MASERU — It is three days before Christmas but the mood doesn’t feel like it.
There is an eerie silence enveloping Maseru.
The usual hype that we have come to associate with this merry season seems not to be present this year.
Business is not so good either.
Consumers who spoke to the Lesotho Times this week had one message: times are hard!
The shopping sprees for groceries and new clothes, that are often synonymous with the season, have been halted.
Businessmen who also spoke to this newspaper bemoaned the tough economic times adding that the volume of customers is much lower than last year.
They attributed this to the global economic crisis that has seen the government and private companies failing to increase workers’ salaries in line with the rising cost of living.
This year, for example, civil servants only managed to get a paltry five percent salary hike, a far cry from what they said they needed to keep their heads above the water.
The story has been the same in the private sector with most companies failing to increase salaries for their workers, let alone give them decent bonuses at the end of the year.
For Pick ‘n Pay, Maseru’s biggest supermarket at the up-market Pioneer Mall, business has been depressed.
The supermarket’s co-owner Andre Beukes says business has been generally poor this festive season.
“This has been a slow start. Fewer people are buying than last year. We have tried to keep prices low so that things are affordable for customers,” Beukes says.
He however says they were still hoping for an upstage in sales in the coming few days as people embark on last minute shopping.
“In the past few weeks we have felt the influx as people who work in South Africa come home. We are watching the next few days before Christmas. We are hopeful that more people will come,” Beukes says.
“We hope that things will be better next year. Hopefully there will be adequate parking space then as the mall is expanding.”
Sam Yao, a manager at Jackpot Supermarket, says business has also been slower this festive season compared to previous seasons.
Jackpot Supermarket is a popular shop that sells groceries in bulk to individuals and small community clubs.
But Yao said unlike in the past fewer clubs had come to buy this season.
“Business is not as good as the other years. Now it is just fine. Women clubs are not as many as they used to be. The few that have come have bought in smaller quantities,” Yao says.
’Makuena Setlaba, member of the Ithabeleng Women’s Club in Mafeteng, says their grocery collection has been very poor.
Ithabeleng Women’s Club is a 17-member money lending club run by women where they lend money to members and non-members at a profit.
At the end of the year the club, using their profits and investments, buys groceries which they share equally among members.
The clubs are popular in Lesotho as they are seen as an effective way to mitigate against rampant poverty.
Setlaba says groceries were more expensive this year.
She says they were forced to cancel most of the items on their shopping list.
“Everything is just too expensive,” an exasperated Setlaba says.
“Prices have gone up. Cooking oil is expensive. A five litre bottle of cooking is now close to M100. Last year it was about M70.”
She says they had to slash off non-essential luxury ingredients for dessert like custard and jelly powders from the shopping list.
“We only had to buy groceries that we really need like mealie-meal, rice, bread flour, washing powders and bath soaps,” Setlaba says.
’Manthabiseng Seutsoa says although her club had collected more money than last year they have had to reduce the number of items they could buy this season.
“Things are expensive. Our money can’t buy everything that we planned to buy. It is not helping that the shop owners are selling to us at reduced prices,” Seutsoa says.
“This is the worst year,” ’Mapontšo Metsing, says.
Metsing spoke while doing her last minute shopping at Jackpot Supermarket in Maseru on Tuesday.
She says she had only managed to buy groceries to see her through Christmas and New Year holidays.
She says this was a far cry from what they used to buy over the years.
“We used to buy groceries to fill the back of a small van. They would last us for over two to three months,” Metsing says.
“This year we only bought groceries we could deliver in one wheelbarrow. Things have changed. Everything is expensive.”
Pete Pete, a transport operator in Maseru, is also not a happy man.
Pete, who owns a small delivery truck, says he had only managed to transport three loads of groceries to clubs based in Maseru and in towns outside the capital in the past two weeks.
This is not a normal season, Pete says.
“Three deliveries in two weeks is bad. I normally do three loads in one day when business is good,” Pete says.
“I deliver as far as Quthing and Butha-Buthe. I would have collected a lot of money by now but now I have only made a few hundred Maloti.”