Private Stores Selling Imported Clothing Outperform State-Sponsored Second-Hand Stores

Private and informal clothing stores, like this one in Sancti Spíritus, operate more efficiently than state-run stores.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 26 September 2023 — The Cuban government had planned to import six shipping containers of second-hand clothing from Canada, India and other countries but, with just a few months till year’s end, none of them has shown up at the nation’s ports. The low-quality garments, which cost the country 1.32 million dollars in 2021 according to state news media, have proved to be a tough sell. It seems Cubans prefer to buy their clothing from private retailers.

Senior officials at the Ministry of Domestic Trade in Ciego de Ávila are predicting a revival of so-called trapi-shopping.* The figures they released — very reluctantly according to the provincial newspaper Invasor — tell a different story, however. The province saw only 11.4 million pesos in clothing sales. Officials acknowledge that most customers prefer to buy from private stores and online shopping platforms despite their high prices.

In 2014, officials in Sancti Spíritus had to reduce the price of clothing by up to 70%

In fact, as Invasor reports, the government has already ordered a freeze on clothing imports until the surplus now being stored in its warehouses can be sold. The same thing happened in 2014 when officials in Sancti Spíritus had to reduce the price of clothing by up to 70% after realizing it was stuck with 17-million-pesos worth of clothing with no commercial value.

While not confirming whether or not the government has put a hold on imports, local leaders such as Pablo Acosta – director of Ciego de Ávila’s state-owned Empresa Universal – acknowledge that there has been a significant drop and that state clothing sales hardly constitute a vital retail sector.

Since 2018, the last time six freight containers of garments arrived, “the quality of the clothing had fallen drastically.” Some customers called state-run retail stores to find out if anything in their size had come in. Others who waited for hours in long lines just to get into the stores did not see their efforts rewarded. Shirts were usually stained, pants were too big and multi-piece outfits were badly worn or just plain ugly.

A 2016 study conducted by several official media outlets revealed that young people only bought used clothing from state-owned stores when they had no other choice. It had nothing to do, Invasor explains, with an interest in “sustainable, alternative or affordable fashion.”

To illustrate the decline in imports, the Invasor relies on – without completely accepting – an unofficial figure provided by Uruguayan journalist Fernando Ravsberg: In 2015 the Cuban government bought five-million-dollars worth of clothes from Canada, India and Angola. It arrived in twenty-by-forty-foot shipping containers, each holding varying quantities of hundred-pound bundles.

If anything seems inevitable, it is the demise of the old trapi-shopping stores

Though Invasor accepts this figure — the paper calls it “unproven but irrefutable” —  it is critical of Ravsberg for focusing more on “illegal resale chains.” The first links in the chain are prison farms where, according to Ravsberg, inmates set aside clothing that arrives at the port. They are the first to open the bundles, sometimes swapping out their own clothes for better ones. On other occasions, they take the best-quality garments for future resale.

If anything seems inevitable, it is the demise of the old trapi-shopping stores. On the bright side, however, Acosta notes that, in the corridors of the Ministry of Domestic Trade, there is talk of “resuming the sale but changing the rules of the game.”

One option, he claims, is to “hook up” with small and medium-sized businesses (MSMEs), the touchstone for this type business, since they have already capitalized on this market niche.”

These days, MSMEs operate as wholesalers, offering retailers hundred-pound bundles of clothes for prices that range from 90,000 to 115,000 pesos. Some prefer to take their payment in dollars, which can go as high as $400 if the seller tries to “take advantage,” says Invasor. When it comes to new, brand-name clothing, the hapless state-run trapi-shopping stores cannot compete.

*Translator’s note: from the word trapo, meaning “rag”.


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