Up to late on Wednesday evening city traders were still awaiting the anticipated wave of Christmas shoppers which, many of them concede, has failed to materialize.
Of the nine retail traders on Robb, Regent and Water streets with whom this newspaper spoke during the trading day on Wednesday, six conceded that sales during the first two days of the final full week of shopping before Christmas were less than same period last year. Asked whether they felt the announcement that the country was likely to go to the polls next year might have had the effect of curtailing consumer spending, only three thought that might be the case. All of them, however, said they were banking on a later surge in sales than last year. “I believe that we will see heavier spending next week, right up to Christmas Eve,” a Water Street retailer offering mostly household appliances and gift items told this newspaper.
It was not that the streets and pavements were not more crowded than one would expect late in the day in the middle of the week. The numbers, however, did not appear to correspond with the volume of actual trading that was in evidence. On the pavements people appeared to be mostly drifting by the vendors shouting their bargains whilst beckoning to the heaps of goods on crowded stalls. Inside the Regent Street stores offering clothing and household items, proprietors and employees appeared to be paying more focused attention than usual to potential customers, seemingly bent on ensuring that as many enquiries as possible are transformed into sales. A proprietor who said that the weekend “can’t come quickly enough” for him, told Stabroek Business that “on the whole this has not been a good year for the retail trade.” Christmas, he said, is really the last opportunity to try to rescue the situation for some retail businesses.
Some retail traders have pointed to the fact that the past year has seen a significant increase in online shopping and the opening up of a number of unofficial boutiques which they say are being supplied with duty-free items of clothing and cosmetics by “connections” residing abroad. “We with our high overheads cannot hope to cope with these unofficial boutiques that acquire their goods from retail outlets in the USA and ship to relatives as gifts at little cost and pay no duty,” one businessman told this newspaper, adding that it was “strange” that while government says it wants to encourage more investment in the economy “it is not doing a great deal to remove those kinds of operations.”
John Lewis, proprietor of the popular Waterloo Street retail clothing store John Lewis Styles concurred with the view that 2014 had been a “tough year” for the retail trade. “I certainly felt it and frankly I feel that it was tough across the sector,” Lewis said. He added that it was “definitely true” that some established businesses in the retail trade face unfair competition from people who are able to acquire smaller quantities of stock at costs that are considerably lower than those businesses must meet including taxes and duties. “There really is no way that legitimate retailers can compete with those kinds of operations,” Lewis said.
However, Lewis told Stabroek Business that he was “optimistic” about the Christmas season. He said that much of his focus in recent months had been on retaining the store’s accustomed quality standard while seeking to offer more affordable prices to shoppers.
In the heart of the city there was an atmosphere of quiet and restraint even in the major trading establishments whose seasonal hire-purchase offers customarily provoke aggressive purchasing. Little of that was in evidence on Wednesday evening. Outside Courts’ Main Street store a few vans and Canters were parked, waiting to provide transportation for purchases that might otherwise have to rely on what, at this time of year, is usually a taxed store delivery service. Inside the store, however, there was no real evidence of a significant volume of transactions, though one of the store’s employees told this newspaper that there had indeed been “a good response” to the “offers” that the store had made this year. At the other retail stores trading appeared to be light.
As the trading day came to an end there appeared to be a hive of activity at the city wharves. At Muneshwer’s containers were being stacked into already crowded spaces and trucks were rolling off the wharves at a brisk rate, delivering even more goods to business houses, a sign, perhaps, that in what is now a week before Christmas the trading tide will turn and a tough year might have a better ending.