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French Version

Lonely voices try to spur economy by encouraging consumers to spend

'Celebrate Lebanon' project provides shopping bonuses to employees

With the holiday shopping season in tatters because of the political morass, a handful of companies have attempted to breathe some life into local shops by giving employees money to spend exclusively in hard-hit areas.

Still, the scale of the spending has hardly made up for catastrophic sales - merchants in Beirut's traditionally busiest locales are rarely taking in even half their usual Christmas revenues. The spending project, dubbed "Celebrate Lebanon," has also failed to lure the country's biggest firms, despite plenty of positive media coverage. The five firms that have participated in the project have spent less than $20,000.

On Wednesday, employees from Nestle, satellite broadcaster Orbit and Boecker pest control - where the idea originated - went on a spending spree in Mar Elias and Zalka.

"We consider ourselves part of the Lebanese economy - if we can do anything, even symbolic, we will try to do it," said Nicolas Semaan, Nestle's human-resources manager for the Levant.

Nestle gave 12 employees $250 dollars each to purchase gifts for children at the Children's Cancer Center of Lebanon, SOS Children's Villages and other charities. Orbit also sent about 12 employees on the shopping outing.

On December 15, workers from Boecker, Sanipro and Middle East Sanitary Marketing & Agencies (MESMA) hit shops in Hamra and New Jdeideh, and then went for dinner at Chopsticks in Downtown Beirut.

"It's to encourage the other companies and the citizens to go and buy," said Kamel Reba, managing director of Sanipro, which sent 20 employees shopping. "It's to encourage the heart of Beirut to revive."

Boecker CEO Michael Bayoud came up with the idea while watching a news report on television about how the capital's retailers were reeling from slow holiday sales, and he decided to try to resuscitate the marketplace. He gave 71 of his employees $100 each, under the condition that they spend their bonuses in the areas chosen for Celebrate Lebanon.

The campaign's goal is to "give artificial oxygen to these markets - we want to cover as many souks as possible," he said.

He took his mission to the media, hoping to spread the word as quickly as possible. On December 11 he went on the morning radio show at the Voice of Lebanon to announce the project, and the daily An-Nahar called him while he was still on the radio. Television stations LBC, New TV and Future TV have given coverage to Celebrate Lebanon, and DJ Gavin Ford of Radio One played an interview with Bayoud - hourly. Economy Minister Sami Haddad tracked down Bayoud and offered assistance.

"He was really helpful," Bayoud said of Haddad. "I'm happy that it has become an idea that has been picked up randomly. It snowballed."

For example, Bayoud said before the project that he had never heard of MESMA, which does market research. "They just called in and said, 'We want to be with you,'" said Bayoud.

MEMSA sent 12 of its employees on the shopping spree.

Bayoud's call to spend, however, has fallen mostly on deaf ears. He lamented the particular failure of banks - one of Lebanon's main economic motors - to join the project. He rang up Al-Mawarid Bank, Fransabank and Byblos Bank, but they refused to join the initiative.

"I'm really disappointed that not even one bank has contributed - even the economy minister called them," he said. "This is the only sector that can really make a difference. They are the ones who can send the most money."

Businesses nationwide have been battered first by the July-August war with Israel, and now by the disruptions caused by the downtown sit-in, which began on December 1. The government tallied damage from the war at about $2.8 billion, while economists estimate the country loses about $70 million each day the sit-in continues.

At Boecker, income was 20 percent ahead of target before the war, during which it fell to zero, and the sit-in has again eliminated Boecker's business, Bayoud said. "Our sales are almost zero," he said. "We are also fighting for our survival. It hasn't been one of the best years."

Bayoud still believes in the potential of Lebanon's economy, but lambastes the country's political class for ignoring the financial hemorrhaging of the nation's workers and companies.

"There is a lot of work in Lebanon if they just let us work," he said. "Our problem today is simply an attitude problem of the politicians."

Beirut 26-12-2006
The Daily Star

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