Christmas sales look bleak

SINCE the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in Trinidad and Tobago, many small and medium-sized businesses have been struggling to stay afloat, and there seem to be few tidings of great joy in the imminent future.

While some retailers still hold out hope for a boost in sales for the festive season, President of the Chaguanas Chamber of Commerce, Vishnu Charran is preparing for the worst.

“Businesses need to understand there is no guarantee that this will turn around in the next three months. For those businesses who are already preparing for a bright Christmas season, must understand people don’t have money except for basic necessities,” he said.

Echoing similar sentiments, President of the Couva/Pt Lisas Chamber of Commerce, Ramchand Rajbal Maraj said, “Covid 19 has caused a crippling effect on the business community of Couva/Point Lisas district, and by extension regionally and globally.

“SMEs are among the hardest hit as many businesses have been closed since the first lockdown. The plants that operate within the Point Lisas Industrial Estate are facing survivability issues. This has even occurred before Covid 19, and their most critical issues are natural gas availability and natural gas pricing. Approximately 12 plants have been closed.”

According to Charran, the pandemic has caused both short- and long-term effects on the economy, which will take a while to recover.

He said, “Unfortunately, as time goes along, more businesses will close down. Even with reduced rent, there are still no buyers coming into your establishment. What’s the sense of paying a $10,000 rent and you are not getting sales to cover at least half of that. When an economy falls like this it is all about survival.”

Rajbal Maraj noted the same for Couva and environs.

He said, “The sustainable success of the SMEs that operate within the Couva district and the other surrounding communities depend on the economic health of the players within the Point Lisas Industrial Estate. It is a symbiotic relationship, as business enterprises depend on the patronage of the working professionals of the Industrial Estate to drive the revenue base of their businesses.

“Also, Covid 19 has retarded the Couva/Point Lisas Community from any social, sporting, and cultural activities and lifestyles. This is very disconcerting and stressful. Owing to this very difficult situation, many people are facing severe unemployment. This has impacted consumer spending and consumer confidence in a very negative manner. Demand is low and business confidence is weak. As a result, this all sets the environment for a very bleak Christmas season.”

This was also echoed by President of the Sangre Grande Business Association, Kenneth Boodhu.

He said, “Approximately 20 per cent of businesses in Sangre Grande have permanently closed their doors and others have either laid off staff or drastically reduced the working hours of employees. With the Divali and Christmas seasons fast approaching, the general sentiment amongst the business community is one of uncertainty, leading to a lack of confidence in investing and an expectation of even more difficult times ahead. The state of the national economy serves to further exacerbate our precarious business environment. There is little confidence, little inspiration.”

According to Charran, while supermarkets and pharmacies have been able to operate almost unscathed during the pandemic, it continues to take a toll on non-essential small and medium-sized enterprises.

He says finding a balance is imperative, and assisting the SME sector will increase overall production and further bolster our export market.

Charran said Chaguanas needs an increase in the number of downstream industries, further development of the agriculture and maritime sectors, tourism, and the arts and entertainment.

Rajbal Maraj has also echoed similar sentiments, calling for banking sector reform, a national drive to build and enhance the agriculture sector inclusive of hydroponics, and greater support for the fishing industry.

“It should also include a national ‘Buy and Eat Local’ campaign,” he said.

President of the Supermarket Association, Rajiv Diptee commended the Minister of Finance on the October 5 budget presentation and believes there are several good measures to assist people in Trinidad and Tobago due to the current state of the economy.

He told Express Business the full VAT on imported food is to encourage consumers to buy more local goods.

While the 2021 fiscal package showcased an increase in the personal income tax exemption limit giving customers more income, Diptee says the expected increase in the cost of diesel that comes with the removal of the fuel subsidy will also drive transportation costs upward and force price increases for goods.

As many business owners continue to diversify to weather the financial woes brought on by the pandemic, Charran says despite their best efforts to entice customers, the Christmas season looks bleak.

He said, “For many businesses across the board, sales have fallen by 70 to 80 per cent. Luxury items have been one of the hardest hit during the pandemic because people don’t have the money to buy these items at this time. Not to mention caterers, those who do tent rentals, wedding planners, entertainers, and others in the creative industry don’t have a business right now.”

The Chamber plans to roll out a series of courses to assist entrepreneurs and people wanting to start their own business in the areas of marketing, business registration, social media, and more, Charran said.

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