It’s past midnight on a weekday as Reene Rajput and Kushagra Sharma park their bike in the parking lot of Greater Kailash II, M Block Market, one of New Delhi’s hip shopping and eating-out destinations. But shops have downed their shutters hours ago and most restaurants are also closed. Staff members sit by the windows of a few establishments, counting the day’s earnings, while one or two dessert and coffee places wait for the last of the stragglers to leave before dimming the lights. Rajput and Sharma head straight to the only brightly-lit and still open shop – the Twenty Four Seven convenience store that offers everything from packed food, groceries and ice cream to cold drinks and cosmetics. “We mostly work night shifts since we are catering to US clients,” say the BPO employees. “Restaurants are closed by the time we get out of work. We come here at least twice or thrice a week, mostly to buy food after work.” Banika Ahuja, a resident of the area, is also there “to do some last-minute shopping” before rushing off to a friend’s birthday party.
Evolving careers, changing working hours and lifestyles mean that a 9pm closing time for shops and “last orders at 11.30pm” deadline for restaurants don’t work for many city dwellers. Last month, the Union Cabinet approved the Model Shops and Establishment (Regulation of Employment and Condition of Services) Bill 2016, one of the provisions of which is freedom to operate 365 days a year and flexible hours of operation. The Bill covers shops, restaurants, banks and cinema halls and also allows women to work night shifts if the provision of shelter, ladies’ toilets, adequate safety and transportation is available. “The provision of operating 24x7 is expected to boost the retail market across the country and will give consumer flexibility and convenience to shop any time,” explains an article on the Press Information Bureau website. The Bill is subject to state approval and implementation may vary across states.
The idea of a 24x7 store is not entirely novel. Most cities have some eatery or convenience store that’s open till the wee hours of the morning at least, or through the night. In Delhi, it’s the chain of Twenty Four Sevens and In & Outs, and the Comesum food court adjacent to the Nizamuddin railway station that draw hungry souls from as far away as the National Capital Region (NCR). In Kolkata, there are dhabas that have operated round the clock since the Sixties. Once frequented by drivers working late at night, over the years they have metamorphosed into posh eateries frequented by professionals working evening or graveyard shifts. “Our day starts with serving breakfast and chai. Lunches are generally for office people,” says Satish Singh, owner of the Azad Hind Dhaba on Ballygunge Circular Road. “Evening onwards, you’ll find families and friends who enjoy late night outings .” The growth of IT offices in Sector V, Salt Lake has also meant opening of roadside stalls here that operate between 9pm to the early morning hours. “In Kolkata we have several pockets where we can find food round the clock. But what we need is a night shopping market,” says Surabhi Chatterjee, who works with a BPO company on a 3pm to 11 pm shift.
If Kolkata has its night food joints, an enterprising Mumbaikar has come up with the idea of helping people burn calories through the day and night. “In a city like Mumbai, it is hard to find time for your personal life,” says Badal Makwana, 29, director of the 24x7 gym Anytime Fitness in the suburb of Andheri. “Professions have become demanding and most youngsters work late and get home by 10 or 11 pm. By then most things are shut, which is unfair. Which is why we applied for permission to stay open all night and we have at least 30 people walking in between midnight and 6am on any given day.”
However, such options are few and far between. What the Model Shops and Establishment Bill 2016 will do, if adopted by states, is to make such places more accessible by increasing their numbers.
At the Krishna di Kulfi in New Delhi’s Pandara Road, a popular destination to satisfy some after-dinner sweet craving, techies and Ghaziabad residents Arvind Kumar and Sambhav Sharma talk it over as they dig into some kulfi with their foreign guests. “Lifestyles have changed. People hardly go to bed by 11 or 12 at night these days. So there must be options for them to engage in at night. I am not much of a shopper, but I would definitely want restaurants and movie halls to stay open longer at night,” says Arvind. Restaurants at Pandara Road close around midnight. Krishna Di Kulfi at 1am. While that is still longer than the closing time for most restaurants in the national capital, it’s a far cry from the time when such strict closing hours were yet to be introduced. “Before the police became so strict with the closing time, the specialty of Pandara Road was that restaurants here used to be open till 3am or longer. Families would often start coming in only after midnight. The market is running at a 40 per cent loss now because of the early closing hour,” explains Devendra Gulati of Krishna Di Kulfi.With state government decisions on the Bill still pending, most retailers, restaurants and multiplexes are wary of planning 24x7 operations right away. Those that the Hindustan Times contacted, refused to comment on the feasibility of longer operational hours. The Retailers Association of India (RAI), an umbrella body of retailers in the country, was more forthcoming. “It is a win-win situation,” says RAI CEO Kumar Rajagopalan. “It allows customers to shop at their convenience, creates employment opportunity since longer hours will mean more shifts and more people to work those shifts and earn more for the states in the form of taxes.”
While there is no doubt that longer hours will mean increased operational costs, it is something that Rajagopalan says retailers are willing to risk. “I don’t think operational costs will go up by more than 15 per cent. And I think the business received will be more than enough to balance it out. One indication of this is the tremendous response we received when we extended the closing time of shops from 9pm to 11 pm three years back,” says Yogeshwar Sharma, executive director, Select Citywalk, a mall in New Delhi. Plus, as Rajagopalan points out, there is no pressure on every retailer or restaurant to stay open 24x7. “It depends on the kind of products one is offering and the place where one is situated,” he says. For example, Devendra Gulati has already decided that if the Bill is introduced in Delhi, he will keep his shop open till 3.30-4am. “That will be enough for me to serve most of my customers. Few people will come for Kulfi post that,” he says.
The Bill also has the scope to help retailers meet competition from online vendors. As Yogeshwar Sharma says, “If online buying can happen 24x7, why not retail?” In its absence, Mumbai resident Badal Makwana admits that he ends up doing most of his shopping for clothes and electronics online, since he’s only done with work after midnight. “Why can’t the malls stay open all night at least,” he asks. “I want to unwind at my convenience. Considering how long commuting takes, it’s unfair to expect people to rush to a store — or even a restaurant — before ‘closing time’.”
If the Bill becomes a reality, competitors can serve as a role model for retailers and restaurants, giving them a tip or two on how to make the most of night-time business. “We can partner with restaurants and retailers to provide them a platform to sell their products as well as give them logistical support,” says Nitin Grewal, one of the directors of Bats On Delivery, a night-time delivery app that operates in Gurgaon, Noida, south, west and central Delhi, and delivers anything from cigarettes, condoms, medicines, grocery, food and even stationery. “Not everyone may want to go out and buy the things they want. We can provide retailers with the delivery system.” He adds: “ Demands have changed. In families where both partners are working, people often miss out on buying essentials like milk, or school utilities for the children. When they remember at night, they are willing to pay more for it.” He says this is the reason for the group’s growth from one outlet and four employees to five outlets and 100 employees in the last three-and-a-half years. The delivery staff, says Grewal, earn approximately twice the salary of those who work regular hours.
Shalin Mishra, managing partner of Late Night Hospitality, an app-based service delivering food at night in Bengaluru, shares Grewal’s positivity about the Bill. “India is a demographically wide country where there is a huge socio-economic variance and cultural diversity. The entire nation does not need 24x7 places. But in metros and Tier B cities the need for 24x7 services is evident ,” he says.
Of course, the implementation of the new Bill will not be without challenges. While Grewal points to lack of security on the roads as the main challenge, Mishra says, “The major challenge faced by us is finding skilled and semi-skilled manpower willing to work at night. Also a technical glitch or breakdown in electronic equipments cannot be as easily resolved as during the day.” Some also talk of the need for better and safe public transportation at night.
Challenges, however, should not become a deterrent in the way of implementation of the Bill, since food, cigarettes or shopping are not the only demands at night. On Tuesday at 3 am, Santosh Kumar, a Badarpur resident runs into All India Medicos near AIIMS, Delhi. “There are no 24x7 chemists in the area I live in,” he says, as he hurries out. DS Pawar, an employee at the chemist shop, says the shop sees footfalls of about 100 people on an average every night. Meanwhile, as the clock inches towards four in the morning, Mansi Manocha relaxes at Comesum, the 24x7 food court in New Delhi with her businessman husband. “ The only problem with late-night outings is that you often encounter unruly people and drunkards. Night security should be improved,” she says, reiterating what is the biggest misgiving in most people’s minds about the implementation of the Bill. The couple are at one of the three-four tables that are occupied at this hour. Outside the staff are busy cleaning tables and mopping floors in anticipation of the next day’s crowd.
(With inputs from Arpit Basu and Kanika Sharma)
HT visited shops, restaurants and a gym (in Mumbai, Kolkata and New Delhi) that stay open all night. The photos of the places visited have been given the CCTV treatment for representational purposes