Less than 10 months after the $200-million Aeon Mall opened its doors to Phnom Penh’s consumers, at least seven tenants at Cambodia’s largest shopping center have shuttered their businesses, complaining of disappointing foot traffic, construction disturbances and overly thrifty patrons.
While Aeon declined to provide an exact figure for the number of shops, restaurants and cafes that have left the Japanese-operated retail complex, interviews this month revealed that at least seven have closed down—six of them since the start of February.
The businesses include Fox Wine Bistro, owned by the same group as local chain Brown Coffee, and Miam Miam, a Singaporean restaurant chain opened in partnership with local restaurant group CBM Corporation. The others are Singaporean chain Ya Kun Kaya Toast, Japanese restaurant Kushiage Kushisho, Japanese bun shop Pao Pao, local clothing retailer Espada, and Amadana, a Japanese store that sold high-end electronic appliances.
And French bakery chain Eric Kayser plans to shutter its restaurant on Aeon’s open-air “Terrace Avenue” at the end of this month, while keeping its smaller bakery outlet inside the building.
Located on 100,000 square meters of prime land off Sothearos Boulevard in Chamkar Mon district, the four-story mall was inaugurated in June in a ceremony presided over by Prime Minister Hun Sen and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. With 190 shops, a seven-screen movie theater, an ice rink, a television studio and a food court, the mall offered amenities that could not be found at the city’s other retail centers and was heralded as a major step in the expansion of Cambodia’s consumer-oriented economy.
“This area is the one that shows the potential for other developments in Cambodia,” Mr. Hun Sen said at the time.
But despite the 12 million people Aeon claims have come through the mall’s doors since its opening, tenants interviewed this month identified a range of issues contributing to sales woes that ultimately proved too burdensome.
Chang Bunleang, managing partner of Fox’s ownership group, said that despite the large number of people flocking to the shopping center each day, relatively few were patronizing its restaurants, explaining that Aeon’s surroundings were to blame.
“There are many customers going [to the mall], but what we have observed and we have found out is that not many people are spending money on restaurants, particularly [on Terrace Avenue], so we decided to pull out,” Mr. Bunleang said by telephone.
“From what I, and our team, thought, if you look at malls in other cities and neighboring countries, they’re not just a mall. There are offices around, so there are people coming after work to hang out,” he said. “Aeon Mall, it’s not connected to any offices, so most of the people are actually driving to the mall and hanging out on top of the mall and not on the avenue.”
Alex Matcheret, the owner of Cambodia’s Eric Kayser franchise, also said that while certain areas of Aeon Mall enjoyed heavy foot traffic, Terrace Avenue was noticeably emptier, attributing the problem to the flow of patrons through the shopping center.
“You can see when the customers come to Aeon they’re going directly inside the mall, they’re not passing by Terrace Avenue,” he said. “Maybe they [Aeon] have to change something to attract more people.”
Mr. Matcheret—who said he planned to open another Eric Kayser restaurant in the Vattanac Capital Tower in July—noted that the construction of a multistory parking garage adjacent to Terrace Avenue was proving troublesome for restaurants located there.
“[Y]ou know now they decided to build the parking and it’s changing completely the layout of Terrace Avenue, and the access is not easy for the customers,” he said.
Jean-Pierre Muselli, the owner of The Original Steakhouse on Terrace Avenue, said in an email that his restaurant had felt the full impact of the parking garage. Since construction began in December, he said, sales had dropped significantly.
“Our business drop down by 40% since the beginning of the works,” he wrote. “As the customers cannot park next to our shop they prefer to go to another place for lunch or dinner…. We come from a profitable business to currently lose some money every month.”
Issues with restaurant sales were not limited to Terrace Avenue, however, said Chy Sila, general manager of CBM Corp., whose Miam Miam restaurant, which had been located on the third floor of the mall, closed earlier this month.
“Miam Miam has been closed already because we have noticed and seen that people who visit the mall could not afford our products and I can say that we chose the wrong location,” Mr. Sila said by telephone.
Mr. Sila said patrons of Miam Miam—which bills itself as “The French Cafe with a Japanese Twist!”—were expected to be able to spend between $12 and $15, but that in reality, most people who came to the mall could spend just $10 or less.
Chut Mey Ing, a local high school student shopping at Aeon on Tuesday, said that in her experience, most visitors preferred the food options at the mall’s supermarket on the ground floor.
“There are a lot of different types of restaurants from different countries like Italy and Japan in the mall, but I have noticed that mostly people like to come eat [at the supermarket] downstairs because it has food that Cambodians like and the prices are reasonable,” she said.
In an email this week, Yajima Makoto, managing director of Aeon Mall Cambodia, said that while the mall was disappointed that tenants were leaving, closures are normal at shopping centers.
“Of course it is…unfortunate for us and tenants to close their stores,” Mr. Makoto wrote. “But for the shopping mall operation, it is our customer’s demands which supports our business so it is normal for the rearrangement for inviting new brands and tenants.”
Mr. Makoto did not respond to additional requests for comment on tenants’ complaints about construction and location.
Luu Meng, president of the Cambodia Hotel Association, said that future commercial development in the country partly hinged on Aeon’s success.
“It is a showcase Cambodia can use,” said Mr. Meng, who is also a shareholder in the Khmer World Food Court on the mall’s third floor and director of the Thalias group, which owns Khema, a restaurant on Terrace Avenue.
“If Aeon Mall doesn’t work, we have a lot of investment [that is] going…to wait, but if this shopping mall gets better, I think a lot of new investment [is] on the way.”
© 2015, Anthony Jensen. All rights reserved.