HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — The wares in Zimbabwe's capital are laid out for shoppers to browse through: the shoes lined up on the trunk, the shirts and dresses hanging from open doors of the spotlessly clean car.
With many sidewalks in downtown Harare already taken over by street vendors and jobs scarce, some Zimbabweans are turning their cars into makeshift second-hand clothing and shoe stores, using parking lots, shopping malls and open spaces in low- and middle-income suburbs.
Every morning, Tony Machuko parks his sedan in front of a Standard Chartered Bank branch at a shopping center in Southerton, a suburb on Harare's outskirts, to set up his shop-on-wheels.
Clothing goes for anything from $1 for several undergarments to $10 for jackets, shirts, jeans, business attire and other articles carrying elite brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Armani.
Close to a dozen other sedans and vans are parked along a road at the shopping center, all decked out with apparel and shoes for sale.
Machuko and the others had to set up shop on the city's outskirts because other vendors on wheels had already grabbed parking spaces in town, and won't allow newcomers to take their spots without a fight.
"Even here, we have to jealously guard against newcomers, even it means using the threat of violence," Machuko, 24, told a reporter as he kept an eye out for customers or police.
With no changing rooms, shoppers can squeeze into a car to try something on, or the hawkers hold a piece of cloth to shield the customer from public view. Or the customer puts the article of clothing over whatever they are already wearing to try it on.
Roy Chinamasa, whose "shop" is also at the Southerton shopping center, said he makes up to $40 on a good day.
The good thing about selling from a car is that "I can pack my wares and disappear fast whenever police pounce," said the 22-year-old. "Business used to be good but the dollar is just hard to come by these days."
The dollar might soon be even harder to come by in Zimbabwe's depressed economy.
Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa recently said that the government plans to lay off part of its workforce, whose $260 million monthly salary bill gobbles more than 80 percent of total monthly government expenditure. He also said the government needs to devise ways of taxing the informal traders. Those who will remain in their jobs in government will no longer be entitled to traditional annual bonuses in 2015 and 2016, said the minister.
The African Development Bank says over two thirds of Zimbabweans are employed in the informal sector. Street hawking is a headache for authorities because of the congestion it creates and the absence of tax revenue generated from sales. But Grace Mugabe, the wife of President Robert Mugabe who is making her own foray into politics, has told them to stop harassing people eking a living on the streets.
Most of the clothing sold from the trunk shops are donated by Western charities to poor countries. Few shipments, however, are sent directly to this southern African nation so they are smuggled through bush paths across the border from Mozambique. They are transported from the eastern Zimbabwean border town of Mutare to other cities under cover of darkness.
The second-hand clothes are so inexpensive that sales of cheap Chinese knock-off brands in more legitimate stores are suffering.
"Why should I buy an Abibas when I can buy an original Adidas for less, or a Mike when I can get a Nike," said shopper Cardnus Fere, referring to imitations of popular brands.