Precious Little New Year Cheer for Capital’s Business Owners

As Khmer New Year draws closer, vendors and shopkeepers typically gear up for the business-friendly holiday, ahead of which celebrants purchase offerings for Buddhist ceremonies and get flashy new clothes for their visits back home.

But, according to business owners in the capital, the looming economic crisis has put a damper on the festive atmosphere typical of the lead-up to the three-day holiday, which begins Tuesday.

Selling shoes near the many garment factories surrounding the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Tang Mey Ling repeated the mantra that many vendors chanted throughout the city—business is down and customers are staying away.

“This year is so quiet,” the 29-year-old said Tuesday among glass display cases and plastic-wrapped purses. “It seems like it’s not time for New Year’s.”

Last year, Tang Mey Ling said her sales of leather sequin-studded sandals and brightly colored high heels were up about threefold. She even needed to call in her brother and sister to help manage the crunch of clients at the small shop during the New Year celebration.

Now, most of her time is spent sitting on her plastic stool and waiting around for potential customers to pass by.

“Don’t talk about the profit. I can’t even earn enough to pay the [$70] rent,” she said.

Looking to impress family and friends when they return home or join in traditional games, fashion-conscience New Year’s shoppers also tend to pick out stylish outfits, said clothing vendor You Hanna.

“This year does not seem like Khmer New Year but just ordinary times,” she said.

She has tried to attract new buyers by updating her fashions, ad­ding new blouses and dresses to the shop. So far, she said Tuesday, it has not worked.

Her store, like many others, has been hit doubly, with average consumers shutting their pocketbooks as well as those employed by the garment industry scaling back their spending. Many of her customers worked in the garment industry and now complain of fewer hours and lower pay.

“I dare not overcharge them. I pity them,” clothing shop owner Ros Sokheng, 27, said of garment workers. “They do not have much money.”

Besides clothing, people also prepare to celebrate and observe Khmer New Year by buying up food for offerings and meals to last through the holiday.

As in past years, Mel Sophea expects to find buyers for the bananas she sells by the bunch from her roadside stand off of Mao Tse Tung Boulevard. Even though it is still a few days away from when shoppers usually head out, she said there are already signs 2009 might not be as fruitful.

“It sounds like this year is a hard year,” she said Wednesday.

Typically, she can sell more than 200 bunches of bananas during a good New Year. This time, Mel So­phea imagines she will not reach that goal or be able to sell her fruit for the usual 1,500 to 2,500 riel.

Selling sacks of vegetables nearby, Chum Samein said she has bulked up her stock of onions, green beans, peppers and potatoes—key ingredients for New Year’s curries. Nevertheless, she does not have high hopes.

“I dare not to predict,” Chum Samein, 53, said of this year’s business. “It seems the people don’t have much money. They just come and buy less stuff.”


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