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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Love is in the air... when the money's in the wallet

Love is in the air... when the money's in the wallet

"Her eyes were sweet as she drew me close, hushed tones, hues of heated passion

we embraced." This Valentine's Day, the more Cambodian sweethearts ask "how

deep is your love?" the more retailers will respond "how deep is your wallet?"

"Roses for you my love, for you are special to me," reads the sign above

the florist. Restaurants advertise "Valentine's Day Lovers Buffet" with

red rose for the ladies and romantic ambience included in the $40 ticket price. How

much does romantic ambience usually cost? Evermore, my love.

In the past two years, established florists have noticed steady increases in sales

in the days before February 14, a date unremarkable in the traditional Khmer calendar.

Around the same time, flower sellers appear where they were not the week prior, and

disappear just as quickly when the anniversary passes. Radio and television promote

the occasion, and retailers display cutesy "I love you" bears.

These are the signs of things to come. Cambodia still has far to go before it plumbs

the depths of Valentine consumer schmaltz as benchmarked by America, Britain and

Australia. "It's getting more popular each year," says Floral Express co-owner

Alex Chan. "Especially among the students".

But there is good reason behind Cambodia's blossoming attraction to this Western

celebration.

Thanks to unprecedented market growth, more people can now afford to do so. It is

the phenomenon of young middle-class consumers: the by-product of market growth,

and young consumers are as concerned about idealism as they are about their hair.

Managing director of Indochina Research, Tim Smyth identifies two periods he calls

the "stimulus" and "after-effect". The stimulus period was that

two years after the 1998 election at which time the country and market had begun

to stabilize.

Money came in to create new business, in turn attracting the attention of multinational

companies. Families living abroad also returned, with money and expertise in running

modern retail businesses. "People needed this time to believe in it," says

Smyth.

With the foundations laid, the market grew upon itself. With a disposable income

and more leisure time to use it, people demanded more services and entertainment.

Cinemas increased from one to seven and trendy retail shops flourished. This was

the after-effect. "There's been growth in almost every business you can think

of," says Smyth.

The trend spread further to four other bigger cities: Siem Reap, Battambang, Sihanoukville

and Kampong Cham. "It used to be Phnom Penh, and then everywhere else. Now these

four cities form a second-tier." Where Phnom Penh used to account for 50-70

percent of traded volumes of any retail category, now it is 40-50 percent or less.

Smyth estimates disposable income in Phnom Penh has doubled in the past five years,

with considerable effect on standards of living. "About 65-70 percent of income

is spent on food, clothes and education. The rest is discretionary," he says.

Consumerism in Cambodia is still in its infancy. The economy is cash, and consumers

know they have limits. "It has only been the previous years the under 24 demographic

have embraced consumerism. They are making decisions based on brands, what they want

to be seen in. Now it's Sony-Ericsson or Nokia, not just a mobile phone. And it's

a trend that's clearly being led by young women."

In Soriya Mall, teenage girls with carefully applied make-up run their hands and

eyes discerningly through racks of jeans and minis. On top of one stand sits a Buddhist

offering, the fragrant incense quickly neutralized by the almighty air-con.

One the second floor at Nick Nack, customers spend $10 on average. "My mum always

blames me because I spend too much," says Angie, a 20-year-old from Phnom Penh.

"But it's all my own money. My mum doesn't pay."

Across the aisle, the four-month-old Always New is also doing a roaring trade, attracting

30 customers per day, each spending $15-20 on average.

But consumerism is only one trait of this emerging class. Another one is their idealism.

Unlike the sons and daughters of rich officials, the middle class consumers have

not inherited their wealth.

"The young guys driving around in Hummers and Landcruisers, the same ones who

bring their bodyguards to nightclubs, they're seen as a different group. They represent

ideals the new generation wants to get away from such as corruption and the elite,"

says Smyth. "They are idealistic now because they have the luxury to do so.

In the west you have that luxury from day one."

And they mix tradition and modernity like a new skirt and old tee. Women are leading

the trend here too. Rebelling against the traditional chores such as cooking and

cleaning, they would rather spend time leafing through glossy magazines. "But

by the time they reach 25 they are all looking to support their family," says

Smyth.

On the other side of the consumers, are multinational companies with their multinational

marketing departments. With Cambodian consumers now identified, companies must still

hit their targets. The difficulty is it's not an option to apply modern day marketing

principles. "They have to relearn what marketing was like 30-40 years ago. They

have to market to a changing demographic," says Smyth. "

As consumers follow trends, so too do advertisers. TV is no longer the all pervasive

medium of choice. "Advertising has to be more targeted. You can't just throw

something on TV and assume everyone will see it."

Instead, expect an increase in associated marketing which targets specific groups.

Cinema advertising, direct marketing at events, cafes, certain clubs: "Anywhere

they hang out or frequent."

Marketing companies such as Indochina Research are now compiling research into trendy

and cool brands. Part of this is identifying opinion leaders among groups, for they

are the most influential in deciding what clothes are worn, and what gets left on

the rack at the mall. Before you get any ideas though, Smyth warns that candidates

are screened for style and street-cred. "You can't just dress up some gumpy

farmer from Kampong Cham and expect him to be credible!"

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