In Connaught place in New Delhi, mannequins and signboards were being furiously dusted off on Tuesday as excited shopkeepers prepared to welcome their long-lost customers on the first day after the lockdown restrictions on retail were relaxed. Everything was ready — the display, the shining windows, the petty cash. The only thing missing was the customer.
“We are hopeful people will turn out soon but our sales projections are quite low. Currently, we are sitting on a lot of stocks and losses have already piled up, so the prices we charge may drop soon,” said Akshit Gupta, owner of the Heels shoe shop.
Retail life is slowly emerging from a coma as states relax their guidelines in the fourth phase of the lockdown.
Non-essential retail establishments re-opened on Tuesday across the country, with as many as 4.5 crore shops resuming operations, according to the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT).
A short distance away from Heels, Reebok staff were marking the ground to allow for social distancing. "We don't know the exact rules but there's apparently a set of norms on how many customers can stay inside a shop at a single time,” said Manoj, a store hand.
With the exception of Mumbai where Covid-19 cases are still surging, metros such as Bengaluru, Delhi and Kolkata saw some signs of earlier times, though at different tempos because there was no uniformity in the guidelines on re-opening non-essential retail.
For example, Karnataka and West Bengal have permitted stores to reopen without restrictions while Delhi has chosen to follow an odd-even formula.
CAIT has severe doubts with the odd-even plan.
“The formula will not be workable as traders are generally dependent upon other traders for exchange or purchase of goods. In fact, the city could be divided in blocks and with staggered timings, the shops may be allowed to open,” said CAIT national secretary general Praveen Khandelwal.
CAIT has suggested that New Delhi be divided into 10 parts, out of which five parts should be opened from 8 am to 1 pm, while the remaining five parts should be opened from 1 pm to 5 pm. However, businesses in Khan Market say this is not feasible.
It’s a different story in West Bengal which had had allowed standalone shops, both essential and non-essential (such as sweet shops), to operate during the third phase of the lockdown. Now, large-format retailers will also resume operations from Thursday.
“It would have been ideal if a common set of guidelines, led by the centre, had been put in place rather than permitting states to decide individually. There is confusion among traders. I am hoping this will settle down,” said Khandelwal.
In Maharashtra, all shops and markets will be allowed to open between 9 am and 5 pm in non-red zones beginning Friday. Malls and shopping complexes, however, will reopen in red zones only for maintenance purposes.
Essential services in the state will continue to function as they were within red and non-red zones, with strict social distancing norms and home delivery (in the case of liquor vends). West Bengal has also classified containment zones into three categories. In the first, no stores are permitted to open. In the second and third, a large number of retail stores including barber shops, salons and beauty parlours have been permitted.