(Houston Chronicle) COLON, PANAMA – It’s like a supersized wholesale club.
Shoppers from across Latin America and the Caribbean flock to the Colon Free Trade Zone to buy everything from toys to tools.
Instead of leaving with a few shopping bags full of goodies, these buyers typically order 20- and 40-foot-long containers stuffed with items they will resell.
Bras, blenders and bikes decorate the more than 2,800 storefronts. This shopping center is where buyers for small and medium-size stores come to fill their shelves with sandals that may cost $6.50 a pair — if they buy 18 pairs.
“Instead of saying I’ll take one of these shirts and one of these barbecue grills, they place a minimum order, like a pallet-sized quantity,” said Daniel Crocker, a senior commercial officer for the U.S. Embassy in Panama City.
The world’s second-largest free trade zone – eclipsed only by Hong Kong – exported more than $11.4 billion in merchandise last year, according to the Colon Free Trade Zone. It carries mostly Asian-made goods but also some U.S.-manufactured items.
A key benefit of the zone, on the Atlantic entrance of the Panama Canal, is that taxes aren’t charged on the merchandise imported or exported through the area.
Many buyers prefer to visit this free trade zone instead of traveling to Asia, operators said. In Colon, they can buy containers filled with a variety of items. If they traveled to China to shop, they would likely have to buy containers filled with one product, said Jack Hamoui, a buyer for Colon-based May’s. It owns factories in Asia that churn out jeans, coolers and glasses, among other items.
Other Colon companies import Asian-made radios, DVD players and other electronics and then resell them.
Buyers can make quick trips to Panama and refill their inventory within days instead of spending weeks traveling to Asia and then waiting for the shipment to arrive, said George Punjabi of Hermanos Punjabi, a Colon-based importer.
Among Colon Free Trade Zone tenants are Milano Group, which sells major label perfumes, and other exclusive distributors in Panama for brand-name items.
Crocker said Colon stands out because many of the world’s other free trade zones are “bonded warehouses,” which store items duty-free but don’t necessarily operate sales markets.
Colon’s trade zone, by contrast, tends to draw “people coming in and doing what appears to be retail shopping and having stuff packed up and sent back to the home market,” Crocker said.
On a recent overcast day, Haitian buyer Marriette Volney perused racks of women’s clothing at the four-story department store operated by May’s, a 35-year-old retailer that carries more than 100,000 items ranging from ladders and tools to sandals.
Volney, making her second visit to Colon, was shopping to stock her 8-year-old clothing store in the Caribbean island nation about 800 miles to the northeast.
Venezuelan Fernando Castro plans to open his own shoe and clothing store in the fall but visited Colon recently to find clocks for a store his mother runs back home.
“I’ve never seen such variety,” Castro said as he jotted down lists of everything he considered buying. Every week, 150 containers filled with goods, mostly from Asia, arrive at May’s, and every week, the same amount of merchandise is exported across Latin America and the Caribbean.
“We’re like a department store for department stores,” said Javier Rivera, a sales executive at May’s, where employees carry electronic scanners to keep track of shoppers’ large orders.
A refreshment bar is on every floor so shoppers can order beverages while they peruse the products.
“You don’t have to leave. There’s coffee here. If you get tired, there’s furniture there for you to sit,” Castro said.