The Bane of Shopkeepers

Sundde did it again. For the fourth year in a row, it went through one of Caracas’ main commercial areas, making shopkeepers do business at a loss. This time, many stores are going under.

Photo: José Díaz

The Sabana Grande boulevard, a commercial reference of the Venezuelan capital, is already out of products. After the mandatory 50% discount on everything, some stores might close for good.

“I’m waiting for Sundde to arrive. I have 300 pairs of shoes, I’ll apply the discount they asked of me and when the merchandise runs out, I’ll close the shop. My six employees are aware of the situation. I can’t recover after this inspection, I’m leaving the country and six unemployed families.”

Dimas Silva was behind the counter of his shoe store, a block from the Bolívar square in downtown Caracas. From there, he watched with concern, waiting for his turn in the next few hours.

On Saturday, December 2, for the fourth year in a row, the Bureau for the Defense of Socio Economic Rights (Sundde) went on an “inspection” of private businesses. They began in Plaza Venezuela, the Sabana Grande boulevard and, by Monday, they were close to Chacaíto. Escorted by the National Guard (GNB) and the National Police (PNB), they forced shopkeepers to sell their entire merchandise at a 50% discount.

People made lines almost immediately outside stores selling shoes, underwear, trousers, shirts, purses and even food. In less than seven hours, shops were emptied out.

I can’t recover after this inspection, I’m leaving the country and six unemployed families.

It’s a lethal stab to many shopkeepers, since sales already dropped by 40% right in December, a period that usually has an important cash flow. The reason: exorbitant prices. A pair of sports shoes costs Bs. 800,000 ($7.7, at the current black market rate), far more than the average employee can pay, with the current minimum wage plus food stamps at Bs. 456,507 ($4.42).

But some items cost even more – a pair of shoes of a famous brand can go for Bs. 3,000,000 ($29); a pair of jeans goes for Bs. 1,500,000 ($14.53). Even a bra can cost Bs. 250,000 ($2.4).

“I think it’s good they lower the prices” said a woman in line at a shoe store. “(Merchants) cross the line too often.”

“Prices go up everyday, and not by 20,000 or 50,000 bolívares” said another woman who’d been waiting for two hours under the sun to enter the store.

The GNB officers stood guard in the shops as if products were food for refugees fleeing a war. With rifles close to their chest, they controlled the crowds and diffused the constant clashes among customers.

“Last year we managed” he sighs. “It’ll be hard this time. Factories don’t know if they’re opening again.”

Giovanni Mincior owns a shoe store his father opened in el Centro. Like his colleagues, he’s out of merchandise. “I have two pairs of each model in the back. We don’t have much left. Factories aren’t producing, and when they sell us their products, they give us two or three days to pay. That’s why we’re forced to adjust prices. The shoemakers say that the glue, the thread, the leather, the boxes, everything costs more every day, and that shows on the bills we pay. We don’t raise our prices to hurt people, nobody can pay Bs. 2,000,000 for a pair of boots.”

“Last year we managed” he sighs. “It’ll be hard this time. Factories don’t know if they’re opening again.”

Some shops remained closed on Monday and Tuesday morning. Owners only opened after midday, once they were sure Sundde agents weren’t around. Employees were removing price tags and taking brand shoes off the shelves.

Shopkeepers in el Centro are expecting Sundde to drop by at any minute on their nearly empty shops, while employees face an ominous prospect for 2018. The operation in Sabana Grande is common practice for the regime now: they regulate prices, destroying production and restricting free market. The employees of chains such as Balú, which has four stores in the boulevard, or Prime, Traki, Total and Seven, weren’t inspected this year or the previous ones. Overseer William Contreras boasted that they’ve inspected 5,776 stores all over the country.

“We’re profiting now, because I could buy shoes for my two children, but are these products going to disappear, like meat and chicken?” a customer wondered.

“If stores don’t open, we will open them,” said a GNB officer.

Mabel Sarmiento

Mabel Sarmiento is an UCAB-trained journalist with more than 20 years' experience covering community news, the environment, health, education and infrastructure.