Seng Voeung once had a customer who loved the Ford Focus at his showroom—save one problem.
The customer wanted something unique and was concerned that someone else might own the exact same car.
“[The customer] asked us if we would not sell it to anyone else for a year,” said Seng Voeung, the Ford division manager for RM Asia.
It was a deal his dealership couldn’t make and he lost the sale, but in a market where having a particular car is in part showing social status, he said the desire for something special is all too common.
Car sellers say that as the economy and access to loans has grown, the prominence of new and used cars as a status symbol has too.
The number of registered car owners has increased from 9,549 in 2003 to about 173,300, according to figures from the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, though the number of actual owners is higher.
But as some car buyers look for something new and different, they encounter a landscape with only a few official dealerships like Ford or Toyota, and often head to smaller, sometimes nameless, lots throughout the city to find what they want.
“In Cambodia, like the rest of Asia, cars are the status symbol. People buy cars even before they buy a proper house,” said Stuart Whitmore, executive director of the locally owned Ssangyong dealership, which opened last year on Kampuchea Krom Boulevard in Phnom Penh.
He said as Cambodia develops, more buyers are being exposed to more choices. “They say, ‘I’m reading magazines, I see different types of cars. So I should look around at more places,’” Whitmore said.
About 30 to 50 lots selling new and used cars imported from other countries exist all over the city, often because people want variety they can’t find at a Cambodian dealership, he said. And with a large number of car manufacturers without official dealerships—such as GM, Saab or Lexus—the lots have appeal.
Whitmore predicted that as car buyers become more experienced things like car histories or the warranties that dealerships offer would become more important.
On Monivong Boulevard the Gold Vannda Trading Co sells new Hummers, Lexuses and other brands that don’t have Cambodian dealerships, co-owner Khun Dy said. Official dealerships in Cambodia don’t always carry particular models from their brand, so Khun Dy’s business orders them from official dealerships in other countries, he said.
“We find every kind of car in the world for our customers,” he said, adding that variety is a part of the attraction. “People want something different. Dealerships have only a few models.”
He said most of the new cars he sells come from dealerships in France, the United Arab Emirates or the US, countries where he has family.
At the Toyota dealership on Russian Boulevard, owned by TTHK Co Ltd, General Manager Ly Bunhay said that uniqueness is not a big issue. He said most customers want the warranty and service that a dealership provides.
But he added that Toyota has a long-standing popularity in Cambodia that makes buying something different less important to his customers.
Seng Voeung said the cars at his Ford dealership aren’t unique but they are selling well. Five years ago his dealership sold only 10 percent of its cars to individuals, he said, with the rest being sold to embassies, the government and corporations—that number is now 50 percent.
“Business is good,” he said.