Diwali is the best of times — a time to celebrate life, to express the joy of living, to forgive, forget and come together, even if momentarily. A festival of giving, bonding, shared joy, marking prosperity or praying for it to Goddess Lakshmi. Splurging and socialising are defining hallmarks. In the corporate world, largesse rules, bonuses and gifts provide the comparative scale. Eat, drink and make merry — it indeed is the best of times. Just that it is 2020, and everything that could go wrong, has.
The shadow of pandemic looms large over one festival the whole of India, markets, the economy look forward to. Lay-offs, salary cuts, fear of losing jobs have all added to the lockdown and unlocking blues.
Despite the gloom, there is a visible buzz in the bazaars and lit-up markets, though traders say the pick-up in sales is below expectation. Many have not stocked up on Diwali goodies or have placed minimal orders. However, some are hopeful that shops would do better business in the fortnight ahead in the absence of Diwali melas.
People are afraid to step out or are doing so cautiously, particularly those with young kids and/or old parents at home. And they are also clear about not exchanging Diwali gifts. There are others who may go for intimate gatherings.
A cheerless corporate world
The pandemic has not only snuffed out lives and livelihoods, but has also affected the gifting spirit and budget of many corporates. A private bank placed an order for ‘Saregama Carvaan Mini” as a festival gift this year for their high net worth individual customers. Last year, it had gifted ‘Saregama Carvaaan’ that was twice the cost.
Most of the corporate sector is likely to scale down on Diwali gifts this year, says a senior executive working with a private firm. However, experts believe the reduction in gift price would be more for outside vendors and partners than employees.
While many companies may not give any bonus or gift, most firms say budgetary allocation for corporate gifting this year will witness a cut of 30 to 60 per cent compared to last year.
Change in gifting patterns
The corporate gifting option too has been seeing a major change. Many corporates are opting for e-gift vouchers for contactless distribution. Other items for both employees and clients include durable goods, gold coins, cash rewards, dry fruits, juices and biscuits hampers, wearable fitness devices, etc.
“Many corporates are opting for local, customised gifts for their clients to continue building relationships when they aren’t able to connect face to face,” says Leo Shastri, director, Usha Exim Pvt Ltd.
As many companies have extended the work-from-home time period, they are also looking for Wi-Fi improvement products, range extenders, noise cancellation headphones, mikes, webcams, bluetooth speakers, laptop tables, white boards, flasks, masks and sanitisers as festival gifts for staff.
Festive push to recovery
Navratras and Durga Puja not only usher in festivities, but are also catalysts for a productive business season. The sale of consumer durables and automobiles peaks around this auspicious time. The corporate sector is banking on it even this time.
“While festivities are low key, we are hoping that people spend. The recent green shoots of economic recovery give confidence that while subdued, it should be pushed further by the festive season,” says Assocham’s secretary general Deepak Sood.
Vehicle Sales drive economy
Passenger vehicle sales across the country climbed 26.45 per cent during the year to 2,72,027 units in September, shows data released by the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers. Last year, in the same period, 2,15,124 units were sold. Domestic two-wheeler sales stood at 18,49,546 units, up 11.64 per cent from 16,56,658 units last year. Of this, the motorcycle sales saw 17.30 per cent on-year rise at 12,24,117 units, while scooter sales inched up 0.08 per cent higher at 5,56,205 units. Also, car deliveries during Navratras saw a sharp year-on-year double-digit increase for most companies.
Tweaking celebration styles
Celebrations are in for some interesting tweaking. People are scaling down or cancelling gatherings in view of the Covid protocol. Ludhiana-based doctor couple Dr Anshu and Dr Ravinder Vatsyayan have cancelled the Karva Chauth get-together, an annual feature for two decades now. However, the mithai shopping remains part of their Diwali itinerary. “I don’t think that home chefs or home-made mithai will supplant the commercial preparations,” says Dr Anshu, adding that people have had enough of do-it-yourself cooking.
However, for many health-conscious people, buying sweets from the market is a big ‘no’. Sharanjit, a retired teacher, says, “For us, it will be home-made mithai. There may not be variety, but at least it will be safe.”
Predictably enough, mithai sales are down this year, though Ludhiana’s Manik Jain of Sharman Jain Sweets is optimistic, “The scenario will improve. Around 40 per cent of the decline is due to the pandemic, while 60 per cent is due to fall in income.” Maguun Gupta from Khushi Ram & Sons sweet shop here says, “The festival season has just started. As of now, it’s pheniya, matthi, desi mithai. We are hoping for a good response.”
Immunity laddoos woo back people
Most owners of sweet shops in Jalandhar say their sales have improved since the Navratras, but are down compared to last year. Bigger sweet shop owners, however, have evolved ways to attract back customers. Says Ramesh Mittal, owner of Lovely Sweets, “Maintaining high standards in hygiene and proper sanitisation has helped us gain the confidence of people. All those who were earlier going to mohalla shops in routine are also preferring to come to us. Our ‘immunity laddoos’ having ingredients such as tulsi and other herbs have also had good sales.” Sharing some innovative ways to boost sales, says Mittal, “We have installed UV lightboxes to ensure that the sweets remain germ-free and have a good shelf life. We have tied up with shops in Delhi and Hyderabad airports, besides Swiggy and Zomato for home delivery.”
Most corporate houses and business firms in the region have decided not to socialise and exchange any gifts with friends and relatives. Rajesh Kharbanda, CMD of Nivia Sports, says, “Even though the economy is back on track, we will be limiting the celebrations to our workforce.” Sharad Aggarwal, president, Northern Chamber of Small and Medium Industries, agrees, “Most firms will be taking to e-greeting. There seems to be a decline in corporate gifting. Most do not want to indulge in extravagance. However, there will be distribution of sweets and small gifts in almost all factories.”
Glimmer of hope
In Chandigarh, at the Sector 18 market, the hub of electronic and electrical goods, especially Chinese lights, the footfall is lesser than before. Raj Mehndiratta of Raj Enterprises here is feeling the pandemic blues. “Looking at the sales at Dasehra, business during Diwali may be down by 30 to 40 per cent. Customers have slowly started pouring in and we are hopeful more will come for Diwali shopping.”
At a nearby shop, 76-year-old RP Gupta of Universal Electric Company says, “We have been cautious in ordering our stock this year. The sales haven’t been good but as the festival nears, people are likely to venture out and buy the decorations.”
The pandemic, it seems, has been kind to some. In front of the Sector 20 temple, Kamlesh Bhatnagar (72) has been selling earthen diyas for decades together. “This Ganesh Chaturthi, we didn’t expect much sale but due to high demand, we had to add more idols. The sale during the Navratras, too, was quite good, so we are keeping our full stock of diyas ready for Diwali,” says Kamlesh. She, however, rues the fact that they don’t get any government support.
Bollywood plays it safe
For years now, Diwali has been a sought-after release date for big-ticket films. In 2019, Akshay Kumar-starrer Housefull 4 might not have won over critics but collected more than Rs200 crore at the box-office. The trend of Diwali releases has been in for quite some time now. In 2012, Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Jab Tak Hai Jaan had audiences turn out in huge numbers on Diwali day itself for the first day shows. SRK’s most Diwali releases have had a 100 per cent success ratio.
However, this year, Covid-19 has cast its ominous shadow on the entertainment industry, which has taken a big hit. Theatres were the first to close in the lockdown and the last to reopen on October 15. Since then, only rereleases have found their way to cinema halls. No big filmmaker is ready to take the risk. While two big-budget films, Sooryavanshi and ‘83, are ready, the directors, Rohit Shetty and Kabir Khan, have decided to play it safe and pushed the release dates further. The only brave maker has been Zee Studios as Abhishek Sharma directorial Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari will be releasing on Friday on the eve of Diwali. Whether it will be able to break the box-office in slumber remains to be seen. Its fate could decide the future course of film releases. Meanwhile, Akshay Kumar-starrer Laxmii and Hansal Mehta’s Chhalaang are all set for a digital release this Diwali.
Vijay C Roy, Minna Zutshi, Deepkamal Kaur, Seema Sachdeva, Nonika Singh
Tribune photos: pradeep tewari, Malkiat Singh and Ashwani Dhiman