R Srinivasan

Pivoting with the pandemic

R Srinivasan | Updated on August 20, 2020

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This week was a fairly active one as far as activities went. With the rains finally setting in for some sustained activity in Delhi, I bought myself — after trying out several — some good old Bata slippers with a strong, non-slip sole. I also had a much-delayed haircut and had my wildly sprouting beard finally trimmed. I consulted a doctor about tweaking my medication for hypertension. And I finally managed to fulfil my craving for momos, which I had not had since the first lockdown began in March, as well as for mava cake, a speciality of old-school Irani bakeries. And, also shopped for some fresh groceries. A fairly humdrum set of activities you might think — and you would be right. Except for one significant difference — I did all of this without stepping outside of my gated community.

The chappals were bought from a Bata mobile store, which set up shop in my colony over the weekend. They didn’t bring mountains of stock, but what they had was sensible and suited for the season — rubber and synthetic footwear, sports shoes and no-nonsense ‘home’ footwear for women. And some clever marketing, like pitching their washable footwear as ones where you can “wash away the virus”.

My haircut, beard trim and massage were performed by a young lad from Urban Company, who brought his entire salon with him in a bag, including single-use capes, gloves and masks for him and me, his own sanitiser and even a garbage bag to take the sweepings away. After five months of avoidance, a haircut felt marvellous, with the added comfort of overseeing the sanitisation process oneself in the safety of one’s own home.

Ditto for the momos, which were of the frozen, ready-to-cook variety. Only, they were ordered and delivered through a food delivery app which I had hitherto used only to order prepared food from restaurants. The cake came from a bakery, which had tied up with a delivery service, and the groceries from a speciality food store. And the doctor’s appointment was also virtual, fixed and executed over my mobile phone.

Smart improvisation

The Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the country has wreaked havoc with the economy. As the country reeled from one lockdown to another, and later, as cities struggled to cope with unlocking and resultant case load spikes, businesses across the spectrum — from tiny ones like neighbourhood barbershops to giant manufacturing enterprises like automobile factories and airlines — faced unprecedented disruption in business as usual. The lockdown decimated brick-and-mortar retail, destroyed the travel and hospitality sector and derailed services businesses as public transport went off the road.

But those which managed to pivot quickly may actually be the front-runners in the post-Covid world. The IT sector, for instance, was one of the first to move, migrating millions of knowledge workers to “work from home”, while maintaining enterprise level security protocols.

The shoes store coming to my colony is an equally interesting pivot. Footwear and apparel, which is quite dependent on the physical “touch and try” experience (despite the inroads made by e-commerce) were hit — particularly in metros — by the closure of malls and retail spaces. By taking the store to the customer, they are managing to reconnect with customers, generate fresh business, and more importantly, keep their franchisees alive.

Ditto for the food delivery apps. As the restaurants which generated the bulk of their business shut down, they quickly shifted to leverage their core skill of delivery to handle everything from groceries to consumer non-durables to medicines. My “at home” haircut actually exemplifies the new normal: the “work from anywhere” approach. If the mountain cannot come to Mohammad, Mohammad must go to the mountain — if your customers cannot come to you, businesses must go to their customers.

Post-Covid realities

In fact, a new study released this week by PwC — titled ‘Full Potential Revival and Growth- Charting India’s medium-term journey’ — has found that the pandemic impact has triggered some unexpected convergences and synergies: the pharma sector using FMCG distribution chains for masks, PPEs and sanitisers; or the government leveraging data from financial sector players to target assistance to MSMEs; or a delivery service partnering with FMCGs to restock stores.

The PwC report suggests that “Organisations should look at two types of action — one related to volume of economic activity, which can be achieved by deepening, widening and heightening the organisation, and the other related to improvements in productivity by formalising and digitalising.”

It advocates corporates to look at “a decentralised structure that is able to deal with local situations, rather than a centralised implementation structure”.

While all this sounds quite encouraging, one must bear in mind that the economy is far from having recovered from the shattering effect of the pandemic. We are — now that the first uptick of pent-up demand has been met post easing of restrictions — now entering our first major recession since 1979. Arguably almost every Indian household — except for the tiny fraction at the very top of the pyramid — has experienced some form of income destruction or job loss.

This is going to profoundly alter consumer behaviour, when it comes to both savings and investments. Leveraging technology and big data, walking the extra mile to the customer’s door, even changing the way you work — all of this can only help to some extent. Unless the consumer gets back confidence in the economy and her future prospects, spending behaviour is likely to stay constrained. Even those businesses which have managed to react quickly — apart from those sectors which directly benefited from the pandemic like healthcare and pharma — are back to at best 30-40 per cent of the pre-Covid “normal”. It may be years before growth revives to pre-Covid averages, if at all.

Innovation on the fly

Can this be changed? Can we make a faster comeback? PwC researchers believe it can, if we adopt what they call a “whole-of-society” approach — where corporates, citizens and government actively collaborate to reinvent the future.

In my view, that is too ambitious an ask. As a society and as a people, we are more a nation of individual innovators rather than team players. Japanese ideas like kaizen and quality circles have been assiduously encouraged in India for decades but have had nothing like the kind of impact they have had in other Asian economies. We are simply not wired that way.

Instead, I have greater faith in our ability as a collective to innovate on the fly and to adapt very quickly to changed circumstances. It is not just the agile, digitally-driven start-ups that are pivoting and innovating. Even legacy businesses are showing that they can change. Above all, people have shown an astonishing capacity to adapt. Indian IT may have shifted six million workers to work from home, but ordinary schools and teachers have managed to shift many times that number to online and virtual learning. It is this which gives one greater confidence that we can, eventually, overcome.

Published on August 19, 2020

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