BY FIDELITY MHLANGA
“Closed for renovations!”
That is how long-time departmental store, Greatermans, operated by the Meikles Group along Harare’s Jason Moyo Avenue, exited the retail scene.
Months later, shoppers were to discover that the “renovations” were in fact meant to change the line of business as the store morphed into a supermarket.
Greatermans’ exit mirrored that of many other departmental stores in Zimbabwe that have had to close shop in the face of a tough operating economic environment.
The influx of cheap imports into the country has not helped the situation.
Apart from Greatermans, the country used to boast of a plethora of departmental stores like Barbours, which was also operated by the Meikles Group.
The famous Haddon & Sly Store, which set up shop in the country’s second largest city, Bulawayo, in 1894, felt the pinch of economic hardships and closed shop last year.
Known for offering quality shopping experience, departmental stores were special, having a whole floor with a specific range of merchandise and staff offering personalised care.
“Every one of the big departmental stores offered credit terms and expert advice on a wide range of services.
“They featured very much in our home decorating and designing and had experts in everything from kitchen appliances to curtain-making, from school uniforms to musical
instruments, books, stationery and the latest long-playing records.
“I miss those days very much,” said a nostalgic John Robertson, who grew up when these shops were operating in full throttle.
“Some of the best in days gone by were the Railway Co-op in Bulawayo and the Farmers Co-op in Harare,” the renowned economist added.
“We also had Haddon & Sly, Sanders, Barbours, Checkers, Greatermans, Store Brothers and Tedco.
“We still have clothing specialists like Edgars and Truworths, but they used to have strong competitors like Zippers, McCulloch & Bothwells, H E Harris, Eric Davis and
Former Meikles employee Stephen Chitima spoke of the high standards that characterised the departmental stores as he relived his work experience.
“I was based at Meikles head office and I could easily navigate any of the departmental stores,” he said.
“I remember that was way back in 2003 just after I had completed my A’Levels.
“The departmental stores were really a pride of the nation, even tourists visiting the country would not want to miss the shopping experience.
“The standards, aesthetics and etiquette were synonymous with that of First World stores, something that I truly miss.”
Chitima added: “At Barbour’s there used to be a gentleman with an English accent who used to operate the lift and he would direct clients on where to find items on each floor.
“Working for the TM group was such a marvel. The departmental store staff used to wear respectable uniforms and we really had a sense of belonging.
“At time clients would request for a paper bag or carrier bag even after buying small stuff just to use for other errands.
“The branded carrier bags signified a top quality brand. Gone are those days.”
“What has led to the demise of departmental stores in Zimbabwe?
The answer lies in Zimbabwe’s deepening economic crisis, which has been punctuated by a pressing liquidity crisis and massive job losses as many hundreds of companies have been
forced out of business.
As a result, there has been widespread proliferation of informal traders selling anything and everywhere.
With severely eroded disposable incomes, the general public has no option but to embrace the street traders who are usually a cheaper option.
Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries president Sifelani Jabangwe said the classic departmental stores where people could just walk in for the experience had since disappeared
on the back of an underperforming economy.
“We have certainly seen the demise of departmental stores,” he said.
“It is as a result of the declining economy where smaller and nimble-footed, agile shops have taken over the departmental store concept.
“As well we have seen that it has disappeared because the middle class that has been decimated.
“We now have a small group that fits into that class.”
Economist Clemence Machadu believes the proliferation of cheap second-hand imports that are smuggled into the country and sold on the streets had changed the retail
architecture of the country and has occupied more space for a departmental store set-up.
“The small and informal guys normally have cheaper substitutes because they cheat many statutory taxes and costs and are free riders in many facets; and therefore pose real
competition to big retailers,” he said.
“In the case of departmental stores, there is a new focus now on having a smart portfolio of profitable goods, which bring value to the business, as opposed to housing
everything just for the sake of it.
“The emergence of e-commerce has also seen many slow-moving consumer goods being now sold online, as opposed to displaying them in the shop, especially considering the fact
that space is now expensive and scarce.
“Another major factor is the supply bottlenecks being experienced, and lack of foreign currency to guarantee consistent supply and replenishing stock timeously.”