Diwali boosts hope in Delhi's markets, but spending caution may be a damper

Topics Coronavirus | Diwali sales | Delhi

Throwing caution to the wind, shoppers throng the Sarojini Nagar market
In normal times, Delhi’s popular markets are a kaleidoscope of milling crowds and busy vendors. With their buzzing lanes and stalls enticing buyers to test their haggling skills, the shopping hubs await the festive season for the best sales.

In a post-Covid world, if you thought this Diwali would be a washout, think again.

The chaotic lanes of the Sarojini Nagar market are alive with the ceaseless cries of vendors and besieged buyers. It would seem what transpired in the past seven months didn’t touch the market. A substantial crowd with face masks hanging loose, oblivious to social distancing norms and eager to grab a customary bite at the street food stalls on every corner, seemed more than ready for Diwali, which is still more than a fortnight away.

“How long do you expect people to stay indoors? It’s Diwali after all. The footfall has increased significantly and it’ll just be like last year in a couple of days,” says Vikas Kumar, a vendor who sells shades and spectacle frames.

Suresh (he gave only his first name), who sells first copy products of brands like Adidas, Puma and Nike, has resorted to deep discounts as he wants to clear a stock that he has been hoarding for months. “It’s nothing like it used to be but I’m glad the markets have opened. It will be a happy Diwali. The coronavirus can’t bother anymore,” he adds.

For buyers, the element of choice and big crowds can be overwhelming amid the pandemic, admits shopper Deepa Singh, as she rummages through a pile of inexpensive cardigans and bargains with the stall-owner for three sweaters. “Diwali shopping is what all of us look forward to, but this year it seems like a chore as we can’t try the material before buying.”

The pandemic hasn’t stalled festive shopping, but it has crushed the spirit at some places in the capital.

Siraj Ansari invites every potential customer crossing Shop No 65 at Dilli Haat, Delhi’s open-air crafts and textile bazaar, to come and have a look at the vibrant silk saris and dupattas that he has woven and is now trying to sell. “There are days when we aren’t able to sell a single piece. Earlier, we used to have a sale of around Rs 25,000 daily. The pandemic has ruined us. We’ll die of hunger,” he says.

Ansari, the seventh generation in his family that has been in the business of fabric-making, explains that during October-November, many tourists visit Delhi to attend Ramlila events and celebrate Diwali. “The mela (fair) organised here in Dilli Haat is a major business for us. But as coronavirus cases continue to spike, our trade continues to suffer.”

Unlike the popular shopping hubs of Sarojini Nagar and Lajpat Nagar, Dilli Haat is eerily deserted. The festive season failed to lift the gloom for cloth, jewellery and handicraft traders, even during Navratri earlier this month.

Like Ansari, Shariq Khan, a karigar (artisan) from Lucknow, has been coming to Dilli Haat for nine years. He claims business is 95 per cent slower than last year. “On five or six days, I didn’t find a single buyer. By this time of the year, I used to earn over Rs 40,000 per day.”

Vendors at the crafts hub say they have never seen Dilli Haat as empty as now in its nearly three-decade history.

“Usually, it’s overcrowded but today even five people visiting feels like a crowd. We are selling products at a much cheaper rate, but no one is buying them,” says a vendor who runs a silver jewellery store with his son at the complex.

Though the festive season has managed to drag buyers out of their homes, they are spending cautiously. The average ticket size has come down and a full recovery seems unlikely during Diwali. It’s the same story at the usually bustling Old Delhi markets of Chandni Chowk and Sadar Bazaar, as also at the upscale Khan Market, which is often counted among the world’s most expensive retail locations.

“There is just necessity buying at the moment, not luxury or festival shopping,” says Sanjiv Mehra, president of the Khan Market Traders’ Association. “There was more footfall on the Dussehra weekend and we are hopeful it’ll get better in the days leading up to Diwali.” Weekdays witness around 40-50 per cent of pre-pandemic crowds, while on weekends they go up to 70-80 per cent.

There is a dip in purchasing power, with buyers tightening purse strings as the pandemic-induced uncertainty looms. But, Mehra says, Khan Market offers a sense of security. “There’s better hygiene, sanitation and security, and we’ve witnessed just three cases in the last eight months. So, people feel confident coming here.”

As the number of Covid-19 cases rises in the national capital, only some pockets in Delhi sense a recovery trend. Shopkeepers across the city are otherwise lamenting that sales have halved compared to previous years.

Buyers, too, are wary of spending. “I remember buying dinner sets, clothes and electronics for my family last Diwali. But this year, I’ll settle for just a new sari for my mom,” says Priya Malik, as she contents herself with window shopping outside the jewellery stalls in Janpath.

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