How 2020 altered customer behavior forever, by Kunal Bahl

2020 opened many virtual doors for businesses as physical ones stayed firmly shut. And the online experience is here to stay, Snapdeal founder writes

Published: Dec 29, 2020 03:00:51 PM IST
Updated: Jan 11, 2021 02:28:10 PM IST

How 2020 altered customer behavior forever, by Kunal Bahl

2020 has not been a normal year. Silently stirring in the closing days of 2019, Covid-19 exploded on the world stage in March 2020, upending all notions of normalcy. Almost overnight, a “new normal” emerged—people hiding behind masks and closed doors, shunning all social interactions, apprehensive about what lay ahead.

As the first wave of paranoia settled, a growing number of users found that online access was a small and safe peek into a bewildering world. The pandemic pushed people to quickly discover and adapt—digital ways of life got adopted, including by those who were unfamiliar or had been long resisting it.

In a dark year, when many businesses the world over were affected, online businesses have been the silver lining. The lockdown saw shoppers order everything online—from groceries and stationery to math tutorials and yoga sessions. While the fight against the pandemic continues, it has brought fundamental and long-lasting shifts in how we live, work and buy.

Here’s a look at what changed and is likely to shape consumer behaviour in the post-Covid world.

‘Online is not for me’

The pandemic has brought millions of new shoppers online, in India, and around the world. The biggest reason for this is that many users who thought online was only for affluent, brand-aware, internet-savvy young people soon realised that online was equally for them. Propelled by the pandemic, users from small towns and villages hopped on to the ecommerce bandwagon for the first time. Guided by younger mentors, many living in different parts of the world, senior citizens made their first online purchases as physical markets became off-limits. While these may be individual stories, the cumulative fact is that India’s ecommerce adoption is now far greater than what it was pre-Covid. A recent report has estimated that the number of online shoppers in India grew from 110 million in 2018 to 160 million in 2020.

What started as a compulsion due to the lockdowns has turned into a familiar, comfortable way of buying from the safety of homes. Having crossed the diffidence thresholds, a large part of these users will continue to explore online options, even as physical options resume gradually.

‘Online is not for stuff like this’

The range of products that users now browse for and buy online has grown at an exponential pace. It is not only phones, gadgets, fashion and food that are bought, but everyday stuff like mops, drain unblockers, potted plants, quilts, DIY kits, marble stools for religious idols and much more. Till a year ago, customers usually preferred to buy such products offline after a good look and feel. Having experienced the wide and eclectic choice online, the basket for users will become more diverse. These experiences will chip away at long-standing habits and buyers will turn to online channels more often and proactively to discover beyond markets in their towns and cities.

‘Online is expensive’

The growing cohort of buyers is also leading to deepening of the supply available online. It has grown beyond well-known brands to embrace a wide range of regional and seller brands, which offer a compelling value proposition of good quality at great prices. Value-buying is an inherent part of Indian shopping ethos—the thriving bazaars and markets of the country are testimony to that. The same vibrancy is now reflected online as a large number of offline retailers are finding the motivation and opportunity to establish and grow online operations.

Economic uncertainties have also led consumers to re-prioritise their needs and spending. They are trading down to pay less as brand premium and more for functional utility. At the same time, more users are exploring online channels because the supply of well-priced merchandise is growing and practically infinite.

The combined impact of these demand and supply levers will catapult value-buying to the centre stage of Indian ecommerce. We are anyway headed there and the pandemic will accelerate the process by a good two to three years. The value segment in India at $212 billion is about three times that for international and national brands, which is estimated at $70 billion. The number of consumers looking for value-priced merchandise will outstrip those looking for great deals on well-known brands. This is the reality of Indian retail and online will reflect that sooner because of the ‘2020 impact’.

Offline + hyperlocal deliveries = Online

Hyperlocal deliveries have been one of the discoveries in the pandemic year. Discovered both by well-known local businesses and their users, hyperlocal deliveries have been the saviour for many. Wenger’s, Delhi’s venerable bakery and patisserie, has had loyal customers queue up at its doors for the last 75 years. Much to their delight, Wenger’s started accepting online orders with hyperlocal deliveries enabled in select parts of NCR. Similarly, legendary bookstores like Bahrisons from Delhi’s Khan Market engaged with book lovers via social media and started delivering books through hyperlocal partners. After a gap, when The Big Chill Cafe from Delhi (and recently Gurugram) resumed operations, they first started with deliveries. While all these are iconic businesses and hence find mention, hyperlocal proved to be a reliable ally for countless businesses seeking to get back on their feet.

These were technology adoptions that were ignored, resisted or considered unnecessary, but got rolled out in a matter of weeks or months. While many of these were necessities born out of unusual circumstances, these will sustain as business models and consumer preferences and will evolve and grow further.

Rise of Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) options

The pandemic has been an incredible opportunity for many DTC brands to launch and to test waters. From cosmetics to gourmet ice cream, from retro Punjabi cuisine to baby care products, DTC brands have soaked up the additional opportunity as users spend longer hours connected online to work, to socialise and to entertain themselves. The discontinuity brought in by the pandemic has allowed new and existing DTC brands to sharpen their positioning and value proposition for their set of “neo-consumers”. I was intrigued recently to discover a unique DTC brand—postcard.in—that curates authentic Indian snacks from around the country and offers users the chance to buy  these as one-off purchases, as curated selections, as a subscription etc.

Many more such interesting businesses are now connecting to their current and potential customers. 2020 may well turn out to be the year that opened many virtual doors for them as the physical ones stayed firmly shut.

Now serving at your screens

How 2020 altered customer behavior forever, by Kunal Bahl

The range of online services is incredible: You one can learn to play chess, or a foreign language or practice singing with a trained teacher. Image: Shutterstock

A range of services went virtual with a vengeance. From fitness trainers conducting 1:1 sessions or a group pilates class stretched over Zoom, every service that could be delivered remotely was tried both by users and professionals. Consumer choices are no longer bound by what is in their neighbourhood. The best yoga instructors, counsellors and vedic math gurus have been unshackled from their locational constraints. I doubt if a virtual concert would have counted as a real experience before the pandemic. However, given how things changed, private virtual concerts and performances are the new age phenomenon now.

The range of online services is incredible—one can learn to play chess, a foreign language (my five-year-old daughter started as well) or practice singing with a trained teacher. If baking, calligraphy, origami or gardening are your passions, you can connect to online teachers.

The pandemic has caused immense disruption, but it has also created many new normals. Amidst all the upheaval, consumers and businesses are finding new beginnings and opportunities to rediscover themselves.   

● The writer is the CEO and co-founder of Snapdeal

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(This story appears in the 01 January, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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