Higglers aim high

BY SHAMILLE SCOTT Business reporter

Wednesday, August 01, 2012    

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TO leave the sight of his customers for 10 minutes could cost Christopher McKenzie $4,000.

He is a higgler who sells shirts and pants at the arcade in downtown Kingston.

"I have to be on the lookout. Customers come in and out," he said. If McKenzie gets one customer who enters the arcade to stop at his stall, he may persuade them to buy an item. "If not today, tomorrow," he said.

Getting McKenzie and other higglers to sit still for an interview isn't the easiest thing. They simply cannot afford to take their eyes off potential customers who walk by.

Most of them work alone, but some, like Christopher Stephens, work with a partner. Stephens works with his brother, Rolando Siley.

Siley sings jingles, telling customers what he has to offer (women's tops) and what they cost. Many of his customers don't set out to spend money when they walk by, he said. "I have to let them know a blouse is worth buying."

"Casual blouse, 150 and 200," he sings, a wooden calabash shaker adding rhythm to his tune.

Networking helps higglers to overcome challenges of security and marketing, said said Rosalea Hamilton, the president of the Micro, Small and Medium-Sized Enter-prises (MSME) Alliance. "If two or more pool their resources, it may be much easier to not only make profit, but to reduce the hassle," she said.

MSMEs are booming because of the state of the economy, said Hamilton. People are selling more than usual to supplement their incomes.

Scores of higglers line the streets of downtown Kingston. They sell from carts, boxes and handbags. Those with a bigger stock line their goods neatly on canvasses on the sidewalks.

Two tables suffice to hold Yvette Stewart's goods. It was hard to tell how many items of ladies clothing she had — certainly over a 100. "Any style or colour you want to buy, I have it," she said.

Stewart's start-up capital was saved through a partner scheme. Her first stock was lipgloss, eyeliners and mascaras. But her goods were destroyed in a fire that consumed part of the arcade.

"I had to start over, and I decided to relaunch bigger and better," she said.

A loan from Jamaica National Small Business Loans Limited — which she has since paid off — helped to improve her marketability. " 'I am my own boss,' is the sentiment of higglers," she said.

Pointing to a long stretch of higglers, Stewart said she does what she can to remain competitive, making her stall a one-stop shop. The attractiveness of the stall keeps customers interested.

Although it is not easy to remain competitive, Hamilton said creativity can make any business remain relevant.

Back at the musical blouse stall, Stephens said he wants to make enough money to buy large shipments of clothes. "I want my goods in bulk," he said. The goods will come at a cheap rate, which means sales in large quantities. This amounts to profit.

Stephens believes it would be hard for him to get a loan. "I'm afraid they'll take one look at me as a higgler and won't help," he said. But he hasn't asked yet. One day, he hopes, he will take the bold step of visiting a financial institution and applying.

Stephens has been selling all his life. "From age five, I'm here selling toothbrushes," he said.

Siley said his brother is hungry to make money and can double his stock in days. "We hope to one day have a store."

The brothers want to sell comfortably, without cons-tantly moving their goods because of rain or, since they are in a no-vending zone, the police.

McKenzie, who sells from the arcade, is skeptical about taking out a loan. He wants to make do with what he has. "Sometimes things are slow, I can't afford to take a loan and not repay it", he said.



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