As of 5th August, malls across India are allowed to open again as part of the country’s “unlockdown” efforts. While mall and shopping centre doors have opened and the first weekend saw a good turnout across the board and despite heavy rain warnings in some parts of the country, mall operators and retailers need to make sure to stick to mandatory health and safety regulations or risk having to close again.
With flowers, balloons and happy signs in bright colours advising shoppers of safety measures, mall and retail operators have done their best and dug deep into their pockets to make the reopening as much of a festive occasion as possible. For example, colourful, positively phrased posters throughout malls and outside remind shoppers what they are supposed to do in the new shopping era: wear their masks, don’t touch their face, help themselves to free sanitiser at sanitiser stations, maintain a distance of 2 meters to other shoppers and stick to safety circles during payment or other activities that require queuing.
What safety measures are in place in Indian malls?
Even on benches, usually overcrowded by shopping-weary families, stickers advise people that “this is not the time to stick together” and to please keep a distance even when resting their tired feet. The good news is that very harsh restrictions like shoppers not being able to try on garments have been lifted and trial rooms are fully operational - with the required safety measures in place of course.
In addition, heavily frequented areas like the main aisles, bathroom areas and mall entrances and exits are sanitised frequently by cleaning staff in full-body safety gear and with specialised cleaning equipment and UV-based disinfectants. Outside, there is contactless parking and density control cameras. Persons above 65 years of age or those with comorbidities, pregnant women and children below the age of 10 are advised to stay home though.
While before entering the mall and department stores inside, the shoppers’ temperature is taken, this is not the case in smaller, individual shops. Here, fewer customers are allowed inside at one point and sanitising hands before entering is compulsory. Ample signs advise them of the new rules. In stores where appointments are necessary, QR-based schedulers help out. A bit cumbersome is the fact that all visitors need to download the government app ‘Aarogya Setu’ for covid-19 tracking.
Sales are on
To sweeten shopping in pandemic times, shops have gone all out in terms of sales, advertising them seemingly everywhere. Despite many industry experts warning brands and retailers not to discount heavily or not at all, looking at the average mall, there is hardly a store that does not try to lure customers with sales and deep discounts up to 60 or even 70 percent. Consumers just seem to love a good bargain and a reopening seems to be as good a reason to discount as any.
While some have speculated that restrictions of the “new normal” like the ubiquitous face masks and sanitising hands upon entering each new store may take the fun out of shopping, this does not seem to be the case in India where with four months, lockdown restrictions have been among the longest worldwide. People are happy to be out again and shop (or at least browse) physical products again. On the first weekend especially, malls saw a steady stream of visitors right from opening time at 11 am. The consensus among shoppers is that they feel safe and happy to be back after four long months. Crowd control even allows for an easier shopping experience than before the pandemic.
Restricted shopping hours
The fact that shopping hours are restricted - only until 7 pm unlike the earlier 10 pm or 11 pm - also gets people to the mall faster and shopping more focused, which could be a good thing. The biggest drawback of the new restrictions is the rider that food courts cannot operate - at least for the time being; 50 percent occupancy may be an option in the future. For now, that means in most malls, the top floor where the food court is usually located, is simply closed for the general public.
Closed food courts are the biggest drawback
However, other eateries, snack stalls or popular coffee shops like Starbucks and Cafe Coffee Day that have shops on other mall floors are allowed to open. Only for takeout though as sitting in is not allowed. Takeout ordering can be cumbersome if shoppers are required to download a takeout app first and order online despite staff just being two meters away. But these may be growing pains and restaurants and eateries will surely find faster and more workable solutions, especially if the “unlockdown” riders are enforced for an extended period of time.
How well retail will do without potential shoppers lingering in the mall to eat or watch a movie - theatres are also closed for now - remains to be seen. For now, it seems that the enthusiasm for shopping in physical stores of Indian consumers is unbroken and they are glad to be out again.