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Vietnamese shop owners weather COVID-19 storm with frugality, flexibility

Friday, October 09, 2020, 14:04 GMT+7
Vietnamese shop owners weather COVID-19 storm with frugality, flexibility
Bui Thanh Tung (left) has managed to get his small coffee shop nestled on Nha Tho Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam afloat through the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to cutting costs and offering takeouts. Photo: Mai Thuong/ Tuoi Tre

In a year unlike any other, small shop owners in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi have been riding out the COVID-19 pandemic which has brought about an unprecedented economic disruption by cutting costs and adding options.

While many large businesses have been crushed by hefty inventory, overhead costs and rentals while grappling to ride out the novel coronavirus pandemic, shop owners in the two metropolises have managed to get customers through the door by cutting costs and reinventing themselves.

Lower costs, more choices

Everything had been going well for Tran Van Hung, who runs a hu tieu (stretchy rice noodle) stall in an alley on Cach Mang Thang 8 Street in Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City, until the coronavirus pandemic hit Vietnam in late January.

The 37-year-old man, with 14 years of experience in running food stalls under his belt, shared his daily sales have dropped to 80-90 bowls of hu tieu on good days compared to the pre-pandemic average of 120 bowls.

There were days during the outbreaks when his sales dropped even further.

As there seemed to be no easy answers for small-business owners trying to survive, Hung came up with flexible ways to cope.

“The pandemic has hit us all really hard, but I’ve managed to get by so far by scrutinizing every cost. I now travel to the Binh Dien wholesale market in predawn hours every day to buy ingredients at prices which are 25 percent lower than purchases made at inner-city markets,” Hung said.  

The stall owner also sells face masks and hand sanitizers to offset his worrying drop in income.

“I had never thought I would sell face masks and hand sanitizers besides hu tieu like this. The earnings may be insignificant but help us ride out this hard time,” Hung added.

A staff member displays items at Manh Duy’s clothing store, snuggled on Ly Thuong Kiet Street in downtown Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam, which has recently moved online. Photo: Mai Thuong/ Tuoi Tre

A staff member displays items at Manh Duy’s clothing store, snuggled on Ly Thuong Kiet Street in downtown Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam, which has recently moved online. Photo: Mai Thuong/ Tuoi Tre

Adding the protective gear to his product line helped him sustain last year’s daily earning of VND700,000-800,000 (US$30-34) after all costs were subtracted.

His shop rent has been reduced from VND8 million ($343) last year to VND7 million ($300) this year, which he lauded as generous help and empathy shown during this tough time.

“Earlier this year, a friend advised me to rent a space on the street front to expand my business. It is a good thing that I didn’t make the move, otherwise I may end up in big financial trouble now with exorbitant rents,” he said.  

Hung’s situation is mirrored by many other shop owners in Ho Chi Minh City who have kept track of their day-to-day spending and been constantly improving to sustain their clientele.

On a typical morning, Diem Vy and her husband, who run a shop selling vegetable planting kits, were busy packing and shipping seedlings and plastic tubs to customers.

“My shop is doing well for now. It seems more people are keen on growing veggies while hunkering down the pandemic,” Vy said.

She found VND15 million ($643) as monthly rent for her 350-square-meter shop on An Duong Vuong Street in Binh Tan District affordable.

According to a Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporter’s observation, the shop received more than 10 customers within only one hour.

The couple do most of the work themselves and hire only one worker to minimize overheads.

Bui Danh Manh has also managed to run his pho (noodle soup with beef) shop, snugly located on Provincial Highway 10 in Binh Tan District, through the pandemic.

Before the outbreaks, Manh, his wife, and a younger sibling left their hometown in the northern province of Vinh Phuc to open the shop in the southern metropolis.   

“As the number of clients plummeted during the outbreaks, I told my wife to resume paddy work back in our hometown. Her financial support helped pull us through this difficult time,” he shared.

Manh added he had succeeded in seeking a discount of VND2 million ($86) from his landlord since April on the normal rent of VND10 million ($429), with a promise to resume the original rate as soon as his sales pick up.  

A shop selling vegetable planting utensils run by Diem Vy in Binh Tan District, Ho Chi Minh City has still been bustling with customers since Vietnam was hit by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in late January 2020. Photo: Manh Dung/ Tuoi Tre

A shop selling vegetable planting utensils run by Diem Vy in Binh Tan District, Ho Chi Minh City has still been bustling with customers since Vietnam was hit by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in late January 2020. Photo: Manh Dung/ Tuoi Tre

Bricks and clicks

Cutting costs and moving things online are a recipe adopted by many shop owners in Hanoi to get through the global health crisis.

Manh Duy, who runs a clothing store snuggled in an alley on Ly Thuong Kiet Street in downtown Hoan Kiem District, revealed he paid VND5 million ($214) in rent and another VND6 million ($257) in staff salary each month alongside utility bills.

“Although I wanted to keep my bricks-and-mortar store running, the worsening situation forced me to sustain my capital,” Duy shared, adding he soon began shifting things online and spending the sums he saved from staff salaries on running advertisements on social media.    

The man also tried to reach out to would-be customers by rolling out a host of discounts and special offers while introducing new items, including embroidered masks, to tap into customers’ mindset of staying smartly dressed even in pandemic times.

Similarly, Bui Thanh Tung, owner of a small coffee shop on Nha Tho Street, also in Hoan Kiem District, began to feel on edge when his rival shop opposite the street shuttered in early January. 

“My constant worry now is not the rival shops, but the epidemic itself,” Tung noted. 

Despite being merely 25 square meters in area, his shop used to earn him good revenues as he placed more tables on the curbside. His clientele was made up mostly of expats and coffee enthusiasts.

“Since the pandemic broke out, it has changed everything. My clients dropped 70 percent as I was not allowed to place tables on the sidewalk and had to practice social distancing inside the shop,” Tung explained.

He wasted no time in promoting his drinks on social media and joining food and drink delivery applications while offering discounts on takeouts.

Tung’s efforts are enthusiastically embraced by his customers during the bleak time.

“Though one of the shop’s patrons, I’ve been reluctant to sip my drinks at the café since the outbreaks began. I really love the shop’s takeouts as I can still enjoy my favorites and have less worries about infection risks,” said Thanh Nga, a 21-year-old regular customer. 

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