One of the fallouts of the Covid-19 crisis has been a boost in digital influence on consumers in India and a leg-up for certain lines of business, recent reports and a virtual panel discussion found on Wednesday.

“If you go back in history, SARS in 2003 was a tipping point for e-commerce in China. This [the pandemic and lockdown] is an important time when we could have a similar shift in India as well,” said Nimisha Jain, managing director and partner, Boston Consulting Group, which co-authored the reports along with Facebook India.

According to the reports—which look at the specific categories of mobile phones, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG; the report terms them as consumer product goods or CPG), and apparel—digital influence has increased significantly across the path to purchase. It is up to 70% for smartphones, 55%-60% for apparel, and up to 25% for the non-food CPG categories.

Online share for mobile phones (in value terms) is likely to reach approximately 45% in the next 2 years; up from 38% the pre-crisis days, the report says. For CPG, there was a rise of 30%-plus online buyers during the lockdown, with most of them planning to continue. The report also found that with approximately 79% consumers unwilling to go out of the house except for work, casual wear was to become a larger part of the wardrobe.

The reports say that three kinds of consumer trends have made the smartphone even more central to our lives—reversal of past trends such as bringing the outside in-home through virtual experiences, acceleration of past trends leading to stronger adoption of digital and online, and formation of new habits such as DIY. No wonder that 55% of those surveyed said that they intend to increase spends on mobile phone via an online channel in the next six months.

“We know that digital influence has significantly increased across the path-to-purchase... We are now seeing businesses convert this increased digital influence into tangible business outcomes. A significant digital acceleration has happened on the back of social media, and with 400-million-plus Indians connected on the Facebook family of apps in India, we play a consequential role in the consumer journey. The opportunity for businesses now is to adopt new solutions that are now available, across the funnel: replicate in-person experiences by bringing alive virtual experiences, focus on efficiency and truly incremental outcomes by platform, and leverage friction-less ways of staying in touch with the consumer in times of physical distancing,” said Sandeep Bhushan, director and head, global marketing solutions, Facebook India.

The reports also say that some of these trends are expected to continue beyond the pandemic. For example, 90% of consumers who have purchased apparel online during the lockdown have shown a willingness to continue. Within CPG, this figure is 80% for food related sub-categories, and 84% for non-food related sub-categories.

Futurebrands consulting MD & CEO Santosh Desai, one of the panellists, said that the pandemic has forced us to adopt new habits such as cooking and online education. “So a lot of things that should have done well [in India] in an earlier time … a lot of categories which were locked in a certain way have become unlocked—online education, the notion of continuing education, the notion of proactive health,” he said, adding that while the times were terrifying in some respects, but fascinating in others, “where we are being forced to think of things in a new way and what will remain are the opportunities”. He advised marketers to never be complacent, dig deep to challenge market trends and figure out how best to utilise the circumstances.

According to the reports, besides mobile phones there are other categories where consumers plan to increase online spending in the next six months: 51% for home care, 46% for personal care, 43% for cosmetics, 51% for staples, 44% for fresh food, and 47% for packaged food. Another result of people being forced to stay at home (or at least away from social gatherings) is that 52% of those surveyed have increased the use of social media. Now, there is more product discovery on social media e.g. recipe videos, food reviews, beauty tips, and hacks.

In fact, Asim Warsi, senior vice president, Samsung India, and a part of the panel, talked about using the power of digital to bring to the “smart shopper” the experience of new categories, gadgets, unboxing, etc. up close, without depending on the offline world. “As India’s largest consumer electronics company, we have taken the onus to create new shopper journeys to aid physical distancing by leveraging our digital technologies with our deep retail presence in India. Facebook is our partner in this journey of helping our retail channel discover and target local consumers digitally. In addition, we have enabled consumers to purchase our mobile and electronic products online, whilst getting the deliveries offline from their neighbourhood Samsung retail stores. Also, we are now delivering our financing solution—Samsung Finance+—to the consumers’ doorsteps. These digitally forward initiatives have helped us make a sharp recovery post lockdown,” he said.

Last month, Facebook India and BCG had come out with the report, ‘Turn the Tide’ and these three reports are a follow up to that. That report had talked about how consumers valued and came back to brands they trust, something that Anil Viswanathan, director-marketing (Chocolates), Mondelez India, and a panellist, also referred to. While essential items continued to remain a key priority among consumers, “in-home snacking has come to take precedence as part of the ritual of spending more time with family or with oneself. Amplified social media influence has also triggered a trend wherein homebound consumers are now increasingly looking at ways to indulge in or create at home moments and in doing so they are predominantly relying on trusted brands like Cadbury, Oreo, Tang etc., which represent superior quality and the assurance of safety amid these uncertain times,” he said. He added that in such times, the key was to continue to remain agile and adapt to the changing requirements of consumers and “facilitate ease of service across channels”.

The report also highlighted that 40% of those surveyed are planning to increase online spends on apparel in the next one month. This was even though people were not ready to move out. Panellist and Big Bazaar CEO Sadashiv Nayak said his company had the means to help customers: someone in a store could show the customer over a WhatsApp call the designs, the size, etc.; consumers could also book their checkout slots in advance at Big Bazaar outlets, and the company also had the provision of store delivery.

“Across mobile, apparel and CPG, we are observing changes in how and what consumers buy. We expect the online sales market for mobiles to touch 45% in the next two years… Nearly one in two consumers plan to increase spend on health and immunity related food products… It’s critical that brands amp up their digital engagement and customise their proposition to win in the new normal,” said Jain of BCG.

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