Tue 22 Apr 2014
Filed under: Business / Trade,News
The website of the Yangon Online Store resembles an early, very pared-down Amazon or eBay site. The familiar categories of merchandise for sale include books, electronics, computers, sports equipment, health & beauty, clothing, automotive, and Apple products.
Look a little closer and you will notice that only a few items have prices listed and that there’s no way to pay for them online; there are no credit card or PayPal logos. Nor is there the option that many Indonesian, Thai and Vietnamese shopping sites offer: payment by direct transfer from the customer’s bank account to the website’s bank.
The explanation is that all payments are conducted in person in Yangon Online’s shiny glass-fronted brick-and-mortar shop on Yaw Min Gyi St. in Myanmar’s capital. The shop is about a block from the cloth and jewelry vendors of traditional Bogyoke Market. The Yangon Online service is the four-year-old brainchild of a Burmese living in the United States. Would-be customers first browse the site and decide what they want to buy.
Since the products have been culled from Amazon and eBay sites and Apple stores in the United States, customers can phone the Yangon Online shop and ask about buying Amazon and other online products not listed on the Yangon Online Store website. (Yes, obtaining an iffy internet connection in your home is still very expensive in Myanmar but time in a neighborhood internet shop runs around 30 cents an hour.)
Eventually, though, customers must come into the Yangon store to put down a cash deposit of 50% of the total price. Yangon Online reps in the U.S. buy the items and package them for overseas shipment. Typically, delivery takes two or three weeks. Customers pay the remaining amount in cash when they come to the shop to pick up their order.
Ab machines, iPhones and golf clubs
A $50 Coach handbag from Amazon, for example, is shipped free within the United States but Yangon Online’s delivery service to Myanmar plus taxes will add another $35 or so (or its kyat equivalent). A $599 fifth-generation iPhone in the United States ends up costing $700 by the time it arrives in Myanmar (aka Burma). A $50 T-shirt ends up costing $67 on delivery. Naturally, the extra fees depend a lot on weight and size of the item.
I found this business interesting if just because the Yangon Online website seems to be a window on what rich Burmese view as necessary luxuries, although of course expats are Yangon Online customers as well. Perhaps I should say it’s a window on wealthy capital dwellers.It’s a little strange that there isn’t a Yangon Online branch in Mandalay, given that so many conspicuously consuming mainland Chinese reside in the northern second city.
There might be no other place in the country to buy digital lasers, pipe threaders, GPS devices, sound cards, engineering software, golf clubs and tennis racquets. It would be a pain and big expense to haul some of these products on a plane from Thailand. But abs workout sytems? Lancome serum booster and Beyoncé Parfum spray? $700 for the latest iPhone model? A $67 T-shirt? Who needs that stuff? The clerk in the shop told me that cosmetics, perfume and clothing are the most popular purchases.
I hasten to add that there are plenty of late-model smartphones, iPod accessories, computers and digital cameras for sale in Yangon and Mandalay. A few people obviously want and can afford very recent specific models. The iPhones I have seen for sale in downtown Yangon are probably grey market or second-hand from Thailand. (Can we abandon the theme of Myanmar as some kind of hermit kingdom isolated from world events, technology, trade and Walt Disney? There are at least 2 million Burmese working in Thailand alone. Tens of thousands in Singapore and Malaysia. They go back and forth all the time, sometimes daily. They buy stuff to bring home.)
In smaller towns and cities, small shops with glass-covered displays of mobile phones are favorite browsing hangouts. A surprising number of not particularly affluent Burmese have Blackberrys and the newer cheap Chinese-brand smartphones. Phones–or rather, SIM cards–are still expensive. Burmese (though not expats) can get one for less than $100 nowadays but I have met many not particularly rich Burmese that spent $300 just a few years ago for a basic phone or spent thousands several years before that.
Consumer spending isn’t now much of a growth engine in Myanmar. Annual per capita income is around $1,000. Government spending accounts for something like 25% of GDP. But maybe Yangon Online is a signal of future directions.
Update: Just came across this shopping site, YangonBay. Despite the name, there is a strong emphasis on Korean clothing and cosmetics. No surprise: the influence of Korean soap operas and pop singers is hard to miss in Myanmar as well as greater Southeast Asia. Yangon Online has a much greater range of products.
YangonBay’s payment method is more advanced than Yangon Online’s, however. Customers can pay by bank transfer and MyanPay, which sounds like a local variation of PayPal. Customers also can pay cash on delivery within the Yangon metro area. COD is still a pretty common system for online purchases in Thailand and Vietnam. The site also sports logos from PayPal, MasterCard and Visa. I don’t understand how that works; how many Burmese even have credit cards yet? Maybe people, Burmese and otherwise, that have acquired the cards and a PayPal account while living in other countries? My guess is: Burmese people with Singapore credit cards.