‘Hope govt helps small businessmen like me’
Rishab Mitra’s grocery store in the heart of Lucknow has been in the family for four generations, but the 31-year-old fears he may not be able to keep the doors open for much longer.
The 31-year-old owner of Mitra Provision Store in Lucknow’s Aminabad market sells spices packed at home and home-made snacks. For a decade, he successfully competed with big stores by focusing on quality, and relying on word-of-mouth recommendations and a loyal customer base.
But the Covid-19 pandemic and the nationwide lockdown hurt his sales. “After the pandemic, people want to opt for cheaper products even if the difference is only a few rupees,” said Mitra, who lives with his parents in their ancestral house and is unmarried.
During the lockdown, Mitra’s shop was open but few people were willing to step out of their houses and online grocers delivered produce at their doorstep.
Even when the lockdown was lifted, Mitra said his customers didn’t return. “Before the pandemic, online sale of groceries and food grain was not much. But the pandemic changed this scenario. Now, people prefer to purchase even grocery items online. The scare of the virus is keeping customers away from stores,” Mitra said.
There was a small uptick in his sales after the lockdown ended, but a nationwide surge in infections in August-September, and news of new strains of the virus later damaged customer confidence.
“Before the lockdown, I used to get around 80 to 100 customers daily. But now, this figure has come down to 40-50,” he said.
He believes online stores have an advantage over them as they don’t have upfront costs like rent and maintenance.
“In my free time now, I try to tap customers over phone. I am also trying to supply goods to big stores who outsource local products like snacks,” Mitra said.
According to India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), a trust established by the central government, market opportunities for online commerce in India are expected to touch $200 billion by 2026 from $30 billion in 2017. E-commerce business increased by about 20% after the lockdown was imposed in India on March 25, the study added.
During the pandemic, the Centre and Uttar Pradesh government provided loans on easy instalments for small shopkeepers, said Lucknow mayor Sanyukta Bhatia. “Large number of shopkeepers and vendors in Lucknow and across the state benefitted,” Bhatia said.
Mitra hopes Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman will support small businessmen like him when she delivers the Union budget on February 1. He wants the government to create a level-playing field for mom-and-pop stores like his, and big e-commerce firms. “The government must at least ensure parity between online and offline stores when it comes to imposing rules and regulations,” he said. He also hopes that the government announces regulations for online stores. India introduced new ecommerce rules last year, and is currently considering a cap on foreign direct investment in the sector.
Mitra said, for small shopkeepers like him, complying with the Goods and Services Tax (GST) norms was not easy. “According to the new tax system, we have to file a tax return in three months. But we have to make rounds of the GST office every month,” said Mitra. He demanded the process of filing GST be revised and made easier for small traders.
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