The traditional retail sector faced serious issues with consumers being unable to visit stores during the curfew, lamented Spa Ceylon Co-founder and Director Shalin Balasuriya, adding that the period was about “adjusting and moving forward.”

He explained that this entailed evaluating efficiency, negotiating rental reductions and even waivers, communicating with staff and reducing pay in certain instances.

“It must be understood that we as businesses and people need to help each other,” Balasuriya urged, pointing out that “this is the only way we will emerge from this because the economy needs us to rise together.”

With the imposition of an islandwide curfew, many retailers diversified into e-commerce. Sri Lanka responded well with this development in Balasuriya’s assessment, as many online platforms emerged virtually overnight while logistics operators offered their services to help businesses.

He observed that another major development was consumers becoming more comfortable with e-commerce transactions: “For the longest time, it was difficult to convince consumers to use credit cards or order online. This crisis pushed people to begin exploring the online space from both consumer and business perspectives.”

However, businesses also had to bridge gaps in terms of how people interacted with websites and online portals. As Balasuriya noted, not everyone was comfortable with the shift to transacting digitally, prompting businesses to facilitate orders through platforms such as WhatsApp while logistics partners offered cash on delivery payment options.

While countries have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in various ways, he remarked that a common trend on the retail front has been the embrace of technology: “The ability to effectively communicate through technology and create interaction with consumers is of vital importance.”

With Sri Lanka gradually reopening for business, he emphasised the need to revive wellness related activities as the sector employs many people: “We must introduce strict guidelines and ensure that people adhere to them. This has worked well with retailers following government guidelines, which helps consumers feel safe.”

In addition, he stressed that following guidelines was not merely about adhering to government directives but ensuring that employees and consumers feel safe interacting in places of business.

Acknowledging that businesses cannot solely depend on the government, Balasuriya explained that operators in the wellness sector are working to design guidelines as they’re more attuned to what is necessary and practical.

He elaborated: “We can help with the infrastructure and offer practical feedback on setting standards. Going beyond these standards to ensure they’re met will be important as the failure of one business will affect others in the sector and those related to it.”

When it comes to the government’s import restrictions, Balasuriya stated that such a policy is not necessarily a negative development and could be manageable in the short term. As for the long term, the impact of these restrictions must be evaluated.

“There are businesses solely based on imports so we must assess our needs. Rather than banning imports, we must support local industries by promoting manufacturing through subsidies and other initiatives,” he opined.

Commenting on the retail sector’s future, Balasuriya pointed to expectations of Chinese tourists being among the first to travel. While this may not necessarily result in a resurgence of the hospitality sector, he stated that this segment would benefit retailers as they’re known to consume a mix of products.

“In the short term, we must focus on the local market and use this time to prepare if tourism is projected to rebound in the next six months. We must view this with a positive mindset and look to survive these next six months – at which point, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he concluded.