Cover Story
Abuzz with Bazaars
Foong Li Mei 
Are retail spaces and budding entrepreneurs getting a new lease of life from pop-up markets?

Cindy Chen’s marketing smells delicious. Her homemade sausages, once ignored in shops, are now drawing customers to her pop-up kitchen. “I sell at bazaars these days to build up my brand,” says the founder of Far Eats Fine Foods. “I knew my sausages had potential, even though it failed miserably when I tried to sell through shops.”

Chen and her grilling station are often sighted at bazaars mushrooming in shopping malls and business premises around Klang Valley. The sizzle does translate into sales, likely fanned by her warm ear-to-ear grins. The 38-year-old is a natural salesperson, offering tasting samples with one hand and flipping sausages with the other, all the while chatting candidly with customers. More often than not, the sausages would be gone before the bazaar ends. Her newly-converted fans would place orders after the event as well.

Bazaars are changing the entrepreneurship game. The barrier of entry is much lower. Once upon a time, sales channels are a headache for new entrepreneurs. E-stores are cost-effective, but customers are unable to touch, feel, taste or smell the products. Brick-and-mortar shops, on the other hand, require hefty investments for rental, maintenance and security services, among others.

With pop-up markets, one does not even need to buy a table. It usually comes with the booth, which can be rented for as low as RM50 to RM100 a day. Business is distilled to its essence – creating, selling and talking to potential customers.

This may be good news to the majority of Malaysians who think it is tough to start a business. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2016/17 report, only 25% of Malaysians saw opportunities to dive into entrepreneurship, and only 28% believed they were capable of running a business.

With price hikes and squeezed wages, bazaars also provide opportunities to supplement income. As these markets mostly happen during weekends, many vendors are able to maintain a day job while running side businesses.

“I’m addicted to selling at bazaars,” admits Chen with a chuckle. “Other than being able to build relationships with customers and other vendors, it also provides excellent cash flow.”

She adds that about 80% to 90% of her income comes from sales at bazaars alone. With a solid following now, Chen is confident enough to tackle what she had failed at before – selling her artisanal sausages through high-end grocery stores. Currently, they are stocked at the non-halal butcheries of Hero Market in TTDI Plaza and Plaza Ativo.


Making a living

Like Chen, Riharu Harun’s career gained a second wind through pop-up markets. The Fine Arts graduate lost his job at a printing shop in 2015 and was unable to find new employment for three months. His funds were running out, so a cousin suggested that he get into the bazaar scene – original drawings seemed to fetch interest at these places.

But there was one major hitch – Riharu could not draw. He majored in sculpting in university. Even so, desperate for a source of income, he picked up digital art and practised fervently. Within a few months, he joined his first art market. Sales were paltry, but he kept signing up for more bazaars. From there, he learnt the ropes of establishing his brand, Amazing Riharu Production, tweaking pricing and filtering the bazaars he participates in. He made notes of shifting trends and tastes. When he observed that digital drawings were not as marketable as hand drawings, he dived into the latter.

At a recent Art for Grabs bazaar, Riharu sold out hours before the event concluded. In such cases, he typically makes about RM2,000 to RM3,000. This is before deducting the cost of drawing materials, printing, transportation and booth rental, which can total from RM500 to RM1,000.

The profit may not seem impressive, considering the work involved – it usually takes Riharu a month to create enough art to fill a booth. But bazaars offer value beyond sales. “My main income comes from commissioned work, whether it is corporate clients or art enthusiasts, and all of them learned about me through bazaars,” says the 27-year-old. “Without bazaars, I may not have launched a full-time art career that allows me to draw and create what I like. I’d most likely be stuck working for another printing shop.”


Unrealistic expectations

Lower barrier of entry into entrepreneurship does not mean no barrier at all. Aida Salleh, the coordinator of Maple Food Market at Great Eastern Mall and Sunny Side Up Market at The Row, believes that bazaar vendors and brick-and-mortar businesses face almost the same challenges, except that the former has lower operating costs than the latter.

“[Vendors] still have to invest in digital marketing or advertising, as well as push for customer engagement and interaction,” says Aida, who is a serial bazaar organiser since 2013.

In fact, she emphasises, bazaars are best leveraged as opportunities for brand-building. Sales are secondary. Nonetheless, she has encountered vendors who saw it the other way round and judged the value of joining a bazaar by the stock they moved.

Vendors are not the only ones dazzled by the profitable promises of bazaars; venue providers are equally susceptible. With the glut of commercial sites around Klang Valley, premises are scrambling to hold pop-up markets to ‘activate’ the space – basically, attract spenders.

In September alone, there were the Weekend Fever Art Market at Great Eastern Mall, Together Gather Bazaar and Fuyoh! Collectors Market at Publika, Bazaar 360° at Quill City Mall, We. Women Market at Tropicana City Mall, I Love Bazaar at MyTown KL, Pasar Artisan at TTDI Plaza, and Riuh at APW Bangsar, to name only a few.

Aida has been in talks to organise markets with a wide range of premises, from shopping malls to property developers and even memorial parks. She refers to them as clients. “Clients have to understand that bazaars are a long-term investment for brand awareness. The actual purpose of markets is to act as value-added perks for the existing patrons of your space, your regular customers, to keep them coming,” she explains.

Aida clarifies that these events, which can cost up to RM50,000 to put together from scratch, takes time to gain a following, hence bonus footfall for the premises. It needs to be recurrent but spaced out by a few months to preserve excitement. In her experience, bazaars tend to yield apparent benefits only after its third round.


Fending off bazaar fatigue

While not a magic wand for human traffic, well-run bazaars are a win-win – it gives small retailers and entrepreneurs an affordable platform to sell their wares, while lending a jolt of novelty to a commercial space.

For example, the inaugural Riuh in August attracted about 6,500 visitors over a weekend, according to the organiser’s records. That is a lot of new eyeballs for the vendors, not to mention businesses for cafes and restaurants at its venue, APW Bangsar.

Riuh is put together by MyCreative Ventures, a government investment arm tasked to spur the creative industries. Part market, part art showcase, the monthly event hosts pop-up stores, workshops, exhibitions and performances to nurture an appreciation for creativity.

One of its major objectives is to offer a temporary distribution channel for creative entrepreneurs. The organiser seeks to replace vendors from previous instalments with new ones to keep the selections fresh and the patrons enticed.

“In a way, we want to nurture the spirit of entrepreneurship in the creative fields. There are competitions out there but that’s entrepreneurship,” explains Melissa Low, co-managing partner of Riuh.

At the end of the day, Low points out, Riuh needs to be a self-sustaining entity to expand and achieve its mission. “The reality is that we need to attract people who have spending power so that creative entrepreneurs benefit from that. Curating fresh content every month is one way to keep the crowd coming,” says Affendy Ali, another co-managing partner.

He adds that people who do not plan to shop are welcome to enjoy the exhibitions, live shows and other free activities.

Aida agrees that big spenders power bazaars. Her concern, however, is that the well-heeled segment of society is small, while the competition among burgeoning and existing bazaars gets stiffer. “We are now at the point where there are three or four bazaars happening in Kuala Lumpur in a single weekend. Of course, organisers can set unique themes for each of them but I find that the general public does not really differentiate between themes. To them, it’s just three bazaars happening at the same time, period,” she notes.

Saturated as the scene is, Affendy believes that there are plenty of untapped spaces for pop-up markets outside of Klang Valley. “Do bazaars reshape the landscape of entrepreneurship? Definitely. Consumerism is changing. Retail is no longer about buying and selling, but also marketing and consumer experience. Bazaars give budding and seasoned creative entrepreneurs an avenue to showcase their creations in the age of e-commerce.”

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 255.