‘Come in. We’re open for business’

– four years on, Water Street Vendors Arcade still wooing customers

Four years after the opening of the Water Street Vendors Arcade, the jury is still out on the impact which it has had on the lives and livelihoods of the stallholders who occupy the facility.

At the inception, the transition from street vending to establishing fixed business premises represented a significant leap forward. What the occupants of the Arcade have long found out, however, is that growth in business brings greater responsibility and that upward movement has its own hurdles and obstacles.

Trading inside the Water street Vendor’s Arcade on Wednesday
Trading inside the Water street Vendor’s Arcade on Wednesday

Four years ago this newspaper covered the elaborate opening of the Arcade. Earlier this week we returned to facility to see where the past four years have taken its occupants.

What is immediately apparent is the considerable effort which the stallholders make to sustain a consumer-friendly environment. The stalls are well-kept and the cleanliness of the neat rows that divide them suggests that a reliable regimen of janitorial attention is in place.

There is much more to applaud about the Water Street Vendors Arcade. After four years the facility remains about 90 per cent occupied. The small business owners inside have stood their ground, most of them refusing to give in to the challenges that inevitably confront conventional businesses. Some concede that they miss the flexibility the ‘street hustle’ used to afford them though most said there is a comforting sense of permanence which they enjoy from their vantage points in the Arcade.

Still, the challenges are evident. In four years the Water Street Arcade has still not been transformed into a popular haunt for shoppers. That makes many vendors fretful. Part of the problem is that they must compete with wealthier traders who build huge structures inside which they stock the same goods. Shoppers gravitate to those locations.

Then there are the Chinese traders, a discomfiting issue for public discourse given the sensitivity to what officialdom regards as ‘running down’ our guests. The vendors in the Water street Arcade, however, are not constrained by the protocols that have come to be associated with how to treat the Chinese traders. They are blunt without being in the least threatening. The Chinese, they say, represent debilitating competition.

How to devise a marketing strategy that brings customers to the Arcade is a question to which the vendors do not, as yet, have an answer. Perhaps the better-appointed traders should open establishments inside the facility or perhaps the Arcade should become the beneficiary of a few major promotional gimmicks. Whatever the desired approach, the vendors inside the Water Street Arcade appear to have made a case for an increased level of patronage.

They are not sitting around, waiting. Those vendors positioned closest to the Water Street pavement take full advantage of having first contact with potential shoppers. Those furthest from the pavement make their way to the front either to entice passersby to venture further inside the Arcade, or else, to display – less than discreetly – modest quantities of stock in the hope of attracting some patronage. They appear untroubled by the fact that the City Constables are likely to do much more than frown on the practice.

Inside the arcade the competition is as keen as mustard. Some of the stalls appear to be used strictly for storage. Their owners are back on the streets.

When the land was first allocated for the facility there had been a mad rush by vendors. Some borrowed money to erect their stalls. The arcade could only accommodate around 185 stalls and some of the aspiring stallholders had to remain on the streets.

Allison is a veteran, having been in the business for 19 years. Not blessed with the good fortune of a stall close to the pavement she sometimes brings her stock, mostly dinnerware to the front.

Beverley is in a similar situation. What upsets her is that the businesses inside the vendors’ arcade do not share with their counterparts on the eastern half of Water Street the privilege of displaying their goods on the pavement with being censored by the city police. It’s risky business. The fines could be as much as $10,000.

Emelda understands the problems faced by her counterparts trading deep inside the arcade. She is, however, concerned that “City Hall continues to tolerate selling on the pavement.”

Emelda says that during the building phase there was talk of plans to streamline stallholders; to create specialisations in terms of the types of goods they offered for sale. She says they resisted the idea and it was set aside. These days many of them offer identical items for sale.

Another stallholder, Dennis, concedes that managing an established business is a far cry from coping on the streets. Currently, sales are slow and he frets over the fact that stallholders must pay the municipality a fee of $4,000 per month. He believes the fee should be reduced. His own sales are moderate, though he believes that if he had more space he might attract more customers.

Craig Stanton is a one-time stallholder who, these days, finds it more lucrative to run a small security outfit that caters to the needs of the stallholders. They are blunt about their lack of confidence in City Hall’s security. Stanton’s services cost the stallholders $500 each per week, though Stanton says that not all of the vendors ‘cough up’. He says that there are instances when things are so bad that some vendors simply can’t afford to pay.

Profit margins in a number of instances are down from what they used to be ten years ago. The streets were tougher but they were more lucrative. Some vendors clear $20,000 per week. There used to be a time when those numbers were more than double. In some instances it has been reduced to a day-to-day hustle.

It’s pretty much the same story among many of the other occupants of the Arcade. Cleveland Collins and his wife run a single stall inside the arcade. Six years ago they made more money on the streets. He is peeved over the competition that comes from larger enterprises; unable to come to terms with the fact that such is the way of commerce. Time was when he purchased his stock from a large wholesaler. That wholesaler has now gone into the retail business.

Peter Jacobs tells pretty much the same story.

Though uneasy about their circumstances, the vendors do not appear to be on the verge of giving up. Tough times have created difficult circumstances. Poor sales levels have reduced the vendors’ access to credit. Those who remain creditworthy are reluctant to incur debts. An air of uncertainty persists. Still, they soldier on.

Some express the view that they may have been given a raw deal. They say that there appear to be fewer barriers to street vending than there were a few years ago. In some respects, they may envy those vendors who remain on the streets but they are not ready to give up their small corners inside the Arcade.

What the vendors in the Water Street Arcade miss most is the attraction they boasted several years ago of having the best bargains. Truth is, the notion of “cheap goods” does not hold true anymore. They named Broadway Fashions on Regent Street as the only wholesale store in Georgetown. More than that, they say, the later opening hours currently enjoyed by the ‘high street’ stores further denies them patronage.

Some vendors now spend less time inside the Arcade. The facility is open from 06:30 hrs; many vendors never get there until 09:00 hrs. What’s the rush, anyway?

Sales have long been seasonal. The months of July and August are good for school supplies. Christmas is simply what it is.

Allison says that there used to be a time when there appeared to be some measure of specialisation in terms of what vendors offered for sale. ‘These days,” she says, “everybody sells the same things. Some days some people sell nothing.”

Some vendors do lay-away arrangements. It’s a way of attracting sales. Credit is afforded ‘regulars.’ Sometimes, when a big foreign artiste is in town there is a spike in sales of clothing, shoes and jewellery.

Rather than immerse themselves in doldrums associated with a crisis the vendors appear to be treating their current experience as a learning curve. They retain confidence in the fact of their own diligence and ingenuity coupled with what has long been an instinct for survival. Somehow, you get the feeling that the Water street Vendors Arcade is not about to wither and die.

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