We thought there is nothing to do – we don’t even know it is Christmas on the 24th. But there is more and more happening.
Business in Phnom Penh are hoping a splash of festive flair will attract more customers, as celebrating Christmas becomes increasingly popular with shoppers visiting the Kingdom’s stores and malls.
The trappings associated with the Christian-based holiday season are already well-established in neighbouring countries like Vietnam and Thailand but, according to some shop owners, have yet to develop in a big way in Cambodia.
But businesses say that is starting to change, with a growing number of shops putting on Christmas sales and flicking on the fairy lights to draw in customers.
Chear Sok Heak, general manager of Sorya shopping mall in Phnom Penh, said Christmas celebrations were becoming “more and more popular” every year.
“It is an opportunity for businesses during the Christmas holidays – so many customers visit Phnom Penh,” she said.
“Some businesses in the mall have strategies to attract customers, such as discounts and selling many goods that meet the customers’ needs.”
This year most of the mall’s 500 stores, both large and small, had decided to put up decorations to draw in customers, she said.
“We do not force them to. But I think most of the stores in Sorya shopping mall have decorated to promote their businesses,” she said.
Swensen’s ice-cream parlour is among the shops at Sorya that have embraced the Christmas spirit. The store has put up multi-coloured lights and a large cardboard cut-out Christmas tree, and its staff have donned Santa hats and reindeer antlers.
Training manager Seng Bopha said the festive touches encouraged increased custom.
“Every year during the Christmas holidays our business is very good, because so many customers look around the shopping centre and eat our ice-cream. I hope business is good this year too,” she said.
It cost around US$100 to decorate the store, but Seng Bopha said the investment had been worth it.
“We want to attract customers, so the benefit is greater,” she said.
Businesses outside the large shopping malls are also hoping to capitalise on the festive season, and some are attempting to lure Western shoppers away from Christmas shopping trips to neighbouring commercial hubs.
A newly-formed association of shops on upmarket Street 240, in Phnom Penh, is putting on a three-day Christmas fair in the hope that more people will do their seasonal shopping in Phnom Penh.
Sandrine Bury, owner of Subtyl boutique, said the lure of well-established shops in places like Bangkok meant currently many people travelled abroad to do their shopping.
“Now, if you want to buy something you go somewhere else, which is a pity,” she said.
The evening fair, which started yesterday and runs until tomorrow, aims to promote the street’s specialist shops and recreate some of the Christmas magic that is prevalent in Europe. Bury said 33 businesses had contributed US$110 each for decorations, lighting, fliers, and authorisation to close the street to traffic. She hoped the fair would become an established annual event.
“Normally if you are in Europe you always go out at night, with the kids or not, and see the nice streets with the nice lights and nice decorations,” she said.
“Here we thought there is nothing to do – we don’t even know it is Christmas on the 24th. But there is more and more happening.”
The growth of Christmas-themed commerce in Cambodia has also sparked a domestic market for decorations.
The International Book Centre on Sihanouk Boulevard has been selling a range of Christmas decorations for more than 10 years. Among those on offer this year is large Santa holding a plastic saxophone, priced at $180.
The shop usually imports more decorations from China than it can sell. Shop manager Hor Meng Heng said it was necessary move, as certain decorations had to be on sale otherwise customers could be disappointed.
“We are very busy during this time because there are so many customers looking around and buying our goods,” she said.
Businesses provided a lot of custom, she said, as customers sought Christmas-themed goods for shops, restaurants, offices and schools. Cambodians were also embracing the celebration, she said.
“There are a lot more Cambodian customers than foreigners, because Cambodians like to buy Christmas goods to give as presents to their friends,” she said.
Hor Meng Heng added that she hoped decoration sales this year would at least match those of 2009.
Sisowath High School student Youn Visal, 16, confirmed Christmas was a popular festival amongst young Cambodians, who are a powerful consumer group within the domestic population.
“They always go shopping, have parties, and exchange presents with each other,” he said.
The Post spoke to Youn Visal at Swensen’s ice-cream parlour, where he and his friends had been drawn in by the festive decorations.
“We saw the Christmas decorations and it encouraged us to eat ice-cream in here,” he said. “All the shops and restaurants should be decorated like this.”