Investment in Trinidad and Tobago's consumer retailers grows despite soft demand

 

The economic downturn of recent years has resulted in a change in consumer behaviour, with weakened consumption and spending also negatively affecting economic growth and recovery. However, a rebound is expected to gather pace through 2018 and into 2019. Early signs were highlighted in the “Monetary Policy Report” published by the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago (CBTT) in November 2017, which indicated improved performance by the energy sector, the economy’s mainstay, during the third quarter of 2017, following a sluggish first half of the year. Retail performance can be expected to grow alongside the economy, though it will take time for the effects of the pick-up to be felt.

In Figures

The sector remained depressed in the first six months of that year with a decline of 6.8% in retail sales and a 19.6% reduction in new motor vehicle sales. As an indicator of consumer confidence, the Index of Retail Sales recorded a year-on-year (y-o-y) decline of 2.5% in the third quarter of 2017, as per a CBTT report issued in December 2017. This was attributed to falls in sales in several retail segments, including household appliances, furniture and other furnishings, and motor vehicle and parts. On the other hand, sales under the categories of dry goods, supermarket and groceries, and petrol filling stations rose in the same period. Overall, the results reflected a general curbing of discretionary spending, which has affected most sectors of the economy.

The Central Statistics Office calculation of the index of retail prices shows y-o-y headline inflation at 1.2% as of September 2017 with lower prices in categories including health, clothing and footwear, and miscellaneous goods. The y-o-y value for food inflation for the same period stood at 1.8%, a level unchanged from May 2017. The fluctuations in supply and resultant higher prices attributed to Tropical Storm Bret have been offset in decline in prices in the bread, cereals and meat sub-indices. Core inflation, which includes categories such as clothing, furnishings, health and education, was established at 1.1% as of September 2017, with analysts attributing the relatively low inflation rate to the low consumer confidence and soft spending.

Consumer Behaviours

In describing consumer behaviours in challenging economic times, the research group Market Fact and Opinion has assessed that consumers attempt to recalibrate spending habits to achieve maximum value for money while still trying to maintain their existing standard of living. Presenting the findings of the “Consumer Economics Sentiment Report” in November 2017, Nobel Philips, chairman of the research firm, opined that businesses need to adopt a cautious approach in how they price and market products during challenging times. Dynamics that affect pricing decisions include the expected duration of this economic downturn, changes to consumer sentiment, and how fluctuations in prices can influence switching of preferences and long-term brand loyalty.

Demand for various food items has been affected by the changes in consumer spending habits. During the 2011-16 period it is estimated that the country imported approximately TT$32.7bn ($4.9bn) in food items. Of that, the majority included fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat, a list that reflected the tastes of consumers for foreign food products and the availability of speciality items at local supermarkets and gourmet shops in prosperous times. The US was the prime source market, accounting for approximately 44% of imported consumer food items, the value of which peaked at $237.6m in 2015.

Within the last several years, however, there has been an increasing trend in consumers purchasing more local goods, particularly when it comes to food. The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MoTI) has taken note of changes in patterns to consumer behaviour based on surveys performed across the country, which indicate moves away from high-end imported products to more affordable local goods. The existing economic climate is seen as the main driver for this change and local supermarket shelves serve as further evidence of growth in locally produced foods.

Investment

Despite the current trends in consumer spending, there continues to be investment by the private sector within the retail sphere. This offers a clear indication that investor confidence in the economy is maintained. For example, Industrial Marine Services, which specialises in marine coatings, recently invested $2m in a new 930-sq-metre warehouse and retail outlet. In another example of this confidence in the retail and distribution sector, retailer Unicomer, which operates seven brands in T&T, invested $50m to build its Freeport Campus. Opened in November 2017, the facility includes a Courts Superstore, ServiTech, a distribution centre and office space housing both Unicomer Trinidad and the Unicomer Caribbean regional headquarters. With 44 loading bays the Freeport Campus is the largest such facility for the group in the Caribbean and has been constructed to improve efficiency in logistics and distribution operations by the use of advanced warehouse management systems.

Indeed, despite the slowdown, a number of top retail players in the market have been working to expand their reach as well as capture new clientele. For example, in November 2017, one of the country’s largest department store brands Excellent Stores opened its newest branch and eighth location at The Shops of Arima. Additionally, Massy Stores, as one of the biggest supermarket chains in the country, expanded its Gopaul Lands, Marabella location, which now boasts 3620 sq metres of retail space.

Street Vending

Even as formal shopping destinations are being expanded, informal street vending continues to be a significant part of the market. A mainstay of T&T’s cultural ethos, open-air markets provide a more cost-effective alternative to retail shopping for lower-income earners. However there continues to be discord between the vendors, law enforcement, business owners and the local municipal administration. At the time of writing, vendors at Charlotte Street in the capital Port of Spain, have been given the green light to return to their traditional location following a proposal to relocate the 126 vendors to another location, as part of the city’s Central Business District Revitalisation Programme.

Getting Crafty

Craft markets are also becoming a common feature within the retail landscape, offering a selection of items that you would not find in the usual stores in the malls or cities. Some of the most common and popular craft markets are the Green Market, Up Market, South Market and the Crafters Collective. Most of the marketing for these events is through social media or word of mouth. Many of the vendors in attendance do not have a traditional “brick and mortar” store, but are active users of new avenues to sell their goods.

While these markets, and the local handicraft industry they support, have tremendous potential to grow, they lack an effective means of expansion. Additionally, vendors typically are not set up for mass production, resulting in order fulfilment issues. With adequate support, however, these venues and the entrepreneurs using them can be positioned as viable players within the creative and retail industries.

Outlook

In response to the changing retail landscape, the MoTI launched a new consumer policy in March 2018 to align the market with domestic, regional and international trends and norms, thus allowing consumers and suppliers to participate with confidence. Changes in the sector had created deficiencies in consumer protection in several areas of the old legislation; for example, there was no protection for consumers making digital transactions. The new policy seeks to address the legislative, administrative and enforcement needs of the evolving market, improving the foundation on which to build sustainable retail growth and development.

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2018

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