As Cambodia gears up for the opening of the Aeon mega mall in June, the capital’s shopping scene is evolving at break-neck pace. Marissa Carruthers takes a look at the rise of consumerism and shopping centres to gain an insight into what the future holds. Photography by Charles Fox.

Piles of neatly folded clothes cover the perfectly made pink and white bed. A stack of branded shoeboxes teeters precariously in a corner next to a full-length mirror surrounded by accessories. A half-open wardrobe reveals a rainbow of outfits.

Sokorn Su blushes before opening a drawer to reveal her true treasures – an immaculate collection of branded bags. “At least twice a year, me and some friends fly to Bangkok for a shopping spree,” says the 26-year-old Cambodian boutique owner, pointing towards her latest haul.

Five years ago, fed up with the monotony of the local shopping scene, the women made it a six-month ritual to bag themselves bargain flights to the Thai capital – home to Siam Paragon, Emporium and MBK Center – for a weekend splurge. 

“I remember how mesmerised I was,” Su recalls of her first trip. “I’d seen Bangkok on the TV and in magazines, but to actually be there was incredible. It was everything Phnom Penh isn’t. It was amazing being able to walk into stores that I’ve only read about in magazines or online. Then there was the choice. So much choice – almost so much I didn’t know what to do.”

Home to more malls than you can shake your money at, Bangkok has shopaholics hooked and each year hundreds of Cambodians follow in Su’s footsteps by jetting off to regional fashion hubs to splash their cash.

“There’s a growing middle class in Cambodia and expats who go to Bangkok or Singapore because of the poor selection here,” explains James Sterling, of construction company Advance Construction, now involved in the creation of the capital’s new Aeon mall.
“This is taking money away from Cambodia.”

But all this could be due to change, as a new generation of mall developers set out to bring the Kingdom’s capital closer in line with its regional neighbours. 

The Shopping Scene
A rise in expendable income, combined with a demand for the glitzy shopping centres that litter retail hubs across Europe, America and Asia, means developers feel that the time is ripe for a shake-up of the Cambodian shopping scene.

It is a journey that began in 2003, when Sorya Mall became the first mall to open in Cambodia, popping up alongside the market stalls and small shops that previously served Phnom Penh’s consumer needs. The shiny, eight-floor centre soon drew crowds curious to explore its corridors and try out its set of escalators – then a novelty in the country.

Offering similar stock to nearby markets – within an indoor maze of stalls, complete with the added bonus of air conditioning,

a games centre and branded eateries – Sorya captivated its customers, and remains popular with young consumers to this day. A string of developers then jumped in on the action, building similar complexes including Sovanna Mall, City Mall, Ratana Plaza and Lucky Mall.

“These very quickly became popular with the Cambodian youth,” says David Murphy, of Independent Property Services. “That’s why you find floors of entertainment and arcade games. These kids might not necessarily have the money to spend in the shops now, but they’re capturing their audience early and it has shown to pay off.”

As youths drive consumerism forward – together with a growing appetite for Korean, Thai, American and European brands seen on television and the Internet – experts have observed a growing gap in the market.

“You have a few high-end stalls and a lot of low-end stores here, but nothing for those people in the middle,” Murphy notes. “These are the people who back in Europe or the West would use ‘high street’ stores that don’t exist here yet.”

But development looks set to come at a rollercoaster rate. A survey carried out by global property firm CBRE last year showed that high quality shopping space equated to 0.04 square metres per capita in Phnom Penh, compared with 0.59 in Bangkok. The research revealed that Phnom Penh’s six main shopping centres took up 68,000 square metres, with the real estate firm predicting that the volume of space dedicated to malls will soar 142 percent by the end of this year, rising a further 21 percent in 2015.

“Most places in the world have moved towards mall shopping because people like convenience,” Sterling notes. “Malls offer people a day out. They’re like a good-looking mini-city where you can go shopping, watch a film and then get something to eat.”

New Mall Mania
The wheels are already in motion for a retail transformation, thanks to a new wave of complexes that have swept into Cambodia’s cities during the last six months. 

TK Avenue Mall, dubbed the Kingdom’s first “boutique lifestyle mall”, opened its doors in Toul Kork district in December. Marketing manager Phillip Tay says that “Cambodians are constantly looking for something new in their lives and that is what we’re giving them, by creating a place where people can do more than just shop.”

With 33 tenants, including international brands like Pedro, Shiseido cosmetics and Adidas, the development aims for a middle-class market. On a typical day, its paved areas, grassy spots and seating are filled with young people gossiping, while families test out the play park. The mall is said to have attracted more than 120,000 visitors in its first month alone.

A new experience has also been introduced in Siem Reap, in the form of the King’s Road Angkor development. Spread across an outdoor area, a variety of modern shops and restaurants are housed in traditional wooden buildings.

“We feel Cambodia is ready for something of a higher quality,” says director Lim Nam. “Something more exclusive and different to the markets and shops we are used to. A lot of tourists come to Siem Reap, and they are used to this kind of quality and service.”

Another closely watched development due to open its doors this year is Aeon Mall. The $200 million, three-storey shopping paradise is set to boast more than 150 units, with a mix of restaurants, cafés and shops aimed at consumers with a mid-range income. The Japanese owners are keeping incoming brand names under tight wraps for now. 

Experts see the site as a test of whether the mega mall formula will work in Cambodia. If it does, it could spark the dawn of a new consumer era. Murphy predicts that a host of big name brands could pounce on Phnom Penh if the venture is a hit.

“Without a doubt, if Aeon is a success, which I believe it will be, then there will be a lot of international brands wanting to break into Cambodia, and that’s going to fill a huge gap that exists in the market right now,” Murphy says.

“Cambodians love brands,” the real estate professional adds. “They love to carry bags around with brand names plastered on them because it lets everyone know where they have been. Because it’s new here, it is often seen as a kind of status symbol.”

Market Meltdown?
Despite the predicted rise of state-of-the-art malls, experts believe that traditional markets won’t immediately feel the impact, even if well-heeled consumers are drawn to more sanitised shopping.

Cambodia’s markets are a part of the Kingdom’s culture, along with the street stalls and lower-end shops that serve the majority of the country, says Murphy, painting a picture where malls and markets exist happily side-by-side.

As Sterling points out, Bangkok contains large malls such as Emporium, while still providing a home to local markets. “In Cambodia, the middle class is still a very small percentage of the overall population, so the low range shops and markets are still going to have business for the foreseeable future. The upper-middle and upper class will now have access to what they want,” he says.

Storeowners near to the Aeon development site on Sothearos Boulevard are also welcoming the new shopping complex, which they hope will increase footfall in the area.

“It will bring many more new people to the area who maybe have not been here before. They might buy things from us so we are excited for it to come here,” says 37-year-old Kann Khouny, who runs a wicker store.

“Everyone is talking about it. It is exciting and will add to this area,” adds Rathana Tse, who owns a nearby carpenters’ shop.

Rather than markets, some experts believe that the new mall may impact existing shopping complexes and popular hangouts, including the riverside area.

“Their food and drink outlets and arcades may suffer. I don’t expect the introduction of high end retail to have an effect on the local retail; the gap’s just too big,” says Eelco Dijkhuizen, general manager of the Cambodia branch of international market research company TNS, which specialises in retail analysis.

“The opening of the mall is likely to create excitement among the younger population. They’ll be interested in seeing international brands, taking pictures and perhaps eating something. So ‘going to the mall’ could become a thing. It is, however, unlikely that these guys are willing or able to afford any of the brands at Aeon,” he adds, explaining that the mall’s food and drink outlets may see the most business, if priced appropriately.

Shopping Ahead
A big question remains: If the mall formula proves to be a hit, is Phnom Penh on its way to becoming the next Bangkok or Singapore?

“That’s a long way off yet,” Simon Griffiths, senior manager at CBRE, says with a smile, predicting that more skyscrapers and retail complexes will rise in Phnom Penh in the next two decades. ”A lot of people say Phnom Penh is 20 years behind Bangkok, but I don’t think it will have caught up in that time.”

Rather than compare the Cambodian capital with Thailand, Dijkhuizen believes it is more likely to follow in the footsteps of Saigon, where TNS has observed similar trends. “People go to the mall but they don’t seem to buy much,“ he says.

“There’s no doubt that for now malls will attract the footfall,” Griffiths adds. “But it will be interesting to see if that translates into dollars for the retailers. Is the middle class in Cambodia big enough to sustain this growth?”

And with Aeon set to open the doors to a new era of shopping in Phnom Penh, will Su and her friends be buying themselves their routine return plane ticket to Bangkok?

“Phnom Penh is definitely still a long way off being Bangkok,” she says, holding up a figure-hugging red dress bought from a Thai boutique. “And I can go out tonight knowing that no one will be wearing what I am.”

Malls in the Making

TK Avenue Mall
Opened December 2013
With more than 10,000 square metres spread across a well-designed outdoor area, TK is home to 33 units in the heart of the capital’s Toul Kork district. It offers a mix of restaurants, cafés, retail units and a supermarket. Brands include Poptea, Pedro, Metro and Brown Coffee. The mall is said to have attracted more than 120,000 visitors in its first month. 

King’s Road Angkor
Opened January 2014
The compact 7,000-square-metre shopping village brings together a selection of restaurants, including Blue Pumpkin and Emperors of China, and high-end stores. All outlets at the $10 million development are housed in individually designed traditional Khmer wooden houses.

Aeon Mall
Set to open June/July 2014
Boasting more than 100,000 square metres, spread across three floors, Aeon is due to open next to the Sofitel hotel on Sothearos Boulevard. As Cambodia’s first modern mega mall, it will be home to 180 units, including retail, food and beverage, a cinema complex and a bowling alley. It will also contain parking for 1,400 cars and 1,600 motorbikes.

Parkson Mall
Set to open mid-2017
This seven floor complex is due to open opposite Phnom Penh International Airport and will provide space for retail units, a supermarket, a bowling alley, a gym, karaoke rooms and a swimming pool.

The Bridge
Set to open 2017/18
The twin-towered building, set to rise to more than 154 metres, will spread across 45 floors and be built on Koh Pich. It is touted to be a future home to a four-storey supermarket, retail units and offices and apartments.