St. Kitts-Nevis Chamber seeks Protection for Local Businesses – Are they Right?

By Russell Williams

Participants of the National Consultation on the Economy

At the recently held National Consultation on the Economy, the St. Kitts-Nevis Chamber of Industry and Commerce among other things recommended protection for local businesses in some sectors such as supermarket retail and other forms of low-level retail. I must say it was unfortunate that the spokesperson for the Chamber was himself a supermarket owner, but nonetheless, I have some issues with the chamber position.

As a student in the UK I worked part-time selling furniture for a large outlet. One afternoon I escorted a customer to the cashier and thanked her for her business, as the receipt was printing I asked the cashier what she wanted from the sandwich shop. The customer later reported the cashier and I to management, as she “didn’t think it was appropriate for staff to discuss lunch arrangements, in front of customers.”

The same week that the views of the Chamber were made, I entered a bakery in the centre of Basseterre, and allow me to contrast the experience with the account from my youth. I could hear the staff’s “discussion” from outside the bakery, a conversation which had to reach its conclusion before I, the customer whom they are there to serve, was able to place my order!

Sadly, my experience at the bakery is one to which I’m sure not only nationals of St. Kitts-Nevis can testify but one to which the people of the Caribbean can relate! But my point is why should we? And why should these businesses benefit from protection?

In my opinion, many businesses in St. Kitts-Nevis have taken advantage of the fact that the majority of customers are not that demanding, and in some cases have not been able to experience anything other than poor service and poor choice. As a result these businesses do not invest in their staff and their businesses in terms of upgrading their equipment and stores. There’s a supermarket in Basseterre which apart from the checkout equipment hasn’t changed much in decades. More over this store is within 5 minutes walk from the Cruise ship berth and Porte Zante the prime downtown retail area, what an advertisement for our “tourism product”.

If it requires a foreign supermarket chain to set up shop in St. Kitts-Nevis to deliver a quality product, where the experience is one where the customer is genuinely greeted with a hello or good morning, the staff are personable and courteous in a environment fit for selling food for human consumption, then so be it! Don’t our people deserve such, or is that experience only for “people from some wheh”?

One cannot dispute that fair competition is good! I don’t advocate or support the notion that it should be easier for foreign investors to establish themselves than for local businesses. But, let’s not confine competition to sports! Businesses too, must compete on a level playing field where the service, range and quality of products and price differentiate one provider from the other.

I think it would be difficult for even the Chamber to argue that competition in the telecoms sector, allowing consumers a choice of Mobile and Internet provider has been detrimental. It has offered some relief to the consumer in terms of price reductions, although we wait for the long overdue improvements in quality and service!!

I think what is key is that businesses realise that they must evolve and adapt to the change competition brings. Charles Darwin, wasn’t wrong when he said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

There needs to be a change of mindset, for both employers and employees if our “local” businesses are to survive. Employers must invest in their people; improve their knowledge of their function and their role in the business and of business as a whole. Solicit and value their opinions. Having just celebrated 28 years of Independence, many employment practices in both the private and public sectors are still very much pre-colonial, if not even older!

Employees for their part also need to present a value proposition to employers, one where an employer would be insane not to invest in training them, paying them more, where they are too valuable to loose. Instead, too often the employee has an attitude of “I’m only 15 minutes late, you lucky I’m here!”

There is a belief in “industrial relations” or “work relations”, that “employers pay their workers just enough so they don’t leave, and workers perform just well enough not to be sacked.” That is very much in evidence in many organisations in the federation, and sadly, these tend to be the ones who are bawling for protection. Good companies with good people at the top and the bottom are able to evolve and innovate, they don’t shrink from the challenge of competition, they embrace it!

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