Fate of office wear sellers as Kenyans work from home

Men's shoes on sale at the Caribbean Shoe Shop in Nairobi. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

For a glimpse of how her menswear business will fare, Margaret Mainge nowadays checks Nairobi’s traffic jam.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the hours-long snarl-ups annoyed her, but not anymore.

More cars on the road, she says, now mean more people travelling into the Central Business District, hence more walk-in buyers.

“Nowadays, whenever I get to town without getting caught up in traffic, it worries me because that’s a sign I may not sell,” she says.

“When we spend two hours or more on traffic, as businesspeople it gives us hope that people are going to town and there is a good chance we will make sales for the day.”

Ms Mainge who runs two stores in Nairobi’s Biashara and Moktar Daddah streets, sells men’s executive suits, neck-ties, and office shoes, with most of her clients being lawyers and corporate personnel in their 40s and above.

For many years, her Canali designer suits have been her number one seller. But the sales of the suits took a dip in 2020 when offices closed and her customers cooped up in their study rooms, working from home.

The apparel industry and a slew of malls were battered as thousands of Kenyans stayed home and a litany of dress-up events, from weddings to conferences, were cancelled or postponed.

“Before the pandemic, I used to sell about 200 suits a month, on average. When Covid-19 closed offices and parties, the sales went down by half with most of my clients switching to casual wear that really sold well,” she says.

Her suits, retailing at Sh18,000, were fast-moving because of the light material used, ideal for the city’s weather. Then working from home changed everything.

Suit sellers are hardly alone in struggling during the work-from-home era. Just a few months before the pandemic hit, Caribbean Shoes House had opened the third store following booming business in 2019.

The sale of their branded shoes, ‘Caribbean’ that ranges from sports to office wear, manufactured in Spain and Italy, were good. On average, the three stores could sell between 100 to 300 pairs of office shoes a month, with the cheapest retailing at Sh11,000.

“The year [2020] started pretty well with us recording impressive sales from January to March especially for office shoes. Our oldest branch was recording an average turnover of Sh500,000 to Sh600,000 a month due to the numerous numbers of seminars and conferences held countrywide. But in April, we only managed to 50 pairs in the three stores,” says Jane Kanye, a sales representative.

Ms Kanye says she started noticing a change in dress code; buyers wanted to mix and match casual and office wear. Customers came in dressed in jeans or khaki trousers, a t-shirt with blazers, then bought office shoes rather than sneakers.

A discounted sale also grew their numbers. “The sale played part in our recovery especially last December when we sold over 600 pairs of shoes,” Ms Kanye adds.

For Wow Collection, a store that deals with all kinds of women’s wear from suits, handbags, shoes, jewellery and other accessories imported from Turkey, business has been bad. “Most of our clients are in white-collar jobs.

When Covid-19 first struck, the sales went down to about 30 percent. Previously, most clients would spend between Sh18,000 to Sh20,000 or even more at a go,” says Susan Munyua, a saleslady.

She says with people still working from home, she no longer gets many buyers matching items; a bag, a suit and shoes.

“Buyers are no longer picking the complete set as before. There are not many events that would warrant a new outfit,” she adds.

Office-wear apparel is a tough industry to be in right now, but Ms Munyua remains optimistic.

“The situation is getting better compared to the months when we could open and only sell to one client in a week, who could buy just a bag or a blouse. The business is at 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels,” she says.

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