With the novel Coronavirus spread gaining speed since early this year in India, uncertainty and disruption have become the new normal, unexpectedly confining people within homes and hitting the brakes on almost all non-essential business activities and services. The take-off of the catastrophe in the first quarter of the year has since led to a significant shift in consumer behaviour.

With social distancing norms in place and people living in perpetual fear of contracting the disease, consumers have been compelled to learn to live with limited resources indispensable for survival. Consumer demand is now reduced to procuring only day-to-day essentials without stepping out of homes. The reconstructed “order of existence” has not only wrecked traditional brick-and-mortar businesses but also not spared the e-commerce industry from its damaging impact. The initial impact of the disruption is highlighted in a report by Capillary Technologies, which says that retail sales and customer footfall in each brick-and-mortar outlet plummeted by 46% and 55%, respectively, between March 17 and March 25. Also, it has been reported that the e-commerce industry suffered massive losses, estimated at more than $1 billion, less than two months from the announcement of the lockdown.

A paradigm shift in consumer behaviour

Even with the ongoing “unlocking” of the economy in phases, people are reluctant to step out of their homes unless it is unavoidable. While demand for non-essential products continues to remain low, consumers are increasingly moving to digital platforms to meet their requirements for essential items such as groceries, health and hygiene, fitness products, medicines, etc. This change in consumer behaviour not only calls for businesses—both giants and MSMEs—to embrace technology but also learn the ropes of reinventing sustainable business models designed for changing demand patterns. Businesses without the agility to acclimatise to these rapid shifts find themselves staggering.

Coping with the new normal

Following the outbreak of the Coronavirus, to go digital became a pressing priority for all traditional retailers to survive; and to thrive became the biggest challenge. It called for companies to be fleet-footed in adopting creative and unique strategies to understand consumer behaviour, create connections, and ensure last-mile delivery. Companies which are quick to learn that innovation is the key to be ahead of the pack are likely to leave their mark even in the time of a crisis. We, in this article, attempt to set down five creative business strategies, along with examples, that can give any business an edge over other market players.

Delivering through collaborations: Collaborations and integrated business models could be the need of the hour. Collaborations would allow businesses, through their combined efforts, to serve a wider customer base even amidst Covid-19 disruptions.

For example, packaged food products company MTR Foods ensures door-to-door delivery through Swiggy’s hyperlocal services. Meanwhile, Dunzo, a pickup and delivery services company, makes home-delivery of Britannia products possible across eight Indian states. Similarly, Domino’s Pizza and ITC have sealed a deal to make ITC products available in every household. And the Delhi and Bengaluru governments brought bike taxi startup Rapido onboard to deliver essentials to the residents of the two states.

Exploring newer possibilities: Even with the slowdown in sales during this disruptive period, companies can put their best foot forward to explore other growth opportunities in innovative ways. In this hour of crisis, retailers need to focus on rediscovering their potential in adding unique and newer services.

Swiggy Genie and Uber Connect are perfect examples of creative ways of connecting near and dear ones while ensuring social distancing norms. They went beyond their usual business activities to offer intra-city pickup and drop of items from one location to another. Online travel companies such as Yatra forayed into the office accessories supply market, and MakeMyTrip explored the food delivery world. Rapido launched Rapido Local, an on-demand delivery service of medicines and other essentials, and Rapido Store, an intra-city last-mile delivery service for both offline and online SMEs. Moglix, a B2B e-commerce platform supplying industrial tools and equipment, shifted its focus to delivering PPE and medical kits, and health and hygiene products to government bodies, hospitals, and essential services companies. The Mahindra Group helped to modify the sanitary pad-making machines of Navi Mumbai-based menstrual products startup Saral Designs to manufacture three-ply surgical masks.

Building community networks: Leveraging on Indian consumers’ trust and bonding with local kirana stores, e-commerce firms can build a hyperlocal business model to tap the country’s long-term essentials delivery market. Through hyperlocal capabilities, e-commerce companies can build a community network connecting consumers with their local stores and entrepreneurs. The virtual model can bring local vendors on a digital platform, facilitate inventory storage close to consumer locations, and ensure faster delivery services.

For example, e-commerce giant Flipkart adopted the hyperlocal model with the launch of its Flipkart Quick groceries and essentials delivery service. Beginning with collaborations with retail chains, the company is working toward partnering with local stores to facilitate quicker deliveries within community networks, while ensuring superior and trustworthy standards of service.

Leveraging social platforms: Several traditional retailers with only offline offerings can leverage their social media presence to understand customer preferences for customer acquisition.

For example, Facebook has launched its Shops feature on the social network and Instagram to enable SMEs and other ed-tech companies to connect to their target customer group through Facebook Live or free-of-cost storefronts. One of the biggest tie-ups after the onset of Covid-19 in India has been between Reliance’s e-commerce platform JioMart and Facebook-owned WhatsApp. JioMart has opened new opportunities for the mom-and-pop stores of the country to seamlessly connect and transact with consumers through its WhatsApp-based online shopping portal.

Embracing new technologies: Technological innovations can potentially transform the future of any business even during the time of a crisis. Companies developing or adopting new technologies can thrive well through these times and beyond.

For example, AI-based startup Staqu uses Jarvis, its video analytics technology, to determine if individuals are complying with the government’s Covid-19 regulations, based on real-time CCTV-based analytics.

It is obvious that the world post-Covid-19 will no longer remain the same. New practices will continually replace older ones. Ceaseless transformations would be the only constant truth of the future, and agility, creativity, and innovation would continue to power the success of a business.

Views are personal. Roy is research associate-content development at Indian School of Business; Arunachalam is assistant professor-marketing, and academic director at ISB’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

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