Markets crowded, but malls empty

Topics Coronavirus | Diwali sales | Markets

During the Diwali season, we saw endless photographs of crowded markets. From Ranganathan Street in T Nagar, Chennai, to Dadar market in Mumbai, there was frenzied shopping. But malls have not had such luck.

I was struck by this dichotomy. Markets, where the middle-class shops, are crowded. But malls, where the affluent shop, are relatively empty. We know that the lockdown has resulted in the middle-class suffering severe income reduction. The rich have had it easy. Their wealth may even have increased, if stock markets are an indication. But they are not venturing into malls. Income does not seem to explain the disparity in behaviour.

An explanation came from a friend from the retail industry: The more affluent are also more educated and more tech savvy. They seem to have developed a paranoia towards shopping in malls. This was also confirmed by a marketing professor in the US who seems to have observed a similar phenomenon. He opined that the well-educated people are less likely to go to malls. And even if they do, they will spend less time there and wear masks.

So then how are the rich and the educated spending their surplus cash? Many premium brands have seen a big uptick in their online sales. The “sales” that are not happening in malls are probably happening, to a lesser extent, through their online platforms.

Another interesting phenomenon is the difference in footfalls (and sales) in the same (brand’s) store in a mall versus a store on high street. Brands are seeing much better traction in high-street stores located in places like Church Street, Bengaluru, or Linking Road, Mumbai.

Stores in malls had yet another advantage that seems to have vanished. Most affluent consumers went to malls for a variety of reasons: Lunch, dinner, movie. And they did window shopping for hours, ending up buying things they had not planned to. Restrictions placed on restaurants, pubs, bars and multiplexes have also had a dampening effect on mall footfalls.

Malls have seen some traffic improve over the last six weeks, mainly because of younger, affluent consumers. Their parents, the ones with bigger wallets, are, however, yet to join them on these long shopping sprees.

So what can malls do to dig themselves out of this hole? To figure out methods, we can try and apply Stanford University’s B J Fogg model: B = MAT. Or, Behaviour is equal to Motivation by Ability by Trigger. If malls want the behaviour of the affluent to change, they need to understand the dimensions of motivation and ability. Motivation may be low because of “irrational” fears. Ability exists in the form of bulging wallets. So Fogg says that you need to figure out “Triggers” that can improve Motivation and reduce Ability.

Some stores are offering tele-sales options. But that will not solve the bigger problem. Malls have used the “discount” Trigger to improve motivation. Yet another Trigger could be special collections, not available online. A group of US/Canada/UK-based branding consultants I spoke with last week opined that big-box stores are in deep decline right through the developed world for some years now. Even stores like Nordstrom, about whose customer service business cases have been written, are in steep decline. They felt malls need to move away from being warehouses, to become entertainment centres.

Their views reminded me of what Vimal managed to do in the 1980s across smaller cities of India. It got consumers to come into shining air-conditioned stores (also seen as expensive) by organising fashion shows. A G Krishnamurthy, founder of Mudra Advertising and MICA, has written about this in his book. So, maybe fashion shows could be the answer.

Needless to mention malls need to implement stricter screening protocols. They also need to widely publicise how often the air inside a mall is recycled and cleaned for viruses. Some symbolic displays of virus cleaners may also help. Publishing data about lack of Covid infection among the employees and being honest about detection may help. Malls could also organise quick Covid testing protocols to reinforce their commitment to their shoppers’ safety.

Malls have been doing the sale/discount advertising in newspapers. Maybe they need to change the tune to attract the older, better educated, affluent consumers. Experimenting with “home delivery” is another great initiative to keep the brand in the minds of the consumer — in a sense, nudge the consumer to keep consuming and maybe visit the mall when the fear factor goes down.

All said, they need to keep searching for the right consumer insight to trigger and not settle down to playing second fiddle to the high-street stores.



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