It's Time for Our Retailers to Face the Facts
As inevitable as Benjamin Franklin's dictum on death and taxation, and as predictable as the Levanter - though, fortunately, less frequent - the "patriotic" appeals for us to buy locally and spend less in Spain continue to be trundled out by representatives of Gibraltar's rival business and commercial organisations. Competitors across the border are a growing threat to the Rock's retailers, they regularly warn.
In fact, the complaint that many of the Rock's residents choose to spend their cash across the frontier is one of the few topics on which the Chamber of Commerce and the Gibraltar Federation of Small Businesses speak with a single voice. But there's an element of hypocrisy to their grumblings, for several of their elected representatives reside in Spain and, presumably, spend a significant portion of the income which they earn in Gibraltar on Spanish rates and, possibly, taxes as well as - dare one whisper it! - in the Carefours and Hypercors of the Campo.
SHOPPING BINGE TO JEREZ
Instead of whingeing, isn't it time that the boards of the Chamber and the GFSB asked themselves and their members WHY Gibraltarians cross the border in their droves to fill their monthly shopping baskets; or WHY, as was recently the case, a local firm arranged a group spending spree in which 15 busloads of Gibraltar women took their purses to Jerez on a shopping binge at a newly opened clothing hypermarket.
A few years ago - soon after the introduction of the Euro and when the then newfangled common currency was still weak in relation to sterling - the widely accepted explanation that the pound translated into Euros bought more across the border, made a certain amount of economic sense...and was a good argument to paper over the fact that although Gibraltar paid no VAT, food and clothing was more expensive here than in Spain where a lot of the items on our shelves originated.
But the Euro has strengthened against sterling and still Gibraltarians change their pounds at the lower rate and continue to spend in Spain...WHY? Yes, it is still partly because goods are cheaper - and, at the lower end of the market, often of better quality. And there is often a far wider choice - though here Gibraltar's relatively small market is the culprit rather than the local retailers or suppliers. However, probably one of the most telling factors (and probably an unpalatable home truth for many on Main Street) is that Spanish retailers and their sales staffs seem to care about their customers and are anxious to help; while for many of those behind our counters, the arrival of a customer seeking service or - God forbid! - help is an unwelcome interruption of the conversation which they are having with their colleagues or on their mobile phones.
And there's the paradox, for many of the sales staff are Spanish, or appear to be, with little or no grasp of English. And while this may not trouble the average local resident who is comfortable with his or her llanito, it must baffle the non-Spanish visitor, the tourists on whom almost a third of our economy still depends.
Some years ago a leading Main Street retailer suggested that employers should encourage their Spanish-speaking staff to learn at least some basic English. There even might be some sort of financial incentive, he suggested, on a GBC television debate - but, as with so many good ideas - nothing came of it. Perhaps our two business bodies could revisit the suggestion ... and move towards making Gibraltar's a competitive shopping experience.