• Shop owners make sales pitch from footpaths

    Once the hub of shopping in the city, MG Road in Pune Camp has fallen off the map in the last few years. So much so that some apparel store owners inside shopping complexes have taken to selling their wares on pavements with temporary stalls to keep their businesses alive.

    “I was shopping from hawkers who sell their wares from those huge cardboard boxes that they keep on movable tables. What struck me was that they said that they accept debit and credit cards, which obviously is not what many street hawkers do. As it turned out, one of them accompanied us to a store inside a shopping complex, which is the actual store of that hawker, where they have an elaborate display arrangement and card payment terminals, but there were no shoppers there,” Vimannagar resident Rashmi S, a self-confessed MG Road faithful said.

    Shop owners and lessees are worried about the decline of the area’s prominence. “Ten years ago, people used to visit our store in large numbers, even though it is located inside a shopping complex. But when two malls came up at both ends of the Cantonment (SGS Mall and Kumar Pacific Mall), young people have moved to them. They are gleaming and shining complexes with food courts and amusement. Who will come to these rundown and tiny shopping complexes?” said Yusuf Ansari, an apparel store owner in a complex on MG Road.

    Yusuf is not off-the-mark. Many apparel and accessories stores are organised inside two or three-storeyed shopping complexes, most of which were built in the 80s. Years have gone by, but neither shop-owners nor the shopping complex managers have done much to refurbish and glam up these buildings. Exposed internal wiring, grimy shop-windows, lack of clean restrooms, and general uncleanliness is a common sight in the complexes.

    Besides, entertainment options are too far and few between, say regulars here, except for a few cafes. “The clothes and other apparel here are affordable and trendy, and so I regularly come here to shop with my friends. But we don’t want to go inside the shopping complexes. It’s too empty inside, sometimes it stinks, and frankly, they are very boring. There is very little to do apart from shopping,” said Isha S, an MG Road regular.

    Such complaints are common with many other shoppers as well, and that has brought shop owners onto the pavements. They sell despite raids and threats of eviction by the police and Pune Cantonment Board (PCB). Hawking is illegal in the entirety of the Pune Cantonment area, but the ban is loosely enforced.

    “Sometimes, Cantonment officers and police constables come with large trucks for eviction. For that period, we have to go back into our shops with our temporary arrangements. After they leave, we come back to sell on the pavement, said a shop owner near the Aurora Towers, not wishing to be named.

    The local traders’ body admitted that such practices are rampant, but defended the traders, saying that “compulsions are many”.

    “The simple fact one learns in such business is that one can earn more and faster by peddling on the streets than by owning a store. The hawking problem is rampant in Cantonment areas. They have long eaten into our business by placing their stalls near our shops, so that customers shop from them and not from us. If PCB had a strong policy against illegal hawkers, shop owners would not have had to sell on the streets themselves,” Anand Kochhar, chairman of Pune Camp Merchants’ Association (PCMA), said.

    Kochhar also laid the blame on malls in and around the area, and also on e-commerce platforms, which he says has “hit traders the hardest”.

    “These malls around the area are shiny and glamorous, and have hurt our business over the past few years considerably as people would prefer to go there. But the worst blow has come from e-commerce platforms. They have competitive pricing, lots of choices, and policies like easy returns. Our traders obviously cannot offer so many facilities,” he adds.

    There have been efforts- if all too little- to revive the area as a prime shopping destination. There has been talk of introducing 4G Wi-Fi on the MG Road, sprucing up buildings lining the stretch, and last December, the PCMA organised a shopping festival in the Christmas and New Year week.

    The festival included attractive discounts from the more than thousand participating stores, decorative lighting, free parking, and play areas for children. Traders did experience some success, but as Kochhar implies, the image of glamour need not equate good business necessarily.

    “Colourful lights can be very easily put up and such shopping festivals can be done. But it is very difficult for business owners here to make a profit. The taxes are crippling, the footfall is decreasing, and there is the hawker menace. So people will be forced into desperate measures like hawking on the streets,” he said. Malcolm Jenkins Jersey

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