For four-year old Sakshi Sharma’s father, it was imperative to stock on biscuits as it is his child’s comfort food. Just before the lockdown, Robin Sharma had bought his monthly staple of biscuits but the lockdown upset his plans. With an aim to stock more before the grocers and the malls shut down, Sharma rushed to one of the malls, but was met with bare shelves. Though the mall soon replaced biscuit packets with cartons, they too disappeared. Sharma then decided to buy them in cartons, something he had never done before. He is now sitting at home with cartons of chocolate biscuits, cream biscuits that would last him another two months.
Besides families, who have been forced to stay home due to the COVID-19 induced lockdown, biscuits have also been an easy to reach out product for the migrant workers in their long struggle to reach home in the absence of public transport.
That biscuits are sold as a packaged product, too worked to the advantage of the category as the worries over handling and hygiene were eliminated.
It’s perhaps because of these factors that the Parle-G brand of biscuits registered phenomenal sales with its maker Parle Products gaining a market share of around 5 percent since the government announced the lockdown.
“The growth was phenomenal and as a result Parle was able to increase its market share by 4.5 to 5 percent during the lockdown,” senior company official Mayank Shah told PTI.
Company officials said that Parle Products achieved the growth because it had chalked out a strategy to boost sales during the coroanvirus outbreak.
BK Rao, senior category head-marketing, Parle Products, told Firstpost that the company began efforts to increase production soon after the first case was reported. But it was not an easy task.
“We faced a lot of resistance from our channel partners who were scared after the government announced the Janata Curfew on 22 March. Bahar kaise ja sakte hain, Corona hai (How will we go tout, there’s Corona) — was their constant refrain. We had to tell them that if the police force, the health workers, grocers, chemists, petrol pumps were working, so could we. We motivated partners and got their cooperation eventually,” Rao said.
There were other challenges — of procuring raw material, getting workforce in order and also maintaining social isolation. The input material for production had to be sought from wholesalers for which they had to be requested to open their units, said Rao.
Transportation was another hurdle but with incentives offered to the truckers, they were able to get limited number of trucks loaded with raw materials and also the finished products moving on the road.
The interpretation of the government order by officials was another hurdle, said Rao, but the Central Government notification later on essential food items was a huge relief, he said.
The challenge of getting manpower to work with only 50 percent was also met with and the company began production in earnest.
Parle Products has 130 factories across the country and a majority of these are contract manufacturing units, and that also helped in the production and meeting the sales target, said Rao.
Supply still does not meet demand
Though Parle has facilitated the supply of biscuits, retailers complain that they are still able to procure only 25 percent of their orders.
AN Haria, proprietor, Haria Super Market in Mulund West, said that the Parle-G brand has always remained its highest selling product irrespective of the lockdown.
“But with the lockdown, distribution has been disrupted. We have to go to the wholesalers and as we cannot hire trucks, etc, so we make trips on our scooters or bikes. How many cartons can we fetch in this manner? Even if we could, the distributor has only 25 percent of the stocks available,” he said.
Wholesalers from whom retailers buy their stocks found that the demand for biscuits had grown exponentially during the first phase of lockdown. Metro Cash and Carry, India, a B2B wholesaler, realised that as soon as the lockdown was announced, people started stacking up large packs of biscuits for easy consumption. The biscuit category was growing at 15 percent pre-COVID but during the lockdown it went up to over 50 percent, said a spokesperson.
In the first ten days of the lockdown, it found it was running out of stock for most brands.
The all-time popular, Glucose and Health segment was the favourite in the biscuit category and witnessed high growth, during the lockdown. The mid-tier biscuit segment grew due to in-house family consumption going up, said the B2B wholesaler.
The fact that no outside food was available, and mithai was out of bounds, the comfort food to be easily reached out to was the biscuit, say analysts.
“Our trader customers were buying more of small packs of biscuits priced at Rs 5 and Rs 10. The complimentary customers were buying large packs starting from Rs 65 and above,” said the spokesperson for Metro Cash and Carry.
One of the reasons why biscuits do well in India is because it is the most affordable, the spokesperson said.
But just like retailers, wholesalers too found it difficult to procure biscuits. “Initially, we did face issues as the big companies had manufacturing challenges. There was a gap in demand versus supply. However, these issues are sorted now and supply has stabilised,” the spokesperson added.
Harsha Razdan, partner and head, consumer markets and internet business at KPMG in India, said: “Small packets of biscuits have always worked well in a price-sensitive market like India. The 5-rupee packs are treated as comfort food for travel and can even serve as a quick snack. In a few cases, biscuits are even construed to be an alternative against a meal.”
Biscuit companies who managed to place the right distribution channels to ensure availability and consumer reach gained an edge over other players, said Razdan.
Introducing new variant of biscuits
Seeing the rush for biscuits and the spike in demand, some firms like Punjab-based Bonn Industries which is into premium range of biscuits is now contemplating coming out with a variant with glucose.
Amrinder Singh, director, Bonn Group of Industries, said that the demand and high sale in biscuits was high because “biscuits not only fill the stomach but the glucose level in it gives you the requisite energy to carry on with your task”.
“People have stocked up their houses with affordable biscuits, which fall in the range of Rs 5 and Rs 10. We are also planning to cash in on the rising trend by introducing a new biscuit range which will help to boost the body’s immunity in the times of coronavirus,” he said.
Biscuit category to do well for some time
Grocers told Firstpost that brand loyalty was not the main deciding factor during the COVID-19-induced lockdown as customers were willing to buy any biscuit that was available.
“Customers bought biscuits in bulk as they were worried it would not be available. So, if their favourite brand was unavailable, they settled for whatever was available,” they said.
The category of instant ready to cook food was not available easily during the initial days of the lockdown, hence biscuits remained the prime choice, said traders and retailers.
Biscuits as a category was seeing traction since January, said Abhijit Kundu, analyst at Antique Stock Broking.
“It was expected do well during the lockdown simply because consumers can stock up,” he said. He reasons that part of the reason why Parle-G biscuits has been able to improve its market share was that government too preferred it to feed migrants and daily wage earners.
Given the fact that biscuits are quite affordable among groceries, Kundu believes the trend of biscuits doing well as a category will continue for some time.
“People will refrain from eating out even after the lockdown eases and till growth get normalised. Britannia has seen 24 percent growth in April-May. The momentum is expected to continue,” he said.
As lockdown eases, Kundu said growth in biscuits may subside during Q2 or Q3 but it will still see double digit growth in volume.