Friday, November 27, 2009

Big Box Battle -The Struggle Against the Multinationals

My stated goal in both this blog as well as my photography is to share and show how different people in various lands are but in doing so, show how much we are alike.

My experiences have demonstrated to me that people all want the same things - they want to be able to take care of their families, they want to be happy, and they want to live in peace - "Peace" as in the absence of armed conflict, and excessive interference from governments.

With the common desires of people, there are common conflicts and issues that confront people no matter their culture or location.

Earlier this week, I became aware of a current conflict in Khumphawapi that is not unlike the conflict that confronts many smaller communities in the United States. The conflict is the encroachment and impact of "big box" multi-national retailers such as Walmart upon the local business environment.

In Isaan, most people purchase their goods from small stores and markets. I have written about the market in Khumphawapi where vendors rent space either inside the open sided structure or outside to sell their items. These markets are situated throughout the larger towns. In smaller villages, such as Tahsang Village, some people run very small markets, approximately 10 ft by 10 ft, out of their homes to support some of their neighbor's needs. Night markets are set up on specified nights throughout the week to support the greater needs of people living in the smaller villages.

In addition to the above locations where goods and perishables can be purchased, there are larger distribution shops. These larger shops, typically around 30 ft by 30 ft and stacked from floor to ceiling, sell bulk items. It is at these locations, sort of like micro Costco or Sams Club, that the small village shops purchase their inventory to sell back in their village. The price of the goods in these distribution shops, typically owned and run by ethnic Chinese Moms, Pops, and Sons, reflects a discount to the bulk buyer.

Larger cities such as Udonthani have Western style big box retailers such as the British chain "Tesco-Lotus", and the French chain "Carrefour". These stores could be transported to the USA and would not be any bit out of place. In fact it is my understanding that "Tesco-Lotus" is venturing into the American marketplace.

Here in Isaan, the status quo is being challenged mainly by Tesco-Lotus. They are establishing stores outside of the metropolitan areas very similar to the Walmart practise. In addition they are building smaller local mega-shops sort of like mega 7-11's in cities. These endeavors are a threat to the status quo, culture and social fabric of the local peoples.

The current system of markets serves their communities on a very personal level. The vendors for a large part are selling items from their farms or that they have gathered. Duang's sister and brother-in-law often rent space at the Kumphawapi market to sell vegetables from their farm. Other people sell mushrooms that they cultivate at their homes. Shopping at these markets is a social event as much as it is about buying what you need. Gossip, news, and pleasantries are exchanged during shopping. This strengthens and cultivates a sense of community and community commitment unlike the sterile and impersonal experience of shopping in a big box multi-national establishment.

Tesco Lotus is planning on building a large store just outside of Kumphawapi. The land was back filled and prepared for building earlier this year. Construction has not started yet but appears to be imminent.

Just as Walmart entering into a small community, the planned arrival of Tesco-Lotus has stirred up some opposition. Across from the market in downtown Kumphawapi a sign has been erected - a very serious sign. The sign, as translated by Duang, states "You work for Lotus, You will die, now!" I guess it is up to the reader's supposition as to whether their death would be to natural or un-natural causes. For me, it gets my attention and I believe! Interestingly this sign in the middle of town, on the main road through town, 100 feet from where Police are either directing traffic or checking motorcycles for compliance to various laws, remains for over 5 days. We do not know who is behind this sign or similar signs erected around Kumphawapi as well as at the entrance to the projected Tesco-Lotus site but the commonly held suspicion is that it is the ethnic Chinese merchants. It is fairly common in Southeast Asia for the ethnic Chinese merchants to be suspected of any and most nefarious plots.

The struggle against and issues related to big box multi-national stores in Khumphawapi is very much like in the USA however the degree of intimidation being employed is obviously much more transparent.

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