Consumers continue to feel the pinch as the country faces a second lockdown a mere one year after the first one.
It is not only lower-income people but citizens from across the different socio-economic brackets that are forced to cut back on spending and reprioritize in their personal lives as the economy contracts, businesses close and people lose jobs.
People from different walks of life and supermarket owners spoke to the Sunday Guardian as they are forced to modify their spending and shopping habits as the business continues to slow down and the economic downturn deepens.
Former health minister Dr Fuad Khan, who is a well-known urologist, is alarmed at how much the economy has been crippled and how it has affected his business and personal life.
He referred to the current crisis as an “economic mess.”
“At least I am lucky that I can spend, although my private practice has dropped by 70 per cent. These are people coming in for surgical practice. People who could have paid for an operation are no longer able to do it and so I have to do a payment plan and make sure that the nursing home and doctors get paid. I tell patients that they can pay over ten years if they want to. People come but they can’t afford the surgical part of it. The forced recession is shrinking my practice,” he said.
“That is what the recession has done. People have no money and I feel sorry for them.”
Describing the steep decline in his medical practice, he admitted that even someone with his means has been forced to make cutbacks in spending.
“Right now I have been reduced to buying the bare essentials. I do buy a lot of medical books to keep myself up-to-date. Amazon, Springer and those places seem to do quite well because they are online. Yet there are other people in T&T who are shutting down. When you shut down local businesses, you increase Amazon’s profit. That is unfair to our population as what you are doing is increasing credit card payment and so you have a shortage of US dollars. The good thing is my credit card payment is low as I just buy books and food and nothing else.”
He said his children have finished school, and as he is older he does not have many expenses but feels sorry for other people who have bills to pay and do not have the resources to do so.
“These people are losing their houses, they are losing their businesses, their children have to stop going to school. No offence, but if the banks don’t step in and repossess from people who can’t pay, the banks will collapse.”
He also shared what his wife, a business owner, went through trying to access the grants for SMEs that the Government offered in 2020 and said it was a “horrendous” process that she did not complete.
“My wife qualified for $150,000 for her drugstore. She did everything such as the National Insurance Board and other agencies. I eventually told her to forget about it. In terms of her staff, she had to cut back to next to nothing. People have very little and they’re not buying.”
He blames the Government for people’s dire financial situation.
Khan called the present economic downturn a “forced recession” as he said the closure of businesses was done based on fear and by decisions that the Government made.
He said the Government could have managed the pandemic differently.
He also criticised the media’s reporting as being negative with front-page headlines daily on how many new COVID-19 cases there are. Khan said the media and Government should also be speaking about how many patients have recovered and should avoid instilling fear in citizens.
Terry Amirali Rambharat, president of the Soroptimist International Club, San Fernando, said she had been cutting back on her spending as the economic situation worsened.
“This entire situation has changed my demands. I have been reprioritizing what I see as essential. My entire transactional spending portfolio has changed. As a woman I would spend on doing my nails, my hair and other personal things and now I don’t do that as regularly. That costs me about $1,200 a month. It’s not only that I’m not going out, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen next.”
This latest round of restrictions took everyone by surprise, she said.
She added that she has been spending a lot more on cooking at home.
“I always cooked at home but now I don’t go out as much and I cook more. I like to bake. I eat out less. I try not to go out and spend too much. I have girlfriends and we used to do things, now I cut back on that.”
She also said she now allocates some of her income to help the less fortunate with food hampers.
A taxi driver in Arima, who preferred to only give his first name as Brian, also spoke about his challenges over the last few weeks and before, and how he has been forced to change his spending habits.
“As taxi drivers, we check our earnings daily and I was making between $400 to $600 daily and this was before COVID-19. The pandemic hit us last year and what I earned got cut down to $200 a day. By September last year, things got better as I went back up to as much as $400 a day. I recently sold my car and bought a CNG vehicle that helped a lot.”
He also said his wife lost her job in the retail sector and this only made the situation worse.
“It was harder as it was no longer two salaries. Plus I look at only having two passengers in my car as half a salary. I don’t even have money to lime. So I don’t need to spend $700 on a weekend buying drinks by the bar. I don’t have money for that.”
He also pointed out that his daughters do online schooling and that has brought additional costs as he buys more food to cook at home as they eat at home.
“In this way is more money to spend at the grocery. I buy more rice, milk, flour. I may cut back on the snacks and juices. Before I used to spend $2,000 monthly on groceries, now I spend $2,500 and even more. Plus more money to spend on electricity and other basics.”
To get around his salary reduction, he takes personal jobs to transport people.
Supermarkets: People buying the basics
CEO of Westside and Jumbo Foods supermarkets Kumar Maharaj told the Sunday Guardian that the difference between this lockdown and the first one was that people had some disposable income in 2020.
This time around, he said, people are broke as whatever savings they had have been eaten up over the last 12 months.
“Unemployment, no work, no pay and all of these things have caused that extra money under the mattress to be used up.”
The consequences of this are that people are just buying the most basic items now, he said.
“People are buying flour, rice, sugar, and water. The more fancy items they leave those on the shelves.”
He gave the example of cake purchases at his supermarkets for Mother’s Day 2020—he sold 350 of the Kiss brand. This year he only sold 75 cakes.
“This shows the disparity in where people’s preferences are. People are just barely surviving in this country now. It is frightening where we are heading.”
He said his supermarkets cater for middle income and upper-middle-income customers such as police officers, public servants, teachers, and similar clientele.
‘Buying cheaper brands, looking for specials’
According to a statement from the management of Payless Supermarket on St Vincent Street, Port-of-Spain, consumers have been reduced to buying just the basics as their disposable income has been reduced.
“Last year was just a buying spree, now with this second lockdown people are more cautious. Everybody has gone back to buying the basics. If people purchase extra, it may be a large flour or a big rice a gallon size of oil. People have learned from last year when COVID-19 just hit so this year they are more prepared.”
The statement also said that there are different brands of an item and people will look for cheaper brands.
“A tin of peas and carrots Matouks is just over $8 but if there’s a special that offers 4 for $20, that is what people will buy. So people are now looking for bargains and specials. People don’t expect this pandemic to go away any time soon so they’re being cautious. People have less money.”
‘No need to rush to buy food items in fear it will run out’
President of the Supermarket Association of T&T Rajiv Diptee said that people will continue to buy the items that they used before, but they will do so but in a different brand or in smaller quantities.
He said brand loyalty no longer exists as people have less disposable income and they simply buy what they can afford.
“People are trading down. Some brands have disappeared entirely in the foreign jams and jelly category as people are buying less of those items. The reality is that people still need the same things such as flour, rice, toilet paper, and bread which are basics.”
He also advised the public that there is no need for “panic buying” as supermarkets will not be running out of supplies any time soon.
“For this present lockdown, we noticed people rushing to buy toilet paper. This happened in the United States last year and people in T&T follow international trends. There is no need to rush to buy toilet paper or any other item in fear that it will run out.”