As Cambodian consumers felt the pinch of the global economic crisis in 2008, they turned to a down-market item: the Chinese-made mobile telephone.
Retailers interviewed last week said that since the start of the recent economic hardship, cheaply made Chinese mobile telephones have steadily increased sales in Cambodia.
While hard data is thin, the phones appear to be selling strongly even now, perhaps rivaling the sales of established brand names.
“I sold more than five thousand Chinese-made mobile telephones last year to people who live in the provinces,” said Sreng Veasna, the owner of the Mohamontrey mobile telephone shop in Phnom Penh’s Prampi Makara district, adding that 2008 had seen his company sell more than 10,000 Chinese-made handsets.
Although the scores of Chinese mobile telephones that are poring into Cambodia are hit and miss in terms of quality and rarely sport a recognizable brand name, Mr Veasna said they have been improving over the last year or so and have appealed to many consumers during the economic crisis looking for a bargain.
Hence, Chinese mobile telephones have been making noticeable inroads into the market for the last two years, Mr Veasna said. And there are hundreds models, many with fake brand names, selling form anywhere between $30 and $200.
Many Chinese telephones now come fitted with Internet capabilities, television services and, perhaps most importantly, space for two SIM cards, a blessing in Cambodia’s saturated telecommunications market, where cross network calls can often prove troublesome.
Mr Veasna and two other mobile telephone shop owners said they could not identify the manufacturers of the Chinese-made mobile telephones they sold.
“I am too lazy to use two mobile telephones, so I decided to use a Chinese mobile telephone, which is cheap and allows me to use two SIM cards at the same time,” said Khim Samborothana, a technology expert at an independent NGO in Phnom Penh.
Though he said the battery quality is low, replacement is cheap and rids any need to invest in multiple hand sets for cross network calls.
“I have been using it for four months and it has been working well,” he said.
Pov Kakada, another 20-year-old mobile telephone user, bought his Chinese-made telephone for $60. Though no brand name is visible, the telephone largely resembles a Nokia model and comes fitted with a range of gadgets.
“I don’t know who makes my mobile telephone but it is usable,” he said, adding the technology was, however, prone to malfunctioning.
Mobile telephone shop owners say the success of Chinese-made handsets in the market could put competitive pressure on the market share held by names like Samsung, Nokia and Sony Ericsson.
Officials at KTH Telecom Co Ltd, the sole distributor for Nokia telephones in Cambodia declined to comment for this article.
“The selling of Nokia and other mobile telephones dropped down dramatically when Chinese telephones started to come to Cambodia,” said Tan Phallar, a mobile telephone shop owner in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district. “As the world faced the economic crisis, people did not want to buy high-end mobile phones.”
Although Mr Phallar said he has no figures on telephone sales, he said he makes more profit out of selling Chinese-made handsets than brand names like Nokia.
But that consumer trend, born out of a crisis, has now started to become the norm with more and more Cambodians buying the telephones for their value for money, analysts say.
“I think that Chinese mobile phones will reduce the market share of other mobile telephone companies,” said Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodia Economic Association. “I believe in the future the market share of Chinese mobile phones will increase.”
Mr Sophal added that China’s capacity to produce more technologically advanced telephones in the future would increase as they gather more expertise from other companies now investing in the region.
Still, some say Chinese mobile telephone companies must improve if they are to stay successful, especially in their branding.
“My shop only sells established brand names,” said one mobile telephone shop owner who wished to remain anonymous. “I rarely sell Chinese mobile phones due to their poor quality and the difficulty to repair them.”
For Sam Rith Sokearith, a 30-year-old businessman working in the capital, the idea of purchasing a Chinese-made mobile telephone is absurd.
“It may be cheap but I will never buy this telephone,” he said, acknowledging the range of attractive designs. “It is not strong. If it drops on the floor, it will be damaged forever.”