Christmas in the west is associated with a shopping extravaganza and for Ethiopians who adopt this cultural phenomenon the costs may be more than financial. SAMRAWIT LEMMA, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER went out and about talking with retailers and shoppers. The common cry was low sales, which everyone hopes will pick up as Christmas Day draws near. It is also clear that children constitute the Christmas market.
Ethiopians do not hang socks for a fictitious jolly bearded man called Santa Claus to secretly put gifts for the children. They do not send letters to the North Pole for Santa to prepare their gifts ahead of time. They do not even have ice or snow on which the red nosed reindeer could drag the sleigh carrying the elderly one, a.k.a. Father Christmas and his collection of gifts. But the sale of western-themed Christmas items, from Santa images to his red and white suit with hat, trees, baubles and other decorations have been a big business for some time. However, this year, even that may have experienced huge bumps along the way.
“I have been in this business for so long, seven plus years. Never have I seen such a slow flow of buyers,” moaned Tesfaye Abebe, who runs such a business in the open near Mirab Hotel in Merkato.
Expecting a huge jump in sales through the week leading up to Christmas Day, (called Genna in Ethiopia and observed this leap year on January 8), Tesfaye sat at a corner clasping a Santa Claus doll surrounded by different types of ornaments in various colours and sizes, small and large red ribbons and four Christmas trees. Despite his attractive stock, he said he is not witnessing the usual crowd that invades the large open market with holiday enthusiasm.
Piazza was even quieter.
Tesfaye normally sells bonos (flat, round plastic pieces like coin blanks) which are used by cafes and restaurants to identify and manage orders from patrons. His seasonal shift to Christmas trees and their accessories has so far not panned out, although that could change this week, in the last three days before Christmas.
He has two kinds of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) trees in stock. Both are green, but what is known as the new type has longer branches and softer leaves. They come in four sizes: 1.2m, 1.6m, 1.8m, 2.1m and 2.5m. The old variety has only 1.2m and 1.6m long trees, he explained and cost 250 Br to 650 Br depending on height ranging from 120cm to 160cm long; while the latest version is on offer at a much higher price.
The new stock trees in the week of December 26 cost from 650 Br for the 120cm to 1,800 Br for the 180cm in Merkato, with slightly lower prices in Piazza, 620 Br and 900 Br respectively.
Despite the slump in the usual shopping frenzy, competition is the name of the game and prices are adjusted accordingly
“It is to stand competitive against Merkato, which most people consider to be a cheaper place to shop and with more variety, that we decreased the price,” Fitsum Ayele, a shopkeeper at Piazza told Fortune.
Still the price he offered to Helen Asmare, a teenager, who visited his shop with her mother to buy a Christmas tree, was not good enough.
“I do not associate with the culture and do not appreciate it. My kids though see no Christmas celebration without the tree and lights flickering,” the mother said pointing at her daughter who was busy finding an alternative tree with an affordable price.
Helen’s persistence in getting the family’s Christmas tree was strengthened by the fact that her older brother was coming from the US for the holiday. The mother wanted to give in and make every one happy, but the prices being quoted were giving her second thoughts.
“I think I will have to drop the idea of buying one; I can buy a sheep for the price they are asking,” she said.
As late as 2012, 1.2m and 1.8m trees were selling for just 100 and 500 Br, respectively.
The trees need all kinds of accessories, which, surprisingly, also happen to be less expensive in Piazza than in Merkato. The decorative Christmas balls sell for 30 to 80 Br for a set of six in Piazza; the same costs 40 Br to to 100 Br in Merkato. Multi-coloured stringed lights sell for prices ranging from 40 to 150 Br, while ribbons are sold for two to 20 Br in both markets.
On the other hand, glittery decorations of different colours and sizes are sold for 15 Br to 20 Br in Piazza while their prices differ in Merkato, with a single strand ranging in price from 10 Br to 25 Br.
Trees and decorations aside, the practise of exchanging gifts is also on the rise. Fistum’s roadside music shop, on top of Centro Café in front of Cinema Ethiopia, which has been in business for three years, has become a gift shop for the holiday.
“I always do that on Christmas,” he said. “It is an opportunity I cannot miss.”
Now all he has is Christmas cards, decorations, trees of different sizes, lots of stringed lights hung around the shop and Santa hats. He himself was wearing one and dancing to the loud cultural music being played.
Among the items for sale at his shop are locally made and imported cards, which cost from 75 cents to 30 Br in the markets.
But in Piazza market a Christmas card is sold for 10 Br to 30 Br depending on its size and where it is made. Semehal Printing House is one of those places where the local traditionally themed cards are printed. They have a collection of traditional drawings of people having a meal together with the Merry Christmas wishes written in the Amharic Fidel. Another design depicts people playing Yegena chewata, a hockey-like game associated with this season, and from which the term Genna is derived. These cards cost 10 Br to 15 Br depending on their size. Most of the imported cards come from China. Having images of holy pictures and a Merry Christmas wishes with different colours and sizes, the imported cards sell for 20 to 30 Br.
“Most of our daily sales comes from sale of holiday wish cards, more than the trees,” Fitsum observed.
The daily sale of cards in his new temporary gift shop has reached 50 to 80 a day. He still is hoping for more traffic in the next week, which he thinks will be the high time for shopping. Other businesses too are ready for the holiday shopping. Traditional clothes shops are other areas where higher demand is anticipated, yet this year is slow paced compared to previous years.
“This year’s holiday shopping trends are unusually slow,” said Sebrina Nesredin, a traditional clothing shop owner. “We have experienced this in the New Year sales and now it seems that Christmas too is going to be slow.”
Sebrina has his shop at Adarash but the two shopping halls in the heart of Merkato, is also having a disappointing business this holiday.
“People used to have a trend of buying cultural clothes for holidays and weddings and I used to make good money. Business in the past two Christmas seasons was unsurpassed”.
Last year at this time Sabrina recounted selling five dresses a week for different prices ranging from 1,000 Br to 1,800 Br, and none this year. He has introduced a 10pc to 15pc holiday discount as a coping strategy to the slow progress, but he has not posted it anywhere.
“I do not want to call the attention of people who have not thought about it beforehand” he explained “ I also do not want lose the chance of selling for the normal price from the outset.”
He believes that whoever is seriously out to buy one will ask for a discount which he is ready to accommodate. He has different types of traditional dresses for woman with prices that range between 600 Br and 1,800 Br.
“If customers come with their own design the cost might range up to 2,000 because orders are made only for that person not in mass,” he said. While his Netelas (shawls) cost from 150 Br to 250 Br.
Ambassador Men’s wear is not leaving the market to chance; it has declared promotional lottery to facilitate their peak season sales. The prizes are airline tickets to Mombassa and Dubai for five lucky customers. The company is happy with the turnout which they believe the lottery contributed to.
“We choose this season to give gifts to our customers due to the series of events in the following months; Epiphany and the wedding season is high season for the sector,” a salesperson in one of the branches told Fortune.
Abush Mandefro , a graduating class student of Public Administration from Addis Abeba University chose his graduation suit earlier, not to miss the chance of going to Mombassa or Dubai, right after graduation. He traded the chance of a discount on price for graduation, hoping that he will win the lottery.
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