Pawan Sarda, Group Head, Digital, Marketing and E-commerce, Big Bazaar tells WARC how the hypermarket chain, a one-stop store heavily reliant on footfall, leveraged its digital initiatives to navigate the pandemic, and what e-commerce 2.0 will look like.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on on what e-commerce 2.0 means for brands in India. Read more

Key insights

  • A brand must be where its customers are; if customers are not coming to you, you have to reach out to them.
  • Big Bazaar does not work on a yearly but weekly plan; and the pandemic has made the chain even more agile.
  • Digital creates awareness, consideration, conversion and retention far better than traditional marketing.
  • Whether online or offline, a brand must continue innovating its marketing plans to surprise the customer.
WARC: Give us a sense of the before and after pandemic situation at Big Bazaar from a marketing perspective. Was there a sense that a major rethinking of marketing and creative strategy was required?

Big Bazaar is a retail store and India is young country. Both of these facts are extremely important; 60-70% of the audience replicates the age of India. Therefore, you have to continuously ensure that you engage with your audience in different ways. So even before COVID-19, we realised that digital is an important medium and we need to engage with our audience. And we were investing in the medium substantially.

What we always wanted to ensure is that we create the right level of engagement for our audience and therefore drive them to our store. So “online-to-offline” was a big part of bringing customers from online to offline. And we have many initiatives, to the extent of creating a 24-hour Facebook Live, like what China does during an 11.11 event. The live shows there are extremely important, where couponing happens and they bring customers are brought from online to offline. It was the same thing.

That was through the marketing lens pre-COVID. During COVID, we realised this goes beyond just recruiting customers from the medium. There is also a lot of commerce happening, there is a lot of last-mile connectivity with the customer that is happening.

We were agile enough to launch our own platform, some time in June ( and we realised we have to be where our customers are at a very fundamental level. If the customers are not coming to you, you ensure that you reach out to your customers. That’s our strategy.

While we launched it last June, we ensured that it’s robust. Officially, we launched it in a big way last month (February). Ever since, the response has been tremendous because there’s so much of brand trust already. Therefore, it becomes easier for us to create other touchpoints.

I call it a touchpoint, whether it’s a mobile touchpoint, a mall touchpoint or a highstreet touchpoint. Basically, we have created yet another touchpoint where our customers are interacting and creating and giving us orders.

WARC: Big Bazaar has been dependent on footfall in its physical stores. Was this online initiative a result of consumers choosing the e-commerce route because they are staying at home? Or would you say that the pandemic only accelerated your digital plans?

I would say the pandemic has further accelerated them. I don’t think we had any doubt about the potential of the mobile phone. That’s where we spend the most time. I am not getting into mediums per se. We always knew what the potential is and how important it is as a medium for us but obviously, the pandemic accelerated it.

Things which could have taken three years to emerge have actually taken three months. That has been a positive outcome of the pandemic. But obviously, speed was the most important thing. Now you cannot strategise in a boardroom. You just have to make it happen and I am glad we made it happen for us.

WARC: How have your marketing planning cycles changed? Do you still operate on a yearly plan or have you taken on a more iterative real-time approach, thanks to 2020?

You are in a retail business, you cannot work on a yearly plan – we work on a weekly plan. Literally, our life is about every week and obviously, the pandemic has made us more agile.

It’s very important to have that weekly view of what I’m doing this week and how I’m driving it because things are changing. I don’t think we’re fully out of the pandemic – it’s the whole building of consumer confidence and what you’re supposed to do.

I am a big believer of moment marketing and that’s what I have thrived on. We build that moment marketing and create opportunities for the customer. What happens this week may not happen next week and or the week after. We are living by the moment. In retail, your life can actually be weekly.

Obviously, we plan things but we are very dynamic. So we plan on a quarterly basis but we are very dynamic in changing things on a weekly basis. That’s a core need of retail.

WARC: Would you say Big Bazaar felt the heat with other online grocery players also stepping up and the competition went up a notch?

I think, yes. It has also helped us grow the market. If you look at the entire online business, I am assuming that the penetration of mobile has been the highest, followed by electronics and fashion and so on. Grocery was the least among the categories but as a market, it has definitely increased.

While obviously everybody got aggressive, there has also been an increase of market parallelly. Therefore, there’s a space for everyone now.

WARC: How successful were you at reaching out to those consumers who still aren’t tech-savvy or live in parts of the country where the internet penetration is low?

If you look at the kind of cities where we are present in from a store perspective, they are pretty much internet-savvy cities in that sense. We are very strong in Tier I and II cities. I am a big fan of Tier II India. I think the adoption, even from a digital marketing point of view, and the response we get from Tier II is far more heartwarming than a Tier I market.

I don’t think we face some of these issues because we are not in rural markets. So this doesn’t impact us.

WARC: In that case, did the e-commerce surge help you reach consumers you couldn’t before?

Of course, there’s no doubt about it and that will continue to happen.

Some of our other businesses, like our plus size business, have been able to penetrate North India so much more because of this. There are cities where we don’t have a store and still, we are able to reach that audience.

That obviously helps us to reach out to a far wider audience and sometimes, some of these cities that you don’t have stores in, if you are creating reach, they are far more profitable as well.

WARC: From Big Bazaar’s perspective, how has the profile of the Indian consumer changed since 2020? What are the new consumer needs or preferences that you are trying to meet?

Consumers are ever evolving. They continuously change and what really changes is the dynamics, influenced by what happens in our society, our life, our country. One thing that has definitely changed is that with all that has happened, decisions are made now and today, which is what we’ve been able to create with consumers.

When I was growing up, shopping for us was all about the occasion. It’s no longer the same. Today, if you like something, you will not think twice before buying it. Or if I am creating a need for you, you will not think twice before buying it. I think that is a huge shift, which has happened among consumers. And of course, it also stems from the fact that we’ve had growth in the country. Without growth, nothing is going to happen.

WARC: But this thing about impulse buying that you’re talking about and growth – last year was an aberration. People were thinking twice before picking up something that they didn’t immediately need.

Yes, 100%! The basket size is reduced. Conscious buying was happening a lot. What you need is what you are picking up. We actually don’t have to do a consumer study – if you just look at yourself as a consumer, all of us were doing it, right?

It really has nothing to do with income. It came from the uncertainty that the country was going through. Everybody wanted to be sensible. They were cherry picking. But yes, that’s improving now, dramatically improving for sure.

WARC: So you think it was a pause in the overall trend you observed?

It better be a pause, otherwise I will not do justice to my job. I am a marketer, I have to create those needs, I have to create those moments. If I am not creating them, I am not doing my job well. Of course, it was a pause but you must continuously create that need.

WARC: Holistically, how differently are you looking at e-commerce now as a business? You have already begun campaigns trying to lure the customer back to the physical store. Is omni-channel the future not just for Big Bazaar but for the market in general?

The fact is we want to be where our customers are. That’s the simple philosophy we work on. We know there is a substantial base of customers who want to be on the phone and interact with us, order, and we are supposed to deliver.

We will be across all touchpoints. We will ensure we are present when the customer needs us, whether they want to come to the store or they want to book online and pick it up from the store, or want to book online and have us deliver, or want to come to the store having seen something online and buy in the store. We will leave all of it to the customers but will ensure we have all the options for them.

WARC: But your digital initiatives are not going to take a back seat when things go back to normal. It’s not like, “Okay, let’s go back to the store now.”

It’s really about touchpoints. That’s where we will leave it and we will let the customer decide. Customers decide how they want to shop.

When you go to, it also allows you to select a store you are comfortable going to. You can choose a store and you will see the inventory of that particular store. You select what you want and the store will deliver it to you. So basically, we’ve ensured that your relationship with the store is always intact.

You’re used to buying a certain kind of a rice from a Matunga store which may not be available in, let’s say, Sealdah in Calcutta. So you should be getting your preferred product and that is what we have ensured as you constantly engage with the store, whether you book online or go to it.

WARC: Delivery is now a critical component of not just services and product fulfilment but also a major brand touchpoint with consumers. But the marketing function doesn’t have much control over this last mile. How are you navigating this to ensure that consumer experiences are consistent and positive?

Again, it’s a promise you make to the customer. Delivery is extremely important when it comes to this business. So what we’ve done is we have created time slots to create the right expectations for the customer. And if we know that at any point in time, we can deliver X number of deliveries and not Y, we let the customer know so the next available slot can be chosen.

The whole experience is really about bringing that expectation to the customer and ensuring that you don’t falter. We’ve been very clear in that sense and we are very transparent about these things. We ensure that if you need something right now and if we can’t deliver, we let you know.

WARC: As a marketer, what have you learned about e-commerce in India? With all that happened last year, where do you see it heading? What is e-commerce 2.0 to you? And what emerging opportunities are you prioritising?

E-commerce in India has always been created by buying the customer – I mean I think everybody has just bought the customer at any cost. But post-pandemic, I really don’t see just buying alone is going to take the business ahead. It is about other parameters.

Whether it’s about service or delivery, other things are equally important now. I see e-commerce 2.0 as taking a shape where our businesses cannot just concentrate only on buying the customer – they have to look at their experience, their service, their timely delivery and so on.

Other components are becoming equally important in the current scheme of things, like experience and comfort. That is why our entire is connected with the stores so that you have a sense of familiarity.

It’s not just about you buying something because you are getting it at a certain discount. It has to grow beyond it. Familiarity, product, what you want, what you are used to buying when you come to the store, these very things must be replicated offline. And that is what we have done.

WARC: Looking more holistically, beyond retail, beyond Big Bazaar – how is this whole movement shaping up? Do you also believe that every category and sector has the potential to go the digital way and find success? What are some of the things that have surprised you?

Firstly, I don’t call it digital marketing, I call it mobile marketing. You know the penetration level of mobile in India is big. Smartphones are literally changing the way we engage and what we do.

Your business needs to be there when the customer is looking for you. If you are not there, you are definitely missing a large part.

I just go back to the marketing funnel and that’s where digital becomes very interesting. If I draw out a typical marketing funnel, it’s about awareness, consideration, conversion and retention. These are the four big pillars and I think digital does it beautifully.

While I can create awareness, I can also create consideration for you. You may not buy it but I can chase you for conversion and once you buy from me, I can develop and see how I create that relationship with you.

Other mediums, for example, television, is very good when it comes to awareness but I’m not sure if it can create consideration. I am not sure you can pinpoint and say this is created conversion.

With digital, I can know the customer journey inside out. I can know who is buying from me. I know who is picky, who is showing intent but may not want to buy at this point in time and maybe buy later.

The meaning of marketing has changed. I also come from a school of thought where we used to do four campaigns a year and campaign efficacy used to come out of research from a consumer. And we used to carry the entire brand equity score, and that was our KRA but that’s gone.

We are very much part of the business today. Our stake in terms of creating conversion is as high as maybe a salesperson’s would be. That is how it has shifted.

From a marketing lens, a huge shift has happened. It’s no longer about just saying, “listen, we are a team creating a brand and beyond that we don’t know what you do with sales”. You cannot say that today. Your stake in creating conversion is as high as anybody else in the team.

Being in marketing for almost 20 years, I’ve lived both lives and this is so dynamic. This is so challenging, and this is always on-the-go. I love this!

WARC: What advice do you have for fellow marketers looking to further develop their own e-commerce marketing strategies?

The number one advice is “What has worked for you once might not work for you always”. What’s important is how you keep challenging the status quo and continue to create new things. Especially in e-commerce, where you are engaging with consumers far more closely, you need to surprise them. The whole surprise element is extremely important every now and then.

My experience is when you repeat one thing, a formula again and again, it doesn’t work. Unlike traditional marketing where you could continue to create one Nirma ad and which could run for 10 years without pause. That is over.

In e-commerce, surprise your customer with something new. You could fail, that’s fine, but that is where you need to keep trying. And of course, content plays a big role. I come from, again, a school of thought wherein you only created a dream about a brand. Today you need to create relatability. Therefore, whether you’re selling a phone or basmati rice, content plays a big role.

And finally, what does the customer feel? Today they can express themselves. Consumer feedback is instant. You don’t need three months’ research to figure things out. So, surprise your customer, keep doing new things, listen to your customer always, and keep changing yourself accordingly. These are some of the important things I would like to share.