In his dimly lit saree showroom on Kanchipuram's famous Gandhi Road, S Palani sits idle. It has easily been three weeks since he's had more than three customers per day. So, it's understandable that lights are off when his store is empty. Despite Tamil Nadu's Ayudha Pooja festival falling on Monday, Palani's store sees no customers through most of the day.
"We used to average Rs 2 lakh per day in revenues, but today we're only accounting for about Rs 2,000 worth of business every day," Palani, the proprietor of Sri Krishna Sarees says, "We can only hope that things improve from here."
Palani isn't alone. The familiar buzz of Kanchipuram's Gandhi Road has gone away. The scores of saree showrooms that line its busy sidewalks have seen owners sit on their porches while having a dull day. Dull days come by quite often, these days.
It's a well-known fact that one of the best indicators of festive sentiment is just how many customers end up shopping for clothes every Dusshera or Diwali. This year, an economy in the doldrums has meant that the market for Kanjeevaram silk — a festive staple in South India — is seeing a sharp decline. Kanchipuram’s empty showrooms are a sign of worrying times for the business.
Retailers see 60-70 percent losses
"Our middle-class customers are affected the most by the pandemic, since it is this audience depends on daily business and salaries," says Meenakshi Sundaram, whose store, Murugan Silks, is just across the road from that of Palani's.
"For four months, there was no activity," Sundaram adds, "For the last two months, lockdown measures have eased, but it’s not enough to expect people to get back to buying sarees. We’ve endured losses of between 60 and a little over 70 percent from March till date."
If tepid demand, due to the economic decline, is one reason for poor sales of Kanjeevaram silk, a breakdown in the supply chain has exacerbated the situation. Moreover, the steep rise in gold prices during the lockdown months — gold is used by silk weavers to make the zari or the border of silk sarees — has hampered procurement of raw material for the cash-strapped saree-weaving business.
Zero wedding sales add to retailers' woes
While COVID-19 has made wallets smaller, the bigger problem is to do with a near-washout of the wedding season. On average, big weddings see the bride and groom buy sarees for family and close friends. With wedding halls shut, and marriages solemnised in temples, big-ticket spending on this front has halted.
"Our business is down 70 percent. Customers who used to buy 20 to 30 sarees in one go, are buying only a saree or two," says B Shankar who runs MGM Silks. "Buyers usually buy 50 sarees as gifts during weddings but thanks to COVID-19, they are cutting corners and buying two or three sarees instead," he adds.
'No recovery until Pongal'
A few months ago, the hope was that the COVID-19 crisis would blow over in time for the festive season, which generally sees the bulk of sales for the year. Or that the hiatus in consumption would see an end in time for the festivities. With the festive season now well and truly set in, retailers in Kanchipuram have let go of those hopes.
“We are expecting sluggish sales till Diwali and Pongal, but there is a possibility of consumption picking up once the festive season has ended,” says D Sampath, proprietor of DM Silks, “We have not halted production and have set targets keeping a recovery in mind. There is potential for business to go from 20 percent to about 50 percent of pre-Corona revenues in the next two months.”
The writing is on the wall. Retailers in Kanchipuram aren’t expecting the Diwali or Pooja festivities this year to draw in any noticeable spike in sales. But right about now, even a small recovery is good news for the silk hub.