Report of Empirical Research on Daily Shopping in Phnom Penh: Part I

By Chhang Samnang, Eng Sakunthea, Heng Promsovannpor, Heng Srey Horn, Huot Lyheng, Ing Veasna, Lour Sokna, Ngov Houtchhay, and Samnang Vitheavy (UC undergraduate students)

As part of a hands-on training exercise in Social Science Research Methods, Dr. D. Kyle Latinis recruited our team to help with graduate research. The intention was to actively involve our undergraduate team in order to build research, analysis, presentation and report production skills. The hands-on approach is experiential learning and training. It strengthens our applied skills, gives us experience with community interaction, and makes us more marketable in the future. As Dr. Latinis puts it, “If you really want to learn how to drive, you eventually have to get behind the steering wheel and do it.”

Our goal was to obtain consumer feedback concerning shopping preferences and behaviors, mostly at several more “traditional” Khmer markets in Phnom Penh. These included Phsar Thmey (Central Market), Phsar Beong Keng Kong (Beong Keng Kong Market), and Phsar Toul Tompoung (Russian Market), as well as Phsar Silib (Silib Market), Phsar Derm Kor (Derm Kor Market), and Phsar Sorya (Shopping Center Sorya). Included also was how shopping preferences and behavior has changed over time with the rapid development in Cambodia since the 1990s, especially in Phnom Penh. There were also conditional questions to determine how respondent preferences and behaviors might change under different circumstances.

Specifically, the purpose of the research was to discover patterns, diversity and changes concerning Cambodian shopping behavior and shopper concerns. A detailed in-depth questionnaire and interview approach was applied to a semi random sample of respondents consisting of approximately 53 shoppers in total. Different markets were chosen for comparison. Different markets may attract different kinds of shoppers. Different neighborhoods may also have different socio-economic profiles which could be a factor in patterns and differences as well. These differences may be very important for economic and business development concerns.

The overall aim of this research was also comparative—to provide an insight into Cambodian consumer behavior in Phnom Penh and use this for comparison of data from a rural market area, Kokithom (Kandal Province). Kokithom Market is the subject of a Masters Research Paper by UC Masters student, Mr. Ieng Sovath, advised by Professor Gina Lopez, Associate Dean of the College of Management.

The data analysis and results can be useful for many stakeholders, including business people/shopkeepers, consumers/shoppers, and even development strategists, local and foreign business people, etc. It is surprising that this kind of detailed study is rarely conducted in Cambodian market contexts. However, Cambodians are relatively shy and our group can assure the readers it took a lot of bravery and effort to approach strangers with such a demanding request while they were shopping and obviously busy. It took the respondents an equal amount of bravery to be patient with our questions and answer them with enthusiasm. However, it was fun for everyone in the end.

A very detailed initial questionnaire was prepared by Dr. Latinis but we had to be able to explain it in both Khmer and English. There were over 50 questions, many of which had subsets of additional questions. We learned that some questions were for data crosschecking. Some questions were meant to make the informants feel more comfortable. Some questions were meant to make people think. Some questions had specific purposes, while other questions were exploratory. Even the order of questions or information in the question could affect results.

Different kinds of questions with different levels of complexity were used to determine what kind of questioning is most effective, as well as what kind of questions should be avoided. Some were simple yes/no questions, some were scale choices (e.g., unimportant, important, very important, most important), some were fill in the blank, some were open ended, some were very complex ranking lists, and so on. The questionnaire was designed to also determine what the various types and levels of difficulties there were for the interviewer as much as the interviewee. Essentially, we were also testing the effectiveness of the questions and the questionnaires.

Dr. Latinis informed us that every questionnaire and interview design is inherently flawed. One of the best parts of executing the research, however, is being able to identify the flaws after a ‘test drive’ and make improvements for future research designs.

Our groups joined in discussions regarding the content and purpose. We were encouraged to contribute our feedback. We then had additional meetings on question clarification and implementation strategies.

It became obvious that a lot of time and thought needs to go into initial design. Conducting research takes careful preparation. It is not simply going out and collecting information. You have to know what kind of questions you want answered and why. Then an appropriate method must be designed to get the best data possible, which would then need to be analyzed in the best possible way, in order to most effectively answer the questions. There are limitations and constraints, so “best” often surrenders to “realistic but still effective,” rather than what would be ideal or perfect. This also includes the sampling strategy.

Dr. Latinis also gave us the responsibility of managing a small budget and designing our own implementation strategy. This included scheduling, accounting, and being 100% transparent (zero corruption for this research project—we returned all unused cash!).

As for implementation, no hints, guidance or hand-holding was offered this time. Dr. Latinis said, “Enough lessons, just go out and do it, revise, negotiate, and do it again until it gets better.” After several lessons, we had to learn how to swim by throwing ourselves in the river (an analogy much like the driving example above).

Thus, we had to take over completely from there. Our research team was fairly large so we had to delegate duties effectively and efficiently. We did not want to take too much time because we also needed to work and study for school, especially with midterm exams at the same time.

We used most of the budget for incentives. The questionnaires were quite lengthy so we wanted to show our appreciation to respondents by offering them something in return. It was decided that a small gift would be the most appropriate and culturally sensitive incentive rather than cash. If we bought one item in bulk, it would actually be better for both our team’s budget and the respondents (we could offer them more than what a small amount of cash would be able to purchase individually). A gift is also better because it shows more sincere appreciation and it did not attract people who only thought they could get money.

Our team decided on soap as a gift for the shoppers in compensation for their interviewing time. It is both a kind gesture and practical. There were up to 4 units of soap provided to some shoppers, but others were provided nothing, as per their requests.

It was then up to our team to decide how to organize and implement. Dr. Latinis warned us that it would be difficult and many people would not want to be bothered. Others might be suspicious while some might try to take advantage of it. We were told to pay attention to how people reacted. What could we learn from their movements, body language, distancing, and facial expressions? What could we learn from the way they walked, dressed, and reacted to us? How could we tell if they were being honest or understood the questions? How could we make them feel comfortable to give honest feedback? These were all challenges we had to learn through experience. Paying attention to all these details added much more depth to the questionnaire feedback. For example, we noted if some people were rushed, nervous, angry or happy and how this might have affected their answers. We also added a “%” category for friendliness to summarize their overall enthusiasm, friendliness, and willingness to participate.

There were several challenges in the data collecting process, however. First, we had to get as much done as possible with a little amount of time. Dr. Latinis had informed us that time and money constraints are some of the most dominant limiting factors in good research, but that it does not have to hinder good research from being done.

Time was the first and most daunting constraint (we had a small budget, so that was less of a problem). Midterm exams were close as the research was conducted in December 2010 and all our group members had different study and work schedules. Our team divided up so that we could obtain the most feedback possible in a day. Our group could afford to spend only one whole day, a Sunday, at the markets because of the upcoming exams.  Because Cambodians mostly shop in the morning, we had to coordinate our time and rush from one market to another quickly to find more interviewees. Our goal was 50 and we managed to get 53—a success.

The second major challenge was that most shoppers were busy with their shopping. It was difficult to ask people for a considerable amount of time to answer questions. A third problem was space. Due to the narrow space of each market, it was difficult to find physical space to conduct the interviews.

Some shoppers were unfriendly because they held a preconceived bad perspective of market interviewers in general. Maybe they had previous bad experiences or were just suspicious and skeptical. We were ignored frequently with no cooperation. They assumed that every marketer wanted to extract benefits from them. However, we tried to explain to them our purpose and we did apologize even if they did not welcome us.

The results were worth the effort. There are two main kinds of results. The first is the result from having conducted the research—the results from experiential learning and skills enhancing initiative. It was a difficult but enjoyable experience. Many new friends in the community were made and we feel much more connected with the added ability to understand more about the people around us through their eyes.

The experience has taught us a lot about how to do research, including designing, altering, trouble-shooting, negotiating, etc. We had to change our tactics constantly in order to get the job done successfully. We learned which ones worked, and why, and which ones failed. We also learned that designing questions and methods is difficult and requires considerable thought and planning.

However, execution of a project can be even more challenging. In some cases, it can be almost frightening. Nevertheless, we managed to significantly boost our confidence and now have a clearer understanding of both the purpose and the process. We also learned how to manage and coordinate ourselves as a team with a specific set of objectives. We learned that there is also a lot of important information and data available that are not imbedded on paper, but available only through the social interaction of conducting research and interviews. Simultaneously, we learned to do things independently and be committed to getting the tasks done.

It is really important for students to learn about research, such as how to collect, analyze, and prepare data. From this, students can build their confidence through interaction in real society and then put all the theories learned in school into practice. Students can use their talents, initiative, creativity and innovation. They can be involved in planning, discussing, organizing, and team management even though students are pursuing different majors in different colleges.

The second kind of results are even more interesting—the results from the analysis of the actual raw data that was collected. However, readers will have to wait until the next issue to read about this. Our team is still in the process of data analysis and report production. We believe that waiting for the results in the next issue of the UC Bulletin will be worth it.

Finally, we would like to thank Dr. Kyle Latinis for granting us the opportunity to be involved in empirical research and giving us this experience. We have learned how to do social science research, how to deal with different kinds of people, how to communicate with people, and how to be flexible with many constraints—overcoming them rather than letting the constraints defeat us. We would especially like to thank all the people in the community who were kind enough to help us by providing their valuable feedback.

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