MEMBERS of the retail sector are making an “urgent and desperate” plea to the Government for all malls and retail outlets to be reopened by the end of July as vaccination availability continues to expand.
At post-Cabinet news briefing in Tobago on Wednesday, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said retail stores are in the next large group to be targeted in the reopening of the local economy. However, he did not give a timeline on when that could potentially be.
Stakeholders yesterday identified the importance of the retail sector as it contributes significantly to the economy. They said all efforts must be taken to preserve the survival of the sector in the coming days as many are now on the verge of permanent closure as they enter a fourth month of shutdown.
Omar Hadeed, managing director of First Retail Inc, told the Express yesterday that lockdowns are only a temporary fix, as they result in extreme social and economic damage, and that a flexible approach to managing the pandemic must be undertaken.
Hadeed said that T&T must accept that Covid-19 will remain a part of our lives and we must move forward as the country cannot afford to remain closed for prolonged periods. That will lead to many underlying effects including significant job losses.
“If we do not reopen soon, the industry may never recover and will eventually drastically impact other components in the supply chain and the entire retail ecosystem,” Hadeed said.
He explained that thousands of retailers are hurting as expenses have been accumulating now for three months as landlords are still charging between 20-50 per cent of rent with retailers having zero income.
These costs will continue to compound the longer they remain closed and eventually would make it almost impossible to repay debts putting additional pressure on landlords, financial institutions and other suppliers.
“All malls and most retailers in the country have adhered to strict protocols with very few related cases in the past year linked to the sector. The industry was already suffering as it was going through a transformational shift to compete with online platforms. Foot traffic in malls and through street stores across the country had already fallen before this pandemic arrived,” Hadeed said.
According to the businessman this week the country experienced the anticipated reopening of the restaurant industry, and from all reports, it has been well below expectations.
“This is a clear indication of the economic impact already suffered from months of closure and the retail sector will be no different.
“We know that whichever day we are allowed to reopen, that day will simply be the start of another long journey to the recovery of our businesses. We are hopeful for a successful vaccine programme that will eventually allow us to get back to normal. But for now, we must all play our part to begin that journey,” said Hadeed.
Retailers’ cash low
Downtown Owners and Merchants Association (DOMA) president Gregory Aboud said it has been a solid three months that the retail sector has had zero income, but it still has overhead expenses and interest on loans.
Aboud said this country is at a critical juncture in terms of the economy and it is important to get vaccinated.
“I am making a plea to citizens, that if you do not get vaccinated, it shows that you do not care for your country, as all the science has proven how effective it is to receive your two jabs especially with Delta variant making its rounds in various countries.”
The businessman also noted that many mall tenants in Port of Spain have thrown in the towel as they have indicated that they can no longer rally out as cash has run out.
“It is also rumoured that big retail outlets in the capital city are either packing up shop for good or downsizing the amount of outlets they currently own. This is a serious state of affairs and it must be addressed,” Aboud added.
Chief executive officer of the Home Construction Ltd (HCL) group of companies, Richard Le Blanc, told the Express that some tenants at Long Circular Mall, Trincity Mall and OneWoodbrook Place, which HCL manages, have already moved out, as the owners indicated that the going got tough since the first lockdown.
“These lockdowns have been extremely difficult on us and when the retail sector is allowed to open it will take between three and six months for the owners to catch themselves as consumers’ spending power is not the same as it was pre-Covid.”
Questioned how HCL was dealing with no income from tenants for the past three months, Le Blanc said it has been very challenging and tough decisions would have to be made soon.
“It’s going to come to that point in time, where to survive your cash balances must be looked at carefully. Operating a business you have to take drastic measures in order to stop the cash burn,” Le Blanc noted.
Read More: Retailers beg for reopening | Local Business