Sales clerk Crystal Mohammed helps a customer with buying a rug at Fung Shing Variety Store on Queen Penny Commissiong Street, Port-of-Spain, on Saturday.

Anna-Lisa Paul

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, unemployment rates have soared, thousands have had their wages reduced, and many businesses have been forced to close.

Based on consumer spending patterns over the last few months and with Christmas just one month away, coordinator of the Confederation of Regional Business Chambers Jai Leladharsingh is predicting that the upcoming holiday season will be “bleak and dismal.”

Claiming demand is low, investor confidence is weak, and consumer uncertainty had rocketed upwards, he said the global slow-down had negatively affected all countries and by extension, their citizens.

In T&T, Leladharsingh said: “People are only committed to acquiring necessities such as groceries, medication, and fuel for their vehicles. Disposable income is less . . . business revenue has declined and unemployment has soared.”

He accused Government of failing to introduce sound measures and policies to assist small and medium enterprises (SME’s). Meanwhile, the rigid banking policies currently in place are stifling and deterring economic activity from moving forward.

Leladharsingh said no effort had been made by the Ministry of Trade and Industry to improve the ease of business in T&T.

He said while the nation and world have been managing uncertainty since the pandemic began, “open collaboration and greater networking between the private and public sectors is needed now.”

Predicting a very bleak Christmas ahead, Leladharsingh said: “We want investment in the country and we want businesses to thrive but if you don’t fix how business is done in Trinidad and Tobago it will be a deterrent to potential investors.”

He urged the nation to understand that “COVID-19 will be with us for a very long time . . . it is like living with diabetes or lupus or the common cold” and pointed out that “the wheels of an economy must continue to turn.”

Officials at regional business chambers agree that more had to be done to stimulate the economy and attract shoppers to the respective business districts.

Greater Tunapuna Chamber of Commerce President, Melissa Senhouse:

“All our members are reporting reduced sales. They are really not seeing Christmas yet. Many have complained about being unable to afford their rents as before as their revenue streams have declined considerably. They are struggling with respect to paying their bills.

“Some have gone virtual, They have done the pivot required to stay afloat and are trying to adapt.

“Without hope, we can’t cope. I believe everyone is anticipating a bleak Christmas but we have to reinvent ourselves and this is where we are trying to meet our members.

“We want to make it more attractive to buyers so that persons will want to visit the area and take advantage of the specials our members will be offering.

Chaguanas Chamber of Industry and Commerce President, Vishnu Charran:

“Sales have been holding steady and have even picked up at groceries and puja stores in the last few weeks as persons prepared for Divali. We expect it to continue like this. Once consumer confidence continues to grow, it will generate economic activity across the board.

“Many of the tenants occupying malls in the Chaguanas district have had their monthly rent reduced—in one case, by as much as 50 per cent. Landlords have been trying to support their tenants and that is why you are not hearing about more businesses having to close. They would rather receive 50 per cent than have nothing at all.

“The Chamber’s members have come together to work out a schedule of specials and bargains to attract customers as one way of ensuring revenue streams, albeit reduced, care maintained.”

San Juan Business Association President, Vivek Charran:

“Sales are holding where they are but I can’t say if there was an increase leading up to Divali as yet, but that might have changed, particularly for the groceries and that is to be expected. It is important that people have the spending power and disposable income if we are going to have a relatively good Christmas.

“We are hoping for some heightened level of commercial activity that can shift the balance for those businesses that are in need of additional business but for that to happen, we need the country to open back up a little bit more . . .for people to access jobs and start working again. There is only one month left before Christmas is here.

“I hope that over the Christmas period . . . we see a sense of generosity, charity and goodwill for the many people who are still unable to earn the income they were before. These people were productive and hardworking but because of circumstances, they were unable to work actively in their jobs, it was no fault of theirs. Many people feel a sense of shame and regret. There is a lot of mental stress people are dealing with right now.”

San Fernando Business Association President, Daphne Bartlett:

“After examining how the larger countries had resumed operations perhaps it is time Trinidad and Tobago followed their example, reopening the economy and enforcing the guidelines as set out by the World Health Organisation to sanitise, wear masks, avoid crowds, etc.

“San Fernando businesses have been adversely affected by the ongoing pandemic. Many businesses have had to close, many more are on the verge of closing, many have sent home staff, many are staggering staff, doing all kinds of things to stay afloat.”

“The area was already under stress having to deal with the fall-out from the closure of Petrotrin and fixed-income households are now re-prioritising their needs and wants, hence they are spending differently. It is not one item that is causing the problem, we have different factors that are creating this panic in the country.”

“Business has declined by as much as 50 to 60 per cent but despite this, one cannot just sit and wait to die. I urge the authorities to look at other Caribbean territories that have since reopened and how they were operating, to give Trinidad and Tobago a fighting chance again.

Arima Business Association President, Reval Chattergoon:

“As time goes longer, we are seeing more and more businesses closing. We are seeing a lot more people losing their jobs as businesses struggle to survive. While this period leading up to Christmas is normally very busy, we wae not seeing any of this now. It is nearly every day that you would see a new business shut down or some people being laid off.

“The curtailed spending could be a combination of persons not wanting to over-extend themselves due to uncertainty about the future and if they would have a job next month; and also, diminished consumer confidence as they stick to only shopping for necessities in a bid to avoid crowds and not contract the virus. People are not really confident to come out and go about their business as they would normally do.

“It is going to be a very dismal Christmas, coupled with the fact that Arima has been having a number of home invasions and other criminal activity. If people do not have the confidence to come out and shop, who you are opening to?

“I honestly don’t see Christmas being anything like it was last year or ten years ago unless some major break-through is made.

DOMA President, Gregory Aboud:

“Downtown Port-of-Spain is holding its’ own in the circumstances we have seen. There has been a slow return to normalcy but nothing like what we once knew, even a year ago. Customers are now beginning to indulge in some Christmas shopping although it is not the volume they are accustomed to but which is understandable.

“Notably, there has been probably a 15 per cent increase in vacant premises in which no new tenants have applied. There is and continue to be, significant concessions being given by landlords.”

“While Government had not yet given the green light for a full resumption of economic activity due to health concerns, DOMA is joining with other business districts calling for the full reopening of such establishments.

“All in all, we would like to suggest that we are starting to peep out from behind a time of great nervousness regarding COVID-19 and to say we are starting to move forward hopefully to a Christmas in which home and family will take on a new important significance. Indeed as it once did where it was the cornerstone of what we call a Trinidad Christmas.”

Regarding consumer spending patterns, Aboud said this was understandable as everyone was in a cautious mood and wisely watching every expenditure including businesses and investors.

“We will turn the corner into 2021 with greater economic stimulation and more confidence, especially about business and investment.”

Economist predicts negative growth

Professor Patrick Watson says while COVID-19 has negatively impacted income levels, people will still attempt to make Christmas memorable even though they cannot spend as much as they would like. He said although many companies and individuals would be cutting back on hosting Christmas cocktails and mixers, there will be a few who will entertain as usual, albeit in reduced numbers.

“COVID-19 is taking a toll on people’s activities and income, and consequently on their spending. There is going to be less spending this Christmas . . . I feel fairly certain about that,” he said.

Looking ahead into next year he said: “This COVID-19 is not something that we can try and predict. We do not know what is going to happen.”

Watson is forecasting negative economic growth this year.

n the coming months, it is going to be bleak. I am predicting this year there will be negative growth and next year there will be negative growth and certainly, in the first few months of the year, we will be just like how we were at the end of 2020,” he said.

“Unless something spectacular happens we are not going to go very far in the coming period. There will be a fall in spending as a lot of the money people usually spend during the period leading up to Carnival . . . that is not going to happen so those who depended on Carnival for a little extra and a little pick-me-up, that is not going to happen.

“We will not have a super fabulous Christmas, but I think we will have a happy Christmas.”