Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bahamas: A straw market filled with handmade crafts 'long gone'

A straw market filled with handmade crafts 'long gone'
Chief Reporter

We are a modern culture fixated on immediate gratification, cheap fast food, drive through windows, and instant downloads. To keep up with the insatiable demand from consumers and ensure their bottom lines, some manufacturers throw away commitments to quality and hand crafting like relics of the past.

Complicit consumers, who want cheap goods without paying the true cost of materials and labour, fuel this practice.

This is the dilemma facing straw vendors who are set to take up residence in a new multi-million dollar market next year.

A fire destroyed the previous structure in September 2001 and a contract for the construction of a new market was signed between Cavalier Construction and the government in December of last year. The building carries a $11.2 million price tag and has a 78- week completion timeline.

The design of the 34,000-square foot straw market as "practical" and will include an enclosed mezzanine level of approximately 4,500 square feet. An elevator (to the south section only) will service the air-conditioned mezzanine, and there will be space to accommodate children's activities after school.

The structure will house 442 regular vendors with sale booths, 31 demonstration booths for the creation and sale of crafts, 14 carvers' booths in an outdoor market area and provision for food vendors along the waterfront.

The thing is though, the government may be constructing this impressive structure to house sellers offering illegal knock-offs of designer items at attractive prices -- rather than the traditional straw items for which the market initially became famous.

Cracking down on vendors who sell these knock-off items may put the government in a bit of a moral dilemma, however. Licensing fees are to this day collected from brick and mortar businesses that make their profits selling illegally duplicated DVDs and CDs.

The uncomfortable truth of the matter is, the days of a straw market filled with handmade items crafted by skilled artisans are long gone. The sale of mass manufactured goods and highly coveted "replica" designer products has for many years made the production and sale of straw work nearly obsolete.

Former Senator and President of the Straw Vendors Association Telator Strachan, in a recent interview with Tribune reporter Alesha Cadet said that there is not a high enough demand for authentic Bahamian souvenirs to support the production cost of straw market vendors.

This lack of demand for locally produced goods leads Bahamians to spend almost $300 million per year importing handicraft items to sell to tourists.

The majority of the items in the market are purchased wholesale from an international distributor like the American Gift Corporation -- their stamp "agiftcorp" can be found printed at the bottom of some souvenirs.

The company produces souvenirs with customizable names and locations, and boasts it is "America's leading source for souvenir giftware since 1925."

The company is very familiar with the Nassau Straw Market and a sales representative said the company gets "loads of clients" from there.

First-time orders to AGC have to be a minimum of $500 and re-order a minimum of $300 - there is a two dozen minimum on individual items.

Vendors generally remove all signs of foreign manufacture but sometimes they overlook some items and the sticker or tag can be plainly read "Made in China."

Overcrowding in the Straw Market has increased competition among vendors, leaving the entrepreneurs desperate to ensure their ability to make a profit. Changing tastes and the drastic increase in the number of visitors to New Providence over the past 50 years or so has also had its affect on the practicability of producing straw items.

"Up to now we've always done native straw work, but over the years it has evolved into selling other bags and other things. We must remember that there were not that many straw vendors and not that many tourists travelling into the Bahamas, so we were able to sell native items.

"As time went on we had to diverse to other items, the local native items were not sufficient for the tourist, they wanted other items. The tourist would complain that the straw hats were scratchy, that is why we had to cut back on selling straw hats," Ms Strachan said.

This doesn't mean that there are no persons in the market creating and selling locally manufactured items. As Mrs Strachan points out there are still a number of persons still selling straw bags, but like anything else when you overcrowd any space "you tend not to notice."

Same goes for solid wood statues - vendors purchase from the wood carvers that surround the outskirts of the market to put in their stalls. Most beaded jewellery is made locally as vendors purchase the materials (line, various beads, clasps) in bulk.

A few vendors also produce some jewellery and then sell over other vendors.

"People don't see the whole picture; they only see the knock off bags. The local straw bags that were made years ago are still being made, it's still straw, the straw is what makes it authentic," she said.

Cash remains king, however and Straw Market vendors are often challenged by the fact that quality straw bags are too costly to produce.

Mrs Strachan, who has represented the market's vendors association as president for 55 years, lamented "nothing remains the same, overtime everything changes."

"It is expensive to make the straw bags," Ms Strachan said, "I do not know how lucrative it is going to be for them because you have to spend so much and you don't make any profit.

"Once you could have harvested the straw at a reasonable price, then people would be able to make these items and sell them at a reasonable price," she said.

As the new market is being constructed, with a Spring 2011 opening anticipated, the rules of engagement between the vendors and their landlords may change.

The Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation's (BAIC) had introduced a one-month training programme to teach interested Bahamians how to produce the items locally for distribution to visitors.

The corporation's executive chairman Edison Key said that in light of the massive import bill, incurred by persons bringing in souvenirs the training was part of a bigger plan to empower Bahamians and create employment.

He added that more than 1,000 people have graduated from the programme so far, and there are many more interested individuals.

Mr Key said when the production side of handicraft manufacturing takes off in a "big way", the Government will have to make changes and policy supporting local manufacturers.

"If we can train 10,000, it would go a long way to stem some of the imports of souvenir items that amount to around $300 million," he said.

He added that even if the Government could reduce that import figure by 50 per cent it could create a lot of employment for Bahamians. "People could be self-employed right away," said Mr Key.

The Bahamas has vexed a number of international organizations over its seeming lack of interest in prosecuting or at least shutting down persons who violate the intellectual property rights (IPR) or copyright violators.

The office of the United States trade representative, which among other things reviews IPR practices as part of its bi-annual review of the operation of the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act, is continuing to evaluate the IPR of beneficiaries, including The Bahamas, to assess compliance with the preference programme's eligibility criteria, which include the extent to which a country prohibits its nationals from broadcasting US copyrighted materials without permission.

And as mentioned before there are more stores selling bootleg DVDs than legitimate ones. The same goes for luxury goods like cigars. There is a proliferation of "fake" Cuban cigar vendors who outnumber sellers who peddle the legitimate products.

The legal issues surrounding knock-off designer items are a little complicated. Companies or individuals who produce the fake products circumvent IPR and copyright law by changing just enough not to be a direct copy. What makes it illegal is attempting to make an exact copy and passing it off as the item it is meant to be imitating.

For example an imitation Gucci purse that copies the shape and print of the original may not be illegal but one that also includes the Gucci trade mark is.

Knock-offs also sell for far below the price of the original.

An investigation conducted by Tribune Reporter Ava Turnquest revealed that most of the "replica" items sold in the Straw Market range from $30 up to $120 depending on their size.

It is rare for any bag, regardless of the brand, to be over $100 in the market and vendors often lower the price even further to bait sceptical customers.

She found that in nearly every stall that sold knock-offs the top four brands were: Coach, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Juicy Couture.

One can buy a large shoulder bags with the classic interlocking GG motif for $95 when the original sells on the company's website for $2,099. Totes or smaller bags with the same print average around $600.

The ironic thing about it a few blocks away John Bull sells the original product.

Juicy Couture's velour and terry handbags are the most popular by this brand in the straw Market featuring the brand's iconic crown emblem pink and brown print.

Mrs Strachan, who has spent 55 years in the market points out that things are in a constant state of flux and in order to make a good living the vendors have to keep up with the times. "Nothing remains the same, overtime everything changes," she said. "We have to sell what we can make a small profit on."

June 07, 2010