Coronavirus forces Vietnamese consumers to tighten their belts

By Long Nguyen   May 5, 2020 | 06:35 pm PT
Job losses, lower incomes and fear of an uncertain future mean Vietnamese are tightening their purse strings.

Nguyen Thanh Loan, 39, used to buy imported foods at a fancy store in Saigon’s District 1, thinking nothing about spending VND3 million ($128) a week.

But things began to change around two months ago. 

The white-collar worker now only shops at ordinary supermarkets and thinks twice about shopping online, something she used to do often.

She lamented: "Saving money is the first thing I think about every day. My salary has been shrinking because the company has had no clients in the last few months due to the coronavirus."

It sacked some employees last month, she said. "My friends have done the same thing, we encourage each other to save money instead of buying lipsticks or new shoes."

Loan is among millions of people in Vietnam who have been cutting spending due to the pandemic.

A man walked by Hanois Vinconn shopping mall on April 13, 2020. Photo by VnExpess/Ngoc Thanh.

A man walks past a Vincom shopping mall in Hanoi on April 13, 2020. Photo by VnExpess/Ngoc Thanh.

The recent change in shopping behaviors has hit the retail industry badly.

The first decline in retail sales in five years occurred in March. The sales of VND390 trillion ($16.6 billion) represented a 4 percent decrease from February and a 0.8 percent decrease year-on-year, according to the General Statistics Office (GSO).

In April they fell by an eye-watering 20.5 percent from the previous month, taking the year-to-date sales of goods and services down by 4.3 percent from the same period in 2019.

Pham Thi Thuy, 30, an English teacher in Hanoi, said, "We make a list of things we need whenever we go to the supermarket; this is no time to be a spendthrift."

The newly-married woman has stopped going to malls to buy new clothes and expensive skincare products since February though the semi-lockdown has been lifted. "Online classes do not pay much." 

According to the GSO, around five million people were temporarily out of work, had to take turns to work or lost their jobs as of mid-April.  

People’s reluctance to spend or congregate in public means many stores and shopping malls barely have customers.

Property consultancy Jones Lang La Salle said footfall at many malls and other retail centers in Ho Chi Minh City had declined by 80 percent year-on-year in February and March before the national distancing campaign forced many of them to shut down temporarily.

Last month 21 major retail and food and beverage businesses asked the government for tax breaks and discounts on electricity and water tariffs, pleading a slump in sales.

A survey by the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry last month found out 82 percent of Vietnamese businesses have expected their revenues to fall over last year.

Nguyen Huong Thao, owner of a clothes store in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem District, decided to switch to cheaper cosmetic products after sales slumped due to the pandemic.

She is even thinking of selling one of her apartments if her income does not improve soon.

But even those who have not seen a drop in their incomes are uncertain about the future and so wary of spending.

A store in a shopping mall on Saigons Dong Khoi Street on March 16, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

A deserted store in a shopping mall on Saigon's Dong Khoi Street on March 16, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Nguyen Thanh Luc, who works in the marketing industry in Saigon’s District 7, said: "Who knows if there will be another wave of infections in the future? We are living with the pandemic, so I should not be surprised if my company fires me as part of a mass layoff."

The young man has given up plans to buy new sneakers and is learning to "buy less takeout coffee every day" to save money.

"I refused to go on a trip to Da Lat with my friends during the recent national holiday. It helped me save several millions [of dong], and I am happy about that."

Even though Vietnam has been praised for its success in combating Covid-19, not many people in the country are optimistic about the future.

Many organizations have lowered their growth projections for the Vietnamese economy after the outbreak. 

The Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research said in a report last month that the GDP could shrink sharply in the second and third quarters before returning to growth in the last quarter if the pandemic lasts until the end of the year.

The economic downturn means people are cautious about a return to normalcy.

Nguyen Hong Minh, 32, a Saigon office worker who has stopped buying new clothes and having weekend brunches with her friends in the last few months, said: "My friends lost their jobs and I am afraid it could be me one day. I am careful with my money; saving is a must." 

She has lost her second job as an English teacher, which has reduced her income by a third.

The International Labour Organization has forecast that up to 10.3 million people in Vietnam could be impacted by the pandemic, losing jobs or seeing their incomes decline in the second quarter of 2020.

Loan said: "I do not know how long this will last, but I know I am not ready to get back to my old shopping habits. Saving is the key now." 

She has even learned to make cold brew coffee to take to work instead of buying takeout every morning.

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