Businesses in India had hardly any warning before the government decided to shut down the country of 1.3 billion inhabitants to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
They are now scrambling to adapt and survive the lockdown. Working remotely and efficiently is the new mantra in Asia's third-largest economy. Gyms have moved their workout sessions online and there has been a growth in apps and IT platforms that can help people work remotely.
The three-week lockdown currently in place in India means most people are not permitted to leave their homes unless they are going out for groceries or medicine.
"It's really a huge change that has hit all of us," says Srividya Kannan, the founder and director at Avaali Solutions, a Bangalore-based firm that provides digital technology solutions to companies. "Obviously ,we have to realign our offerings to make them most relevant to our customers at the moment."
Her company is offering automation services that can help to reduce costs as they can take over repetitive tasks normally performed by people.
“People can get infected with the virus, but machines don't,” she explains.
One of the company's products is an online invoice processing software that eliminates the need to physically send scans to manage invoicing.
“Those organisations that have not really gone digital are struggling to find information,” she says. “At the moment, we're spending a lot of time evangelising the solutions.”
Companies in India will have to find new ways to generate revenue and continue to reach customers amid the coronavirus outbreak, analysts say.
This is all the more important, given the economic impact that the pandemic is having on India, as the global economy goes into recession. Fitch Ratings on Friday revealed that it had cut its growth forecast for India for the current financial year, which began on April 1, to a 30-year low of 2 per cent, from an earlier forecast of 5.1 per cent.
KPMG in its latest report on the potential impact of Covid-19 on the Indian economy, said that consumer, retail, and internet businesses have no choice but to find new ways to maintain their customer-base.
“Going forward, we could expect companies to explore newer distribution channels focused on a ‘direct to consumer’ route,” says KPMG. “Further, the ability to predict and manage demand will be a game-changer. In this environment, shoring up the customer relationships while focusing on the bottom line will be key.”
One company that has come up with a new way to reach customers during the current crisis is online classified ads firm Quikr.
It has launched a new service in 23 Indian cities, called Stillopen.in, which allows users to find out which essential businesses including supermarkets, groceries and pharmacies are operational during the lockdown, which runs until April 14.
“Our page views are increasing exponentially on a daily basis, with groceries and vegetables shops being the most searched categories,” says Sonu Abhinandan, the vice president at Quikr. “It's followed by pharmacies, hospitals and Covid-19 centres. In future, depending on the growth in demand, Quikr plans to expand this service in about the top 10 to 12 vernacular languages in India.”
Another company looking to adapt is fitness firm Cult.fit. It has increased its online training sessions so people can work out at home, as its fitness centres across the country are shut. It expects these sessions to continue even after restrictions are lifted, with people expected to avoid crowded places for some time due to fears of a second outbreak.
“cult.live is a group fitness class led by our trainers that lets you experience the energy from the comfort of your home and work out with thousands of others,” the company says, adding that the classes are free for anyone to join using its app.
Other businesses thriving during the lockdown include digital entertainment platforms. Services like Netflix and Amazon Prime have seen a sharp rise in demand, which is also leading to a surge in data usage – to the benefit of telecom companies in India. The increase in internet usage, however, has forced Netflix to drop the quality of video streaming on its mobile platform in India, a move aimed at reducing bandwidth congestion.
“There are a few industries that have experienced an immediate boost because of people being at home and looking at avenues to pass time,” says Soham Thacker, the founder of Gamerji, an online video gaming platform, based in Ahmedabad in Gujarat. “Digital entertainment has been the primary source to help people spend their time at home while they wait for the scare to pass.”
The gaming industry, he says, is one of the beneficiaries of the lockdown.
“It is an industry that heavily depends on people being free and being confined to one location. There could not have been a better match.”
Gaming encourages people to stay at home and practice social distancing during the lockdown, and at the same time industry enjoys a boost in revenue as the number of gamers rise.
There are drawbacks for India's $190 billion (Dh697.3bn) IT sector, though, including delays on deals that were in the pipeline, but analysts say there could be a silver lining.
“Is it all gloom? We don’t think so,” says Pankaj Kapoor, the executive director at JM Financial, an investment banking firm in Mumbai. “We expect increased demand for services such as cloud migration, network management and security, and implementation of collaboration software as enterprises adapt to an extended period of working from home, and address the deficiencies of their existing business continuity planning infrastructure.”
Many companies are quickly adapting to the situation and boosting their digital offerings.
Punit Java, the chief technology officer at Freightwalla, says the Mumbai-based digital logistics company had already been working on its app even before the coronavirus situation disrupted work routines in India. The launch of the app for its clients on March 20 was very timely.
“In the context of the present coronavirus situation, we hope our app will help businesses to have improved visibility on their supply chains, while working from the safety of their homes,” says Mr Java.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic will force more industries to take notice of the need to go digital, says Freightwalla co-founder and chief executive Sanjay Bhatia.
"The sudden lockdown of the country without much warning time has led to the shutting down of most of the offline businesses," says Mr Bhatia.
“It is now that people have started realising the importance of going digital. Being tech-enabled is not just a competitive advantage anymore – it has become a necessity for ensuring the sustainability of any business.”