Retailers everywhere will continue to experiment on 'cures' from the worst effects of the virus outbreak. Image Credit: Gulf News

In the late ‘80s, as the head of a small company, I was part of a group that had many stalwarts involved in the local business world of the time. As one of the youngest members, it meant ending up with a lot of the grunt work that no one wanted to do. Through the years since, on different assignments, age was never something I really thought or worried about.

That is until Covid-19.

Now that I am 63, I find myself part of the group called the “Vulnerables” (cousin of the “Expendables”!).

Working from home has helped, otherwise it is all about: “Do not go out!, “Do not have visitors”, “Stay away from the grandchildren!”, “Wear a mask” and “Wash your hands”.

Not to mention, social distancing, physical distance and protection.

Even the malls have said “not allowed!”.

You wonder, when will things become normal?

And what normal will that be?

Different ways to take the pain

Retail companies have responded to the Covid-19 situation in different ways. A large conglomerate from Kuwait came up with a slick explanation of why they had no option but to reduce their staff — right in the middle of the pandemic.

Others have taken a more humane view — not shedding staff, but rather sharing the pain across the organisation with the higher levels sharing a higher load.

The response of mall developers has been a mixed bag. As we know, some of the proactive ones have come forward and graciously offered reductions and even rent-free periods to all their retailers. But the larger ones have so far been seemingly oblivious to the fact that even with no business in shops across the country, retailers are still paying salaries and other costs.

Oh yes, they have offered not to bank retailers’ rent cheques, which they hold for presentation later! The situation is said to be similar with many of the independent landlords of free-standing shops.

Dire straits

How retailers will carry forward the financial burden to future months is something no one has an answer to. With the market spooked and customers hanging on to cash and spending only when necessary, it will take some months before sales will stabilise at any kind of sustainable levels. After six months if you find retail stores boarded up or closed, you know who have been the main contributors to this.

There was an expectation that, while people could not go out for shopping, e-commerce would step into the breach. Except for the two large e-stores and a few niche players, it has been a real struggle.

A friend gave me an interesting example. An order given to one of the big supermarket operated webstores, which is part of one of the largest groups, was not been delivered in over one month. All efforts he made to communicate with them on phone or through their contact pages were futile.

A couple of weeks ago he asked a contact he knew within that company to help, which he did, pushing the order over two-three days with five emails to different people in the hierarchy. The order on the app he says, still shows as “processing” ... and there is no response.

More than teething issues

The problem is not just with this portal. Many of the sites have been unable to scale up to the level needed.

Amazon has maintained their SLAs (service-level agreements) by restricting orders to “essential products”. Noon got the benefit of Amazon’s self-restriction, and have still been able to meet the challenge of quick fulfilment.

With the loads going up exponentially, for many users, the interface has become severely problematic with site speeds slowing down dramatically. For many others, the Achilles heel has been logistics, resulting in delays and poor user experiences. I wonder what the long-term impact of this will be for people’s confidence in e-commerce.

Courier companies have been caught flat-footed by the epidemic. With all the restrictions in place, they have been struggling hard to gear up their operations to meet the growing load. The situation was exacerbated when many of their delivery team members were restricted to residential areas that were closed.

As a result, they are playing catch up, trying to add capacity, while deliveries get more and more extended.

Perhaps now that the malls have tentatively reopened and some movement allowed, people will go to supermarkets to get the stuff that they have been waiting for over weeks. Meanwhile, all praise to the neighbourhood groceries who, with their limited availability and range, have met people’s needs quickly and efficiently. And have also given us all a lesson of how little we really need.

— Ajai Dayal is a senior executive of a large retail company in Dubai. The views expressed are his own.