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The evolution of Sunday shopping in Jamaica

Sunday commerce in Jamaica has long been mainly the province of essential businesses such as grocery shops and gas stations.

But around the yuletide season, consumers can bet on shop owners – both large and small and spanning the spectrum of the retail trade – opening up their doors on what is typically deemed a day of worship, in hopes of cashing in on last-minute sales.

Increasingly, too, more businesses participate in Sunday commerce amid the back-to-school rush each summer.

There are some stores that consumers never expect to see open on Sundays, for example, those operated by the telecoms.

But on December 18, Digicel stayed open until 5 p.m. in the hunt for bigger sales, including from the ‘best Christmas gift for teens’ promotion it had been running since the start of the month.

Still, amid the hustle and bustle on the streets, Gassan Azan, owner of MegaMart and Bascho Trading Company, says a business owner’s decision to keep the stores open on a Sunday doesn’t always mean sales are robust.

In fact, he says, it’s not generally considered as a day to make money, but as an opportunity for a haberdashery like Bashco to capture what little sales can be had, amid stock-taking.

“At Bashco, we will have staff coming in on Sundays leading up to Christmas for stock-taking purpose, because the Saturdays can be quite hectic,” Azan said.

“A lot of these stores are really in areas that don’t allow good mobility for trucks midweek, so if we already have the stores open on Sunday, and we will allow customers to come in, that would be a bonus for us. But if people think we make more money on those few Sundays that we open, than say a day during the week, that wouldn’t be true,” he said.

On the flip side, sales from his supermarket business, MegaMart, are at its peak on a regular Sunday, and even higher on Sundays leading up to days of festivities. The turnout is similar for personal care service providers such as barber shops and hair salons.

Still, for non-essential businesses, such as a clothing store, sales might trend up on the Sunday just before New Year’s Eve as shoppers walk the malls for new outfits to ring in the new year. The main driving factor for the last-minute shopping, Taylor Sherman of Taylor’s Fine Fits in Kingston said, is the level of convenience Sunday shopping brings to many customers.

“People have to work during the week, so it’s often on the weekends that you really get that break to see what’s out there, what’s trending in the fashion industry,” he said.

Sherman added that the marketing of new stock on social media platforms just in time for New Year’s celebration also brings heavy traffic into the store on a Sunday.

There was a time when hardly any businesses pulled up their shutters on Sundays, a testament to the influence of the churches and Jamaica’s religious culture that is mainly centred around Sunday worship.

But that has changed fundamentally over the past two decades as consumers sought balance between work and family life, and retailers diversified their offerings that, over time, began to offer alternatives.

For example, a traditional Sunday dinner featuring rice and peas, or rum and fruit-filled Christmas cake and other traditional dishes, can easily be had at local grocery stores and other food outlets.

As those conveniences gained popularity, the stigma around Sunday shopping has faded. Over time, more essential businesses latched on to the concept, and eventually, non-essential services such as hardware stores and wholesalers also joined in.

Now, even churchgoers are seen regularly in grocery aisles and food establishments on their way home from worship.

Azan, who touts MegaMart as one of the first to open its doors to the public on Sundays, says the idea was largely based around creating a 24-hour shopping experience in Jamaica, like that of major metropoles.

“MegaMart got started on a policy of convenience, and so the opening hours were always 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. And we even went to 24-hours a day, because, depending on the job of the consumer, shopping at nights would be more convenient,” he said.

“A natural evolution of business is to become more accessible to your customers, and that’s really what is happening in Jamaica. Also, the scarcer that the dollar gets, is the more that everybody wants to win some market share.”

Still, he says business owner’s decision to open on Sundays are dependent on many factors, including its location, time of the year, population density, crime statistics, and the demand for goods.

“Crime does play a factor in where people open their business on a Sunday, but if it’s a time like, say, Christmas, and there is money to be made, shop owners will open their doors, regardless of whether it’s in downtown or uptown Kingston,” he told the Financial Gleaner.

Still, Sunday shopping is not likely to grow beyond a particular point in downtown Kingston, for example. Outside of the festive season, the turnout of consumers there is generally low to none, given the vicious crimes in the surrounding communities over the years. Stores are typically closed, except for popular areas such as Orange Street and the Parade Square, where higglers will gather to capture business, largely from churchgoers, transport operators and passers-by.

With time, Azan says he might consider opening some Bascho stores on Sundays, starting with the peak seasons and other periods where the demand is great.

But he doesn’t see the market for Sunday shopping growing much larger in Jamaica.

“I don’t see any major push towards Sunday shopping more than what is the norm right now, which is essential services,” Azan said.

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