• Shop local ‘vital for some time to come’ due to COVID
• Federation co-chair: Merchants ‘resourceful’ on sourcing
• Others ‘trying to hold line on price’ as shipping cost triples
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Bahamas Federation of Retailers co-chair yesterday warned the upcoming Christmas season will be “make or break” for many merchants still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic’s devastating economic fall-out.
Tara Morley told Tribune Business that encouraging Bahamians to “shop local” rather than abroad, and support still-struggling businesses and the jobs they provide, is “going to be vital for some time to come as COVID is not going anywhere”.
Speaking amid growing global fears of increased prices and Christmas inventory shortages, amid global supply chain backlogs sparked by the pandemic, she said that while The Bahamas is not immune from such trends many local retailers had already placed their festive season orders in a bid to beat shipping delays that have impacted the sector over the past year.
And Ms Morley told residents not to “under-estimate the resourcefulness” of local merchants when it came to the timely sourcing of quality products, asserting that the industry will do everything it can to ensure Bahamians “have as many options as possible for the Christmas season”.
Still, with Bahamian merchants having to compete with larger developed country rivals for shipping containers and product, she acknowledged of the global supply chain squeeze: “It’s definitely something that every single retailer across the globe is concerned with and, obviously, The Bahamas is no exception to that.
“I think everybody has gone ahead and placed their orders for the holiday season as they see fit, but we won’t know what product we’re getting and the share we’re getting before it gets here. Throughout this year we’ve all been seeing massive shipping delays, so if they something is guaranteed to be shipped by October 1, we’re seeing things pushed back by a month/month-and-a-half.”
Voicing hope that Bahamian retailers “have taken every precaution” to avoid shipping delays, Ms Morley added that COVID-19 lockdowns and other restrictions in markets where products are sourced from were further impacting the sector’s ability to source goods in a timely manner.
“We’ve all been dealing with this for a year now, so we’re happy to stay open and roll with the punches as much as we can. There’s only so much we can control,” she told this newspaper. “There’s still surcharges with regard to shipping costs. Containers have gone up significantly even if you are shipping less than a container load.”
Suppliers and shippers, Ms Morley added, were sometimes adding 5 percent or 10 percent surcharges to merchants’ shipping bills. Predicting that this will continue until “the global supply chain calms down”, she said the extent of the surcharge varied between product categories, with local retailers importing goods ranging from clothing and footwear to furniture and home decor.
“Nobody is spared,” the Federation co-chair said. “Every time you go to ship something in, you get a different quote. If there are goods where you are able to secure them at a lower price point, what we’ve done with some of our stores is that we’ll buy them in bulk to secure a lower price point before they apply the shipping charges.
“We’ve been going through this for a year. It’s not new to anyone at this point. People have found ways of getting creative, shifting to goods they’ve never dealt in before and finding new suppliers to manage it as best they can.
“I wouldn’t under-estimate the resourcefulness of Bahamian retailers in trying to do what they can in ensuring Bahamians have as many options as possible for the Christmas to the extent possible.”
Still, with Christmas sales accounting for as much as 40-50 percent of many merchants’ top-lines and profits, and many back-to-school specialists having suffered “a weaker season” than anticipated due to COVID infections keeping students out of classrooms, Ms Morley said this festive season is “really make or break for a lot of retailers” struggling to bounce back from the pandemic.
To ensure they “make” it rather than “break”, she added: “It’s going to be critical for everyone to shop locally... People are still managing coming out of this COVID-19 crisis. It was incredible to see so many people shopping at home last Christmas season. The economy is still in crisis, so the extent to which we can support our local economy and jobs here, the better.
“During the festive season is when retailers hire additional staff, and the more people shop at home means more jobs on the ground as opposed to jobs in Florida. Why export jobs to Florida when we can keep them at home?
“Where it was a weaker back-to-school season for most, given that a lot of students have not yet returned to the campus, this Christmas season is going to be that much more critical for them. Anything that everyone can do to support local and shop local, and not just retail but all local businesses, COVID isn’t going away any time soon. I think the whole shop local movement is going to be vital for some time.”
Andrew Wilson, the Quality Business Centre (QBC) and Fashion on Broadway principal, told Tribune Business he was “trying to hold the line” on passing price increases on to Bahamian consumers this holiday season as a result of the near-tripling in container shipping costs.
Shipping costs having escalated due to a global container shortage, while COVID-induced supply chain disruption has left many factories and producers unable to meet strong demand given that they have first been forced to fulfill order backlogs.
“There are some shortages of specific inventory, but I think we should be OK for the holiday season,” Mr Wilson told Tribune Business. “We don’t have everything that we would like, but I feel comfortable we’ll be well-stocked for the holidays. A lot of the shortages really have to do with shipping delays, and prices continue to escalate.
“It’s a question of if the consumers are going to be willing to pay an increased price, or if they are able to pay an increased price, in this environment. The impact varies from category to category. A lot of the price increase is shipping-related.
“The last price I received for containers coming out of China was in the area of $20,000, as opposed to $6,500-$7,000 pre-pandemic. And it’s taking much longer to get loaded. Previously we could count on five to six weeks for a container to arrive from China; now it’s more like eight to ten weeks,” Mr Wilson continued.
“We’re just trying to hold the line on price increases. We’ve been holding the line, and absorbing as much of the shipping cost increases as we can, and taking a smaller margin. At the end of the day, consumers are so weak for the most part that I’m hoping in the New Year after everyone is vaccinated we’ll begin to see a return to some degree of normalcy.
“I’m hoping by the first quarter of 2022 we’ll see some roll back. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll have to reassess where we’re at.” Mr Wilson said TV screens were one area where pricing continues to climb, with increases of about 5 percent to 10 percent.
“It’s not easy being in any business at the moment, but it’s a little better than not being in business. I’d rather be in business than not. I’m counting my blessings,” he added.