While walking past a store named "Sumon Sound" in Khulna city, we heard a young boy singing out loud, "Mujhse Shadi Karogi", a Bollywood song from the early 2000s. Sensing party, we entered the musical instrument store.
There were no customers. So, Raju and Saiful, two young employees, were having fun in the empty store.
"Before the pandemic, we were really busy. Not just Khulna, our sound boxes used to travel to some neighbouring districts too. But, we are now spending an idle time because our business has dried up. No one rents sound boxes in this pandemic time," Raju told The Business Standard.
Despite the dull business, Sumon Sound's employees were relaxed because, as they explained, somehow the owner managed to pay their salaries.
But, as we continued inside clothing stores of the Abdul Jalil Market, we found a depressing environment. We visited the market in the second week of August after the lockdown had been withdrawn. The clothing stores too did not have many customers.
"Since late March, our stores had been open only for 20 days," said Rahat Parvez, organisational secretary of the market committee. "Some stores closed down, while some were sold as traders are struggling with the growing burden of loans with no sign of immediate recovery in sales," he explained.
Matiur Rahman, a proprietor of Maisha Fashion, is one of the businessmen at Abdul Jalil market who has already decided to quit the business.
"I cannot even profit Tk200 a day. Each month [since the pandemic], I have incurred around Tk80,000 in losses. Besides, I also have to pay salaries to employees," Matiur told TBS, explaining why he decided to quit his business. "For the remaining days, I hope to sell the existing products and pay back some of my debts."
But with the existing business condition after the lockdown was withdrawn, Matiur is not very optimistic about the remaining days in business either.
Right next to his store is Leaf Fashion. "People became poor during the pandemic. When having food on the plate is the priority, buying clothing is an afterthought," its proprietor Nazim Ahmed told us. "Find me a customer. I will also quit business," he added.
There are around 50 clothing stores in the Abdul Jalil market. According to Rahat Parvez, most businessmen have a similar story to share.
The desperation could also be felt in the market's computer section, the largest in the Khulna division. Sheikh Shahidul Huq, secretary of Bangladesh Computer Society, Khulna region, has a store on the second floor.
"We used to have Tk1,000 crore worth of regular monthly sales in this computer market. Since the pandemic hit, sales have dropped to one-fourth of that. Moreover, when the lockdown was in its strictest phase in the region, there was simply no sale here," Shahidul said.
"The people you are now looking at here have come to repair their products, not to buy new ones," he pointed out.
Shahidul also mentioned the customers' reduced purchasing capacity as a result of the pandemic, which is subsequently causing the businesses in the market to fail. He also accused the syndicate of importers who raised prices of the computer products in Bangladesh during the pandemic. Besides, crazy discounts on online platforms like Evaly are driving down local sales.
"How can you sell a product at a 50% discount? When such groups compete with us in the market, what can we do but perish?" Shahidul told TBS.
We heard such stories of desperation and despair in almost every sector, including sound, hardware, electronics, garments, etc. The same situation prevails in Khulna, Satkhira and Jashore.
Business operations in those districts came to a complete halt because of stricter lockdowns enforced in June this year to rein in the raging Covid-19 . With lockdown-triggered income losses, shop owners plunged into financial distress as they exhausted their savings to pay staff salaries, shop rents and to run families.
Businesses reopened after lockdowns had ended, but they are now witnessing a low footfall and poor sales. Their income recovery is still far from normal.
In Satkhira's BoroBazar Shorok, the Jononi Enterprise's proprietor Piar Ali was having a chat with a colleague when we met him. His first sentence to us translates into this, "I am healthy but not alive."
Since the pandemic hit the border districts and stricter lockdowns were announced, his business took a nosedive and life became complicated for the old man.
Hafizul Islam of Liberty Shoe told us similar stories of losses during the pandemic. We asked him if business eventually recovered after the lockdown was withdrawn. "Business is still far from recovery. We have yet to experience even half the sales we had in regular times," Hafizul replied. "I have been paying salaries to my employees without them doing any work," he added.
Sumon, the proprietor of New Tama Mobile (mobile/electronic store), adjacent to the main road in Satkhira town said, "People's purchasing capacity has dropped drastically. Few think of buying a new mobile phone these days since they have other priorities."
The small businesses in Jashore have almost identical stories. Tanuja Rahman Maya, president of the Jessore District Women's Chamber of Commerce, told TBS that alongside others, the pandemic has devastated the district's women entrepreneurs. There are about 450 handicrafts in the district where around 10,000 workers work. Almost all the workers have become unemployed.
Mizanur Rahman Khan, former president of Jessore Chamber of Commerce, explained that small traders have gone broke. All businesses in the districts had shut down during the stricter lockdowns causing them to incur substantial losses. The districts' motor car parts trade equally suffered the pandemic.
Rezwan Ahmed Murad, owner of Faria Motors, told TBS that buyers from all across the country come to Jashore to buy motor parts. While they used to sell engines almost every day in pre-pandemic times, they now hardly have any buyers. His shop remained mostly closed in the last few months.
Their businesses failing, however, is not the only crisis the small traders in these areas are dealing with. The biggest challenge for the traders we spoke to was figuring out how they were going to repay their bank loans. Some said even though the government had declared that banks would not pressure loan repayments during the pandemic, in reality, they were being asked to repay the loans regularly.
TBS correspondents Aninda Haque in Khulna, Abdul Kader in Jashore and Akramul Islam in Satkhira contributed to the story.