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Toughing out the recession

Published:Sunday | March 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Sharon Lowe is seen here in November 2005 matching fabrics for drapes.
Interior decorator Sharon Lowe at work. - File

Avia Collinder, Business Reporter

Sharon Lowe has operated an interior decoration business for eight years. For a time, business was good, but then 2008 happened. Jamaica was in full-blown recession.

Before that, the investment schemes that were paying out very attractive returns - providing many Jamaicans with money to burn - began to wobble, then topple.

When the monies were flowing, Jamaicans bought cars and houses. And those who bought or built homes needed the services of decorators and the products they sold.

But then Cash Plus crashed. Other schemes would follow.

Lowe's business, Sharon's Interior Décor, started to suffer and then the inevitable: she had to downsize. But, it also forced her to seek new opportunities.

Over the past two years, she has cut staff, gone back to school to learn new skills, and has also teamed up with other decorators, sharing jobs and income.

Now involved in event decoration, floral arrangements and wedding planning, she also found work for house painters, mural painters and other tradesmen in the decorating field, charging a finder's fee for doing so.

It was in October 2008, she said, that things began to slow down, when Jamaicans had started to feel the effects of a financial crisis that began on Wall Street, but whose aftershocks shook the world.

"It was coming on to Christmas and I found that many of my clients who would be preparing for Christmas were not able to or had no interest in doing so," Lowe told Sunday Business.

The time since then has been a 'tamarind season' for the businesswoman whose home-decorating services were provided in Kingston.

"I had a constant flow of clients who wanted to redo their homes, with many wanting new drapes. There were also returning residents coming back home and expatriates wanting a beautiful look for their homes. In the earlier part of 2008 I had as many as six to eight new clients each month," said Lowe.

She entered the field of interior decorating accidentally, she says, but soon it was to become an income earner great enough to meet her financial needs, with enough left over for savings.

First involved in fashion designing as a career, she left this field behind for sales after relocating from Montego Bay to live in St Andrew in 1997.

A graduate of the Roseanne School of Fashion in Montego Bay, she considered it easier to sell for established companies in Kingston and St Andrew than to make a name for herself in clothing.

But, one Christmas, soon after arriving in St Andrew, Lowe recalls, she needed some extra cash and, flipping through a JC Penny's catalogue, she saw bathroom sets, which she knew she could easily do.

"I did a few and photographed them, creating a portfolio, which I took to banks and businessplaces. People placed orders. They went like hot bread."

The rest, she said, was history. Between 2001 and 2003, she attended the Garmex Heart Academy, completing drapery and interior decorating programmes.

Later, as a full-blown decorator, the average job for Lowe involved colour and design consultations, painting walls, drapery construction and installations and making floor plans.

In 2008, she said, "we were also breaking into wall techniques, with marble finishes and other effects. That was really taking off."

Drapery at this time was also doing well, with one panel selling easily for $1,500. "An ordinary window took five panels and the average house had 10 to 15 windows. Most of my income was from drapes."

Lowe was also involved with hotels on a major scale, receiving 20 per cent of her annual income from this source of demand for comforters and drapes.

But, the recession hit in December 2008.

"Usually, for me, the Christmas season starts from October with LP Azar's big sale. At that time, there is additional work, with lots of subcontracting." But, as Christmas came, instead of taking on more help, Lowe was forced to cut workers, a measure which grew in 2009 to 80 per cent of her contracted staff.

In that December, sales fell to less than 50 per cent of what it had been the year before. Workers cut included machine operators and hand workers. Painters and upholsterers who were subcontractors did not meet the same fate, as demand in their area was more resilient.

"I went out and sourced work for upholstering, paint jobs and murals and charged a finder's fee. It was another survival strategy. It was a $10,000 here and another there. It was all about surviving," she said.

"It was like being in the army and getting a surprise attack. I had to retreat and restrategise."

In the first quarter of 2009, Lowe vacated rented property used for production after the rent was raised for the third time in a 12-month period. She closed down operations on Red Hills Boulevard and moved production to home on Cunningham Avenue.

The decorator also had to cut back on the charge for each panel of drapery, making deep discounts especially for the hotels.

"If you were planning to do a job and charging $1,500 per panel, often after delivering the proposal it would drop to $500 per panel. I had to because there were other proposals at that price. I had to do that in order to maintain contracts."

Change in the economy

She admits that at first she "eased off the hotel projects" as "$500 was something I would never work for", but as the year progressed with little change in the economy, she took the money and teamed up with other decorators as well to complete large contracts.

"We share. We now do not turn down any job. We take it and we work together. A lot of subcontracting went on in 2009."

According to Lowe, while there were some companies which did not want to share, "some of my competitors decided to pool with me and get the job done. It was about surviving. Everyone got some money". And, while the cost of materials increased, she was able to pass this on to clients who, as a rule, paid for material costs and would decide what price fabrics to use.

"People were looking for cheaper fabric. They cut back. They were also looking for less elaborate designs."

Lowe states, "clients were actually telling you how much they were willing to pay and you had to take it or leave it because there was always someone willing to do it for less."

The decorator claims that there are about 12 big interior decorators in Kingston and 20 nationwide. She says none have wound up their businesses, but some have closed shops and scaled down operations, while others have moved to cheaper locations, as cost-saving measures.

Lowe said she had to drop labour charges on projects, working instead with the client's budget.

"You were not able to take a stand on costs, because if you did, you would lose. At the same time, you still need to be building your clientele. When all of this is over, you will need them."

The decorator is optimistic that her trade will see a recovery in time.

"Jamaicans no longer decorate just at Christmas. There are many gated communities with occupants who are constantly choosing colours, furnishings and hanging drapes."