Retail Reset: Lockdown lessons from Reliance Retail

What the CEO of the grocery business of one of India’s largest retailers learnt about managing anxious employees and customers, and meeting their evolving needs, over three months of lockdown

Indrajit Gupta

By Indrajit Gupta and Anmol Shrivastava

In this five-part series, Damodar Mall, CEO Grocery, Reliance Retail, talks about how he had to battle the challenges thrown up by the pandemic and lockdown, to keep his employees as well as his customers safe. And how his team drew on customer behaviour insights to adapt their game to emerging needs.

(Note: You can listen to all five parts in sequence by clicking the podcast link at the top (recommended). Or you can jump to individual tracks through the links in the description below.)

Part 1: Creating a safety bubble and reducing anxiety

Mall talks about the immediate measures they took in the first four days to reduce anxiety for employees as well as customers. The company mobilised a daily symptom declaration program for all employees and their families, and they set up hygiene rhythms in stores. Meanwhile, distribution pipelines had shrunk. So they focused on ensuring supply of 50 essential items, to give customers a sense of abundance in the store. The brands and vendors responded too, as they realised this was the shortest route to the customer.

(Listen to Part1)

Part 2: We took the store associates along with us

Mall talks about how they were able to inspire employees during this difficult time. “If people are treated like labour, response rates are lower,” he says. Cluster managers made sure to talk to the family of every associate and regional heads visited stores to connect.

There was considerable community goodwill too, with customers bringing home-cooked food and volunteering in the stores. These stories kept people going too.

(Listen to Part 2)

Part 3: We morphed to become the provider of small joys of life

As the lockdown continued, they realised that people are bored at home and anxious. So Reliance Retail shifted focus slightly to also include comfort foods. “Supermarket items become the surrogate for comforting communication, as other stimuli of wellbeing—going out, spending time with friends and family—are switched off,” Mall says.

(Listen to Part 3)

Part 4: Continuous innovation and reimagining deliveries to home

In this segment of the conversation, Mall talks about how they are constantly innovating to improve customer convenience. “If we can try five things, we are trying seven,” he says. “The biggest service I am providing is availability and fair pricing,” he adds.

They ramped up to 70,000 home deliveries a day in the larger cities, within four-five days. On their deliver-to-home play, Mall says, home delivery is becoming mainstream, “and this time we will lead it.” That’s because for brands to go hyperlocal, they'll have to set up the supermarket backend—because customer does not shop for brands, but shops by categories.

(Listen to Part 4)

Part 5: When food became a playground for creativity and bonding

Here Mall talks about how they are emerging as a source of consumer and market intelligence for FMCG brands—because everybody's dashboard is broken. And their data shows that Indian supermarket customers are behaving quite differently from other countries. “As people became less anxious, they turned into regular customers, demanding their regular stuff. By the time we went into the fifth week, customers were asking for rolled oats, gluten-free bread, and multigrain aata. Food became a playground for creativity, bonding and showing off on social media.” Instead of pantry-loading, there’s a natural “premiumisation” that’s taking place, he says.

(Listen to Part 5)

Still Curious? Read Harsh Mall’s inaugural column in the new series, Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation, where he talks about a return to comfort brands. Damodar Mall adds his perspective on what he is observing. This series, led by the father-son duo, explores inter-generational and inter-cultural trends in consumption, work, entertainment, and more.

And join them on Facebook Live on Saturday 18 July, at 7.30 pm IST, as they chat about these differences and similarities.

The Reset

Using the pandemic and the lockdown as a trigger, Founding Fuel is leading a series of conversations to explore reset opportunities across businesses, through an Indian lens. We are inviting progressive voices from every sector to articulate a bold, new vision of the future.

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About the author

Indrajit Gupta
Indrajit Gupta

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Indrajit Gupta is a business journalist and editor with over two decades of experience. He was the Founding Editor of the Indian edition of Forbes magazine. Within four years of its launch, Forbes India became the most influential magazine in its space.

He is the co-founder and director at Founding Fuel.

He has served in leadership positions at many of the leading media brands in the country. Before taking up the assignment to start up the India edition of Forbes magazine, Gupta was the Resident Editor of The Economic Times in Mumbai and before that, the National Business Editor of The Times of India.

Over the years, Gupta has built a reputation for grooming talent and creating highly energised and purposeful newsrooms. He has interviewed several leading global thought-leaders and business leaders including CK Prahalad, Ram Charan, Wayne Brockbank, Sumantra Ghoshal, Carlos Ghosn and Nitin Nohria, and also led cutting-edge joint research-based projects with McKinsey & Co, The Great Place to Work Institute, Boston Consulting Group, KMPG and Coopers & Lybrand.

He won the Polestar journalism award in 2010 and was awarded the Chevening fellowship by the British Foreign office in 1999. Gupta is an alumnus of the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai and a B.Com (Hons) graduate from St Xavier's College, Calcutta.

Gupta teaches a course on Business Problem Solving at his alma mater. He writes a column named Strategic Intent in Business Standard’s edit page. He lives in Mumbai with his wife and two young daughters.

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