"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
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
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
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
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!"