A desperate call has gone out to Government from retailers to reopen the sector as soon as possible.
Unable to cope with burgeoning debt, massive losses in profits and savings continuously being eaten away retail continues to be crippled under Government’s continuous restrictions.
Businessman Omar Hadeed, who said he’s the voice of the recently formed Retailers Association, said close to 20 per cent of retailers have closed and another 20 to 25 per cent are also expected to shut their doors by the end of this month if the green light is not given “in a matter of days.”
Noting that retail has been “disseminated” over the past 15 months Hadeed, managing director of First Retail Inc, painted a grim future of the sector to the Business Guardian if solutions are not implemented now.
“It’s been a difficult period over the past year for most retailers who have just been doing their best to survive. Their cash flow would have been depleted significantly going into this present lockdown,” Hadeed explained.
Further, since retail is a seasonal business Hadeed said important periods-Mother’s and Father’s Day and back-to-school sales-have been missed due to closures.
“Most of us are now on the verge of collapse and that is not an exaggeration,” Hadeed reiterated.
This also has a rippling effect on staff.
According to Hadeed there have been complaints by some employees that no salary relief grants have been issued for April, May and June.
He added that many are single parents who are struggling to make ends meet, some of whom may not be able to send their children to school as they cannot purchase supplies or afford public transportation.
‘These parents urgently need to get back out to work,” Hadeed emphasised.
Saying that the sector employs thousands of people, Hadeed said the continued closure impacts not just the retail sector but has a knock on effect on the supply and distribution industry, which may also never fully recover as that segment has also been drastically impacted.
“Think about the many landlords with obligations to their banks who cannot collect rent from their retail tenants and the inability to do so the longer they remain closed.
“We are literally reaching that point where most can no longer sustain this,” Hadeed added.
In giving his own account of how the restrictions have impacted his businesses, Hadeed explained that like every other non-essential retailer he’s hurting.
“We have had zero income now going on four months and expenses continue to compound. It’s not like switching off a tap,” Hadeed said, adding that he also assists his staff, some of whom have young children to care for.
Health and safety protocols play an integral part in reopening.
Hadeed said while members are respectful of the safeguards put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, the majority of the sector has already been vaccinated and therefore, fully ready to operate.
Hadeed said about 65 per cent of employees have been vaccinated to date and many more are expected to do so.
“Given these high vaccination rates the Government should vaccinate as early as next week. Online or curbside will not be economical at this time and it will not employ a significant number of staff,” Hadeed said, noting that a large portion of SMEs in T&T do not have online platforms.
At a recent post Cabinet news briefing in Tobago, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley had said retail stores will be in the next large group in the reopening of the local economy.
However, he did not give a timeline on when that could potentially be.
With a membership of 125 retailers and growing Hadeed explained that conversation about forming the association began last year when the pandemic first began with discussions also including several chambers.
Several retailers like Excellent Stores, has invested heavily in transforming a large part of their businesses to online options.
But they have been rendered impotent simply because they are forced to remain shut.
The irony however, is that foreign conglomerates like Amazon continue to rake in huge sales from T&T.
This, CEO of Excellent Stores, Alex Siu Chong said is not only unfair but one which the Government must immediately address.
In 2020, Excellent Stores closed its flagship branch in Port-of-Spain as the company made a bold step in its strategic plan towards aggressive integration of technology, by accelerating its digital transformation and store optimisation initiatives, both in-store and online.
The company said these changes will allow for more efficiency by using its limited foreign exchange supply to procure the right products at the right time and provide the opportunity to enhance its service delivery, logistics, in-store innovations, and e-commerce integration at its remaining physical locations.
Like Hadeed, Siu Chong underscored the need to reopen the sector, adding that online and even curbside options will also help keep some entities afloat.
“I am not allowed to open yet people are still allowed to go to Amazon and bring those packages in. This continue to perpetuate a foreign exchange problem because money continues to go out and this is a time where we need money to stay in the country.
“This is totally counter-intuitive,” Siu Chong said.
Further, even though businesses are closed taxes must still be paid.
Excellent has no income coming in yet Siu Chong said he continues to pay his VAT, duties, corporate tax, business and green fund levy, other statutory payments, utility bills and other overhead costs.
“But yet I cannot operate. Our processes and systems are very contactless because we have been doing this for a long time. Nothing of this makes any sense.
“Our customer don’t understand it, our managers don’t understand it, our staff don’t understand it but yet if people need to order anything they can go to Amazon and bring it in,” Siu Chong added.
He also noted that freight cost from China and other parts of the world have tippled coupled with the shortage of some goods.
And while it is still too early to predict the future of his stores, Siu Chong, however, said if the situation continues, like other companies he too can “go down the pipes.”
“We just cannot afford to continue like this. We have maxed out all our credit facilities. Last year we had a good year by managing debt, overdraft and cash flow and selling what was in our warehouses but that good year has been totally wiped out by no sales, supporting our staff, paying the Government down to the last cent and nothing coming back in,” Siu Chong added.
Additionally, he said many of his managers have not taken a salary in months, forcing every one to dip into their savings.
Further, bank deferrals, do not help, as this equates to adding interest upon interest which businesses simply cannot repay.
Like other businesses Siu Chong said his employees are vaccine compliant.
And to maintain health guidelines, he recommended that Government instruct health inspectors to check up on stores.
Clive Fletcher, managing director, Unicomer (Trinidad) Ltd said like Excellent Stores, Courts can make online sales, however, remains totally closed and therefore unable to deliver goods.
“It’s very tough because we are not operating. We are closed for three months now and it’s extended and there’s no proper end in sight.
“We would like to obviously open the entire business but in the meantime all we have been asking for is to be able to deliver our online sales,” Fletcher added.