Rajiv Warrier, CEO of Choithrams, looks at the changes in the horizon for the grocery industry and how his company is moving ahead as a retailer and distributor
What is it like to be at the helm of Choithrams?
Choithrams is a multifaceted organisation with a large retail and distribution business and it has been very exciting to head the business. We have a presence not just in the UAE but also in Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. Getting all this together, learning about the business and contributing to it has been extremely fulfilling. I’ve been in the company for more than three years and I’m still learning because there is always something new that comes up.
What has been your biggest challenge since you took over as the CEO of Choithrams? And how did you overcome it?
I joined in the middle of 2017, when there was a need to modernise the operation and prepare it for the future. The major task was to remodel the set-up not just in terms of business but also in terms of organisation structure, people processes, employee engagement, transparency, and communication. We also needed to work on a new strategy for the growth of retail, distribution and the overall business. The main challenge was to get this done by involving both the old and new employees. There are those who’ve been in the company for 30 to 40 years along with those who are working here for just the last one to three years. Getting all of them to work together and adapting to change was a huge step. We’ve managed to do it and the way we’ve done it is consultatively with the team and the directors by taking everyone in the company along.
What’s your vision for the company?
We are working towards a new Choithrams keeping in mind the complexities of today’s marketplace and to grow both the retail and distribution business. We are largely known as a retailer, but we are equally big in distribution and we represent many big brands. We want to be known as a reliable retailer as well as a distributor and to serve the community and the suppliers.
When the coronavirus outbreak hit the UAE, Choithrams responded quickly and comprehensively. What was the company’s approach in dealing with this crisis?
The first time when we experienced the impact of Covid was in mid-March. There were many things that were happening. One was that customers were panicking about the shortage of food and there was a rush at the stores. With a lot of customers thronging the supermarkets and purchasing much more than they usually do, the initial focus was to see that the supply chain was running smoothly. We spoke to our suppliers to deliver more often than usual to crank up the supply chain.
Our challenge was to keep the supply continuous so that there was no scarcity at any of our stores. We had to ensure the safety of our employees and customers. For that we took several measures and created a Covid taskforce with people from primarily quality control, human resources, and retail and this team worked day and night to take care of the company and its employees.
We have frontline workers serving people and we had to make sure they were in good health. We also responded in a manner that kept our customers safe throughout the process by following the necessary precautions stipulated by the law.
Despite disruptions in operations and the supply chain, the retail grocery industry has seen big sales gains amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Where do you see this trend going?
The surge in sales has now settled down because the initial impact of Covid has started to normalize. The six-month period between March and August saw a big surge in sales. Business has been good for us and we see a lot of change in customer habits. Before the crisis, online shopping made up 5 per cent of our total business; it went up to over 10 per cent during the pandemic.
It has now settled down at about 8 per cent for the last three months and this trend is likely to stay. We have seen a lot of first-time shoppers online whether it is through the website or the app.
Are there any initiatives you’d like to highlight?
We are one of the first players to get into e-commerce four years back in 2016. We responded quickly to the needs of the marketplace and we were able to deliver to customers without any delays or problems. We also responded in a manner that kept our employees and customers safe throughout the process.
Similarly, at our warehouses we took precautions. We had a contingency plan in place to ensure that any disruptions in our warehouse would not affect our supplies to either our supermarkets or to our distribution customers.
What key changes do you see on the horizon for the grocery industry and how will Choithrams pivot with them?
Some of the changes have already begun to happen. We have seen a lot of people shopping online and this will continue. Now we’ve seen that work can be done from home efficiently and some companies may allow employees to work from home some days of the week.
This in turn will change people’s purchasing behaviour. You may need more essentials, more food and more ready-to-eat kind of stuff.
People are also becoming more health conscious, not just in terms of sanitising, but also in favour of organic food, low-fat, vegan and gluten-free items.
We are launching our own app, which should be out next month. We want to serve the customers through as many channels as possible — through our stores, through the website, though the app and through our other partners. We have been talking about an omnichannel approach for the past 10 years and we are now applying it in big way as we move forward.
What sets Choithrams apart in such a crowded marketplace?
We are one of the few companies with a large presence in both – retail and distribution — under the same roof. This gives us tremendous opportunities to leverage. For example, new suppliers can introduce new brands by using out retail stores as test centres. We are also charting a new course for ourselves, which is not so common among legacy retailers. One of the things that separates us from many other players is that we are very connected to our employees.
We are extremely focused on ensuring that our employees are properly engaged because we believe that an engaged workforce is more productive and will enable the company to meet its strategic and business objectives.