As the Metro Rail project chugs along Anna Salai, sales figures drop at iconic showrooms and small shops. Prince Frederick hits the chaotic route to get the details

The tall glass windows at the Digiworld showroom on Anna Salai make for a bewitching display of technology. Walk-ins contribute handsomely to the sale of consumer electronic goods at this retail outlet. However, at present, the window display does not serve its purpose. It has been rendered redundant by the Chennai Metro Rail partition boards that have come up smack in front of the showroom.

Besides blocking the front view of the store, the high metal sheets have gobbled up the service lane and eaten into the footpath. Showroom manager V.B. Vinod points to the constricted space outside and asks rhetorically, “Can you see anyone walking by, let alone anyone standing there and gazing at our products?” The inside of the showroom also wears a deserted look. “Ever since the partition boards were erected, walk-ins have dropped by 80 per cent. To give you a picture, we are half way through the month and we have met only two-tenths of our target. Remember, it is summer — a time when the demand for ACs soars with the mercury,” says Vinod. “We are told the boards will go in a few weeks and we are waiting for this to happen.”

Digiworld is not alone in its misery. Business at long-standing and iconic showrooms — Higginbothams, Roshanlals and Poompuhar among them — and small-time retail units has been hit by varying degrees. Given the traffic diversion and blockages at various points, almost all retail outlets on this stretch — even the ones that don't have boards staring at them — have registered changes in their sales figures.

Proprietor of the famous saree showroom Roshanlals, Ajay Khanna admits to a sharp drop in business. He believes the days ahead will be a test of patience and endurance. “The boards will move to a different section alright, but Anna Salai will never be the same again. The changes will continue to haunt traders in the area,” says Ajay. “We have to see if we can wait for the next three years, when the project will be on. If business hits the nadir or if the project is delayed, then we'll have to consider moving out. In the days to come, we'll be happy if we break even — that will give us a reason to hold on.”

Given that the vast chunk of its business comes from institutions, Higginbothams does not report a major slide in sales. But a look at its Sunday sale points to a significant drop in footfalls. “It's that time of the year when institutions place bulk orders with us. When they visit us, we arrange for the parking of their vehicles in the building of the Associated Printers (next to Higginbothams), which is our sister concern. On Sundays, huge numbers of book lovers visit the showroom. As the parking space in the front is lost, they keep away and our Sunday sale is almost wiped out,” says Hemalatha, senior manager, Higginbothams.

Further away, the Poompuhar Sales Showroom — popular for its traditional craft items — also contends with the problem of parking. It has lost a significant portion of its parking space to the project and visitors find their cars locked when they park them nearby. As a result, visits of its regular customers have reduced. Insiders believe increasing the number of discount sales may be a solution.

Pedestrian woes

Kamaraj, driver of 87-year-old C.R. Saraswathi — a medical doctor and an avid collector of metal crafts — says he dissuades her from visiting the Poompuhar showroom because of the parking problem. “An exhibition sale is on, madam did not want to miss it and we are here.” Another regular — R. Visalam from Raja Annamalaipuram, who takes a bus — now shies away from visiting the showroom because “the new walkway is not pedestrian-friendly”.

Ajay explains, “The Metro rail project is a boon and the best solution for traffic congestion in a metro. We welcome it, but we are disappointed with a few things. A provision for parking for showrooms that lie in the project's path and efforts to make them more visible through special boards could have partly solved our problem. Information about traffic diversions — sparked by the metro rail project — is given to the media, which promptly publishes it. In addition, the players in the project can give these newspapers a pictorial fact file on how to get to these stores.”

Ajay has one more request, a major one. He voices the collective plea of the traders affected by the project: “Speed up, please! The project is supposed to take three years. Can't they find ways to finish it much ahead of the deadline. For some of us, three years is a long time to wait. And if there is a delay, we will be hit by the worst.” As one trader puts it, “when the trains finally come, the stretch would have lost some of its famous showrooms.”

Dipping Figures

The reputation of big and long-time retail outlets draws people to their doors, despite the CMRL partition boards. In contrast, small retail outlets and snack bars on Anna Salai find it harder to rise above this problem of access. They thrive hugely on visits by members of a floating population.

In the last few weeks, Harrison Book Store, which sells educational books and is located on the same stretch as Higginbothams, has done little business. Says owner Nagarajan, “Fifty per cent of my income is gone, and I am already looking at ways to reduce costs at home. I can't shift my business to another area, because half of my sale is from regular buyers of technical books.”

The script of Manikandan's misfortune runs along similar lines. He runs a petty coffee-and-snack shop at the Vallal P.T. Lee Chengalvarayan Naickar Maligai. One half of his business comes from people working at the offices in this building and an adjacent one. Passers-by make the other half. The boards have now come between Manikandan and his chance customers.

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Prince FrederickMay 11, 2012