As part of the Unlock 1.0, malls reopened on June 8, after over two months of being totally shut due to the novel coronavirus-led lockdown.
While restarting business is a relief for malls, the question remained whether people will visit a mall in times of COVID-19.
Moneycontrol visited one of the biggest malls of Bengaluru, Forum Mall, to check if customers have returned to shop, and take a look at the standard operating procedures (SOPs) being followed to ensure hygiene and social distancing.
Forum Mall, which is located on Hosur Road in Kormangala, is one of the oldest malls of Bengaluru and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that it was one of the busiest malls of the city. However, things changed after the outbreak when malls had to shut shop for over 70 days.
The scene outside the mall was so unlike the days before the coronavirus struck the world. The seating area outside Forum Mall used to be fully occupied even during the day. However, during our visit, we saw just one person sitting and relaxing.Safety measures: Sanitisation, social distancing and more
When it comes to safety measures, there is an ambulance parked right outside the mall. Visitors have to go through a disinfection tunnel, which is followed by a temperature check and fumigation process for bags. There is a sanitiser stand before the entering mall and one at the security check as well.
“We have doubled the frequency of cleaning. Hygiene materials have been upgraded. Those materials are expensive but we have to absorb that cost. Our entire safety and housekeeping budget has shot up by 50 percent. The equipment that we have installed has cost us Rs 50 lakh per mall,” Muhammad Ali, COO, Forum Malls, told Moneycontrol.
“We have restricted entry of visitors to one third. We can't have the pre-COVID footfall because then all efforts will go for a toss. Also, Kormangala’s Forum has elevators with a capacity of 20 passengers, which now has been restricted to five people and people have to stand on the markings,” he added.
Along with elevators, to maintain physical distancing on escalators every alternate step is blocked and there are also foot markings to help people understand where to stand so that there is enough distance between two people.
Also, the cleaning staff in the mall constantly cleans every area of the mall from floors, seats to doors.
"When it comes to toilets, alternate urinals have been blocked for men. There are placards outside toilets indicating which toilet can be used. Also, alternate washbasins have also been blocked," Ali said.
Now coming to state of affairs inside the mall. First stop was McDonalds where there were around eight to 10 people dining. McDonalds like other food joints was only accepting take-away orders before the ease in lockdown restrictions.Footfalls are low but shops and shoppers are more
In terms of overall footfalls, the number was low in comparison to pre-COVID levels. However, considering the fact that it has been only few days since the mall opened, the number of visitors seemed to be a good sign for the industry.
“Across all our malls (Prestige Group has nine malls in India), we have seen 20 percent footfall in the last three days. Another interesting aspect is that from this 20 percent footfall, we have earned 40 percent revenue across all malls. Hence, we are looking at serious shoppers currently. Before COVID-19, only 10 percent visitors would end up shopping in malls across the country,” he said.
Ali added, “This weekend is critical as it is the first after reopening, but I am sure business will build and grow.”
While the footfalls were low, we saw a lot of shops that had resumed business.
According to Ali, 80 percent shops have restarted operations and the reason for this was suspension of rent during the lockdown period that Forum Mall had offered.Stores are also taking extra care of their customers
Along with safety measures adopted by malls, retailers have their own set of guidelines.
“First, we are asking all retailers to sign up on the SOPs that they have to adhere to. Retailers also have to limit the number of people they can let in. Smaller stores can only allow three customers at a time,” he said.
“There are further precautions. For instance, a watch store provides plastic gloves to customers before they touch any product. As for apparel stores, some allow customers to try clothes in the store, but if you do not buy that apparel goes into the sanitisation bucket and the clothes are left there for 48 hours. Some stores are not allowing trials and letting customers take the clothes home. If they return the garments, then the same sanitisation process is followed,” Ali explained.Still no theatres, no food courts
Despite malls restarting, there are certain restricted sections. At Forum Mall, the third floor is out of reach, which has theatres, as cinemas continue to remain shut.
“Pre-COVID, with good occupancy, cinema contributed around 10 percent of overall footfalls,” he pointed out.
Also, the food court at Forum Mall remained shut.
Ali said that F&B (food and beverage) is still struggling because of timing as they have to shut by 8 pm. However, when it comes to food court Forum Mall has a few plans to safely bring back customers.
It has installed automated food court ordering. So, customers can scan the QR code on the table and the entire food court menu will be on their phones. The only time a customer has to get up is to collect the food and only person can do so.
“This is in the final stages of implementation, because when it comes to the menu it has to be updated real-time as some food items can go out of stock and those have to be removed from the menu,” he said.Contact-less dining
Individual restaurants like Salt Restaurants have already started offering menu on QR code. In conversation with Moneycontrol, Rabin Mukherjee, Operational manager, Salt Restaurants, said, “We opened our restaurant for dining from June 8. While the opening was not very loud, we hope weekends will be better. Currently, we are doing 10 covers during the day. Before coronavirus, we did 150 covers during the weekend.”
One cover means one diner.
Along with contactless dining, Salt Restaurants is maintaining social distancing by leaving alternate tables empty.
Although, the visitor count remains at the lower end so far, things could change over the weekend. And Forum Mall has plans for crowd control as well.
“In case we run full, people can book appointments to come into the mall. So, once we reach one-third capacity we block space and allow people who have booked. We will also ask people how much time they will spend because cinemas are shut, so it will be mostly serious shopping," Ali said.