New Delhi: At a bakery in Amar Colony a customer queuing to enter is visibly nervous. When she finally steps in, she uses the hand sanitizer the shop offers to customers twice and asks one of the shop assistants to ensure that customers leave quickly once they have made their purchases, so that the shop is less crowded.
But at least this customer entered the shop and bought what she needed. Across Delhi, as lockdown restrictions were eased from June 1 and markets and shops began opening, shopkeepers have been reporting low sales and visible fear among their customers.
In Lajpat Nagar, the usually crowded lanes of the market are eerily deserted. Gurdayal Singh, owner of Guru Nanak Dry Fruits Store, is masked and gloved, as are his shop assistants, and waiting hopefully for customers. Sales have dropped to 40% of pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels. This is despite that fact that since the lockdown was announced in March, the shop has only been shut for three days. Since Singh offers the home delivery service, he had acquired e-passes for his assistants and himself.
“Customers are scared to visit markets,” Singh told The Wire. “But the customers were even scared of home delivery. They made my assistants leave the parcels outside their main gates and threw the payment at them from their balconies.”
Shopkeepers seem resigned to their customers’ fears. The caretaker at Liberty Dry Cleaners at Lajpat Market says: “People are scared to have their clothes dry-cleaned; they fear the virus might stick to their clothes. Our customers trust us, but now they are controlled by fear.”
The fear seems to be justified. Cases of COVID-19 infection are rising despite two months of lockdown and at Sadar Bazaar, according to Sheikh Abdullah, owner of AB Enterprises, a cosmetics store. The market had to be sealed until June 4 when 12 traders tested positive for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, the Indian Express reported that 572 pharmaceutical stores, with four to five staff each, were expected to remain shut till June 4 in old Delhi’s Bhagirath Palace, the wholesale market for medicine and medical equipment.
A vicious economy
Fear of the virus is only one of the factors affecting sales and service at markets and shops. Another major factor is finances. Daily wage earners have no money to spend and many companies downsized their staff strength during the lockdown, leaving people unemployed and living off their savings. At the same time, with factories and workshops shut for more than two months, supplies are limited and what is available at shops thus tends to be overpriced.
Gupta Cloth House in Amar Colony has been feeling the effects of the depleted economy since it opened shop on May 22, when the government allowed shops stocking non-essentials to reopen.“People are not buying fancy fabrics these days; they’re sticking to basic home wear fabrics and are spending comparatively less,” says Anirudh Gupta, owner of the fabric store. “Customers bargain more than they used to, pressing harder to have us lower the prices. But we can’t bring down the rates beyond a point. Fabric prices are skyrocketing at the moment.”
Gupta says his shop now functions only on a quarter of the business he did before the pandemic hit India. His fabric supply has also been affected in the lockdown. “The fabric is Indian, but the dye applied to them is Chinese, and a lot of fabric is also Chinese these days,” he explains. “There are now various logistical barriers and issues within the supply chain. So when all factories in Surat, Pali and Bhiwandi are shut, it disturbs the whole chain. I’m paying an incremental value of 13% on the fabrics that I order.”
At Al Chand Foods in Sadar Bazaar, Mohammed Sharib has halved his staff strength. Only four of his eight assistants are allowed inside the eatery. Al Chand’s earnings have dropped to half of what they were before the lockdown and the eatery now works only as a takeaway and home delivery shop.
“We only opened recently on June 1 and are taking maximum precautions to ensure the safety of both customers and workers,” says Sharib. Small eateries like his are suffering also because of the rumours of bird flu that spread around the country in March and badly damaged poultry businesses.
Some business is better than none
Whether or not markets are open, business so far seems closed. In the eerily deserted lanes of Seelampur’s Gol Baithak Market, Amaan Khan who sells readymade clothes at his shop says he has earned only Rs 800 in four days. “Two shopkeepers here have emptied their shops of stock and closed them,” he says.
Despite this bad news, shops continue to open because some business is better than none. In Jamia Nagar, Farhan, who has a mobile accessories and repair shop, says: “I only earn through mobile repair now. All the workers in this area have left for home, so my earnings through mobile recharges have completely stopped. People don’t even buy earphones, chargers and cables now for the fear that the virus will be transported through these accessories.”
A few lanes away, Mohammed Haroon, the owner of a boutique, has decided to only clear his old stock for now rather than purchase anything new to sell. He has a few customers, he says, but he’s noticed people only enter shops where the workers are masked and prefer to pay via various online methods.