The eternal sounds of evening in one of Phnom Penh’s waterfront restaurants – frogs croak, mosquitos whine, and promotion girls wheedle: "You drink one more beeeer, siiir." Before you have time to protest, a crack, a fizz, and yet another can of beer is being poured over the dubious ice cubes in your mug.
"A pretty girl, and the customer doesn’t care about money. He will go on drinking to keep her coming back to the table," said Pen Bunthoeun, sales manager for United States beer Budweiser.
The armies of beer girls begin to appear in their uniformed ranks at about five in the evening. They climb into minivans painted in their brand colors and are ferried off to restaurants and nightclubs around the city.
There they hover, watching for new customers. Sit down at a table in a popular restaurant and you will almost certainly be regaled within seconds by three or four girls competing to hook you on to their brand for the evening.
"There is no brand loyalty in this market. People will just go for whichever has the prettiest promotion girl in that restaurant on that day," sighed a sales manager.
Besides looking attractive, they must be quick on the draw with ice and a smile. "In Cambodia people choose their brand first by the service, second by the uniform and only third by the product," said Saysana Phommasy, marketing manager for the country’s best-selling beer, Angkor.
The marketing advantage of appealing to national sensibilities by clothing girls in traditional Khmer costume is offset by a tactical disadvantage for Angkor girls: Their long skirts are something of a hobble compared to the snappy miniskirts of rival promoters.
"I tell our girls they should wear comfortable shoes – that way they can still get to the table first while the Tiger girl is behind in her high heels," said Chong Pok, Angkor’s sales manager.
More than half of Cambrew’s work force, who sell Angkor beer, are made up of promotion girls – 580 in all, the bulk of them in the capital. Arch-rival Tiger has nearly that many, and next seems to be Stella Artois with 165. The list runs on, right down to Chinese brand Tsing Tsao, which has two lone girls.
What with salaries, incentives, uniforms and transport, they add considerably to the cost of selling beer in Cambodia. Salaries start at about US$40 a month, rising as high as US$100 plus a free carton of beer for a team leader – not shabby in a country where teachers and police officers earn US$20 a month.
On top of that, most brands offer commission to girls who exceed specified selling targets. The exception, according to its company executives, is Tiger. "We pay no commission at all," said general manager Rick Linck. Promotion girls from other brands roll their eyes at that assertion. "They fight hard like everybody else, and that’s not just for playing," said a Carlsberg girl in a Phnom Penh nightclub.
Some girls like working in nightclubs because as the night wears on customers become less fussy about checking caps or ring-pulls for special promotions, so if there are prizes to be won they get to keep them.
For importers of premium brands, nightclubs are less fulfilling. If people are looking for prestige in a nightclub, they tend to shift beyond up-market beers and on to spirits.
The volume the girls are expected to shift varies. For Angkor, break-even is 12 bottles a night. "Anything over that is a bonus for us," said a manager. Newcomers to the market such as Budweiser pay extra for any sales over 13 cartons of 24 cans a month – the company hopes to be able to raise that to 15 or 20 as the brand gets better-established and sales pick up.
Faced with the incentive of more pay for more sales, girls can get a little aggressive with their marketing techniques. "I think our girls are pretty well-behaved," said one sales manger. "But I know of others who stoop so low as to say ‘You buy my brand, I’ll give you a kiss’."
As a result, the job can carry a certain stigma. "My husband doesn’t like it," said an Angkor girl in late-night hangout Martini’s. But she added with a laugh: "Until I bring home my salary."
Copyright 1996 Asia Times.
(c) 1996 Chamber World Network International Ltd.