Until recently I assumed there is a grand plan behind the endless renovations and rebuilding of shops in the city center, with makeovers to the retail landscape researched, rationalized, and planned.
I’ve since learned it’s pretty much hit or miss, with more missing than hitting.
For the record, I do not believe in Santa Claus nor the Easter Bunny, although I confess being fooled by the Tooth Fairy as a tot -- at least for a while.
I thought studies were done before concrete was poured, however informal they might be, some polling of consumers, and assessments of the existing businesses before people started a new venture.
Turns out 'pin the tail on the donkey' would be a more accurate assessment -- that’s the children’s party game where blindfolded kids try to pin a paper tail in the correct location on the butt of a model of a donkey constructed from cardboard and stuck to a wall.
Take the Hong Kong-style milk tea shops -- a blatant example of lemmings going over a cliff.
A couple of years ago, there was hardly any of them in the center core of the city around Hoa Binh Theater here in Da Lat.
Then suddenly they began sprouting up like weeds, one after another. The number of such shops peaked about a year ago at over 20 within a few hundred meters on my street.
I kept thinking that unless a lot of people suddenly came to the city center absolutely dying for milk tea, how could so many identical businesses be supported?
Turns out that was a good question because now there are less than ten open, still far too many to survive in the long term.
Even more disturbing is how quickly they closed down -- some of them in only two or three months.
Did they think they’d fling open the front door to a stampede of parched tea drinkers bursting in like crazed Black Friday shoppers we see in social media clips?
Rumors are swirling that the milk tea frenzy here in Vietnam is now nearly over, and will be replaced by the lemon tea craze, which is unlikely to create more tea drinkers, so the net result will be to replace milk with lemon until the next fad rears its ugly head.
I have a hunch the same fate is in store for fashion because the street hosts a disproportionate number of apparel retailers, shoe shops, women’s accessories, and trinket vendors, and even a couple of 'ao dai' (the elegant traditional ensemble featuring a colorful dress with a slit up the side and white pants beneath) tailors thrown in for good measure.
A couple of years ago there were only about 30 such enterprises, 35 at the very most. Suddenly there was a flurry of renovations followed by more shops opening, so now there are over 70 such shops on a single stretch of road.
There is potentially some rationale behind all this, that being 'birds of a feather flock together,' referring to neighborhoods of some older Asian cities housing merchants who specialize in the same products.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter, with its streets of Hang Thiec (tinware), Hang Bac (silverware) businesses, and others, springs to mind.
I can definitely see that happening to tin and silver, but when it comes to clothing, sporty tops with bizarre inspirational sayings such as 'While there is life' followed by a mysterious acronym 'eis' may only go so far.
|Lost in translation?|
To further muddy the waters, the Central Market is only a couple of hundred meters away.
Where else can you buy three pairs of socks for VND20,000 (slightly less than US$1)?
For that price, if push comes to shove, you just toss them and buy another pair instead of doing the laundry, which I confess I’ve done.
Shopping in the local market is beneath some well-heeled types, who prefer the nice shops on the street, which definitely carries some weight.
Many of the retailers in the neighborhood follow a common sequence, beginning with wild euphoria and optimism when they open up: ceremonies, blessings, opening parties, balloons, and away they go!
Then after a few months, the lights get dimmed to save on overhead costs, which is never an indication of a profitable enterprise, plus potential customers can’t see the goods on display and tend to keep walking.
The next stage is the addition of other products for sale in an effort to fluff up the bottom line, or at the very least keep the staff busy.
Usually, the faltering businesses add fresh fruit and other fast-moving items that don’t take up much space.
I’ve noticed that the introduction of a basket of avocados at the entrance is synonymous with 'we don’t have enough customers,' often soon followed by shutters closed until someone thinks up the next venture.
|Kiss of death?|
During the last few months, a couple of takoyaki stands (the Japanese octopus-based street snack) have popped up and flourished in the evenings while the fashion shops that host them remain mostly empty during the day.
Odd that the tail ends up wagging the dog, with the afterthought add-on business generating more revenue than the original concept does.
The rate of churn is incredible, with one store having changed personality and facade five times in the last two years: first it was a café, followed by a short stint featuring rice paper beef rolls, then an even more brief reincarnation as a breakfast soup joint (as if there aren’t already enough competitors within spitting distance), and finally it was recently resurrected once again as a café.
The new-look café was only open a few days when whoosh, it too disappeared in a flurry of renovations and just re-opened in recent weeks as -- you guessed it -- a women’s apparel shop!
How many outfits do they think women can possibly buy? (Don’t answer that.)
Another retailer was flogging women’s shoes up until a couple of years ago, then they split the shop in two, replacing the shoes with leather jackets in the other half of the shop.
Nothing doing -- I hardly ever saw a customer enter the joint, never mind buy anything.
Then suddenly one day a counter was installed at the front of the shoe side of the shop with a small oven behind it, a new canopy, and two perky, uniformed salespeople selling French-style profiteroles (cream-filled buns) stuffed with avocados, a cute local variation on a traditional pastry.
Great idea, at least in theory -- you can imagine customers saying: “I’ll take a pair of shoes, a leather jacket, and a cream bun, please.”
It never did catch on and the whole bun operation disappeared literally overnight without so much as a whimper.
Gone with the wind -- the entire street did double-takes wondering how all tangible evidence of that profiterole stand vanished so quickly.
|Jackets, shoes, and profiteroles|
An ice cream shop popped up a few months ago named 'I-Cream,' I guess following the logic of 'I-Phone, I-Pad, I-This, I-That, and I-The-Other-Thing.'
The neighbor confided in me that he told the shop owner about the English language error and suddenly a new sign denoting 'Ice-Cream' was mounted in its place.
Not quite 'ice cream' but they’re headed in the right direction.
At that point it finally dawned on me: people just take a wild stab at opening these businesses!
They decide it’s worth a shot and away they go, either it works or it doesn’t, not the most scientific approach.
Either way, the last thing I would open in Da Lat is an ice cream shop because it rarely gets hot enough to create a stampede for the nearest outlet, and when it does get warm, people hit the 'kem bo' (the local avocado with ice cream treat) joints which are a dime a dozen all over the city.
Where is all this going and what are the new trends on the horizon?
I have noticed several convenience stores opening, but 'convenient' is definitely not the operative word.
They pretty much carry the same goods with long shelf lives that the old-style corner stores do.
Missing are freshly prepared rice and noodle dishes which can be quickly warmed up, plus fresh fruit and snacks, which can already be found in such outlets in the major cities of Vietnam.
I’ve also learned from this informal survey what a relatively safe bet a coffee shop is. There are tons of them with more still opening up!
We know where they’re getting coffee from since Vietnam is the second largest producer in the world, but what about the customers?
They seem to be coming out of the woodwork as the shops do a roaring business, or so it appears.
Here’s the big take-away from all this: if you’re wandering around the city center, keep your eye out for a basket of avocados outside the shops, could be a sign of good deals inside!