Azulejo panel of Fernando Pessoa in the Azulejo Museum in Lisbon.jpg

Retailers rally against a tough Christmas

By EMMA BERTENSHAW & INÊS LOPES [email protected]

During the winter months, many smaller towns in the Algarve become ghost towns, with some businesses closing for up to four months over this period.

The damaging impact this can have on the remaining shops who choose to stay open is evident, with business people complaining this year about “a serious” lack of trade and Câmara incentives to attract shoppers to town centres.

Attraction to recognisable brands can pull customers away from town and village centres to the lure of large purpose-built shopping centres which have sprung up in the Algarve over the past number of years.

Convenience is a major factor with large complexes able to offer all necessities and luxuries under one roof with longer, more accommodating opening hours.

But is there enough interest to draw people back into towns now competing with a convenience culture?

Associations like ACRAL, the Algarve Retailers Association, are this year working harder than ever alongside smaller retailers across the region to show shoppers that town centres are “in fashion”.

Therefore, a series of festive programmes have been organised with one objective in mind: to encourage customers to shop locally.

During this month, for example, Faro’s historic centre will be filled with street performers to brighten up its shopping area.

The initiative, called a Flash Mob and involving more than 100 performers from various local cultural groups, aims to boost traditional high street shopping and is part of a campaign developed by ACRAL, Faro Câmara and the Association of Dance, Culture and Art.

Shoppers can expect to see the performers invading various streets in the city centre tomorrow (Saturday) and on December 20, 21 and 23.

Organisers have requested that the press do not reveal the street names and times to add to the element of surprise.

The Algarve Resident has had access to the timetable for the Flash Mob days and suggests shoppers take a mid-afternoon trip to Faro’s historic centre!

Further in the west, although Lagos has suffered from gaps of empty retail spaces, a small number of new and interesting shops continue to defy the economic news, with independent proactive entrepreneurs taking matters into their own hands.

Artaviva is a small boutique that recently opened on the Rua Cândido dos Reis, one of the main shopping arteries in Lagos centre.

The shop was started by a group of three women in September 2011, Sandie Croft (English) making soaps, Nina Bradley (English) making jewellery and Gaia Lina (Dutch) making felted silk scarves.

Sandie explained: “We were lucky to get very friendly landlords who were accommodating and also gave us a month’s time to set up our shop. Since then we have been surprised by the sales we are getting. It’s going well so far.”

They share the cost of rent and managing sales which would otherwise have been a big cost for one person. Although they opened their shop at a difficult time for the economy, they see that their products offer something to fill a gap in the market.

They have now also been joined by a further two artisans, Phil Jones (English) who makes wooden furniture and Gabriela Clark (English) and her watercolour paintings.

“People come to us by word of mouth mainly,” Sandie said. “They see our shop as something a little different in Lagos.”

This year, Lagos council, like many others, has had to cut back budgets. For example, Christmas lights are noticeably fewer along the main avenue although the Algarve Resident found the centre still full of cheer, courtesy of the efforts made by individual shops and restaurants lining the street.

In nearby Praia da Luz, a small but popular town particularly in the summer, there is a gift shop next to Baptista supermarket called Mirtilo, run by Tanya and Philip Powell.

Philip Powell told the Algarve Resident that their products, which include items for the home as well as jewellery, are priced at a reasonable level to reflect their regular customer base and although they are mainly reliant on the summer season, they have gained a lot of attention for their large range of greeting cards.

“With our prices, we find we are doing okay right now,” Philip said. “We recently had a Christmas evening for regular customers and that was a success. We have built a reputation over a number of years and are now attracting more Portuguese customers too.”

Local connection

Independent shops often also have stronger ties with the location they are based in such as Casas das Portas ( in the centre of Tavira in the east Algarve.

Owner Jane Gibbin says she notices customers are being more careful with their shopping this year but that local shops have more to offer all budgets.

“Many customers tell us that they like our shops because they like the fact that items have a local connection, are fair traded and ethically sourced. If they are spending money they want to do so with consideration for the local economy. “ 

Customers can also expect to get more individual attention. “We like people to drop in for a chat and a browse around, to be able to explain the story behind the things we sell. This same passion goes into many local shops. You don’t get this in big shopping malls. I like to think we provide a really good shopping experience.”

Jane also mentioned a Portuguese delicatessen, Ex Libris Gourmet ( nearby.

“All these shops feature in guide books catering for German and Dutch tourists but aren’t always known by people living closer to home,” she said.

In the small town of Carvoeiro, a popular tourist destination in the summer, business owners are used to the seasonal business fluctuations.

In previous years, after the summer months, business owners could always rely on the festive season trade, however, 2011 looks set to break the trend.

António Lopes, owner of Casa Tilinha, a clothing and souvenir shop established in Carvoeiro since 1940, selling mostly Portugal-made items, describes seasonal business as an “inevitable reality” of the Algarve but is concerned about this year’s particularly gloomy December for retailers.

He said: “Although in previous years, we could always rely on the local Christmas shoppers, this year people are thinking twice before spending money. Impulse buying is becoming a thing of the past.”

An association to protect the interests of businesspeople and residents of Carvoeiro was created late last year. Vozes Intensas Associação de Comerciantes e Residentes de Carvoeiro has now organised a Christmas fair in the town square to provided a boost for business.

Claudia Boto from the association said: “We have invited local businesses to take part and hope that the fair (which ends on Sunday) will be a boost to these businesses as well as attract visitors looking for something to do on a winter’s day.”

While councils are less able to support their local businesses in the economic crisis, it seems that independent shops are relying more on their relationships with the local population.

They feel certain that it is that individual attention that large chain stores are unable to offer which makes them special.

Also read ‘Christmas shopping spending down 15% on 2010’ Under News > Portugal.