With discretionary spends in a freeze, retailers catch a cold


March 18, 2020

Written By Alnoor Peermohamed & Rasul Bailay, ETtech

ETtech Illustration: Rahul Awasthi

Sales of smartphones, electronics, apparel, home appliances and furnishing have taken a beating due to the Covid-19 virus outbreak, as Indian consumers stay at home and cut back on discretionary spending in an already sluggish market.?

Several consumer brands, retailers and sector analysts told ET that demand has dropped palpably, except food and grocery sales, which are on the up due to uncertainties around stockouts and store closures as infections spread across the country.

Calling it an “unprecedented” situation, several executives and analysts said that a prolonged shutdown of retail stores would further affect the purchasing power of consumers.

“Right now it’s a lack of sentiment to buy, but if this doesn’t clear up by mid-April, it’s going to be a situation of inability to buy,” said a senior analyst at one of the leading global consultancy firms, who did not want to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

He added that job losses are also likely in these directly affected sectors.

The chief executive of a global fashion retailer offered a gloomy outlook saying fashion companies are forecasting growth to fall 20% in the next fiscal year.

“That means next year we will see our growth go down 10% compared to 2019-20,” he said, requesting anonymity.

Large format brick-and-mortar retailers in the country have seen sales of discretionary items decline, while e-commerce marketplaces Flipkart and Amazon, where non-essential items make up over 70% of sales, are staring at a severe blow in the coming quarters, impacting their growth estimates, several people in the know told ET.

In the United States, most big retailers like Starbucks, Apple, Nike, have announced shutting of stores temporarily to fight the spread of infections.

In India, malls, restaurants, retail stores, and cinema halls, have been either shuttered across metros like Mumbai and Bengaluru, or have seen a drastic reduction in footfalls if currently operational.

“Retail sales are down by almost 50%, as 60% of malls and shopping centres are closed in India with more and more states initiating closure,” said an executive of a leading department store chain.

“At-home consumption would increase and sales of packaged food and staples have been rising already. However, there will be a temporary impact on discretionary products such as apparel,” said Kishore Biyani, founder & CEO, Future group, which runs Big Bazaar and Food Hall stores.

Categories such as fashion could bounce back sooner, several people told ET.

Seasonal purchases made before summer are also feeling the heat. A leading national electronics retailer said business has been minimal in the last few days.

Refrigerator and washing machine maker Godrej Appliances’ business head Kamal Nandi said the challenge is more in urban India due to the inflow of international travellers. “If the situation does not normalise by April, sales will be badly hit even if the summer is harsh,” Nandi said.

A senior executive of Reliance Retail said there was too much uncertainty, which if prolonged could reduce purchasing power of consumers.

Grocery sales spike

Sales of food and staples have, however, seen an uptick.

It is not a clear win for offline retailers that have been traditionally strong in this space, as ET reported on March 16, but online retailers such as Grofers, BigBasket, Amazon and Flipkart have got a leg-up in growing their grocery sales, as consumers jump to purchase items online in the relative safety of their homes.

However, given grocery makes up just 3% of e-commerce sales, an uptick in the category will not see the online sector gain much.

The uncertainty around how long the outbreak will persist has made it harder for analysts to pinpoint when growth could bounce back.

Satish Meena, an analyst with Forrester Research said, keeping in mind conservative estimates, growth in sales of discretionary items would rebound only by October or November.

Meena added that while growth estimates of the still nascent e-commerce industry were being lowered for 2020, the sector would still end up outperforming its previous year sales figures.

Growth in India’s e-commerce market began slowing last year with the market clocking sales of around $31 billion, a growth of around 35% year on year, which was down from almost 60% the previous year, according to analysts.

Even during the festive period in 2019, online sales grew by just 32% in 2019, compared to a 93% growth in 2018, according to Forrester Research.

“It’s a double whammy, because when you were stepping out to watch a movie, you ended up eating out and going to a couple of clothing stores. Now, given the current situation, people are avoiding going to public spaces and that’s hitting discretionary spending,” said Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive at Third Eyesight, a consulting firm focused on the consumer goods industry.

(With inputs from Writankar Mukherjee in Kolkata)

Source: economictimes