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Keeping 4,000 Bermudians working is serious business

I made the unfortunate mistake of reading the online comments in response to Alex Wright's recent article, “Retailers call for Couriers to pay more Duty” (

The Royal Gazette, November 3, 2011) and wished I had quit when I got to the 60th comment but I've always been a glutton for punishment. Too often I've joked that it used to be the lawyers who had to apologise for what they did for a living, now it's the retailers.

I won't be joking anymore particularly after reading the incredibly hurtful personal attacks on both Paula Clarke, CEO of Gibbons Company, and Chair of the Retail division of the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce and Kristi Grayston, owner of Pulp and Circumstance and former Chair of the Chamber's Retail division. There was not one constructive criticism but there were plenty of mean spirited attacks on two hard working women who do their level best every day.

Consumers in Bermuda have every right to shop where they love and where they can get the best selection and the best price. Paula Clarke and Kristi Grayston couldn't agree more and they are certainly not advocating a “buy only” in Bermuda campaign. What they are advocating is that before you buy overseas to carefully think about the consequences of your hard earned Bermuda dollar leaving the island and to give your local retail community some consideration.

The impact of your dollar leaving Bermuda is considerable when you think about the nearly 4,000 men and women employed in retail and how each brick and mortar business pays rent, electricity, and taxes not to mention engaging the services of plumbers, electricians, maintenance workers, dock workers and delivery drivers and a myriad of other services. No one, and I mean no one, is advocating blind loyalty or disregard for value. Retail isn't for sissies and it's certainly not a charity.

Every good retailer understands that you will vote with your feet and pocketbook and make your decisions accordingly if you are not getting the service or selection you deserve.

Paula Clarke and Kristi Grayston's comments regarding certain couriers who are inaccurately representing themselves as retailers is also fair. Courier services are mail services and their argument that retailers have to import their goods and don't produce what they sell is a very clever bait and switch argument to encourage you to shop online and not bother with your retail neighbour.

The fact is that your local retailer is taking a significant financial stake in the products that they represent by hiring knowledgeable staff who understand the product and will stand behind that product should something go wrong. When you engage the services of a courier you are simply paying for a delivery service to Bermuda, nothing more. In spite of one courier's claim that using his services is “buying Bermuda”, your relationship is not with the courier but with the manufacturer. If it doesn't fit, work, look right, smell right or any number of possibilities that can go wrong there will be no consequences to the courier. Bought a mistake? You either mail it back or you're stuck.

Requesting that Government consider reviewing customs duty for items brought in by courier service is not entirely unfair either. Both women were responding to Alex Wright in their roles as advocates for the retail community and their respective employees who might be members of your family. Keeping 4,000 Bermudians working is serious business. Temporarily increasing duty to a flat 25 percent for imports brought in by courier might not seem so draconian when you consider that many goods imported to the island already carry a 22.25 percent duty.

Perhaps you have already experienced sticker shock when you arrived to pick up your goods at the courier service. I notice that a certain courier likes to represent the lowest possible percentage of Bermuda Customs duty when encouraging the use of his service. How ironic that many retailers have used this courier's service when trying to provide white glove service for their clients. Your readers may not be aware that retailers in the US and Bermuda typically make their buying decisions six months in advance of receiving their goods. Imagine how frustrating it is when manufacturers suddenly begin having sales on their web sites. Those companies then run the risk of losing their retail partners and often do. But before you burn your local retailer at the stake when seeing a product on the internet that is cheaper, consider that retailers make their buying decisions in good faith and don't expect that they will be undersold by the same people with whom they have been partnering.

This happened to us recently when a US popular bedding and home furnishing company went ahead and made significant reductions to new products two weeks after we received our stock. The company did not notify their retail clients of this decision and perhaps now are suffering the obvious consequences. I'm not surprised that Bloomingdale's is no longer carrying the collection. In the interest of being a good neighbour we did notified some of our clients of their sale but we now find ourselves in the unfortunate dilemma of whether to carry the collection for the convenience of our clients or to simply drop the line. After all, we can't stay in business if we are simply going to be a showroom for certain manufacturers.

There's no question about it, Bermudians have the equivalent of a black belt in shopping and can suit up with any New Yorker or European when it comes to identifying the next trend in fashion and home decor. Bermudians are world travellers and they mean business when they shop. There is however, one very important difference with their American or European counterpart; Bermudians take it personally! Think about it. When you're shopping abroad and a store doesn't have something in your size or the colour you want, do you storm out in a huff and announce to the world that you're never coming back? Of course you don't.

In Bermuda, local shops are held to a much higher standard. No doubt a US department store sales associate will do their level best to get the product you want, but if they fail you and the product is no longer available or is out of stock, it ends there. They're not going to worry that they might run into you at the grocery store or at church services or at a cousin's wedding. No, they will blithely go on with their lives and won't be the least bit worried that you didn't get what you wanted. Their anonymity will also shield them from any retribution if they are rude to you.

Both Paula Clarke and Kristi Grayston are good people and did not deserve the vitriolic skewering they received at the hands of anonymous commentators. Gibbons Company under Paula's leadership has been transformed to rival most small department stores in the US with its smart decor and great offerings and Kristi's elegant new store is an amazing collection of unique gifts, fine stationery and specialised pens for the serious collector.

I would be insanely jealous of both these talented women except that they are both good friends and are incredibly dedicated to keeping Bermudians working. This feeling of respect and admiration extends to my friends at Brown and Company, 27th Century Boutique, Atelerie, Bluck's, A.S. Cooper's, Daisy & Mac, the TESS group, Harbour Master, the Calypso stores, Gorhams and to my dear friend Barbara Finsness of The Island Shop whom on occasion I am lucky enough to be compared. (For the record she is taller, prettier and thinner than I am.) I don't know everyone on the island who is involved with retail but I do know that everyone works extremely hard to be worthy of your patronage.

Finally, I am certainly not opposed to any courier service provider putting their entrepreneurial cap on and creating a business model that helps Bermudians get what they need. Competition keeps everyone on their collective toes. But there shouldn't be any confusion between express mail efficiency and a retailer knowing their customer and providing product knowledge. The hard working men and women in Bermuda's retail community only ask that you give them a chance and look up from your computers to see what they can offer.

Elaine C. Murray is director of The Irish Linen Shop

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Published November 16, 2011 at 1:00 am (Updated November 16, 2011 at 8:24 am)

Keeping 4,000 Bermudians working is serious business

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