feel and look like?

Vacation time

While I was pondering these mysteries, many of my friends took a more practical approach to availing of the pandemic-limited pleasures of life which are immediately available to us. Starved of international travel, they were all travelling domestically, to Goa, Puducherry or Rajasthan. The urge to relax, and get away from it all, is such a fundamental human need.

And now, as we move into the final month of this roller coaster year, here I am, optimistic about 2022, but also concerned about Omicron and how it may impact us. I don’t have that answer yet, but I am confident that this too will soon be behind us. Because this year has taught me, and millions of Indians, how to take ambiguities in our stride, and do our best to lead a good and productive life in this new normal, while staying within a few simple, well-defined boundaries of safety (get vaccinated, wear a mask, wash your hands, keep a distance).

That change in mindset bodes well for marketers and all of us, in the year ahead. Here’s wishing you a happy and safe new year!

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. These are his personal views.

Published on December 12, 2021

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

You May Also Like

Recommended for you