The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Megha Shyamili Purushothaman
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview, we meet Neha Gill, the owner of Calm Collective, a sleepwear brand in India. We spoke about how the shift from an office setting with physical interactions to a completely virtual one was a challenge, especially for a relatively new brand like theirs. Due to a halt in non-essential deliveries during the lockdown, they were also unable to ship out their stock on time, and so communicating with customers and building trust and faith in their brand became of utmost importance, especially since the instant gratification of receiving your package once ordered was gone. We also spoke about the necessary COVID-19 precautions that they had to take, like having the team stay on sight to decrease exposure, steam ironing and sanitizing all packages before shipment etc. Moreover, with campaigns like going ‘Vocal for Local’ being launched to support small businesses like theirs, we recognised the importance they hold in attracting customers and building strong foundations for small businesses to flourish.
What do you do as a business and what your brand is and how it came about?
Neha: Right. I run a premium sleepwear brand in India for women. It specifically targets the modern Indian woman. I started about 2 years ago, we launched a year and a half ago. We’re predominantly online, quite a young brand in that sense. Our main sources of advertising are Facebook and Google, that’s where we get our new customers from. That’s pretty much what the brand is.
I feel like online is the way to go now especially with the pandemic and everything moving there.
Neha: Yes, it certainly is!
2020 has been a crazy year for so many of us, how did the pandemic and lockdown affect your business model?
Neha: We were affected in a couple of ways. One, everyone had to work from home, we were short-staffed; we’re anyway a small team but we couldn’t meet each other as often and when you’re just starting off, a lot of personal interaction is important to grow a business. Like most businesses, we had a tough time adjusting to online working patterns but we managed to adjust to that. The lockdown stopped all deliveries but luckily for us, we were still taking orders and pretty lucky that we had a new range produced just before the lockdown. So we were sitting on a lot of stock that had come in and luckily enough, sleepwear was something that everyone wanted so our product was in demand! So we continued advertising and taking orders in the first month-month and a half of lockdown. And the minute non-essential deliveries started, we started shipping out. Yeah, it was strangely good in some sense.
Definitely! I feel like in the lockdown, everyone was lounging and that was the only form of retail therapy for so many.
Neha: Everyone values their sleepwear now, I think, more than at any time else!
Definitely, yes! If you would like to talk a bit more about how you tried to stimulate the business or any key challenges, how you managed to attract customers?
Neha: The struggle, I think, for most customers was that while they were placing orders during the month and a half of lockdown, they weren’t able to get it immediately. So that instant gratification of actually getting the product that you ordered, that took much longer. So we were constantly calling up customers and letting them know and keeping them updated on the fact that- different cities were opening up at different times. While non-essential deliveries started up, we couldn’t reach say Calcutta because that took the longest to open up. So we would keep in touch with customers periodically, letting them know that their orders are blocked for them and that they would get it at ‘x’ date. That certainly helped keep customers have a little faith in the brand because, for a lot of them, this was a new brand, we were a new brand, there was no trust factor before that. That certainly helped the trust factor specially for us.
We continued to work from home and took a lot of covid precautions. We also have a small team and our team was great because they were willing to stay on-premises so that they could reduce any interaction with the outside world, I suppose. That helped us continue to work harder. Yeah, largely taking a lot of precautions, sanitizing, not going out at all and not having risked our employees also from coming in and out constantly. That’s pretty much how we did it.
I feel like loyalty-building and building relationships with businesses is also so important with customers and so that was also one trait.
Neha: I think one of the most important things was exactly that. For a young and unknown business, to be able to call up customers and say “we appreciate your business and please be patient, you will get your order”. That just makes a new customer feel like their money is safe or that they shouldn’t be looking somewhere else.
And I feel like that’s a challenge that a lot of businesses around the country were facing because borders were closed, different states were taking different precautions, having different lockdowns.
Neha: Yeah, plus also I think returns were difficult for us. Returns had become quite hard because online channels had just stopped taking returns. They said “we’ve got limited staff and we can only deliver a product, we can’t actually take an exchange or a return. So, that was a huge challenge to get done with.
That complicates so much more in terms of covid precautions as well, I presume.
Neha: Yes, getting the return pieces back, we would steam iron everything. Every time it came in and out, we steam ironed them, put them away. In the early days, there was so much unknown information so leaving things for a day, day and a half without touching them. Really early on we didn’t know how this was working, we’re a little less paranoid today but we managed to get through all of that.
Do you know how your customers and competition are doing now?
Neha: Well, I think the customers are doing great because they’re at home and working from home in some cases still, which is still a better way to work, I suppose. But I think competition has now suddenly discovered, even the big guys, the big corporate giants who never really focused on online channels leaving these lovely online channels for young brands like us to actually find our space. Now, these big corporate giants have come down hard on the online channels. Now advertising costs have gone through the roof. I suppose competition is doing great as well because they’re pumping in the money and driving our costs up as well.
I can imagine! So how is your business going now and if you would like to share any plans that you have for the coming few months? What do you envision 2021 to be like for your brand?
Neha: We want to stabilize our supply chain that got hit a little bit during the lockdown. We’d also like to stabilize a couple of factories that we work with- mid to small scale factories. And they deliver a really good product and reduce any carbon footprint by using up wastage well. So we are trying to help them by keeping our sales regular, focusing on marketing, dealing with competition and the increased advertising costs.
We’re trying to focus on that bit so we can get a consistent flow of sales and if we can do that then we can consistently feed our factories which are like I said, they’re small to mid-scale. Keeping them going is very important. In fact, one of our factories is run by a woman entrepreneur and so for her it’s- we’re more focused on her, I dare say, than some of the other factories because I think she’s new also like us, she’s taken the leap with us so we’re trying to keep her going more than the others at this point. A little bit of bias maybe!
If you would like to mention three basic aspects or things that you feel you need the most help with right now in growing your business and being able to overcome the challenges that covid-19 posed?
Neha: Yeah. So working capital is always a struggle for a smaller business but right now, it’s a struggle. We’re trying to find ways to make our working capital easier. We’re also- we’re really grateful for the ‘vocal for local’ drive that started up and if that continues that would certainly help young brands like us. This is the time when the world really does need to focus on their own economies and look within because that is helping drive our employment and keep them stable. So that would be one key thing, I hope that continues.
Facebook and Google, they can help in a massive way, I think. They’ve been great for us all these years, we’re ever so grateful for these channels. But I think at this point particularly, because the big guys have come down with so much money weight into the online channels if they can give us more visibility, the smaller scale business, that would certainly help us sustain ourselves.
So it’s more about growing visibility on social media and social media channels- Facebook, Instagram.
Neha: Yes, the world revolves around that! There is no digital detox for our brand and brands like us.
Around the world really, we have become a completely digitalized world now. Hopefully, this interview will also help you gain visibility on social media!
Neha: Yes, absolutely.
So as a small scale business, do you feel like you have any sort of advantage over the corporates because of the big drive now on, like you said, going ‘vocal for local’ and people being conscientious about the things that they are consuming, do you think that that has somehow helped your brand?
Neha: Yes, certainly the ‘vocal for local’ is helping our brand. I think the millennial generation in itself is helping us because they’re more cause-related, there is not so much traditional consumerism now. They’re not so much typically the typical consumer, they are ‘new consumer’ that believe in causes and they’re open to new small-scale businesses. So that has certainly helped us and is helping us.
I was going through your website as well and I read about your vision for the brand is to create a brand that is conscientious so the things that you produce and the materials that you’re using, it’s all eco-friendly.
Neha. Yes, we use zero polyester. Dead against polyester. It is the worst thing that you can sleep in, it doesn’t let your skin breathe, it disturbs you - it doesn’t let your body regulate its own temperature and therefore you get disturbed sleep so we’re focused on 100% natural fibres, largely focused on cotton. India produces some excellent quality of cotton. So we’re focused on getting that out into the market and not letting the best cotton gets exported. And we’re not afraid to go slightly higher in price points as well, even for cotton, and the reason for that is because some of our best kinds of cotton do cost a little bit more than commercial cotton used. But we’re missing out if we don’t experience that. And there are customers across the board that are willing to pay a little premium for good quality fabric so we’re definitely for the mindful woman who understands all of these nuances.
We’re all for using great quality natural material, we try to waste less, we are trying to move away from plastic at every stage, our packaging- our tag, for example, we use a tag where we’ve extended the length a little bit more than a regular tag and the reason for that is because we don’t want customers to just chuck it out. We use a good quality paper and we want you to take that and use it as a bookmark for your reading.
Our bag that we deliver our product in, we don’t give it in a plastic bag; we want you to have a lovely experience opening up this product that you order so when you get it, you get it in an eco-friendly bag that can be reused for your travel purposes. We’re thinking about it at every stage. One of the biggest things we’re working on currently is we’re trying to find an alternative. It’s not cheap and not comparable to plastic. The courier bag that we use is a lot of plastic that a lot of the online players are using, including ourselves. So we’re definitely working on finding a paper alternative to that because plastic is just devastating so at the cost of a slightly higher price for a bag, we are looking at that shortly.
I hadn’t actually noticed the bookmark point that you made but the thought that went into that also, that’s really lovely.
Neha: Thank you!
So if there’s anything else that you would like to say to anyone that would be watching this video..?
Neha: Yes, we’d like to tell all the viewers that they should indulge in small scale, new brands and the reason is sometimes we do end up delivering better quality, we have less overhead and so all our money is going into creating a better product and delivering better quality to customers. I think that’s our USP and we’re really hoping that customers can experience our product and realize that for themselves as well. And also stay safe!
About the Guest
Neha Gill: “I`ve had 16 years of rich retail experience in the sleepwear category and across functions like planning, category management, and sourcing with India’s foremost retail groups. The Calm Collective is a sleepwear brand for the modern, mindful & confident woman. We use natural cotton, modal & linen fabrics and are focused on delivering excellent quality and affordable luxury to the Indian woman. Our ethos is centered around good sleep. As our quality of sleep becomes worse, we focus on delivering beautiful, light-weight, soft, breathable & natural fabrics that enhance the quality of your sleep.”