With Eid less than a week away, smiles have returned to the face of retailers after sales picked up as customers thronged shopping centres, defying the risk of contracting the deadly coronavirus.
Millions of customers are flocking shopping malls, markets and roadside vendors to buy clothes, footwear, electronic items, home appliances, and other fashion items ahead of the festival.
Eid-ul-Fitr, the biggest religious festival in the Muslim-majority Bangladesh, is the peak shopping season that begins from the first week of the fasting month, accounting for nearly a third of the total annual wholesale and retail trade.
Retailers had bet big on this year's Pahela Baishakh and Eid after watching their businesses evaporate last year when the government imposed lengthy lockdowns to contain the spread of the contagious pathogen.
The infection rate has been climbing up since the middle of March and a seven-day restriction was imposed on April 5 to counter the second wave, pouring cold water on the optimism of good sales for the retailers.
Since then, the curb has been extended several times, cutting Dhaka from the rest of the country, and even one district from another, although enforcement has been lax.
Their hopes rekindled when the government allowed shopping malls, shops and markets to reopen from April 25 after a 12-day shutdown. Retailers and wholesalers said although sales had rebounded significantly, it still stood below 50 per cent of the pre-pandemic level.
For Aarong, which has 21 outlets, sales reached 65 per cent in comparison to the Eid festival of 2019.
"Sales have been good in the last few days. However, if we are allowed to keep our shops open for extended hours, we would get more customers," said Mohammad Ashraful Alam, chief operating officer of the lifestyle brand.
Many customers venture out for shopping after having Iftar meal, and managing safety protocol would have been easier if there were extended opening hours, he said.
Aarong has taken some cost-cutting measures to cover business losses.
"In other years, we would employ 700-800 additional staff to deal with the rush of the customers. This year, we have recruited only 200 people," Alam added.
Raihan Kabir, head of marketing at Yellow, a fashion lifestyle brand of Beximco, said sales had improved, but many customers were avoiding brick-and-mortar stores.
Yellow's online sales have increased tenfold in the last two weeks, and Kabir attributed it to brand value and a loyal customer base.
According to Shaheen Ahmed, the owner of Anjans, around 40 per cent of Eid sales were posted in the first half of Ramadan, and the remaining sales came in the second half.
"Since there was a lockdown for 10 days in the first half of Ramadan, the sales were not good during the period. Sales have increased gradually and reached 50 per cent of normal time."
"Compared to the decline that we had anticipated, the business has been really well. Since the sales are always higher in the last week of Ramadan, hopefully, it will accelerate this time as well," said Ahmed, also the president of the Fashion Entrepreneurs Association of Bangladesh.
Khalid Mahmood Khan, a co-founder of Kay Kraft, said sales had been increasing for the last few days.
"If the trend continues, recovery is possible. However, the sales don't match the 2019 level. We may be able to achieve 40 per cent of the pre-pandemic sales."
Fashion houses in the Aziz Cooperative Super Market in the capital's Shahbagh are not passing good times as the presence of students of the colleges and universities that make up its customer base was thin.
Ujjwal Das, owner of Lanthon Fashion House, said, "We are spending time idly waiting for customers. But we only get disappointed."
"Our main buyers are college and university-level students. But a majority of them are outside of Dhaka at the moment because of the closure of educational institutes since March last year."
Compared to the 2019 level, Das forecasts that the sales would be 20 per cent. So, he would have to dip into his savings to pay the space rent and meet other expenses.
Jobayer Hossain, owner of a cosmetics shop in Gauchia, now sells products worth Tk 10,000-12,000 daily, down from Tk 18,000-20,000 in the pre-pandemic period.
"I am struggling to repay the amount of money I borrowed last year as the pandemic has destroyed my business. What is more, I have to pay the salaries and bonuses to the employees."
The Sharif Market in Sadarghat is the largest wholesale panjabi market in Bangladesh, meeting about 70 per cent of the demand of the popular attire, according to traders.
Atul Chowdhury, a salesman of Syed Garments in the market, said that the sales had been very sluggish, and the shop was able to recover only 40 per cent of the business.
"Due to the lockdown, many traders could not come to Dhaka to buy panjabi before Ramadan. Had they been able to come, the business would have been better."
Md Selim, a wholesale cloth trader in the Islampur market in Dhaka, echoed Chowdhury.
"We are in bad shape. There are bank loans and the expense of the store and employees."
Arfanul Hoque, head of retail at Bata, said the business was 70 per cent compared to 2019.
"We will not be able to make a profit at the end of Eid with such sales. The business has not been good throughout the year."
Saikat Azad, marketing manager at Transcom Electronics, said that although the sales of refrigerators went up, that of air conditioners and television sets was low.
"We are not getting many responses from customers. We have three to four days left before Eid, and I hope the sales will increase slightly. But, it will be very difficult for us to achieve the sales target we had set," he added.
Mohammad Mesbah Uddin, chief marketing officer of Fair Group, the authorised manufacturer of Samsung devices in Bangladesh, said smartphone sales had rebounded in May after a sluggish April.
"If we can keep up the trend, we will be able to touch the sales we achieved during Eid in 2019."
Helal Uddin, president of the Bangladesh Shop Owners' Association, said businesses slumped significantly compared to the pre-crisis period.