Fewer Hongkongers out for last-minute shopping on Christmas Eve, with uncertainty over protests

Kathleen Magramo

Fewer Hongkongers are thronging stores for some last-minute festive shopping this Christmas Eve, with retailers expecting a drop in sales as the months-long protests cast a pall over the city.

One of those who still rushed out for a purchase was a mother who only gave her name as Kiki. The advertising executive spent just under HK$1,200 (US$154) on gifts for her two sons and their cousins at Harbour City mall in Tsim Sha Tsui.

“I only had time this morning to go shopping because it’s my day off and this is the closest toy store for me,” she said, referring to the Toys “R” Us outlet there.

“The toys are quite expensive, which is why our family chose to cook our Christmas dinner at home instead of going out for a hotel buffet like we usually do,” Kiki said. “The safety of our kids is also important. You never know when there’s a protest on the street or inside a shopping mall.”

Police will not close roads for festive celebrations in Kowloon, with possible illegal rally

For protesters, there was uncertainty over what action they should take, as a march planned in Tsim Sha Tsui was cancelled, but some had vowed online to press on.

In the past two weeks, anti-government demonstrators have staged citywide protests in major shopping malls, leading to clashes with police and those who did not support their cause. Scuffles and violence had erupted at Harbour City and other places such as New Town Plaza in Sha Tin and Telford Plaza in Kowloon Bay.

The movement, into its seventh month, was sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill but morphed into a wider campaign against the government and police.

Retailers are expecting a drop in sales, as their businesses take a hammering from the protests. Photo: May Tse

Across Victoria Harbour in Central, Fred Wan, an IT worker in his 30s, was off work around lunchtime. He spent more than HK$2,000 on family gifts such as jumpers, small gadgets and wine.

“It was difficult to meet up with friends because we never knew what would happen after work hours or on the weekends,” he said. “There are many discounts at stores but not many mainland tourist shoppers compared with previously.”

For younger consumers, the focus was on food instead of gifts. First-year university student Gloria Wong budgeted HK$1,000 to dine out with friends and family over the Christmas holidays.

“I didn’t buy any gifts for my family this year. I think it’s more important to spend time with your loved ones,” she said while on Nathan Road in Jordan with two friends.

Shops are offering Christmas discounts but fewer are taking the bait. Photo: May Tse

In Mong Kok a flashpoint for clashes between radicals and police, those who were out shopping included 17-year-old Form Six student Annette, who spent about HK$200 on chocolates and make-up for friends.

“I just like to look around in the shops and eat street food along the way,” she said on Sai Yeung Choi Street South. “I’m having Christmas Eve dinner out in Mong Kok, but I’ll try to get home by 10pm.”

A vendor selling luxury brand knock-off T-shirts at the iconic Ladies’ Market, who only gave her surname as Lee, said she would stay open late into the night for any last-minute shoppers or tourists.

She estimated that sales had dropped at least 40 per cent in the fourth quarter year on year.

In recent months, Lee had to close her stall as early as 8pm instead of past midnight, after the MTR Corporation cut train services amid violent protest clashes in the area. The rail giant has however resumed regular hours and trains will run overnight on Christmas Eve.

“In the past, many teenagers would come in early December to buy these trendy shirts for their friends as Christmas gifts. Locals and foreigners would spend about HK$200 on each purchase, while mainland customers spend more than double that because they buy more pieces,” said Lee, who has been operating her business for 27 years.

Back in Tsim Sha Tsui and along Haiphong Road, which is usually loud and crowded with mainland tourists dragging luggage brimming with shopping hauls, only a handful of customers were seen at outlets around noon.

At a store along the stretch, a salesman who only wanted to be known as Tim said his store “has been almost empty every day since mainland tourists stopped coming to Hong Kong in early October”.

Panu Phumbatim, 42, an engineer from Thailand who often travels to Hong Kong with his family during Christmas, said it was difficult to make plans as they did not know when protests would break out. He said the streets were quiet and less festive compared to his last visit in 2015.

“Last Sunday, we were shopping in Harbour City mall when a man started waving the Chinese flag and people began yelling,” he recalled, “The shops started to close and we hid inside a luxury boutique.”

For Phumbatim, coming to Hong Kong this year was a last-minute decision because hotel rates in Tsim Sha Tsui were almost at half price. He intends to bring his children to shop for shoes in Mong Kok, but will avoid Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong Island because of possible protests in the evening.

Hong Kong is in a recession under the double whammy of the US-China trade war and the ongoing protests, with the government expecting the full-year gross domestic product to shrink by 1.3 per cent from 2018.

This article Fewer Hongkongers out for last-minute shopping on Christmas Eve, with uncertainty over protests first appeared on South China Morning Post

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