Small is beautiful
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Small is beautiful

Revamped Chinatown grocery store strikes back against the invasion of global big-box retailers

Small is beautiful

Until last year, Lor Yaowaraj, a Chinese grocery shop in the middle of Yaowarat, bustled with elderly customers and wholesale clients.

‘‘I’m now carrying on the family heritage and business tradition which I’m really proud of,’’ says Pardprapa Gunyaviriya, the brains behind the modification of his 70-year-old grocery shop.

Today, fashionably set to lure a new generation of customers with an industrial-style ceiling, bold colour scheme, automatic doors and stylish tunes, the 70-year-old establishment can be regarded as a homegrown pioneer in striking back against the invasion of global convenient stores and megastores.

Now the 48m2 shophouse attracts new punters, drawing university students, modern housewives, overseas tourists, food enthusiasts and even designers away from large-scale modern trade.

Relaunched a few months ago with a unique and totally different look amid the hubbub of shabby shops on Yaowarat Road, Lor Yaowaraj is the pride and joy of the Gunyaviriya family. From a mom-and-pop business run by seven siblings, it's now managed by four sisters of the second generation assisted by their nephew, Pardprapa Gunyaviriya - the brains behind the store's revamp.

Business built on bonds

Benyapa Gunyaviriya, one of the four sisters of Lor Yaowaraj’s second generation.

As supermarkets and hypermarkets drive local grocers to the wall, Benyapa, one of Lor Yaowaraj's four sisters, believes her family-operated store will survive because it has been built on long-time relationships and loyalty.

"I can't say I'm not terrified [of the megastores] but we have to move on. Our backbone business is wholesale, which was established many years ago, so the invasion of megastores has had little impact on us," Benyapa said.

The major factors that have helped keep her family business in favour among today's consumers, according to Benyapa, are commitment, diligence and affinity _ traits that are rarely found at megastores.

"We are proud of our business tradition and our close personal relationship with clients," she said.

The names of regular customers and their latest purchases are efficiently filed away and updated in their brains. They often know their customers by their parents' and grandparents' names _ sometimes even by the age of their customers' children.

"This is a trade built on trust and care," Benyapa said. "If we are about to close shop for the day and customers come knocking, we welcome them willingly.

"We once had customers call at night saying they were coming for some baby formula because their newborn had ran out of milk. And we had the formula ready for them to pick up.

"Because selling is our mission, we will do our best to serve the needs of every customer no matter how busy we are. My father always said 'there's nothing that a customer asks for that we don't have' _ it's just a matter of time and their willingness to wait," Benyapa said.

Situated in the middle of the city’s prime location, Lor Yaowaraj stands out.

She cited the example of a customer who wanted anchovies. She was unfamiliar with the fish and even had difficulty pronouncing the word, but she contacted the suppliers and finally got the imported fish for the customer. The store then built a stock of Italian ingredients such as oregano and thyme.

"The more the customers believe they won't be disappointed by us, the more it makes us committed. Customers may come in without knowing the name of an ingredient and we would ask them to describe how it looks and tastes so we can help them find what they want."

Old-fashioned grocery stores may seem like a small business. Yet it would not be overdramatic to say that operating one requires "supernatural" power.

Over the decades, Lor Yaowaraj's 5,000-item inventory management has been done solely by the brains and memory skills of the siblings. Benyapa's nephew, Pardprapa, 27, said that his aunts knew the original, wholesale and retail prices of every product they carry on the premises.

"They can automatically calculate the profit and loss faster than a machine," he said, adding that he used to be very much against price negotiating.

But he realised later on that bargaining is a charm of traditional trade that helps sharpen interpersonal skills and wit.

The drive for change

The young generation of the store believes that social networking plays a great role in today’s business so they attract snapshotmaniac customers and passers-by with their photogenic store front.

However, due to difficulties finding labour and store assistants as well as soaring costs, Benyapa, 57, said that she and her siblings sometimes felt pretty downhearted.

"I even thought of quitting and seeking employment elsewhere. Without the help of our nephews and nieces, we would have to give up our business sooner or later," she said. The idea of modernising the store had been floated a few years earlier. Some of the family's younger members had suggested that the store use a barcode system.

However the more senior members regarded it as unnecessary and very problematic.

"I had tried for years to persuade my aunts to use a computer but they refused to even try," said Pardprapa. "The most complicated technology they had dealt with was a fax machine.

"But the turning point came recently when an important customer asked for our email address. From then on, my aunts began to pay more attention to online communication."

Technology may not match person-to-person communication at Lor Yaowaraj. But Pardprapa said that email and LINE have helped reduce the amount of shouting and emotive interaction that have long been common among Thai-Chinese grocers.

As the key person behind the store's transformation, Pardprapa explained that the idea derived from his intention to do something good in return for his family _ particularly his ageing mother and aunts who had long been the store's vital force.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in agriculture, Pardprapa decided to join the family business by taking care of the paperwork. Preferring to interact with people, he soon realised he wanted to do something bigger.

"What troubled me the most was seeing our shop close at 8pm while other stores remained open and shoppers wandering the street in front of our place," Pardprapa said. "We are situated in the middle of the city's prime location and closing early was such a waste of a great business opportunity. The store needed a major renovation so we could open late at night and attract a new market."

Family feud

It took a few years for the family to come to an agreement. One of the influential factors was that the ramshackle shop needed restoration after so many years.

The original shop before the facelift.

"I told my aunts that I needed to close the store for three months for the renovation, and their immediate reaction was, 'Over the past 70 years we've never closed _ not even for one day, who are you to tell us to close it for three months?'," Pardprapa said.

"As a result the construction had to be done when the store closed at night. It was a year of stress for me. I had to live with constant complaints from my family about the construction mess. Sometimes one of my aunts would say she didn't want to see me here, and I would go home and cry. It took a lot of perseverance for me to get to today."

Benyapa recalled that shortly after the renewal began, she was sorry to have allowed it.

"I wished I had said no, because the store was so chaotic and full of dust. But Pardprapa's wholehearted commitment prevented me from making negative remarks," she said.

When it came to Lor Yaowaraj's revamp, the modification of the place wasn't the only thing the family had to agree on.

There was also bickering over the colour scheme of the store (''Black is not good,'' the aunts said), the use of music (''Songs do not boost sales''), the price stickers (''An extra cost''), the floral installation (''Flowers are for sale, not for decoration'') and the logo bags and store brochures (''Totally unnecessary'').

But the biggest conflict of all was over the store's front space.

Aiming to create a pleasant contrast to nearby shops, Pardprapa decided to replace sacks of dry goods (dried mushrooms, nuts and herbs) that had long been staples at the store front with a decorative bicycle. That didn't go down well with his aunts.

They could hardly bear seeing the store front generating no income. According to Pardprapa, they were obsessed with turning everything and every inch of the store into money. And aesthetic considerations didn't top their list of priorities.

Yet their nephew pushed hard for his belief and finally won them over.

''I strongly believe that social networking plays a great role in today's business. A photogenic place will easily attract snapshot-maniac customers and passers-by. Whenever they post photos of our shop online, it goes viral. More people will visit our business,'' Pardprapa said.

Victorious venture

Today Lor Yaowaraj pulls in a wide range of punters. On top of its wholesale clientele, the shop now attracts a younger generation and design-orientated visitors.

Benyapa conceded that since they renovated the place, they've seen a lot more young faces, some of them the grandchildren of regular customers.

''These kids previously deserted our shop in favour of department stores. But now they love to come, with or without their elders,'' she said.

The new-look Lor Yaowaraj doesn't only lure new kinds of clientele but also employees. In the past, finding store clerks and assistants was difficult since no one wanted to work in a dreary looking place. But now they have many college students applying for part-time jobs simply because they like the shop's ambience.

When asked about his pride, the ever-ardent Pardprapa said: ''My personal satisfaction is a measure of my success. I value customers' admiration more than the extra money we've made. Just seeing a customer taking pictures of our shop makes me really happy.

''Yet, most important of all is the fact that I'm now carrying on the family heritage and business tradition which I'm really proud of.''

Today the tattered shophouse-turnedgourmet market attracts a new generation of customers, from modern housewives to international tourists and food enthusiasts.

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