Local duty-free merchant captures key airline market
Guyana/Suriname border beckons By Linda Rutherford
Guyana Chronicle
March 17, 2002

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HE’D ALWAYS had his eye on the local airline industry; ever since he remigrated from Canada back in 1993.

He got his chance recently when he clinched a deal with local carrier, Universal Airlines, to operate an in-flight duty-free service on board all its flights.

He spoke with Sunday Chronicle a week ago about trends in his particular line of business, and he began with the strange observation that Guyanese had now become “branded individuals.”

His meaning became clearer when he explained that where before we were just a generic market, we have now become very fastidious about quality, particularly where fragrances are concerned.

“Most Guyanese are now looking for the brand-name products,” says engineer turned businessman, Mr. Hemo Singh, whose Duty Free Guyana Inc. is the company that has the arrangement with Universal Airlines.

“It’s amazing that price really is irrelevant to them; that they want to use the quality products that are offered in Guyana,” Singh said, explaining that this was largely so because of the vast improvement in spending power in the last 20 years.

“Now we have made a change for the better of the country, our economic position has been a little stronger than it was about 20 years ago,” he said.

In the duty-free business now going on eight years, first as ‘Parlez Parfums et Beaute’ below Cara Suites on Middle and Waterloo Streets, then as ‘Taste and Scents’ on Thomas Street, Cummingsburg, he gave Guyana its first one-stop duty-free shop two Christmases ago when he opened ‘Gifts and Novelties’, one of three duty-free concessions in operation in the departure lounge of the Cheddi Jagan International Airport.

Among the products he carries are quite an impressive array of what are called designer fragrances, from Givenchy to Bijan to Estee Lauder, liquor for just about every occasion and taste, tobacco, confectionery (European and American) and even sunglasses.

An achievement he’s inordinately proud of, and rightly so, he lists among his most cherished customers his own fellow Guyanese whom he’s found to be very supportive. In his own words: “… very enthusiastic; and very encouraging.”

Often, he’d hear comments like: “This is what we’ve needed a long time ago; it’s nice to see our own people offering the same kind of services that are being offered abroad.”

“And that gives you great encouragement; it’s nice to hear that from your own,” Singh said.

But this doesn’t mean that the foreigners are indifferent. Far from it, he says, “they compliment you tremendously,” and are particularly ecstatic about the way the store is designed and his choice of colour for the decor.

They would often leave him little notes complimenting him on not only this, but the quality service provided by his airport staff also.

He runs his own training programmes, “once every couple months,” on such things as how to hold a product; how to present a product; and how to speak to customers.

Also big on courtesy and presentation, Singh says “the way your staff is turned out has to be impeccable,” and this has to do not only with the way they dress, but also how they keep their hair and nails.

Of vital importance, too, is that staff should not only know their products but the tastes of their customers as well; what would appeal to one age group as opposed to the other, especially when coming to fragrances and cosmetics.

For more in-depth training, especially in the line of cosmetics, there are overseas programmes run by the various fashions houses like Versace, Givenchy, or Elizabeth Arden which both he and staff attend from time to time.

While on the subject of fragrances and preferences, Singh noted that there is the perception abroad that the only good fragrances are those made in France.

This is not necessarily so, he said. There are American fragrances that are equally as good as any of their French counterparts and are widely advertised by all the big departments stores like Burdines and Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s and the lot.

Names that readily come to mind in the line of American fragrances are Calvin Klein; Tommy Hilfiger; Bob Mackie (who’s been around for ages); Geoffrey Beene; Donna Karan; Perry Ellis; Ralph Lauren; the Canadian, Alfred Sung; and young Marc Jacobs.

“What I would like our public to know,” says Singh, “is that with fragrances, whether made in the US or France, there is no superior. They all have to be of a certain standard of make.”

Likewise, he said, you don’t just like or don’t like a fragrance; it goes with your body chemistry; each fragrance has certain notes…

It also has to do with the time of day, with stronger fragrances reserved for during the day and afternoons when the body creates more heat, and the subtler ones for the evenings when it’s much cooler and the body temperature much lower. Most afternoon fragrances, he said, “tend to be somewhat citrus-y or woody.”

Asked about the practicability of investing in such a venture given the stiff competition he is no doubt up against from other regional destinations such as Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and Antigua, just to mention a few, Singh says statistics have shown that six per cent of Trinidad’s total duty-free sales is from Guyanese.

“Now I don’t see why we can’t capture four or five out of that six per cent of our own people to buy from our own country,” he said.

The prognosis is good; he sees outbound traffic at the CBJ increasing by between three to five per cent over the next five years, in spite of September 11 and the slump in the airline industry.

This is according to figures compiled by the Civil Aviation Department (CAD) which show an estimated 156,000 out-going passengers passed through the CBJ in the last year.

But isn’t he a tad overly optimistic in his projections?

He doesn’t think so.

With the US economy on the rebound, he says, “a lot of positiveness is coming out of the United States in terms of what the government is inspiring in its people; and that is optimism.”

No doubt, he says, this will have the usual trickle-down effect on the Caribbean which is greatly influenced by whatever happens in the US, and the rest of the world to a certain extent.

Additionally, Guyana has been making some very interesting overtures which have been bringing potential investors here by the droves, in spite of September 11, to see what there is on offer in terms of our rice, gold, bauxite and other industries.

He also pointed to the government’s renewed efforts at reviving the CGX deal as being another good prospect for investment.

Singh says that while Guyana’s not having the influx of tourists as the other regional destinations might put him at a slight disadvantage, he makes up for it in pricing.

“Our advantage… is that our prices are very competitive compared with those other islands…we have been commended by many travellers for having not only good pricing but fantastic service,” he said.

Though there are any number of factors that could influence pricing - such as freight costs, overheads like rental and salaries; the length of time you’ve been dealing with a particular company; the volume of goods that you buy, Singh said: “We try to keep it well within the means of the customer.

“We try to maintain that offering so that we’ll always have repeat customers. If your service is good; your price is good; they will be back.”

Business to date has not been too bad, though they fell short of their projections by approximately 20 - 25 per cent. But this invariably happens with new ventures.

Among his regular customers are Americans, Canadians, Chinese, Germans, Malaysians and Guyanese. These days, however, for some unexplained reason, he’s been having a lot of customers from Trinidad, Barbados and even Suriname.

And the future?

He’d sure like to get his hands on a spot in the proposed in-bound duty free area which is expected to come on stream sometime around August to September with the planned refurbishing of the airport.

But that will all depend on who gets the franchise as these things are usually subject to tendering.

Meantime, he has a concession to service the Guyana/Suriname border which he will be working on, in conjunction with the other concessionaires, over the ensuing months.

If all goes well, he hopes that this could be up and running by year-end.