Weekslong Bangkok protests have mall owners, shopaholics seeing “red”

By Thanyarat Doksone, AP
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bangkok protests devastate shopping paradise

BANGKOK — Bangkok’s shopaholics are suffering withdrawal symptoms while some of Asia’s fanciest department stores are seeing red — on their balance sheets and all around them as so-called Red Shirt protesters continue a crippling, weekslong occupation of the Thai capital’s prime commercial district.

If the aim of the largely rural activists was to strike at the heart of Bangkok’s retail and tourism industry, they chose the perfect place.

The Rajprasong shopping district, now a sea of red-shirted protesters, is studded with five-star hotels and some of the region’s glitziest malls which in normal times attract some quarter million Thais and tourists every day.

These have since April 3 been largely replaced by demonstrators who have pitched their tents and rolled out their sleeping mats in the shadows of deserted hotel lobbies and shuttered outlets which sold Gucci handbags and Louis Vuitton luggage.

The bottom line: businesses in the district are losing 174 million baht ($5.5 million) a day and some 20,000 employees have been sent home, with or without pay, or relocated, according to the Rajprasong Square Trade Association which is seeking urgent relief. Hundreds of restaurants and eateries have closed.

The government has already granted extensions on deadlines for paying corporate, value added and land taxes, and other proposals, including soft loans to the ailing businesses, are being considered.

The protests are casting a far wider economic pall than the 3 square-kilometer (1-square-mile) commercial zone. While Thailand’s economy with its substantial foreign currency reserves remains sound for the time being, the protests have battered the golden tourism industry and shaken foreign investor confidence in the government’s ability to maintain basic law and order.

At least 29 people have died and more than 1,400 have been injured in clashes and bomb attacks as the demonstrators, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, seek to oust a government they say came to power illegally.

Business owners in Rajprasong have not taken all this lying down.

Several of the upmarket department stores have organized special, offsite sales, some of which have been packed with customers seeking “retail therapy.”

“The sale is one of our measures to help release the stocks that have piled up. We don’t know how long the (protests) are going to last,” says Satima Tanabe, deputy general manager of the upscale Gaysorn Plaza.

The mall held a five-day sale at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel last week after being closed down for more than 30 days. At least other three similar major sales events are taking place in the Thai capital at sites well away from the “occupation zone.”

“This sort of helped relieve my shopping urge,” said Wannaporn Aroonrat, a self-confessed shopping addict, who went to the Gaysorn sale twice, purchasing 57,000 baht ($1,800) of luggage with a 25 percent discount.

Hard-hit restaurants have also cut their prices and are planning home delivery service. The Thai Restaurant Association reports that 1,500 member restaurants and small food outlets in Rajprasong and adjoining districts of Bangkok have temporarily shut down.

Beside lost profit, Bangkok residents have lost a second home and weekend recreation with the closure of popular super-sized malls such as Siam Paragon and Central World.

In recent years, they have attracted thousands, especially dressed-to-the-hilt teenagers who often come to browse hot items — and each other — rather than buy and spend time in vast food courts and state-of-the-art cinema complexes.

Facebook groups have sprung up, one calling itself “The Expensive Shirts” — imploring the protesters to “Give us back our Siam Paragon!”

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