Fast-changing Myanmar joins consumer age

From toothpaste to tinned fruit, cosmetics to Coca-Cola, global firms have Myanmar firmly in their sights as the nation's 60 million people find themselves thrust onto the frontline of consumerism.

Since the rollback of sanctions on the brutal former junta, big brands have swept into Myanmar determined to have a share of an anticipated boom and transform the nation's impoverished people into brand-savvy global consumers.

It is a mutual attraction, with many locals -- rich and poor -- hankering after the cache and quality of foreign goods, or simply tired of the limited range of local products on sale during the junta-era, which ended two years ago.

"I'm facing a problem that No.7 foundation powder -- the best powder I've ever used -- is running out and I can't find it anywhere in Yangon," lamented 24-year-old Win Lai Phyu at one of the city's lacklustre shopping malls.

Instead the office worker said she relies on friends to deliver the make-up from Bangkok.

But in her frustration lies opportunity for brands looking to connect with Myanmar's people -- whose disposable incomes are predicted to surge as investment pours in and the reformist government shakes-up the economy.

"There's a euphoria on both sides about the opening up," said Freddy Oh, of local firm Foodland Manufacturing, which recently started selling MacCoffee -- a Singapore-based brand -- on a licence.

"The younger set are craving interaction with the outside world. That gives brands a chance to build awareness and market share," said Oh, adding that MacCoffee's 3-in-1 sachets have entered an instant coffee market worth $200 million a year.

Neon-lit billboards now jockey for position above Yangon's bedraggled streets and more are likely to follow as the tastes of Myanmar's people diversify.

Soft drinks giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi have already brought their rivalry to Myanmar, officially returning to the nation in-step with the end of sanctions.

Mobile phone firms are eyeing entry once the government frees-up licences to the Asian country where an estimated 96 percent of the population do not have handsets.

Analysts say other consumer electronics, such as tablet computers and flat screen televisions, will soon be in hot demand among those who can afford them, although many are already imported from China.

But the fortunes of cheap, everyday "convenience" items are equally instructive about a market on the move.

Del Monte is introducing its canned pineapples, pasta sauces and catsup (ketchup). Toiletries company Lamoiyan is hunting for a partner to distribute "Hapee" toothpaste, while a fellow Filipino firm is offering skin whitening products.

"The demand for all kinds of consumer goods is there," said David Webb, outgoing director of UK Trade & Investment -- Britain's trade arm -- in Yangon.

"Myanmar's manufacturing industry has pretty much been wiped out by sanctions. Foreign companies have money and access to expertise, markets and knowledge of supply chains... it gives them an advantage."

There is profit to be made.

"Wealth doesn't spread to everyone but there is a lot of money... certainly in Yangon," said Damien Duhamel, of Singapore-based marketing consultancy Solidiance.

Some firms are seeking to reap the benefits of early entry to an untouched market, such as making a quick impression on consumers in a bid to win longer term market share.

But rushing in is laden with risk, according to Duhamel who says many companies who ploughed first into China and Vietnam had their fingers burnt by local conditions.

"A lot of cowboys will come to town hoping for a quick buck and 'pioneer advantage'," Duhamel said, adding regional firms from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand are likely to lead a risk-taking vanguard.

"But that fades quickly and the MNCs (multinational corporations) will enter in a second or third wave once consumers have been educated. They won't take part in a feeding frenzy, but will look to steadily build market share."

The risks are myriad: Myanmar's banks are in their infancy, infrastructure is threadbare and the population -- while English-speaking and willing -- lacks skills, such as basic computer literacy, to staff some operations.

Meanwhile, foreign investors in many cases need a local partner in a country where detailed market information is non-existent and the legal system opaque.

Despite the obstacles, Oh is adamant that Myanmar presents a unique opportunity in a crowded and competitive world -- provided companies have a long-term view.

"Nobody has a crystal ball but people always need to eat, drink and brush their teeth," he said.

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