The thought of getting a nice dress or shirt would always provoke the mind to a nice boutique somewhere in town or Down Town Kampala.
How time flies and as such how trends change.
Boutiques, to be precise, used to be a Kampala thing. Not anymore.
Traditionally, trade in Uganda has over the years been highly concentrated in Kampala.
However, this is not the case anymore as people have moved to the suburbs to establish different businesses such as clothing facilitates.
“People used to come and buy clothes here,” Wilberforce Mubiru, spokesperson of Owino Market as known as St Balikudembe, says.
However, he says, the numbers are not good anymore, suggesting that people have now found new shopping areas in a number of shopping malls spread across Kampala.
Take for instance, just along the road that connects Kisaasi to Kyanja, there are slightly more than 60 boutiques, sometimes sharing space with saloons.
In the same measure, the stretch between Kisaasi and Bukoto, has roughly 50 boutiques and these are not just along roads, they are well spread.
Most of these deal in first and second hand clothes with some supplementing their sales with jewelry.
So, what has changed? The influx of boutiques in suburbs has been stimulated by a number of issues, some of which are connected to governance in the Kampala city centre.
“The major reason is the cost of doing business,” Everest Kayondo, the Kampala City Traders Association (Kacita) chairman, says.
Costs such as rent, he says, have been going up and there seems to be limited space, especially on the most accessible floors of some buildings, to accommodate all traders.
“We are fighting for the space especially on the ground and first floors. The rest of the floors are empty and the rent for the ground and first floor are usually hiked to cover up for the unoccupied space. At the end of the day it becomes very expensive to operate within the Central Business District,” he says.
Rent in the city centre is over Shs2.5m per month versus an average of Shs300,000 in the suburbs.
In Owino market, for instance, a stall goes for Shs200,000 a month, but the issue of dropping sales, according to Mubiru, is making business hard.
Godwin Twesigye, 21, co-owns a boutique in Kisaasi, Kampala, which he started together with his sister using a Shs5m loan about a year ago.
“We had to find a strategic location, which was not town [Kampala] because we wanted to spend little money on rent. Currently, we pay Shs450,000 in rent per month,” he says. The duo sell first hand clothes, which on average, gives them an income of about Shs150,000 daily in peak seasons.
However, there are also dry months such as January when there is barely any income.
Their typical customers work during the day but shop between 7pm and midnight as they return.
In April last year, Hanisha Mubiru started selling men’s and children’s clothing in Kyanja.
Just like Twesigye, she stayed away from the city to spend what she thought she could manage.
“I started with Shs2m. I had to pay for a licence, items used in display and rent. So, I looked for a place where boutiques are few but also near where I stay so as not to incur a lot of costs,” she says.
The concentration of boutiques in suburbs lately is not just about high rent costs.
It is much more including competition, especially from Chinese who are engaged in retail trade.
Beyond this, are other issues such as electricity, garbage and water costs that are becoming another impossibility.
Toilet and parking, among other such costs, have also shoved people out of Kampala city.
“Landlords are also trading in electricity bills. A unit supposed to be Shs700 in some instances costs up to Shs3,000 and we are saying this is theft,” Kayondo says.
“You cannot trade in electricity because the tariffs are regulated by Electricity Regulatory Authority but it does not have control over this,” he adds.
How good is this trend
With unemployment levels still high, youths are looking to hang on anything to earn a living.
The migration of boutiques, according to Mubiru, is not necessarily a bad thing because it frees up the city for large scale projects.
Julius Sseninde, owns a chain of boutiques in the suburbs and is familiar with how to survive in such spaces.
“I have a business that is 15 years old in Kyanja. There used to be was nothing like a boutique [in Kyanja] so we decided to bring the city centre closer to the people,” he says.
Sseninde pays Shs1.2m in rent for a sizeable shop every month and it has paid off mainly selling new clothes.
“In the festive season, we earn over Shs1.5m a day and when it comes to January, it is about Shs300,000 a day,” he says.
What are the Challenges?
However, suburban boutiques have their own troubles as many of them deal in second hand clothes even with the looming ban by government.
Beyond this, competition is growing and marketing beyond the suburb is still a no-go area for them because most can only afford small stocks at a time.
“Advertising such as on social media can attract demand that I cannot meet now,” Mubiru says.
Even though clothes have been brought closer to people in suburbs, customers demand for low prices.
“People complain because they know the prices in the city centre so they want us to sell at that same price yet we have to factor in transport costs to earn a reasonable profit,” Mubiru explains. For Sseninde, the real test of running a boutique in the suburbs comes from demand.
“Kyanja has a small population so customers are few. We have to bring in quality products and we must engage good selling skills,” he says.
In comparing customer numbers in Kampala, Kayondo says suburban boutiques could help reduce fatigue in the city centre and make shopping more enjoyable.
“Shopping sometimes becomes a nightmare. There is a big population during the day, pickpocketing and noise pollution. So, it becomes hectic to buy anything from the city centre,” he says.
What does the future hold for suburban businesses?
According Kayondo, more businesspeople will set up shop on the outskirts. But, one of the current reasons might not last for long.
“Overtime, when demand for these premises outside the city centre becomes high, the rent could be hiked,” he says.
For now, business is low for suburban boutiques but this is expected to pick in April and hopefully, the owners will earn better as the year goes on.
“I expect it to be a very good year. The target is to make Shs1m a day when it get back to normal in March,” Sseninde says.
According to Mubiru, dealing in clothes in the suburb is good if it is within a point where they are demanded.
“My rent is Shs400,000 yet in town, you need Shs1m. So you are working for landlords and need to save Shs60,000 a day to pay that rent,” she says.
On the other hand, Twesigye, hope to move to the city centre if his fortunes ever change.
“I will have settled my business loans in two years so the boutique will be running on its own profits. So I do have plans to hit the city centre for a bigger market,” he says.