SHOPKEEPERS are always ready to complain, but with rent rises outstripping sales growth, they have not had such good cause for years. At his East Point Road jeans boutique, 135 Sparta, shopkeeper Leung Chak-kwong used to sell 300 pair of jeans a day. Now the total is 200. 'We are not the only victim. The whole retail industry in Hong Kong is shrinking. My friends, who are also retailers, say the market is very quiet,' he said. 'In the past, the locals might take the jeans back to China, giving them to their relatives. But now they buy clothes there and bring them back to Hong Kong instead as the prices are much cheaper.' He thinks 1995 will be another bleak year. 'I won't say it's going to improve. It now takes much longer for customers to decide whether to buy the jeans, regardless of the fact that they might have tried a dozen on already,' he said. Yip Hoi-chiu, owner of eight boutiques (six in Hong Kong and one each in Shenzhen and Guangzhou), said last year's profit plummeted 50 per cent while the first three months in 1995 reported a drop of 60 per cent in sales. The effect of a weakening economy on local retail businesses took shape as early as the second half of last year, Mr Yip said. He attributed this to ailing stock and property markets. 'In the first half of 1994, we could make $20,000 a day but it was cut down to $10,000 in the second half. Now the volume has shrunk to several thousand a day,' he said. 'I want to start a new business but I have no idea which would be the best one as the entire economy is bad.' Jewellery and watch shops are also suffering. January saw 15.6 per cent more sales than January 1994, but shops in this area have also faced some of the toughest rent increases. They are already being forced to change the way they do business. Forum Watch in Percival Street, Causeway Bay has been in business for 14 years. But shopkeeper Bobbie Ho Chi-ming said sales figures dropped 40 per cent last year. 'The locals used to be very generous. They made a telephone call asking us to prepare several models and they would come and collect them the following day. But bulk purchase is no longer commonplace,' he said. He said sales skills were crucial in securing a successful deal. 'I show more enthusiasm and talk to them in a more friendly manner, especially when the customers are not very sure of a purchase. I keep persuading them,' he said. In every kind of shop and every district, shopkeepers report the same problems. At the Cordelia Co handbag shop in Admiralty's Queensway Plaza, manageress Mrs Wong Hung Hwai-kwan said last year she saw the worst sales ever. 'The white-collar girls used to be very decisive and prompt in buying their handbags if they really showed interest. Now they come in, walking and looking around, holding the bag they like but they walk out empty-handed,' she said. 'The locals spend lots of money on mortgages and the richest people have already emigrated. 'There's not much my staff can do now; they are sitting idle. I can only ask them to try harder whenever a customer comes in,' she said. Over the harbour at the Jacomo Boutique on Nathan Road, the sales staff have seen their commissions hit. Saleswoman Windy Ko Shuk-ching said their business slipped more than 50 per cent last year. Her monthly commission is down to $6,000 compared to more than $10,000 in their heyday. The situation does not improve much even though it is now the time to change your wardrobe, Ms Ko said. 'The new arrival stocks used to be sold out quickly two years ago. We dare not adjust the prices as a result; some of them have even taken a price cut. 'Our manager reminds us to be more polite, to smile more often, and to provide a better service. To attract customers, we now let them try on everything they can find in the shop. In the past we wouldn't even allow them to try on the T-shirts,' she said.