When Srey Chanthorn’s company came up with the idea of launching a container market in Phnom Penh, based on a successful concept in Bangkok, he knew within days of opening that it was going to be very lucrative.
Crowds of affluent young Cambodians and expats flocked to Jet’s Container Night Market located in the shadow of the multimillion-dollar The Bridge development, soaking up the atmosphere and spending their dollars.
Mr. Chanthorn, had hit on a good business plan: give them something they’ve never seen before. Using modified shipping containers to create food and drink kiosks, with bars and restaurants on top, is nothing new. Countries like the U.S. and the U.K., which has a pop-up shopping mall made completely from shipping containers, have had them for years. But the concept is new in Cambodia.
“I can say that I am successful because I understand the concept of Cambodian people. I understand what it needs to attract Cambodian visitors,” said Mr. Chanthorn.
So popular has Jet’s been since it opened in March that it expanded last month with 67 more stalls—bringing the total to 320—offering food, drinks and shopping, along with live entertainment. Construction is also underway on a three-story parking lot, bringing the total investment to about $1.5 million, according to Mr. Chanthorn, the chairman of Jet’s Group.
There are also plans to open another market nearby, on a one and a half hectare plot behind the Australian Embassy.
Sullivan Eav, the owner of Smokey Boyz and the Shake Bar, said it was an easy decision to set up shop in Jet’s Container Night Market.
“I knew this concept was going to work because it didn’t exist in Cambodia and I know Cambodians enjoy something different,” the 31-year-old said.
He sees around 120 customers a day during busy periods, Thursday to Sunday.
Similar markets are springing up in the capital.
Container Square, located along Street 1928 in Sen Sok district, is due to open soon, extending over an area of 10,000 square meters with 196 stalls.
There’s also talk of markets opening in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
Back in Phnom Penh, the Art’s Container Market had its grand opening last weekend in the Boeng Kak neighborhood, built on land once underwater before the lake was filled in and former residents evicted.
Its unique angle is offering a creative space for local artists to work, along with 80 stalls for regular market customers to enjoy food and drink. Vendors rent the containers, which are already in place for them.
Bun Seng, 27, the owner of the Art’s Container Market, believes he has a success on his hands.
“There is too much demand for the container market and not enough supply,” he said.
“The container market nowadays is very popular because it’s brand new in Cambodia,” Mr. Seng added. “They have it in Thailand, even Singapore, but people in Cambodia have never experienced it before.”
His market is focused on “younger generation customers,” he said. He expects the 18 to 23 age group to account for 70 percent of customers.
“I think nowadays Cambodian people have money to spend because their salary has increased a lot,” said Mr. Seng. “The Cambodian economy is growing a lot. It’s not like before.”
What these businesses seem to be doing well is tapping into the emerging new generation of Cambodian millennials with more disposable income in their pockets, as well as tourists looking for a different night out.
Recent graduate Huot Chanpav, 23, a frequent visitor to the Jet’s night market, splurges up to $30 on drinking and entertainment when out with friends.
James Beirinn, a volunteer for the Good Fun Foundation who has lived in Cambodia for the past month, is happy to part with $20 per visit to the Jet’s market.
“People are very welcoming and it’s a festive ambience,” said the 33-year-old.
“I think it’s a lot cheaper than the main coffee chains or any outlets in Aeon Mall. It is well located in Phnom Penh and well thought out.”
Chou Ngeth, senior consultant at Emerging Markets Consulting, spoke of a “growing trend” of consumers setting aside a bigger slice of their disposable income for entertainment.
Young people in particular are “spending more,” he added, pointing to a new wave of modern shopping destinations, such as Aeon Mall, Makro and E-Mart, South Korea’s largest retailer which will open a flagship store in Phnom Penh in 2019.
Sullivan Eav, the vendor at Jet’s market, has seen evidence firsthand of this increased spending on eating out.
“Eight years ago, a table of five would have spent $20 to $25. Today, a table of five spends more than $50. It has doubled,” he said.
Which is good news for those who have invested in the new trend of container markets.
The challenge now is to keep customers and their money coming back when the excitement about the new concept dies down. Consumers can be fickle and quickly move on to the next big thing. Mr. Ngeth, the analyst, said that maintaining popularity could be key to the markets’ long-term future.
“Young populations’ preference and lifestyle change quite fast. It is hard to predict,” he said.
“It might be very attractive for the youth group at an early stage…then significantly decline over time due to many other choices.”
However, Srey Chanthorn, from Jet’s, is confident that he can thrive and survive in the future.
“I know how to be creative and prepare step by step,” he said.
“For some businesses, it can only be operated for a short time but for me, I think I can keep it running longer.”
Mr. Ngeth agreed it will be dog-eat-dog when the going gets tough.
“It is a growing market. Therefore, competition will be tougher,” he said. “The stronger businesses will stay, the weaker will exit at some point.”