It’s a big, big bazaar business
How do we ensure that both commercial concerns as well as the makcik selling her homemade kuih will continue to populate Malaysia’s popular Ramadan bazaars?
AS I’m writing this, the holy month of Ramadan is rolling into Syawal, and I’m considering all the feasting ahead. Though, actually, it sometimes feels like the feasting in Syawal celebrates a month of fasting that was punctuated with even more feasting – for who can resist the temptation of the Ramadan bazaars and their eclectic collection of over-priced fare, precooked hours before consumption?
Unsurprisingly, Ramadan bazaars are big business. A recent newspaper article highlighted that although the Seremban city council charges traders at most RM500 for a space in one of the city’s Ramadan bazaars, people have been reselling them for up to RM8,000 (tinyurl.com/mStar-bazaar). This is nothing compared to two years ago when people were literally punching and kicking each other over bazaar plots.
In fact, RM8,000 is at the high end of what traders could make. A quick scour of the Internet shows that most traders make a profit of between RM4,000 and RM7,000 for that month. That’s clean profit after you’ve deducted expenses such as hired help (about RM1,000 to RM2,000 a month), cost of basic ingredients (about 30% to 50% of the sale price) and the cost of renting the space and setting it up.
But the profit of a few thousand in the month is based on those who sell kuih or air balang (syrup water). They’re only making RM2RM3 per customer.
If you’re selling something like briyani or murtabak, though, you could easily sell RM20 worth of food per customer. Assuming a hundred customers a day, at a 30% profit, you would end up with about RM20,000 profit in a month. RM8,000 doesn’t seem so much after all to pay to a middle man.
However, city councils are unhappy about people making money like this. It’s similar to selling music concert tickets and then having scalpers resell them at inflated prices. For example, when Adele went on tour in the United States, a ticket priced at most US$150 (RM644) would be resold by scalpers at prices as high as US$5,000 (RM2,000).
Both concert ticket and Ramadan bazaar plot scalpers are more efficient at buying than the general public because they know the system so well. Ironically, the various bureaucracies and checks put in place actually make it harder for legitimate buyers.
Various methods have been proposed to counter these profiteers. The most obvious is to raise the price of the commodity being supplied so it meets the demand. Sell concert tickets for a thousand dollars, or bazaar plots for ten thousand ringgit.
But this hits a snag because although most fans accept they have to pay over the odds to a middle man, they get upset if they think their idols (or the government) are taking advantage of them.
For example, when Kedah charged up to RM13,000 for a plot in their bazaar, the response from one trader was, “They are denying opportunities to the small business owner, while the rich millionaires who stay silent can afford to negotiate with the authorities” (tinyurl. com/Star2-bazaar).
He has a point. Such high prices mean the small trader will be priced out of contention.
Another way is to ensure that there is more supply than demand. American singer Kid Rock rents out concert venues that he knows is too large for the number of fans he attracts. Scalpers who try to buy too many tickets to artificially create demand will end up with tickets that they cannot sell.
Unfortunately, limited space at popular Ramadan bazaar locations make this impractical – this year in KL about 5,000 traders were vying for only 400 lots in the city. It’s tough to see where one could place an additional 4,600 stalls in a safe and hygienic way.
Finally, there is the idea that a lottery should even things out. US singer Billy Joel does this with his concerts by not making the first few rows available for sale, and then giving out the tickets to seats at random to people sitting in the cheap seats. (The fact that many of the lucky ones chosen happen to be young and pretty is a coincidence, I’m sure .... )
A lottery is exactly what will be done in Seremban next year, according to Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan. Though he didn’t mention that two years ago, a fight broke out while traders were drawing lots for spaces in the year’s Ramadan bazaar (tinyurl. com/Star2-fight). Maybe hardworking traders feel that while they have been taking the same spot year after year, lotteries give some undeserving few a chance to get lucky.
Anyway, as long as the demand is there, there will still be the temptation to resell the spaces. A small trader who only stands to make RM4,000 in the month wouldn’t give up the chance to make double that with less effort. It’s just good business. And it’s not necessarily illegal, if the new people manning the stall are technically his “employees”.
In the end, I think city councils are in a bit of a catch-22 situation. Either they accept that the system allows scalpers to profiteer on the side or they raise the price to meet demand and shut out the small individual seller.
I would really like to see the councils try for one year an open auction for bazaar lots. It would be a way of seeing what the market will bear. Alternatively, start the pricing at RM20,000 and drop it gradually until all the lots sell out.
Personally, I don’t want Ramadan bazaars to be “gentrified”, if that is the correct use of the term. I don’t want the makcik with her homemade kuih to be pushed out by a slick, commercial venture with assembly line food. Ideally, there should be room for both.
Fortunately, the current system still allows different types of sellers to trade side by side. We know this is true because it’s what we see happening now. But regardless of the type of trader, having bazaar plots on the expensive side is probably fairer for all.
Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.
I don’t want the makcik with her homemade kuih to be pushed out by a slick, commercial venture with assembly line food