Businesses in the retail sector are looking ahead to the Christmas period with a sense of optimism, according to industry stakeholders, who said that the festive season might provide a desperately needed boost to a dismal year, though sales are still expected to remain markedly lower than usual for the festive season.
Conveying their experience on the ground, Jackie Urpani and Theresa Bartolo Parnis, owners of India Ltd, the company behind Monsoon and Accessorize – which boasts shops across Malta and Gozo – said they were well stocked, and looking forward to a positive season.
“Our stores are looking fabulous, so we are hoping to have a good Christmas, although, obviously, we cannot expect it to match up to previous years since customers are mindful of the everpresent COVID-19 problem.”
(Left) Theresa Bartolo Parnis & Jackie Urpani
Indeed, they continued, “it would also be a tall order to expect a good Christmas to make up for the loss of sales that was sustained in the extreme circumstances of the previous months.”
Furthermore, in recent months, and in response to the challenges the pandemic presented, the company has also moved online, offering a remote alternative for those based in Malta, and not willing to risk the vagaries of postage.
“This year, for the first time, we will have a fully functioning, brand new online platform showcasing the brands, so if people feel wary about venturing out, they can grab Monsoon and Accessorize from the comfort of their own home.
“We hope that we have been proactive in combating these extreme circumstances by being innovative and thinking of new ways to facilitate shopping to our customers,” they said, explaining that they are relaunching the site this week and have organised a fashion show to showcase the collection.
“We are confident that we have done all we can to ensure that our Christmas is as successful as it can be under the circumstance.
“This includes tweaking stock packages to ensure we have the right products that the customer is looking for, the set-up of online, and, of course, maintaining the standards of our stores that a Monsoon and Accessorize customer has become accustomed to,” they explained.
Looking into 2021, however, the numbers of active cases must come down, sooner rather than later, for retailers to be able to pick up their losses.
“Things will be very bleak after Christmas if circumstances don’t improve. We will think, plan and stay positive, discuss our challenges and struggles with the powers that be, in the hope that together we can all find the best way to weather this storm. With the right commitment, there is always a way,” they said.
Expressing an even more hopeful view, Stephania Buhagiar, Commercial Manager, who represents Juniors Toy Shop, said the firm believes that, “taking the latest trends in consideration and looking at our performance in November, sales running up to and over the Christmas period will make up for this year”.
“Sales will be very close to last years’,” she insisted, adding that one of the key factors for the current upswing is that people are staying in, “so they need to keep the children busy.”
Moreover, she continued, “over the last six months, there have been problems with online shopping from abroad, so many people are not taking the risk. They are also not waiting.
“In fact, our Christmas sales started earlier than usual, with people even asking for wrapping paper as early as October. This is because there is a feeling of uncertainty. People are somewhat expecting a lockdown, and not everyone is confident enough to purchase online, from abroad, so they are pre-thinking their gifts.”
Closer to home, this is the first time Junior’s has launched on online store. “We cannot compare it to last year, since it’s our first year, but, in summer, the impact of online was limited, though as soon as children got back to school, we started getting busier online.
“This is probably because customers are being more careful and would like to limit their interactions.”
Indeed, online sales still make for a small fraction of the total, accounting for seven per cent of Juniors’ total sales.
“More people are coming to the shops,” Ms Buhagiar asserted, adding that the company was incentivising earlier Christmas shopping through discounts and deals.
“Usually sales start increasing from the week of Black Friday to Christmas, itself. But the fact that we cannot have many people in store pushed us to encourage people to come earlier.
“At any rate, we started building our stock levels for Christmas from July, so we’ve tried to spread the sales coming in. After all, we are also afraid of a lockdown,” she added.
However, Christine Pace, the Managing Director of retail group, Dorkins Ltd, held a different view.
“With so many health warnings in the run-up to the Christmas period, expectations within the retail sector are low. I don’t believe that there will be a peak to make up for this year,” she said.
Dorkins Ltd operates various franchises on the Maltese islands, including Dorothy Perkins, Topshop, Topman, Wallis, Evans, Superdry, as well as Clarks and Marella, with stores located in the shopping hubs of Valletta and Sliema.
However, despite the upswing in sales it usually experiences at this time of year, the company has had to rethink its strategy.
“Dorkins Ltd is working on pushing online sales and is launching various promotions to encourage consumers to spend and gain. Hopefully, consumers will use this to their advantage and buy items to also use next year,” Ms Pace said.
If sales remain low over Christmas, she continued, “COVID-19 will have a significant impact on the retail business,” in the long-term.
In light of this, she advocated a proactive approach. “We need to think long-term, work differently and identify new opportunities for 2021. We need to make sure we have an easy seamless online business but, at the same time, focus on giving the best in store shopping experience to get customers wanting to come back in store,” once this is over.
This feature was first carried in the November edition of The Malta Business Observer