Pindi’s Imperial Market: From video to cellular

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Jul 21, 2013.

Islamabad – For the past 22 years, Imran Ghauri had been selling electronics at a shop in Rawalpindi’s famous Imperial Market. But six months ago, the 43-year-old Ghauri said he was forced to make the move so many of his fellow shopkeepers have already made over the past five years.

People have started buying either LCD and LED TV sets or the cheap Rs3000 device that allows computer monitors to receive cable transmission, he said.

“The business of selling old (Cathode Ray Tube) TV sets is over, so I have shifted to this small business of selling mobile phones,” he said.

Ghauri’s shop still retains some of the old TV sets in one corner, but look at the other shops, in and around the narrow alley past his shop, and all you see are mobile phones.

Tucked away in a three-storey cramped plaza near Fawwara Chowk in Raja Bazaar, the Imperial Market was once considered one of Pakistan’s finest electronics and video markets: the Rainbow Centre or Hall Road equivalent for Pindi. Throughout the ‘90s, it was the place to visit to buy top-of-the-line TV sets, imported and sometimes smuggled VCRs, VHS tapes and later digital discs and DVD players.

Now, almost 75 per cent of the market’s around 120 old shops have started selling cell phones.

The first floor of plaza, which was once a hotel, is now home to almost 50 new wholesale cell phone shops. More stores, presumably to sell more mobiles, are under construction on the second floor, which was also part of the old hotel. Even electronics repair shops have started offering mobile repair services.

The transformation of Imperial Market is really the story of technological advancements, which have made some products obsolete and other new ones immensely popular, and the way local businesses have had to adapt to these changes to keep afloat. The ubiquitous cell phone, Internet access and new TV technologies have all joined forces to weed out most of the market’s old business.

“The mobile phone has ended everything,” said Faizan Aslam, a shop keeper. “People can watch movies, listen to songs and browse Internet using just this one device.”

Inexpensive cell phone sets — as low as Rs1,000 — are well within the reach of most customers and therefore make them a good product to sell, Aslam said.

“If there are eight people in a house these days, they most probably have at least eight mobile phones,” said Muhammad Sajid, another vendor said.

Sajid’s observation is reflected by the fact that there are currently around 125 million mobile subscribers in Pakistan and the country’s mobile tele-density — number of phones per 100 people — has increased to 70 per cent in May 2013 from just 3.3 per cent in 2003-04, according to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority.

And what the phones couldn’t destroy, the Internet did. An estimated 29 million Pakistanis have Internet access and illegal downloading is not uncommon. The effects are visible in Imperial Market, a bustling video centre that has reduced to around one dozen video shops.

“Because of the Internet, people mostly download the new movies these days,” said Muhammad Imran, manager of Imran video centre, a spacious two-room shop with wall-length DVD displays at the market. “Sales have gone down and there is pressure on work.”

There are still some shops that sell TVs and other electronics. But most of these had to invest in flat screen LCDs, LEDs and Plasma TV sets, said Muhammad Usman, manager at Iqbal Traders. Usman said they stocked up on new TVs three years ago. Business is slow but they make do, he said.

Government taxes and reduction in commission percentage by phone manufacturers has reduced the profit margins, said Muhammad Javed, at Mega Mobiles. And yet, more people are moving toward selling cell phones.

Right across from Javed’s shop, Waheed Khan is removing the DVD shelves on the walls in his shop so he could install cell phone displays instead.

Imran remembers the time the market’s shopkeepers sold their VHS tapes for scrap either by weight or at Rs5-10 per piece. He is apprehensive about a repeat, but one less radical.

He still gets around 30 serious customers daily but said he is going to give the business he has run for years a few more months. If things don’t improve, Imran said, he might consider what the market trend dictates: switch to selling mobile phones.

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