The Merchant of Madurai

T
Pandemic impact on business in Madurai
How the pandemic made a garment trader trust technology, realize the importance of health, and become a positive force of change in his neighborhood.

Anand* is a third-generation garment trader. He lives in Madurai. His is a joint family – Anand and his brother and their families live in a large two-storied building with their parents. All ten of them live on the first floor of their house. The ground floor is where their office is. Anand’s grandfather moved to Madurai from Abhainagar, a village near Jaisalmer in the late 1950s. He started trading in garments. Over time his business took root and started expanding. Anand always knew that he and his brother will have to run the family business. He learned many things from his father. Primarily, he learned that you need to understand money intimately and completely to succeed in business. Anand took this lesson to heart. Every move he has made so far in life has been very measured. After graduation, Anand decided to get an MBA in finance. On completing his MBA, he worked for four years in the finance department of a manufacturing company. These four years gave him a good grounding in how to run a business.

Over time his life fell into a routine. He sourced garments from across India – Delhi, Mumbai, and Gujarat – and sold to retailers in Tamil Nadu. Anand and his brother would travel twice a year, visiting manufacturers from whom they sourced garments. This again was based on one of his father’s business lessons – you need to feel the garments, see the stitching before you place orders, you need to socialize with your suppliers and consumers, you need to get to know them and their families. Anand saw a lot of merit in this. Knowing his suppliers and consumers personally had ensured the smooth running of his business.

As 2019 drew to a close Anand was a happy man. The business his grandfather had passed on to them was doing well, and Tamil Nadu was a great place to trade in garments. Many festivals were celebrated here, and each festival was an occasion for purchasing and gifting clothes. And he had found a niche. Sourcing good garments at a low cost and then supplying them to small towns across Tamil Nadu. He had big plans for 2020. Anand and his brother had decided to expand their operations. A new office and more employees were a part of this plan. They finalized a place, look a bank loan, and purchased a new office. Work was estimated to be completed by April. He had also identified the people he would hire. He wanted to time the hiring to coincide with the opening of the new office.

Anand’s lockdown experience 

By early February Anand had started seeing videos on Tik Tok of people being rounded up in Wuhan then he started seeing videos of bodies being burned. He quickly unfollowed these handles. The videos were simply too disturbing. He felt that this virus would be contained in China. He did not give COVID a lot of thought after that. Towards the end of February, his parents traveled to their village near Jaisalmer to visit relatives. They returned to Madurai just before the Janata curfew. A few days later both of them started showing COVID symptoms. And soon the whole family – all ten of them – were infected. Anand called up the authorities and told them that his parents were infected. He didn’t tell them about the other infections as he feared that their house would be sealed. People from Madurai corporation sanitized their home. Anand then contacted all his employees and assured them that they would continue to be paid. However, all operations came to a halt.

For the first time in his life work and business took a back seat. He started to respect and admire his mother, wife, and his sister-in-law a lot more. He started to realize how difficult it was to run a household and manage four boisterous children. Work on his new office had come to a standstill. But he still had to pay EMIs on his loan. Expenses were rising and income had dropped sharply.

Unlock

By the first week of July business operations resumed. One of the first things that Anand and his brother did was take stock of all the garments that they had in the godown; they realized that they had enough to run their business till the end of September. But there were a lot of logistical disruptions. Their trucks were stuck in Andhra Pradesh and there were fuel shortages. All of this took time to resolve.

The other big disruption was that he could not travel. He could not visit his manufacturers; he could not feel the garments and see the stitching. He soon started getting pictures of garments on his WhatsApp. He was hesitant to place orders based on pictures in the beginning. But he had to get ready for the festive and wedding seasons. So, orders were placed based on the images sent by the manufacturers. When the consignments arrived, he noticed that all his specifications had been met. COVID had opened up a new way of doing business. He had also saved on the time and expenses that come with travel. There were other surprises as well – the sale of nighties had doubled; the sale of T-shirts and kids-garments had also gone up. More garments were flying off the shelves, but these were all of lower value. Anand’s business had gone down by about 30% but the festive season was yet to come, and he knew that the more expensive stuff would start selling then. And it did. Life was getting back to normal.

End December was the time for a family trip to Jaisalmer. There were weddings to attend and temples to visit. Anand soon realized that he was entering an entirely new world. A world free of COVID worries. Very few people were infected in the villages that he visited. The only pandemic-related trouble that they had faced was with supplies. He was thankful for that. This mood rubbed off on Anand and his family as well. The masks came off. They too started believing that COVID was gone for good. Immediately after getting back to Madurai Anand and his brother decided to resume their business travel. They first went to Delhi and then to Mumbai. While in Mumbai they heard about infections beginning to rise again. They cut short their visit and returned to Madurai.
In the following weeks, they lost many people close to them – family friends, business partners. What shocked them was how fast this was happening. News on TV added to the feeling of gloom. They were shocked that a strict lockdown had not been announced despite the shortage of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders.

This meant that business could keep going. They went back to WhatsApp to reach out to suppliers and consumers. All employees were asked to work from home. Anand and his brother also started to seriously read up on the virus and its variants. They ensured that their parents got both doses of Covishield. It was also decided that the rest of them would get Sputnik as it was widely regarded as the most effective of the vaccines available here. Anand believes that COVID is here to stay. We will have to learn to live with it. Masks are here to stay. In time, effective medicines will be produced. Anand and his brother have decided that their children will not attend school till every child and all the staff there are vaccinated. He does not expect his business to grow in the next two years. All that he wants is for his family to stay healthy.

COVID has taught Anand the importance of:

1.Health
Anand now ensures that every room in his house has a box of dry fruits. Everyone in their family now has Amla juice, greens, fruits, turmeric milk, and at least one sachet of Dabur Honitus daily. They have also started exercising regularly.

2.Technology
The lockdown forced Anand to rely on technology to run his business. Having realized how it saves time and money he now plans to stick to it. He wants to cut down on travel as much as possible.

3.Social consciousness
Anand is a lot more involved in how his colony is run today. Before COVID he rarely had time to get to know his neighbors. COVID showed him how important hygiene and cleanliness are. Not just personal hygiene and keeping their home clean and disinfected but their neighborhood too. Before COVID people would just dump garbage on the streets. Anand got together with his neighbors to ensure that this does not happen. They ensured that garbage collection and disposal happen regularly.

*All names have been changed to protect identity

About the author

Suresh Mohankumar

A seasoned strategist with 28 years of experience conceiving, launching and growing some of India’s biggest brands, Suresh, has worked as the head of Strategic Planning in large advertising agencies.

He is known for breaking down complex situations to bring meaningful insights to the surface in order to arrive at a water-tight strategy.

He has handled a variety of categories like Automobiles, Jewelry, FMCG, AlcoBev, Leisure, Food, Fashion, Retail, Technology, New Media, etc.

By Suresh Mohankumar

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