Upscale boutiques had a choice: pivot or perish. Some chose the former and survived | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 26, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:04 AM, July 26, 2020

Upscale boutiques had a choice: pivot or perish. Some chose the former and survived

It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change, said the most famous naturist Charles Darwin back in the 19th century.

And Sultana Nasreen Shumi, the owner of upscale boutique Azaaraz, has unconsciously been following the adage in the last four months.

When news first came out of the novel coronavirus outbreak in China's Wuhan from a wet market -- where live animals are sold, slaughtered and skinned, in squalid condition -- in January, she did not pay much attention.

Then the following month, when the rogue virus began to tear through parts of Europe and Asia, her husband told her that the pathogen's arrival to Bangladesh was inevitable.

Before she could take any preparations, she was confronted with a flight-or-flight situation, as the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Bangladesh was announced on 8 March.

About a fortnight later, the country went on a general shutdown, leaving her with no option but to shutter her shop and factory for the time being.

As the shutdown, which was initially supposed to be for ten days, kept on getting extended, she became restive.

Does she continue to keep her business on pause, which would ultimately go on endanger the mere survival of her fledgling business? Or does do something out-of-the-box to help her pay the salary of her 12 staff and rent of the space?

She chose to fight and opted for the latter option.

Her atelier and her showroom were housed in the same residential building in Gulshan and the building authority walled off the property to non-residents.

Besides, a big portion of the workers live in Mohammadpur, another part of the city, and asking them to commute such a long distance every day and brave the possibility of coronavirus contagion did not sit right with her conscience.

So, she rented a space in Mohammadpur and shifted her atelier there, and in one fell swoop, she was able to solve the dilemma of lives and livelihood that has been consuming businesses and governments alike.

And she pivoted from her business from one rooted in bricks and mortar to one online. She opened a Facebook page for her boutique, where she put up her creations, whose ticket prices start at Tk 5,000 and go up to Tk 30,000, up on display and also took custom orders.

"I never thought that people would respond so much during this hard time. With what I have been able to earn, I have been able to pay the salaries due times," Shumi told The Daily Star yesterday.

The 30-something woman entrepreneur has recovered about 60 per cent of her sales and is now upbeat about steering her business in this 'new normal' situation.

The boutique has since opened its doors to customers but only an appointment-basis, just in time to log in Eid sales.

"The business is a little better this Eid," she added.

Sarah Karim Couture, another upscale boutique in Gulshan, has a similar story of triumph -- thanks to the digital platform.

The brand now only sells items through digital platforms.

"We have never emphasised online before. I would only put up photos of the photoshoot on Facebook before. But now, pictures of every dress are uploaded on Facebook," said Sarah Karim, the owner and designer of the upscale boutique.

Like Shumi, she too has been able to cover the salaries and rent and also turn in a small profit.

"I am happy with the sales given the bad times we are in."

To tide her through these challenging times, she is conceding her profit margins: she has trimmed down her price tag and cut back on the production of heavy and expensive dresses.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic, Karim says, is that it has made the well-heeled shoppers go local.

"Those who used to go to Kolkata for shopping are not able to go there now. They are now coming to us and asking us to make clothes for them. As a result, the clientele base is broadening," she added.

But not every clothing business is as lucky as Azaaraz and Sarah Karim Couture.

The Daily Star talked to several upscale boutiques and many of them said their sales have nosedived since the pandemic began.

"Business is very bad. Our clients are usually from the upper class and they are not at all interested in leaving their homes," said a top official of Libasse Fashion Creations requesting to be anonymous.

During Eid-ul-Fitr, the biggest selling season, the boutique, located in Gulshan, had opened its doors to customers. But it did not send the cash registers ringing.

"Although I did not lay off any of our employees, we kept 5 of our 18 employees in the shop to help customers. But buyers did not show up to expectations," she added.

The brand went online but found almost no response.

"We have even called up our clients by phone. But they are just not in the mood to splurge," she added. 

 

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