Shop-owners desperate to stay afloat | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 22, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:23 PM, April 22, 2021

Shop-owners desperate to stay afloat

Anyone visiting Dhaka's Bangshal road, known for spare parts of bikes and bicycles, would see a different scene.

There is thin traffic on the street, which remains busy on normal days. Shops are shuttered with people of different ages either standing or sitting on stools in front of the shuttered stores.

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Initially, it may appear to a bystander that these people are chatting or passing idle time as the government has imposed a curb on keeping stores open to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused the deaths of 10,683 people so far in Bangladesh.

However, if you halt for a moment, you may hear curious voices coming from the roadsides or see someone approach you, asking, "Are you looking for anything?"

This was how Mazharul Islam Masud was asking bikers and passers-by on the Bangshal road on Tuesday afternoon.

The owner of an auto parts store was sitting on a stool just in front of the shop with two-thirds of shutters opening, and eagerly asking people to sell parts of bikes and other components in order to remain afloat in the business.

"I know there is a restriction on the opening of shop. But what can I do? The fasting month of Ramadan is on, and there are a lot of expenses to meet daily necessities."

"If I can open my shop, I can sell and earn. If I sit idle at home, my family becomes worried about income and survival. It is a tough time for me," said a gloomy Masud.

The 40-year-old has borrowed Tk 100,000 to buy parts to sell ahead of Eid-ul-Fitr and meeting other family requirements as his sales dropped in the wake of the economic slowdown for the pandemic.

In normal times, Masud could sell parts worth Tk 20,000 daily. Until the afternoon on Tuesday, he could sell only Tk 800 worth of parts. The amount, albeit insignificant compared to the regular flow of revenue, helped him meet some family expenses.

On the Bangshal Road, which also has stores of steel and building material sellers, this correspondent saw a similar picture: shop owners and salesmen are waiting for old and new customers to turn up.

Once a shop owner comes across a buyer, he partially opens the shutter, takes the product out, delivers and brings down the shutter again.

This is not an isolated case.

Elsewhere in Dhaka city, the centre of economic and commercial activities, similar scenarios would grab the attention of a bystander.

The latest restriction on shop opening has devastated the hopes of recovery of micro and small business and shop owners, who were hit hard by the two-month-long lockdown last year.

Bangladesh has more than 53 lakh shops, and Dhaka alone holds about five lakh shops, according to an estimate by the Bangladesh Shop Owners Association.

Wholesale and retail trade accounts for 13.87 per cent of the country's gross domestic product, the Bangladesh Economic Review says.

Many retail and wholesale traders, one of the key players of the economy, fell into debt and became loan defaulter.

"We would have to sit here and wait for customers. Banks will not waive our loans and interests although we have to keep stores shut for the lockdown," said Shahin Ahmed, another auto parts seller in the same area.

"We will have to repay. But the government has imposed restriction on shop opening without giving any financial support. The government should not have done this. How could retailers survive unless we can sell and earn?"

Amid surging infections, the government has enforced 'lockdown' since April 5 and later extended to April 21. On Tuesday, the government said the curb would be in place until April 28 as the coronavirus situation has worsened.

Wahid Dhali, an iron and steel trader in North South Road, has borrowed Tk 10 crore from banks.

"They often call for repayment. If the current situation persists, I will have no way but to sell properties in my village and repay the loans," he said.

Selim Hossain, a cloth wholesaler in Dhaka's Islampur, one of the largest wholesale markets for cloth in the country, said he lost the scope to do business last year as he had to shut the store for the lockdown.

"I have not been able to absorb the shock of business losses yet."

Hossain said he sold a large amount of cloth on credit to many people.

"I can't even realise the money," said the 45-year-old businessman, who borrowed Tk 22 lakh, including Tk 20 lakh from a bank.

The merchant could not sell as he had expected ahead of the celebration of Pahela Baishakh, the first day of Bangla new year. And this is the peak season for him and his colleagues for sales as Eid-ul-Fitr, the largest shopping season, nears.

For him and others, the closure of shops means huge losses of business and piling up of inventory as Eid and Baishakh sales account for more than 30 per cent of the annual sales of clothing.

"We had wanted to make a turnaround this time. Instead, we see stockpiles of sari, lungi, salwar kameez and other clothes," said Nesar Uddin Mollah, general secretary of the Islampur Cloth Merchant Association.

Md Shaheen, an electrical items wholesaler and retailer at Mazar Cooperative Market in Mirpur 1, kept the shutter of his store partially open. He was afraid of the police. 

"I have no alternative but to keep the store open anyhow as I have to pay back bank loans," he said, "So, instead of keeping the shop closed, whatever I can sell is good."

The 38-year-old could log Tk 15,000 in daily sales during normal times. During these days of strict restriction, the sales dropped to Tk 2,000.

In the New Market area, all were quiet.

Markets and shopping centres were shut, and the usual crowd of shoppers in the greater area—from New Elephant Road to Gauchicha market to Nilkhet—vanished.

Yet, one would encounter the question: "What are you looking for? What is the book you want? Do you need any photocopy?"

"We are barely surviving. Over the last year, we suffered the most," said Mohammad Tuhin, a bookseller at the Nilkhet market.

The 29-year-old was sitting on a bench in front of a closed store. Until 1 pm yesterday, he could sell only one book at Tk 560 from his store located inside the market. It would give him a profit of Tk 60 only.

He was waiting outside the market only to get a customer. If he gets one, he would bring the book out from the store and deliver.

Tuhin's family has two book stores in the market, and he alone incurred losses of more than Tk 200,000 in the last year, owing to the slump in sales as schools and educational institutions have been shut since the pandemic struck the country in March last year.

"Our family is the worst victim of the pandemic," he said.

Nearby, a salesman at a stationary store stood with his hands on the shutter so that he could pull it down as soon as the police were in sight.

"If caught, I will not be released before evening," said the salesman.

At Hatirpool, one would also find some traders waiting for customers. Golam Rosul, a tiles and sanitary products trader, was one of them.

"I know that no customer will come. But what would I do sitting idle at home? Eid is approaching. I do not know how to manage everything," he said.

Helal Uddin, president of the Bangladesh Shop Owners Association, said all the industries, banks, insurance companies, and stock exchanges were open.

"We, the traders, are in deep trouble. We want to open our shops in compliance with hygiene rules," he said.

The auto-part seller Masud also wanted to reopen his store soon.   

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