Saturday, January 23, 2010

New Siem Reap night market shut down

I've been MIA because I've had a very hectic couple of weeks. First, 2 days in Singapore for a photoshoot for the new Blackberry ads (apparently I am "distinctly bold" like the new phone - it's called the Blackberry Bold.) Then to Phnom Penh to meet with a lovely US customer who wants to be more involved with Bloom, possibly by setting up another sewing workshop, and then an interview with regional Mandarin channel Xinya. The show on Bloom will be broadcast in at least 8 countries which is cool. There will be an English version but the Mandarin one is important because, says the producer, "the notion of NGOs is still in its early phase in East Asia" (although Bloom is not an NGO but a social enterprise; the difference? we don't rely on donations).

So I just got back to Siem Reap on Thursday. While in Phnom Penh I heard news that the new Siem Reap Night Market was shut down. We have 2 stalls there. At first, we were told the market would be shut for just three days and the explanation given was an important person from Phnom Penh was visiting and they did not want that person to know about the market.

Of course, that turned out to be false. The reality is the market never did get official permission to operate.

I had heard about the market only because I help Douk, the handicapped bookseller. The booksellers know everything that goes around town because they move around the town everyday peddling their books. There were no ads about the new night market, and word spread by mouth. As a foreigner, I would never have heard about it if not for Douk. By the time he encouraged me to get a couple of stalls at the market, there were only 6 left - everything had been grabbed by people in the know. At US$400 a stall, I took 4, planning to flip a couple. Later I heard there was a Korean guy who bought "many, many" with the same intention. We wondered how he had learnt about the market.

The rent for each stall is $50 a month and an option was also to rent out for a higher price if the market turns out well. I was lucky because just three days after the market opened, I had people queuing up to buy my stalls. I sold two of them at a 50% profit each. As I expected, the price would go up, because business was so brisk. Indeed just before they shut the market, people were asking - and getting - double what they paid. I had let the stalls go quickly because I am happy to make a small profit.

The lady I sold my stalls to had already 2 stalls of her own, as well as a standalone souvenir shop in one of the p'tair l'wairngs (Khmer terrace houses) around the old market. Her business was so good, in three days, she had decided it was worth expanding. Her nephew had also bought 4 stalls, second-hand, at US$500 each. So I learnt some of the "proper" shop owners had also stalls at the night market which proved to be profitable.

So I was surprised to read that some of the shopkeepers were upset. One, Khoun Naren, manager and co-owner of Cherry Blossom Boutique, which is housed in a p'tair l'wairng too, told the Phnom Penh Post: “It’s not good. It’s difficult for firemen to enter the street. They pay cheap rent while we pay $1,500. We’re working on fighting it.”

(As an aside, it's incredible Cherry Blossom pays $1500 monthly rent for one terrace house - they must have to sell a helluva lot of clothes. I find that really overpriced because it's not even on Pub Street. I was told another upmarket clothing boutique, albeit smaller, on that same street just a few doors away from Cherry Blossom pays only $500 and this guy rented the shop only last year, whereas Cherry Blossom has been in the same house for years. Update 25Jan - I was just told last night rents on Pub Street are now $2500 a month. Incredible.)

The other people who are upset are of course the vendors and owners of two other night markets here in Siem Reap town: the Noon Night Market and the original Angkor Night Market, Siem Reap's first night market. The problem is the new night market is very centrally located, just off Pub Street, which means tourists do not need to make the 5 minute walk across Sivatha Boulevard to the other 2 markets.

While we're at it, I was amazed to read the owner of the Noon Night Market made so much noise about the new night market, because he himself annoyed the original Angkor Night Market when he opened a replica night market on the same street leading to the original.

At that time, vendors in the original Angkor Night Market were upset with the Noon Night Market because after all that advertising and promotion the first market did, tourists were waylaid on the way to the original market and in the confusion, a) believed the Noon Night Market to be the Siem Reap Night Market and b) if they knew there were 2 night markets on that street, they thought there was no need to visit the other (original) one which is further down the street, since Cambodian markets tend to sell almost exactly the same products.

I actually have a shop at the original market, which I signed up for last year. I chose the original Angkor Night Market because I prefer the ambience. It turned out to be a disaster for Bloom though. In short, other vendors came round to copy our ideas then sold the same bags for a third of our prices. I am now deciding what to do with that shop because clearly Bloom, as a social enterprise which believes in fair treatment of workers, cannot compete with the other vendors who pay piece-rate for sewers to make the bags. How fair? Our sewers get a minimum US$70 a month for a 40 hour work week in addition to 28 days paid holidays annually, plus regular bonuses. As I had written in one of my earliest posts, I believe the carrot approach to management is more useful than the stick.

Still, I may keep that stall and sell cheap souvenirs from Thailand and Vietnam which is what most tourists to this country seem to expect. Or I may let it go because in business I've learnt, you win some, you lose some.

I should point out the reason why the new night market is so cheap to rent - there is no storage space. Every single night at 6pm the tents go up and at midnight they come down again. So every single night, vendors have to take their stock from wherever and put up the lights and shelving and what not. By the time we are set up, it is almost 7pm. It is a royal pain in the arse. We keep our stock in the Bloom shop one block away and every night we have to wheel it to the night market. You should see our shop - it's like a warehouse cum retail space. Some nights I think I am insane to have the night market stall. Yet the location is much better than our shop in terms of traffic.

Anyway, back to the fiasco. So the vendors, including me, were given an option: either get your money back on a specific date or join hands in protesting against the shut down. If you take back your money, though, don't expect to get a new stall should we win the protest, said the company. On the other hand, if we stick together and protest, we will get a portion our money back should we lose. I decided to join in the protest because I would not lose too much since I had already made back some money. I thought it was worth the risk.

Before taking on the shop, we had already known the success of the market was contingent on the authorities allowing the company to use the street. The owner reassured us by saying there was no problem. But even if there were, "you lose small money, but I lose big money."

We'll know the results on Monday. I'm chalking this down as another experience and business lesson learned in Cambodia.


harunsulaiman said...

Very useful information on this blog, I almost the same faith as you my friend, three days before they shutdown the night market, I was hang around to have one stall for my wife too. At that time the price was up to USD$2,000 for the stall. I wish the night market can win the war, why not? Siem Reap town should develop more with this kind of concept It's will help to improve the economy, I supported to have an night market in town!! Authority should open their mind and listen to the people...

Hope you will learn a lot of many things in Cambodia.. Cheers!!


Diana Saw said...

Hi Harun, thanks for this. I can't believe the stalls were going for $2k! It seems the trouble started because the new night market wanted to extend all the way to the river, which means they will be just side by side with the Old Market. The shop owners at the Old Market were not happy with this new competition.

I agree with you such street markets will be good for Siem Reap. Tourists tell me they like it because it adds atmosphere to the town. Yet they are the one group of stakeholders whose opinion was not sought.


harunsulaiman said...

Hi Diana,

Please update us with the night market issue It's will help our community to minimize failure investment in this country. If we talking about the original night market. It's remind me with Erwan Blanc, he is an pioneer of the night market in Cambodia.
Photo on Feb 15,2007

To have an night market in Siem Reap town It's not because only with money or power the chamber of commerce must bring their blueprint for consideration too.

I agree with you shop lot owner will not happy with any night market in the world the same way as super market upset with mini market, This is call development. This Siem Reap city will never be improve bigger if the business man expected just only for surviver.

Good luck!


Editor said...

Yo Harun, you remember a floating night market was our original idea. Maybe we'll do it one of these days.
Cheers bro !

harunsulaiman said...

Hey Erwan! Wat's up my bro? miss you so much..

Yes Floating Night Market soul is still in my mind too, I'll be with you when the time have come again for sure my bro..

Just want to share with you the funny part of this new night market, right now they shifted to behind Martini Club,It's along the rivers as well,the size of this market you can't consider market, maybe we can called it mini exhibition garden, It almost become floating actually.. hee

I went to visit the location recently but I can see that guy is know nothing with the game his playing for..

Cheers bro!..


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