Mid-Centre Mall,

An aerial view of Mid-Centre Mall, Chaguanas. —Photo: ISHMAEL SALANDY

WIND chimes tinkled inside the shop filled with 18-carat gold-plated jewellery, semi-precious stones and gift items.

The man behind the counter inside Mid-Centre Mall, Chaguanas, wore a genial expression.

But all’s far from well.

He sent home his store assistant, a mother of two children, last week and sales, he said, are going terribly.

“I told her to come out when businesses reopened on June 1, and see how it goes.

“But I had to send her home. Business is terrible. Sales are very, very slow. I have no staff right now.

“People are afraid to come out and many have lost their jobs.

“The mall’s management has reduced our rent but if things continue like this, I might just be able to cover the rent.

“Actually, I don’t have a Plan B. I’m just holding out right now,” he said, asking for anonymity.

His was the general cry among the mall’s tenants last Thursday, most of whom have reopened. All asked for anonymity as they spoke to Express Business.

Thursday was the day before the long Labour Day and Father’s Day weekend and before the pandemic, the mall would have been busy with shoppers.

Last week, the mall was like a virtual ghost town with just one or two potential buyers moving around.

The space Massy Motors had occupied stood empty as the new car dealer has packed up and moved out. The only place where there was a steady trickle of customers was the pharmacy which had remained open during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Elsewhere in Mid-Centre, house dresses going at $75 for one hung on racks in front of a clothing store. The price was reduced again but still no one was buying.

A lone sales clerk sat at the entrance, hopeful. Meandering through a lane of expensive imported clothing, the Express Business found the owner sitting at a desk at the back of the store.

She, too, had a cheerful front but things were not good here either.

“Yes, I had to let go workers. I have two remaining now and I’m rotating them.

“At one point I had four workers and I dropped them to three and now they’re two, working four days on and off.

“Ideally, I’m okay with one worker but I’m trying not to let any of them go.”

Paying two extra salaries is hard, she said.

“Things have been really very, very slow from the onset of reopening on June 1.

“I guess it’s the same all over. I don’t know when things are going to pick up but we have to be optimistic.

“You know, life goes on. I guess this is the new norm. It is what it is and we leave it in God’s hands.” She said consumers seem to be spending only on necessities like food and medicine.

“Clothing, I think, is a luxury item right now. But we’re trying our best to hold on.

“We have to pay our rent, salaries.”

A young girl hovered anxiously at the front of another store stacked with clothing. She is working reduced hours.

The owner said he originally had six workers but now has only two and has been rotating them. He said he had two stores and had to close one. He insisted this was not a bad thing but “prudent management”.

He has also reduced prices on his items by about 50 per cent to draw customers and said he’s making no profit.

“It’s just about existing right now.”

He was not optimistic this will end any time soon. “This will continue until the end of the year,” he said.

There was no sign of life in the recently opened food court upstairs.

The one or two food places that had opened were already closed up by mid-afternoon. Nearby, the mall’s manager sat working at a desk in an office with a couple of other workers. He spoke readily but asked for anonymity, as well.

“We have about 43 tenants here and it’s just Massy Motors who closed up shop.

“A couple of businesses are looking to scale down.” He said the landlord gave tenants reduced rents for April and May during the lockdown and this will continue for a grace period after the reopening. Even though restrictions were lifted, business is still not back to normal and management has “worked out something for that” as well, he said.

“Some are behind on their rent and we have to dig into our savings to continue to operate the malls.

“We’re trying to work with them. The last thing we want to do is to get the place vacant.

“We’re aware a lot of people lost their income and don’t have the money to spend.”

He said while management is giving tenants reduced rent, the landlord still has to pay all their taxes.

Chaguanas Chamber

A lot of businesses in central Trinidad are not operating with their full staff, says Vishnu Charran, president of the Chaguanas Chamber of Commerce.

Listing some of the possible reasons, Charran said members of the public are still lacking confidence about safety during the pandemic.

“Many are still not coming out and shopping as freely as they want.

“Secondly, the finances of many have been depleted over the last three months because they were not working and still had to pay their rent, utility bills, loans and so on.

“They don’t have a lot of excess cash to spend. People are spending on basic necessities and are looking for offers to see where they can save money.”

Charran said on top of that many are not working full-time and quite a number are not working at all.

“Some workers lost their jobs because their employers can’t afford to pay all their workers.”

He said many businesses are rotating remaining staff, having them work half a week.

A member of the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship, Charran said they’re seeing this trend continuing for several months until people regain full confidence about their safety and they start earning money so they can spend. Noting the full reopening of the economy this week, he added, “We just have to wait and see how that plays out.

“With more people coming back to work, there would be some spending.”

But, compounding the situation, is increased online shopping, he said.

The push for digitisation increased with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and Charran said businesses have to change the way they operate. “And that is having a web presence and looking to sell their products online.

“They have to look to the future and that’s being able to do e-commerce.”

Charran said he has not heard of any of the bigger business in Central that has actually closed its doors as yet.

“I think they’re going to reopen and get a feel of the situation and if they feel that they can’t make it in about two or three months, they may want to close their doors.

“We can only get a fair idea of how the economy will bounce back, about a month or so after the reopening of the retail sector.

“Bars, restaurants, casinos, were all closed during the lockdown so all those who have not been working will now be going back to work. “And we’re hoping that will have a little positive trickle-down effect on businesses.”

He said businesses have been asking for some waiver of taxes during the pandemic to get a little breathing space.

“All businesses pay Value Added Tax, the Green Levy, the Business Levy and corporation taxes.” “The Minister of Finance spoke about giving business loans and we haven’t seen anything coming out of that as yet.”

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