Big red signs everywhere: Sale! Sale! Sale! But no one is buying. Most stores, from clothing to shoes and food to haberdashery, had many items slashed in half to lure buyers. This is High Street, San Fernando, south’s equivalent to Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain. On this Monday, people were seen hustling, docking in and out of stores, but buying very little. At a glance, High Street was packed with people, but most of them were either going to or coming from work, buying lunch or window shopping. The few who decided to buy asked for specific items. If they felt the price wasn’t right, they left for another store. For the most part, the sale signs attracted customers come into the store, but those visits did not translate into sales.
South businesses have began to feel the effects of a recession, says Daphne Bartlett, president of the San Fernando Business Association. There has been an ongoing debate between the Finance Minister Winston Dookeran and his critics about whether T&T’s in recession. In delivering his last Monetary Policy Report on May 23, Central Bank Governor Ewart Williams said the country is struggling to get into recovery mode following three consecutive years of economic decline. Contributing to the slowdown were the slow implementation of government projects and the private sector’s reluctance to invest. He said the country was in a slump. On June 3, Finance Minister Dookeran said the country is not as bad as it seems. Dookeran expressed great optimism T&T has economic buffers to enable it to weather the economic storm. Economists said whatever term the administration wants to use to describe the economic slowdown, their concern was whether the Government is able to stimulate the economy.
In an interview at her Bartlett Drugs Ltd, San Fernando, last week Monday, she said, “Business has been on the decline for three years and it has worsened tremendously in the last three months.” It’s not an unexpected turn due to the Trinidad Cement Ltd strike and the struggling construction industry, Bartlett said. “Within the last year, I have experienced a 20 per cent decrease in sales. Orders have slowed down significantly.” She said history has shown that pharmacies, the manufacturing sector and bars are the last sectors to be affected in a recession. “We have began to feel it already, so we are in a recession.” Bartlett said clothing stores were the hardest hit. Next were food and haberdashery businesses, some of which have folded up. She has had to cut back on hiring temporary employment for the school vacation. Even though employers are trying hard to hold on to their workers, that may be difficult if spending activity doesn’t trend upwards.
Fifty per cent decline
One popular clothing store, which has branches throughout T&T, has suffered a 50 per cent decline in sales at its San Fernando branch. The manager, who held that position more than 22 years, said in the boom days, she’d make daily sales of between $40,000 and $50,000. The situation is markedly different today: it’s more between $15,000 and $20,000. “I long to see those figures again.”
She said there was a gradual decline of a 35 per cent in 2011 and a 50 per cent drop in sales so far in 2012. Sales in May were very quiet, she said, lightly describing it “like silent night.” Customers were buying cloth only for work and graduations. The manager at Pennywise Comestics told a similar tale. Its sales declined by 50 per cent from 2011 to 2012. “Three years ago, we observed that sales have been on a steady decline, but it has dropped drastically within the last two years. It’s the worst I have seen in 20 years. It is month-end and it’s very slow,” the Pennywise manager said.
For the time being, the store is holding on to its 12-member staff. It was no different for a clothing store specialising in Indian wear. The manager said its sales dropped by between 25 and 50 per cent from 2011 to 2012. Divali 2011 was busy, but nothing like previous years. Christmas was quiet. To attract customers, the sale price for shalwars dropped from $1,000 to $500. Saris were priced at $200. A superviser at a High Street jewelry store said there was a 25 to 30 per cent drop in sales within the last year. She said sales began trending downwards two years ago. Asked if her ten to 20 per cent and 30 to 40 per cent sale were attracting customers, she said, “Yes, customers are responding to the sale, but slow. Usually, business would pick up from Friday to Saturday, but it hasn’t.”
Drop in buying power
The owner of a large shoe and sneaker store said about 15 businesses, mainly clothing stores in R&M Plaza, San Fernando, have closed in the last five months. The store owner, also a landlord, said even though some landlords reduced their rents, some tenants’ business were doing so bad, they had little choice but to close down. Asked about surviving, he said, “Customers are buying, but cheaper stuff, so I am always trying to have bargains.” The store had an unbelievable sale: two pairs of brand name sneakers from as low as $499 and up to about $1,100. The ten-year-old High Street store experienced a 25 to 30 per cent decline in its sales. “The buying power of citizens has dropped,” the owner said. Some larger and popular chains had to closed down about a couple of their stores. One large clothing and shoe chain store had 12 branches, but now has nine. The rent was too high and the sales were too little. Asked what happened to its staff, one manager said some were paid off, while others were absorbed in other branches. Another store chain closed two branches. A manager said she believed it was the store’s year-round promotions keeping the branches afloat.
She said 2011 sales was good, but last month was really slow and it’s much the same for June. She hopes sales pick up with its back-to-school promotions and Father’s Day sale. Owner of JD’s Super Centre said his Princes Town branch, which was open 25 years ago, experienced a 35 per cent drop in sales. “This is my worst year,” he said. He said most of his sales come from fortnightly workers from makework programmes like the Cepep and the construction sector. He lost those consumers since the Government cut down on Cepep projects in the area. Major construction projects are on hold, which affects construction workers’ ability to spend. He opened another branch in San Fernando last September, but there was a drastic drop in sales from January. While December was his best month with sales up 20 per cent, he said there was a 25 per cent decline since January. Hustlers who have been selling on the streets of San Fernando for more than 20 years tell a similar story. “It bad, real bad. My customers dropped from 50 to 60 a day to 15,” Shawn Grenville said.