Coping with rising prices — II

Sarah Elhosary , Tuesday 16 Jan 2024

Sarah Elhosary reports on rising prices in Egypt’s clothing industry and their effects on manufacturers, dealers, and customers in the second of two articles

Al-bala clothing


The clothing sector in Egypt is facing a recession due to the rise in the price of the dollar that has been driving up the costs of threads, fabrics, and production necessities. The pressure has forced manufacturers, traders, and consumers to find ways to decrease what they spend on clothes.

“Sales of clothing retreated by around 60 per cent over the course of the year, after prices increased by more than 50 per cent. The rise in the prices of clothing can be attributed to increases in the cost of all industry inputs, as production materials are imported from abroad,” said Khaled Hassanein, head of the Clothing Division at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

“The rise in the prices of imported raw materials has forced an increased reliance on local resources, driving a shift in strategy towards local manufacturing of production basics rather than imports,” he added.

“Besides existing factories for producing clothing essentials such as buttons and zips in Obour and 6 October city, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has also opened several spinning and textile factories, including those in Beheira and Obour. These efforts have resulted in the production of Egyptian alternatives at 40 per cent less than imported goods.”

“The establishment of the new factories and the growing reliance on local products, though not fully meeting the market’s needs, may lead to self-sufficiency in a few years. However, the current difficulties remain, with manufacturers forced to buy the dollar on the black market at LE55 due to the scarcity of dollars at the official rate.”

Walid Abul-Ela, the owner of a clothing factory in Obour, said that “at the beginning of last year I purchased materials for LE20 per dollar. However, now I have to acquire the dollar for more than LE53 just to pay for imported raw materials. I hope the state will provide dollars to registered manufacturers, which would enormously lower prices for consumers.”

 “Over the last year, I have made various changes to deal with falling sales. I began by cutting output and then decreased my profit margin by approximately 30 per cent to encourage sales because the price of finished products had grown by 100 per cent. I also promoted more efficient designs that reduce waste and the overuse of materials. This lowered costs by around 20 per cent.”

However, despite these measures, Abul-Ela continues to grapple with fixed costs. “I still have the rent, rising labour costs, and taxes to pay. All these factors impose an additional cost on each piece of clothing we produce. Consumers have also been affected by the increases in the prices of essential products, leading to another shift. The target demographic we used to cater for now finds our prices no longer within reach, prompting them to start purchasing their clothes from lower-priced markets instead.”

Heading to a nearby shop to buy a long-sleeve top for her daughter, Samar Said, the mother of two, decided to go to the Wekala Market instead. She found that the price of the garment was LE450. “This price is for a size suitable for a four-year-old, and one that she will outgrow by the coming winter. I will also have to buy a jacket at an extra cost for her to wear on top of it in the cold weather,” Said said.

She hoped to find the piece of clothing she was looking for at the Wekala Market for no more than LE60. “I used to go to the Wekala for additional clothes, but now it’s my first pick. Children’s clothing prices are especially high, to the point that I’ve contemplated switching careers from manufacturing and marketing handcrafted objects to tailoring and selling children’s clothes,” she said.

THE WEKALA: The Wekala Market sells what is commonly known as al-bala clothing, which includes used clothes from abroad, alongside returned clothes from global clothing brands. Although the returned clothes come at high prices, they are nothing like those charged in stores abroad.

The increases in the prices of new clothes have not only impacted consumers but also prompted clothes merchants to change to selling used clothes. Mohamed Abdel-Fattah, a clothing merchant in Mahalla Al-Kobra in the Delta, has changed his specialisation to buying and selling al-bala clothes by the kg, for example.

“I sold new clothes for four years, but for about a year now I have turned to selling al-bala clothes by the kg instead,” Abdel-Fattah said.

“Customers can browse in the shop, select the pieces they want, and then have them weighed. They can then purchase children’s clothes for LE750 per kg and adults’ clothes for an additional LE100. Selling by the kg is an encouraging idea for buyers, especially of children’s clothes as they are small and lightweight, allowing buyers to get more pieces than if they bought them separately.”

“The demand is significant. In addition to lower prices, al-bala clothes are made of good material and come from international brands known for distinctive designs and quality. Some people prefer to buy them even if they can afford to buy new clothes.

“However, people’s purchasing power for clothing has decreased. And they often see it as a luxury compared to other priorities such as food. There is also intense competition among merchants, making sales more challenging. If a merchant manages to acquire merchandise at a low price, he can reduce the retail price and sell it more quickly. Meanwhile, other merchants may find themselves stuck with their products, bearing ongoing costs for rent and labour without a steady return on sales,” Abdel-Fattah said.

“Most importantly, al-bala clothes come in tightly wrapped bundles weighing 50 kg. When opened, the merchant may discover that the merchandise consists of outdated styles or has defects or tears. It is crucial to purchase from a wholesale merchant with a good reputation to ensure that you receive a grade of clothing equivalent to the price paid.”

“In terms of quality and price, al-bala comes in a variety of grades, the highest of which is new clothes. This includes branded clothing with the tags still on it and comes from the UK and various European and Gulf countries. It is clothing that has remained unsold after the display period has expired,” said Um Basant, a wholesale merchant in the Qantara Gharb area of Port Said.

“Then, there are used clothes beginning with a grade called ‘super cream,’ the highest quality, and progressing as ‘cream,’ ‘one X cream,’ ‘one high,’ ‘one regular,’ and so on until you get to ‘al-bala grade two.’”

Um Basant inherited her clothes business from her mother and has been immersed in the field for over 20 years. Eight years ago, she transitioned to wholesale. “We negotiate with importers to procure al-bala, which arrives in containers of sizes varying from 11 and 26 to 36 tons. Skilled workers from China, Pakistan, and India meticulously sort and steam-clean the clothing, and then they wrap, compress, and categorise it for women, children, and men. Each stack of clothing weighs 50 kg, with the type of each piece indicated. I sell these sealed stacks on to retail merchants,” she explained.

“I offer ongoing discounts and promotions to accelerate the sale of clothes, enabling me to refresh my stock with new merchandise. However, sales have markedly declined this year. While I used to sell 10 stacks to retailers for LE70,000, now this price only covers two.”

“I’ve minimised my own profit margin as much as possible. If each person in the chain, starting from wholesalers down to retailers with just one stack of goods to sell, cannot attain a reasonable profit, they won’t acquire the goods and there won’t be any sales.”

On a street in the Wekala Market, Ahmed Tharwat sells al-bala clothes from his stand, explaining how he determines the profit from each piece.

“When I receive a wholesale batch of al-bala clothing, I must double the price to the customer, or else I incur losses. Not all clothing is of the same quality or attracts customer interest, so first I sort the pieces out and set a higher price for the more distinctive ones to compensate for the cost of the merchandise. Afterwards, I may lower the price of the remaining pieces to clear the goods and purchase new ones,” Tharwat said.

“The grade of each piece varies, and so does its customer. Some may pay LE1,000 for a piece of clothing, while others may buy a piece for LE20. Customers differ, and some actors and rich people visit me, willing to purchase new items but appreciating distinctive clothing. There are sometimes unique styles and renowned brands that fashion enthusiasts adore. On the other hand, bargain hunters may come to buy a simple piece of clothing — each customer has his or her preference at the Wekala.”

Every Friday, the display of new pieces begins, and besides regular customers, online marketers also arrive at the Wekala Market. The latter go around the shops looking for treasures that they can resell online at a profit.  

“From Thursday night until the end of Saturday, Internet sellers come and make deals with regular merchants, while others just enjoy exploring. Before Thursday, the sellers prepare hangers and deliver clothing to launderers so that it can be cleaned and ironed. After the peak period, we provide discounts on Sunday as interest declines. Sales also often drop during the holidays, particularly the Eid Al-Fitr, as everyone wants to experience the excitement of purchasing new clothes,” Tharwat said.

“The Wekala doesn’t only cater to those seeking ready-made clothes, as there are also people who come to purchase fabrics for bespoke tailoring, as the market boasts a variety of fabrics, especially evening wear materials,” said Afaf Riad, a seamstress in the Bab Al-Louq area of Cairo.

“For 40 years, I’ve been specialising in tailoring women’s clothing. My clients bring fabric from the Wekala, Al-Azhar, and Gesr Al-Suez Markets for me to tailor according to their preferences. In addition to the soaring prices of ready-made garments, fabric quality has sometimes diminished, prompting more individuals to opt for tailored clothing that offers superior quality at a lower cost than off-the-rack items,” Riad said.

 “But despite the growing trend towards customisation driven by the pursuit of quality, many clients still seek to reduce the cost of tailored clothes. They might purchase lower-quality fabric, for example, impacting the final design negatively.

“Recently, I collaborated with my niece to tailor winter tracksuits and sell them for additional profit. The tracksuits gained popularity, especially given the exaggerated prices of ready-made winter clothing,” Riad added.


RETAILING: “In addition to traditional stores and markets, there is now a flourishing online market for clothing in Egypt,” said Hagar Gharib, the founder of an Instagram page dedicated to designing and selling clothes.

“I embarked on this venture in 2021 with just three pieces of clothing. I designed and tailored them myself, showcased them online, and was surprised by the surge in purchase requests. The feedback I got encouraged me to delve deeper into the production and sale of clothing, and the page has since garnered 9,500 followers.”

Gharib attempted to address existing market needs for modest and plus-size clothing by providing them at a lower price than ready-made garments. In order to offer competitive prices, Gharib handles the design, material purchase, product photography, and online marketing herself, eliminating many labour and rental costs.

“I started with single-size clothing and later began incorporating various sizes after collaborating with a factory that could make the designs. I manage all the steps myself, with the assistance of my family. At first, my mother even helped me tailor the initial prototypes for the designs before they were sent to factories to be made up,” she said.

“After the clothes were manufactured, my sister and relatives helped me model the designs for photoshoots. Cost reductions across various production points have allowed me to increase prices by 20 per cent, despite the high cost of the fabrics I use.”

Others have also embraced innovative solutions in response to rising prices. Ghada Salama, with a background in media and an expertise in knitting, has actively shared ideas and videos on altering and revitalising clothes instead of disposing of them and making new purchases, for example.

“I’ve always enjoyed refreshing and repairing my clothes. Whenever I encounter a garment with flaws or sizing issues, I creatively transform it into a new style. This approach initially focused on clothing and later expanded to reviving and adjusting bags, shoes, and accessories as well. Eventually, I started implementing my preferred designs rather than just purchasing them directly from stores,” she said.

Over time, Salama has transformed her passion into making content for her followers. “Many women have encouraged me by sharing their unique ideas online, and this motivated me to present my own content. I now have 76,000 followers, meaning that my ideas of upcycling clothes have gained significant popularity,” she added.

“The ideas have helped me save on clothing purchases, and I love sharing them with followers. Many women may want new clothes but can’t afford them, and perhaps I inspire them to turn old pieces into more desirable ones. In the wake of rising prices, I believe many more women will now open their closets and rejuvenate stored clothes.”

Salama visits wholesale sewing supply markets, such as in the Al-Mezayen Alley in the Darb Al-Barabra area of Cairo, to obtain materials for renewing clothes at lower cost. She refreshes pieces by embroidering, dyeing, cutting, redesigning, and repurposing them with other items.

Occasionally, she buys some clothing designs from the Wekala Market to modify and showcase in her videos. She also presents trendy designs and current fashions by modifying existing wardrobe pieces, enabling her followers to stay fashionable without constantly incurring the cost of buying new clothes.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: