Apart from the tragic physical toll, the COVID pandemic has also wrought huge economic damage. Millions of workers have been stood down and many businesses, particularly small businesses, have been forced to shut their doors. As many nations begin to think about life beyond the pandemic, governments are scrambling for ways to give commerce a shot in the arm. The humble shipping container could well prove an innovative means of doing so.
Re-purposed shipping containers are nothing new. Since the early 2000s they’ve been a growing presence throughout Central Asia. One of the first to recognize their potential was entrepreneur, Timur Tillyaev. In 2007 he founded the Abu Saxiy market by converting 680 abandoned containers into stalls. As he explained it: “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 major benefits of this approach is the reduced startup costs. Leasing a commercial property in a central location represents a huge risk for any new enterprise. Landlords usually insist upon at least a 12-month commitment, a sizeable deposit upfront and financial penalties for breaking a lease. After that, comes the cost of fitting out a new location. Shipping containers offer a great alternative. Not only spacious and sturdy, containers are also a more sustainable alternative. In fact, as is often reported in the press, there is general glut of both container ships and the containers they carry. This means containers are both readily available and cheap.
For this reason, potential stall holders can usually negotiate leases which are both more affordable and flexible than for traditional commercial real estate. These benefits also flow on to the consumer. With lower opportunity costs container parks can offer more eclectic and inventive entertainment options. With so many eateries and coffee shops forced to close, any significant reduction in startup costs will help accelerate the financial recovery.
Pop-up container parks are also a growing trend in Europe. Boxpark in Shoreditch, London is a well-loved fixture there. A quick search of Tripadvisor reveals glowing reviews raving about the competitive prices, variety and fun atmosphere. For example, one happy customer 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”
Container park outlets are displaying strong growth in the UK and have now appeared in other cities such as Manchester and York. Abu Saxiy, the market founded by Timur Tillyaev before he sold it in 2017, has enjoyed similar success. From modest beginnings, Abu Saxiy now employs more than 5,000 people and houses several thousand small business – a real economic success story for Uzbekistan.
With many experts predicting a post-COVID future with a greater emphasis on outdoor trading, markets like Abu Saxiy are bound to become a much more common sight in cities around the world.
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