Former real estate agent turns economic malaise into lucrative business in second hand furniture – and now is looking to expand beyond the city
ALTHOUGH the economic crisis may have hurt the majority of businesses, one entrepreneur has thrived, buying second hand furniture at basement prices that he sells on for a profit at prices below market value.
After losing his job as a real estate agent following the recent property downturn, Kao Vannarin in February opened a shop in his home on Street 199 selling used furniture.
"At first we bought old furniture for family and friends," says the French-Cambodian entrepreneur. "Then we had a lot of people come over and they supported our business.... Particularly with the economic crisis.
"So I profited from this situation without thinking about it beforehand."
Kao Vannarin, who returned to the Kingdom in 1993, says that he obtains 50 percent of stock through intermediaries who collect from the provinces - Kampong Cham, Kampot, Kampong Chhnang - who bring back antique tables, wardrobes and kda ngeur, a traditional Khmer-style book made of very thin pieces of wood. He also picks up objects that have been left in the rain or abandoned in derelict houses.
"In inquiring among rural locals about some of their possessions, we find out they are heirlooms, but the grand majority of them do not recognise the value of these objects," he says.
majority ... do not recognise the value of these objects.
"When these people sell us objects and receive their money, they have chosen new purchases to replace them which represents a real progression of society," says Kao Vannarin, citing an example in which he bought a broken Charillion Romanet 4 Airs clock made in the 19th century for as little as US$25.
The rest of his stock comes from businesses - such as restaurants - that have succumbed to the economic crisis.
He says he receives at least 20 customers coming to his store each week to seek out items, the majority of whom have seen the same pieces in print - Kao Vannarin publishes a weekly pamphlet called Adweekly featuring stock photos and prices.
Suon Veasna bought a $70 wardrobe last month from the shop. She said that the current economic climate meant that she was making every effort to economise while still being able to purchase antique pieces.
"My antique wardrobe is half the market price. What's more, that wardrobe is of a good quality, and I'd already looked at a number of other places to check whether they had anything I was looking for," she said.
Meng Srun, who runs an IT store in Phnom Penh, bought a traditional bed from the shop on Street 199 costing just $150.
"If I had bought it in a shop, it would have been more than $300," he says.
Kao Vannarin says that he sells his products at roughly 60 percent of their market value having been careful to limit purchases to no more than 50 percent of the market price so as to make a profit.
He says he has plans to sell his wares outside of Phnom Penh on a grander scale, he says, a further suggestion that the economic low experienced by the majority has proved to be a boom for Kao Vannarin.
"I'm currently negotiating to rent a 3-hectare piece of land. If we can agree on price, I will seek permission to open a [furniture and antiques] market," he says.