So much for the woolies

December 6, 2020

The business of flea markets has taken a hit amid the pandemic. The rising prices are also to blame for it

At the very outset of winter, Karachi is already experiencing a chilly weather. Last week, temperatures in the port city touched an all-time low. The cold spell, which continues into December, has forced the citizens to throng flea markets to purchase the woolies. Sadly, for inflation-hit people, this too isn’t proving to be a pocket-friendly proposition, as the prices are unusually high even at the second-hand clothes markets.

Call it a consequence of Covid, which has pushed the country’s economy into a fresh recession and caused loss of jobs for millions of lower and lower-middle class people, or whatever. The fact remains.

Chanda, 39, a resident of Korangi, who’s just been to a Landa Bazaar (flea market) in Saddar, says she is still reeling from the “shock”: “A simple, small-size jacket for my eight-year-old cost me 800 bucks. Last year, the price of such an item wouldn’t be more than Rs 350,” she tells TNS.

“My husband is a delivery boy at a restaurant and his monthly earning is Rs 20,000 only. We can’t afford to spend so much on the very basic items of clothing.”

Saddar has always been the hub of cheap, used woolies in Karachi but the high prices are likely to render it desolate this winter. The traders say they can’t help the situation.

In another part of the city, Zareef Khan, a shop owner in the Lighthouse flea market, laments the fact that the pandemic has “destroyed the business completely.

“We generally deal in jackets, overcoats, warm trousers, jerseys and coats. But this year, we weren’t able to import any from anywhere [due to Covid-19]. We’re making do with our old stock,” Khan says.

He claims that the prices at his shop are reasonable and affordable.

Another factor that has affected the business is the fear of catching the coronavirus. “A lot of people are scared to visit us because Lighthouse has traditionally been a very busy market,” he adds.

It is commonly believed that the prices of used clothing items are fixed ‘spontaneously’ by the shopkeepers, depending on who the buyer is. “The [shopkeepers] gauge the purchasing capacity of the buyer and offer a price tag accordingly,” says Sajid Ahmed, a local, who is there to shop for his younger brother.

When asked as to how he arrived at this conclusion, Ahmed says: “I had purchased a branded trouser for Rs 50 only, from a thrift shop in Manghopir. When I spotted the same item here [in the Lighthouse Market], I was tempted to ask its price. To my horror, they offered it for a staggering Rs 1,400!”

It is interesting to note that flea markets also routinely attract the upper-middle-class during the season. These people, who come from posh localities like Defence, Clifton, Tariq Road and Nazimabad, are supposed to have a greater buying power. Their presence is believed to have contributed to the variations in price tags.

But the elite may be more finicky. As Kashif Ali, a young shop owner, says, “They put a lot of stress on quality. As far as we are concerned, the better the quality, the higher the rates!”

This often gets them windfall profits. No wonder such markets have come up in posh areas like Chawla Market in Nazimabad and Teen Hatti in Liaquatabad.

Saleem Waqani, the former president of Second-Hand Clothing Merchants Association (SHCMA) in Karachi, says that used clothes are mostly imported from the US, Europe, Japan, China, Korea and Belgium. Most of the stuff arrives in containers after completing the legal formalities. “The importers have proper licences issued by the government for the business,” he says, adding that they maintain stocks at warehouses at the old Haji Camp in Ranchor Line and Sher Shah areas.

“It was a booming industry in Pakistan and retailers purchased bails of old clothes and sorted them in categories.”

According to Waqani, “The fresh pieces of jackets, jerseys and the like are fixed after they are properly pressed in warehouses.”

He also speaks of retail traders who are exporting this kind of clothing to Afghanistan and African countries at higher rates. “Many [retailers] directly send the fresh pieces to Africa and Afghanistan [from Pakistan] through legal channels, while some send them via Dubai.

In the past, our traders exported these clothes to Iran and Iraq also, but after the Afghan War they started exporting to Afghanistan and Africa instead.”

Waqani insists that it’s a booming ‘industry’ nonetheless. From Karachi, the clothing items are shipped to the Punjab, the KPK and Balochistan also.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. He tweets @Zafar_Khan5

So much for the woolies: Flea markets business takes a hit amid coronavirus pandemic