Lap of luxury

tgalleriaangkor_dfs_cambodia-8For about 600 years after 800 AD, some of the hottest property in Asia was centred on the Khmer capital city of Angkor, in what is now Cambodia. The Khmer empire spread out from Angkor to encompass, at its peak, the whole area now occupied by the nation states of Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.

With the death of Jayavarman VII around 1220, the empire began to decline and Angkor itself was finally sacked, looted, burned and generally defiled by an invading army in 1431. The Khmer nation, which eventually became Cambodia, has hardly looked back in the ensuing six centuries, declining from its Angkorian grandeur to 181st in the world for GDP per capita, according to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Luckily though, Angkor’s ruined civilisation remained partly intact, and has become – deservedly – one of the world’s premier tourist attractions. Affluent overseas visitors now swarm over its famed temples and public monuments every day, and wherever there are that many tourists, retail is never far behind.

A glamorous transformation

In 2014, DFS Group, which operates duty-free stores worldwide, got in first. It purchased a building adjacent to the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap, the modern city that adjoins the Angkor ruins and whose international airport serves as a tourist gateway. Over a two-year period, DFS renovated the building and transformed it into a luxury shopping destination. Called ‘T Galleria by DFS, Angkor’, the 8,000 sqm store had its gala opening on June 30, 2016.

According to management, T Galleria is trading beyond internal projections, and finds itself in the enviable position, for the time being at least, of being virtually the only shopping venue of any consequence in a town visited by more than two million tourists every year.

The two-level store houses about 170 brands across the usual categories: clothing, accessories, watches, jewellery, beauty, fragrances and liquor. The familiar global fashion brands are well represented. However, DFS has been careful to blend in a selection of locally hand-crafted artisan products from the workshops of over 30 artisans following traditional Cambodian techniques.

tgalleriaangkor_dfs_cambodia-1_editedFor travellers looking looking to bring home a piece of Cambodia, the local crafts in T Galleria offer an alternative to local products hawked in the suffocating street markets clustered in Siem Reap’s old downtown. While some of those goods in the market look similar to the ones in T Galleria and sell at a fraction of the price, T Galleria’s manager, Alistair Johnson, is quick to point out that they are not made to the same quality specifications as the ones in his store.

A world away from reality

The shopping experience is also worlds apart. Siem Reap is a somewhat grubby town in a province of the same name with a population of a little over a million. Infrastructure is poor and local household incomes are among the lowest in Asia.

Tourists can shop in the aforementioned non-air-conditioned market, or allow themselves to be regaled by aggressive and unerringly persistent stall operators at the entrances to Angkor’s major attractions. The hapless visitor often arrives at a tourist site weakened by intense heat, and vulnerable to suggestion that he or she may not be properly attired to gain access to the religious monument some hundreds of metres away in the distance. Easy pickings for the street vendor.

Brilliant as the Angkorian temples are, a visit to T Galleria can be a welcome respite from what can be an arduous day in the tropical heat. With its airy, clean spaces, contemporary layout and design motifs that capture the local artistic heritage, DFS has given visitors a relaxing and tasteful venue to shop.

Despite Cambodia’s lack of experience with modern standards of customer service, DFS makes sure that its staff at T Galleria are up to international standards.  The store employs about 200 local sales associates, all of whom received training in retail management, sales techniques, individual product categories and customer service.

“The overall onboarding for the new team was an intensive six-week process,” says Johnson.

Since Asian travellers continue to make up 70 percent of visitors to Siem Reap, the majority of the store’s customers are from the Asia-Pacific region.

tgalleriaangkor_dfs_cambodia-14As I toured the store speaking with the sales associates, I couldn’t help but be impressed by their language capability, product knowledge and general enthusiasm for the project. The shopping experience was unlike many in Southeast Asia’s premier shopping destinations, which are still memorable only for the studied indifference of sales staff.

While T Galleria heralds the introduction of modern retail into a hugely popular tourism venue, it is difficult to see other retailers and shopping centres piling into Siem Reap at a rapid rate. Issues surrounding infrastructure and the lack of a domestic spending base should inhibit the growth of the retail industry here for the foreseeable future.

Still, DFS has shown what you can do in an environment where there is virtually no retail or shopping centre heritage. Often, first shopping centres in developing countries are appalling places: oversized, badly designed, poorly tenanted and indifferently managed. While not technically a shopping centre in the strict sense, T Galleria has shown how a shopping centre should look and work in this kind of setting.

The Khmer empire had a rigid social class system that was reflected in the clothes they wore. The poor wore not very much and the affluent sported fine silk and jewelry. The king, of course, wore the best threads of all. If Jayavarman VII were alive today, he would be wanting to spend a lot of time in T Galleria.

Michael Baker is a Sydney-based retail consultant and former head of research at the International Council of Shopping Centers.

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