Having started off my journey at Oxford Bookstore almost 20 years back, albeit with a break in between… it had seemed to me that I have seen all that can happen to us. I have seen the brand grow from being respected to revered, from a regional to a national, from being a bookstore to a literary platform. I have witnessed many new journeys in new cities, novel formats and the addition of the fantastic Cha Bar. Not to forget the various challenges that came along the way. But little did I know that we will be confronted with a “once in a century” phenomenon – a pandemic which has the capacity to lay aside our best laid plans. Having said that, I strongly feel that we are like the coconut tree swaying in the face of the ferocious wind, its tip almost touching the ground when it bears the brute brunt of the wind but swinging back upright the next moment when the wind speed falls….
The Government announcement of Unlock 1.0 was a welcome relief to us at Oxford Bookstore and Cha Bar. While we were never really operationally closed during the lockdown – be it delivering, processing online orders or book requests, this unlock period was what we were looking forward to. This was the real deal, where we can again welcome our beloved customers back, do deliveries where we could not reach during the complete lock down period, expand on our offerings – in short, try and normalize things as much as we can.
Of course, this normal isn’t the normal that we knew of in the pre COVID -19 era. This is the “new” normal where we had to ensure that our behavior is responsible towards the society at large and at the same time, get the ball rolling. Our first responsibility is towards ourselves… thus we have checks in place for our employees on screening of body temperature and general health daily. We wear masks and gloves and ensure that we keep on sanitizing ourselves regularly. The frontline staffs also are provided with face shields. Our stores are sanitized multiple times daily with special attention given to high traffic areas like cash counter, kitchen space and tables / chairs. As for the seating arrangement at Cha Bar, social distancing norms are being followed with each alternate table marked with a bright red cross to prohibit anyone from seating on these, thus reducing the seating capacity by 50% and maintaining a distance of 6 feet between operative tables. The tables do not have any containers like salt, pepper or sugar ones and guests are served in disposable cutleries. All the while, the temperature of the store is maintained as per Government guidelines and there are multiple communications across the store flashing the MHA directives.
And as for our guests, we are committed to serving them in the best possible atmosphere. Thus, we do not allow anyone who is not wearing a face mask to enter our store. On entering, one has to immediately use the foot pedal operated sanitizer and get the body temperature checked through the heat sensing thermal gun. Guests seated at the tables are further given hand sanitizer pouches and the servers sanitize their hands before and after service. In accordance with Government guidelines, our entire menu can be accessed through scanning of a QR code which is placed on each operative table. A customer can choose, order and pay through this process which is completely contact less.
To ensure that the “Unlock” process is enjoyable to customers, we have been offering cross promos with Oxford Bookstore and Cha Bar where one can derive benefits from one brand after doing purchases from the other – it might be in the form of a discount (on books) or a free item (cup of tea). We have also started promoting new range of food items, for example – a fresh new all day special breakfast menu (Rs 90/- to Rs 170/- ) or an all day meal specially for the hungry lunchtime executive @ Rs 99/-.
All this is augmented by the other continuous activities since the early days of lockdown where we were delivering through our partners (Swiggy / Zomato for Cha Bar and Shiprocket / Zomato for Oxford Bookstore) and also ourselves directly. We are continuously processing all book requests which include school books also. In addition, we have relaunched our e-commerce platform and have introduced the Oxford Bookstore app.
All of this has held us in good stead with our customers with whom we had never really lost touch during the lock down through our exhaustive social media activities. In these two months, our social media handles have been buzzing with various interactive formats like Live sessions with authors, quiz contests, Live workshops (on dance, quiz, poetry, mandala, origami, painting, etc), online polls and other engagement activities. We have had various requests coming in which were in direct co-relation to what our consumers have watched on our social media – be it pre-recorded videos of celebrities, digital music and book launches, promotion of our re-opening with all safety measures, promotion of exclusive feature like book requests and special posts for days like World Book Day, Environment Day and so on.
We know that while this pandemic has been pretty harsh on our business it has opened up a few avenues too. We strongly believe that we will be able to walk down these avenues successfully and make Oxford Bookstore and Cha Bar a stronger brand.
“Sweet are the uses of adversity which like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head” – William Shakespeare
Mr Swagat Sengupta is CEO, Apeejay Oxford Bookstores Private Limited.