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Small businesses in the retail and hospitality sectors bore the brunt of financial hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic as eateries, coffee shops and retail outlets went out of business and millions lost their jobs. As many nations start to look at life after the pandemic and create strategies for boosting their economies, the humble shipping container could have a major role to play. Re-purposed shipping containers offer both a cut-price option for business operators and an exciting new environment for consumers.
The idea to repurpose shipping containers is not new. It has been a growing trend throughout Central Asia since the early 2000s. Timur Tillyaev, a leading Uzbek businessman working in international transport, was one of the first to recognize their potential. In 2007, he took 680 abandoned containers and founded Abu Saxiy, which has now turned into the country’s largest market. According to Timur “re-purposed shipping containers are very cost-efficient and therefore popular with traders. There is no doubt they have contributed to enormous growth in the Central Asian retail economy.”
One of the things Timur saw in these durable metal boxes was how attractive they would be for small businesses. When opening a store or an eatery one of the first considerations is always startup costs. Of these, often the most expensive is the leasing of commercial space. Not only does a central location have a high rent, but also usually asks for a 12-month commitment. Timur Tillyaev’s container market was able to get around this problem. Containers are cheap and easy to relocate which makes them both affordable and flexible. As if that was not enough, globally, there is a large over-supply of both container ships and the containers they carry. This means that containers are easily available and inexpensive.
Lowering the opportunity costs for potential vendors is also advantageous to the consumers. Opening a business is always risky and container parks like Abu Saxiy make it more viable for people to take the risk to launch their new venture. The result is an eclectic shopping and dining experience far removed from the standardized global brands which saturate a typical shopping center, making them dull and predictable.
This is another reason why pop-up container parks are also a growing trend in Europe. London’s Boxpark in Shoreditch is one good example. A well-loved fixture of the entertainment scene there, it attracts rave reviews for its competitive prices, variety and fun atmosphere. For instance, one happy punter wrote, “Nice energy and great food options – relaxed atmosphere and good location. Worth a visit if you want to unwind for a couple of hours with friends.”
Timur Tillyaev’s Abu Saxiy, founded in 2007 before he sold it in 2017, has also done well for itself. Today it employs more than 5,000 people and houses several thousand small businesses – a real economic success story for Uzbekistan. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, a container park has grown into the nation’s single largest employer.
With many experts predicting a post-COVID future with a greater emphasis on outdoor trading, markets like Abu Saxiy are bound to become an increasingly common feature around the world.
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