Supermarkets Hock Imported Goods To Dollar-Holding Masses
kippy Peanut Butter, Kraft Vegemite, Nissen Coup O’ Noodles, Doritos Nacho Cheese Flavor Corn Chips, Campbell’s Soup, Lee Kum Kee hot sauce and Le Vache Quit Rit processed cheese spread. The tastes of home are rarely far away in Phnom Penh.
When foreigners suffer from homesickness in far-off countries, psychologists often recommend a heavy dose of food from their native lands. And Phnom Penh has the cure in the local supermarkets and grocery stores which try to cater to their every whim.
Competition between the seven food retailers surveyed is getting fierce due to the reduction of foreigners living in Phnom Penh after the July 1997 fighting, managers said. And at least one, 7/7 is beating a hasty retreat and concentrating on their catering and restaurant business.
Managers hope that as Cambodia’s flat economy picks up, natives will gradually make up a greater percentage of the customers buying their imported goods.
The activity at supermarkets indicates the Phnom Penh economy not dormant, according to a government economist Bit Seanglim.
‘’The supermarkets indicate that the urban economy is expanding,’’ Bit Seanglim said. ‘’A lot of people with dollars are using imported goods.’’
Yoth Hor, owner of Bayon Market on Monivong Boulevard, said business is picking up now that the elections have passed, but complained that profits often depend on forces he cannot control. About 70 percent of his customers are foreigners, and many of them disappeared in the months leading up to the July 26 polls.
“It seems in other Asian countries, business depends on the general economy, but in Cambodia it depends on politics,” he said.
A few doors down from the Bayon Market, Sok Heng, manager of Thai Huot Super Market, said business had not been as good recently as it was earlier in the year. When asked why he said; “I don’t want to say anything that involves politics. I just know business has been slow.”
Import food retailers like Thai Huot, have a dizzying array of foreign communities to please: North Americans, Thai, Japanese and the Chinese. Europeans, although they may now have their Union, still have a variety of taste buds to appease.
“We do the best we can,” said a member of Lucky Market’s management when asked how they try to appease its variety of customers. “Mainly we rely on feedback from people who ask for things.”
Albert Kang, the general manager of 7/7, said his store tried to cater to Westerners, and Americans specifically. That, of course, drove away Europeans, he said.
“It’s a very risky business,” said Kang, who has spent six years in Cambodia’s import food business. He is in the middle of converting his 5,000-item supermarket to a 2,500-item convenience store. “We were too small to compete with the big boys,” he said.
The company once brought in a shipment of a German brand beer as requested by some German customers. They bought about half, but the rest collected dust on the shelf and the shop took a loss.
“I think one of my partners ended up drinking the rest,” he said.
Expiration dates is another risk, he said. Customers shun outdated food. Ordering US-brand potato chips with a nine-month shelf life, for example, is a gamble. By the time they arrive in Cambodia, the chips may have only a few months left before they expire.
The Lucky Market manager, who asked not to be named, said incorrect orders are also a problem. Its common for an order of ten cases of an item to arrive with only seven, he said.
Kang also blamed 7/7’s downfall on smuggling, and he accused some of his competitors of engaging in “cross-border trading,” to avoid taxes.
Once 7/7 ordered a large shipment of a popular brand of cooking oil, but soon they discovered some of their competitors were selling it at factory cost. After an investigation, they discovered a shipment of the oil had been used to hide smuggled wine and liquor. Since the smugglers made a large profit from the liquor, they dumped the cooking oil on the market.
Another recent player on the grocery scene is Caltex’s Starmarts, which copy the US concept of one-stop shopping for gas, snacks and drinks.
“In Asia, you just don’t open a petrol station without a convenience store right now,” John Raeside, general director of Caltex-Cambodia Ltd, said this week.
The jury is still out on whether the four Caltex shops in Phnom Penh and the one in Sihanoukville will succeed, he said, but the concept seems to be catching on with Cambodians as well as foreigners.
“Fifty percent of the customers are Cambodians, and we’re very pleased about that,” he said.
Bit Seanglim said the only Cambodians regularly patronizing the supermarkets are expatriate returnees and the nouveau riche-those with access to dollars.
“The supermarkets and mini markets can’t be seen as indicative of the whole economy,” he said. “The rural economy is agricultural, with some manufacturing, and that is where the population lives and most of the labor force.”
He said it likely will take several more years before a middle class of Cambodians is established and able to frequent supermarkets selling imported products.
Bayon Market, Open 7 am to 7:30 pm. 130 Monivong Boulevard. This centrally-located grocery store caters to Westerners of all types. It has the best selection of teas and coffees in town, but the aisles are a little cramped.
Lucky Market, 160 Sihanouk Boulevard. Open 8 am to 8 am. This locally-owned supermarket most resembles a Western-style chain. Comparatively-easy parking, a central location and wide aisles make it the city’s most popular grocery store. It has perhaps one of the widest selections of underarm deodorants in Asia. Staff members are unfriendly and don’t seem to know where items are located. A department store is located upstairs.
Starmart, various locations. Open 6 am to midnight. Genuine US-style convenience stores with hot dogs rotating on a grill and a Slurpee-type ice and flavored syrup drink. The flavors are red and brown; labels would be nice. Microwavable burritos would be a plus, but perhaps that would be asking too much. Packs many items into small spaces, and the prices are about the same as other stores.
Thai Huot Market, 105 Monivong, Open 7 am to 7 pm. This store a few doors down from the Bayon Market has the best selection of French brand names in town. The French magazine and newspaper racks also gives away its clientele. Like Bayon Market, the aisles are narrow. Shoppers often visit both the Bayon and Thai Huot in the same trip.
Tokyo International Store, 35AB Sihanouk, open 8 am to 9 pm. As the name implies, this store caters to Japanese consumers, but not exclusively. Japanese brand names still make up a minority of items stocked. The newly opened upstairs has a small selection of Japanese periodicals and a good stationary section.
You Nam Super Market, Open 8 am to 8 pm. 310 Kampuchea Krom. This very large store rivals Lucky Supermarket in size and selection. It has an excellent kitchenware section, so newcomers to town can stock up on utensils without having to track everything down in the local markets. The upstairs department store, like Lucky’s, seems to attract few customers.
7/7, Open 8 am to 10 pm. No 13 St 90. Now in transition from a supermarket to a convenience store. The customers at the adjoining popular restaurant did not seem to do enough shopping in the market. It remains to be seen if the new convenience store can compete with the Starmarts located on main thoroughfares.
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