Cheap imports drive Mombasa’s oldest retailer out of business

Tuesday May 9 2017

Customers shop for clothes at the Lightex Limited shop in Mombasa. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NMG

Customers shop for clothes at the Lightex Limited shop in Mombasa. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NMG  

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One of Mombasa’s oldest business is set to close shop after nearly a decade trying to stay afloat as hard economic times took a toll on its bottom line.

Lightex Limited, a clothes and children accessories retail outlet that has been in existence for 45 years will shut down at the end of this month.

The management said it has been difficult to operate due to dwindling returns, competition from used clothes (mitumba) and high taxation from the county government.

But perhaps the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back is invasion of Somali businessmen who have not only being undercutting the established retailer, but mitumba dealers as well.

Lightex purchasing manager Mitul Anil Shah said the going has been particularly hard in the last six years as dead stock continued to mount,and it is easy to see why.

The company had been enjoying near monopoly for a long time. Then Somali businessmen started operating at Marikiti in the 1990’s with cheaper imports.

A pair of jeans trousers for women at Marikiti goes for around Sh800. The same would cost Sh2,000 at Lightex. Used jeans are sold between Sh200 to Sh1,000 at Kongowea Market.

Kongowea is the largest market at the Coast where trader’s deal in second hand clothes and other merchandise.

Asha Juma, a resident argued that the retailer priced itself out of the market and therefore only has itself to blame for the change in fortunes.

“Some clothes you find at some outlets in the country can be found at Marikiti, in fact at a very fair price. I love clothes sold at Marikiti because they are cheap. Mitumba clothes are also durable,” said Ms Juma.

But Mr Shah was quick to defend the brand, pointing out that Lightex clothes are unique, hence the justification for the higher price tag.

“We have our own variety of imported clothes. We don’t bring what they have. We got specific brands. Lightex clients knew what they were getting from us and that is why they preferred us and were loyal all through the years,” he said.

The company, which is owned by four brothers, imports clothes from Bangkok and India although some are locally made.

He, however, admitted that their business strategy also played part in ultimately leading the firm towards closure, saying it is difficult to sell one type of product and manage to stay afloat.

Lightex’s 45 workers have been referred to another company with some being retained to manage another infant kits outlet, Lightways, also owned by the brothers, which will continue operating. 

The brothers started the company as a small shop on Digo Road and years later they opened Lightways then Lightex.

Speaking to Smart Company at the outlet, Mr Shah partly blamed the rise of second hand clothes, which he said poses a threat to other firms dealing in new products.

As smart company was conducting interviews, shoppers walked in droves not to shop, but to confirm whether it was really shutting down.

Growing up in the county, most wealthy parents used to buy Christmas, New Year, Ramadhan and Birthday clothes from the outlet.

“They are coming in large numbers asking whether we are sure we are shutting down and not clearing stock. It has been a shock to most shoppers. We had more than 40,000 loyal shoppers from the region some who are now great-grandmothers,” said Mr Shah.

He said due to the August 8 general elections uncertainty most businessmen are wary of bringing in stock.

He added: “ To our customers, we thank you for your continued support, but time is up for us. We will rent out this building.”

The firm is now selling the remaining stock at 30 per cent discount.

Mr Shah said a week to the due date they might sell the remaining merchandise at 50 per cent discount “so that we don’t stay with dead stock.”

The owners, Mr Shah said, plan to rent out the building.

A directive by President Kenyatta to have firms operating in EPZ to offload 40 per cent of their stock locally, will further complicate matters for companies such as Lightex.