How The Amenities in the Philippines Have Changed So Radically Over the Years

I’ve lived in the Philippines for a long time.  In the old days, amenities such as the variety and quality of goods you could find in the grocery store, clothes that fit you, a nice restaurant to eat in, books to read, movies to watch, were pretty limited.  Manila had the best selection of amenities available, and as you went out into the provincial cities the amenities became less and less amenable.  I remember in those days every trip home to the US meant a few suitcases full of goods of every kind that my family and I would bring back to the Philippines since there was really not much available here.

Now, every time I go out the door it seems like a new business offering some sort of new product or service has opened!

The major evolution in the quality and variety of amenities here in the Philippines– and we must give credit where credit is due—came about because of Mr. Henry Sy, the brilliant “Chinoy” (CHInese piNOY, meaning Chinese-Filipino) businessman who established major-league shopping malls in the Philippines.  He started his career (after emigrating to the Philippines from China) by buying and selling overruns of shoes out of a small shoe store he called Shoe Mart, in Manila, which gradually became a department store, which then morphed into the SM malls.

SM malls are now all over the country.

They have put big-time entertainment, like movies and restaurants and shopping, into the cities as well as into the remote provincial areas, and they have established a “mall culture” which has changed the social dynamic of the Philippines.

Take into consideration the SM department store, the cornerstone of every SM mall.

Really, that store is just amazing!  Although it caters to a mid-range customer base, it has a tremendous selection of goods in every department.  It is the “go-to” store, not just for its targeted market, but for everyone!

The service and attention the customer gets from the store’s attendants is just impossible to find in the First World.  Wherever you turn, there is a sales person waiting to attend to you, and they usually know the goods and products in their assigned area extremely well.

Big two thumbs up there!

To drive my point across about how the number and variety of amenities have changed here so radically over the years, let’s consult a list some of the stores in the SM malls.  There are cellular phone stores in abundance.  There are many stores where you can buy a good computer including the beloved brands like Apple (from an official reseller) and Sony. Of course, there are clothing stores galore selling both high-end and mid-end quality clothes, and brands that are familiar to the Western customer, like GAP, Forever 21, and Guess.

In addition to the stores, there is a huge selection of restaurants of every variety, from food-courts, to American fast food chains, to local favorites.

For active fun and entertainment, SM malls have ice skating rinks in selected locations.  All of the malls have bowling alleys and arcades with lots of play places for kids. These play places have bouncy castles and thousands and thousands of Lego blocks to play with, and some of the malls even have Universal Studios 4D Max Rider, a state-of-the-art virtual reality simulation ride, on offer.  There are movie theaters with highest quality technology; there are even a few SM malls with IMAX theaters.

For an idea of what amenities are available at a typical SM mall, just go through the store directory of my Baguio SM mall and see what is available: http://mallstoresdirectory.com/sm-city-baguio.  Bear in mind that the Manila malls are more than twice the size of our provincial mall here.

The average Filipino regularly spends time in a mall, not just to be entertained, but also to escape the heat or the rainy weather.  SM has 45 malls (and growing) all over the islands, followed by Robinson’s malls (http://www.robinsonsmalls.com/#) with 35 locations nationwide as of this writing. Ayala Malls (http://www.ayalamalls.com.ph/malls), can also be found nationwide, but with fewer locations.  They are more upscale then SM or Robinson’s malls and they cater to a more elite clientele.

There are many small businesses owned by individuals or a small number of partners that have opened up as well, such as a local pizza place here in Baguio called Amare

(https://www.facebook.com/amarelacucina1).  Wow!  It’s amazing that we can get pizza from a wood burning pizza oven in Baguio!  That’s something that you never would have found in the old days!

These new little businesses tend to have a real “local” flavor as well since in many cases they are owned and run by young entrepreneurs, and their businesses are beautifully micro-managed.

Now we have a new doughnut chain that is the Asian version of Krispy Kreme, called JCO Donuts (http://www.jcodonuts.com/) that are so delicious there is almost always a long line of customers that snakes out the door.

The variety and quality of restaurants has improved drastically also—even in the provincial cities.  We all complained ten or fifteen years ago, especially those of us who live outside of Manila, about how much we missed being able to go to a restaurant that served the type of food we would go out for in our homeland.  Now, even in the provincial cities like Baguio, we have a great choice of restaurants serving international food.

I personally am underwhelmed when I go to a restaurant back in America nowadays.  I have become so spoiled in the Philippines, not just with the ability to enjoy going out to have a meal of my choice of food, but also with the fact that here, that meal is served with much more tender loving care by the restaurant staff, which to me is not the case back home.

Seafood in the Philippines is slightly different than in the First World, mainly because of the lack of “cold water” seafood and the abundance of “warm water” seafood, and the manner of cooking is more Asian than Western.  That being said, though, with an open mind, you will find excellent seafood almost anywhere in the country.  I really like the “ihaw” (on the grill) type of seafood at a popular chain called Gerry’s Grill (http://www.gerrysgrill.com/ph/ )  that serves a variety of different food in addition to their seafood, all cooked on the grill, Filipino style.

All over the country, even in some of the most out-of-the-way places, you will find small restaurants owned and managed by people who have been in the culinary industry internationally—former hotel chefs or chefs who have worked in restaurants under world-renowned cookery idols like Mario Batalli, Gordon Ramsay, or Heston Blumenthal. These folks have come to live in the Philippines, for a variety of reasons, and they have set up their own little restaurants that offer fabulous fare.

Another amenity that has absolutely blossomed all over the country are the spas and massage clinics.  They are just everywhere, and they offer so many choices for relaxing and rejuvenating, not just massages which are great for the sore muscles.  They have different treatments, like facials and body wraps, and they have atmosphere, with sprinkled

rose petals and candles.  Some of the spas have saunas and jacuzzis. They use scented oils and offer a variety of massages which range from warm stone massage to Thai massage (which is very physical) to specialized foot massage, and on and on.  And massage is so cheap here, usually less then US$10.00 for an hour and half from a well trained experienced masseuse.  There are more basic spas that are clean, but not fancy, and in those a massage can run as low as US$3.00 to US$4.00 for the same hour and a half massage.  The are associations of blind masseuses that give work to the disabled, and they offer massage services all over the place; even home service. You can have a massage every day, and live your life in a euphoric state!

To give you an idea of what typical spas are like, take a look at the website of a spa company called Bioessence

(http://bioessence.ph/branches.php) which is a popular chain of spas here in the islands. Between living with domestic help at home (who do all the laundry, cleaning, cooking, etc.) which makes life a breeze, and the massage clinic or spa, I live a life that is so happy and healthy, and feel great in this Disneyland of a country.

Another thing that has changed for the better are our gas stations.  These days, we have modern gas stations where we can enjoy the convenience of a quick stop at a well stocked convenience store while the attendants fill up the tank! Even the whole convenience-store concept has evolved—there are 7/11’s on every other block so it seems.

Another amenity that has become commonplace even in the provincial cities during the last decade or so are first class gyms, including the world famous Gold’s Gym (http://www.goldsgym.com.ph/) which has branches nationwide.

If you are a gym rat you will find many to choose from.

My gym in Baguio, Fitness Edge, offers a variety of classes (http://www.fitnessedgebaguio.com/classes/), and the workout facility is all window with frontage toward the spectacular mountain views. It has the most modern machines and free weights, and any kind of aerobic classes that are available in the First World are available here.

Grocery stores and the goods they offer have evolved too, but you can still enjoy the mayhem of a neighborhood Chinese-style grocery that was the norm back in the day.  They are well stocked with basic goods and cater to lower income folks. Usually there is only space for one cart at a time down their narrow aisles, and I have a lot of fun invariably bumping into other people’s carts while I try to do my shopping!

In any neighborhood, blue collar or elite, there is always the “sari-sari” store that is usually very small native-style nook where the customer goes to the storefront window to look over the goods on offer by peeking through the bars to see what is enticing.  A sari-sari store is a place to get a bag of local chips (squid and shrimp chips being among the favorites), or a coke, or a beer, or cigarettes, sold either by the “stick” (an individual cigarette) or by the pack, as well as a variety of very basic canned goods, such as the poor man’s lunch, canned sardines.

These stores are usually not so nice looking, but they are the original “convenience store” of the Philippines.

Getting into the “new” trend in grocery shopping, I want to mention that Rustan’s (http://www.rustansfresh.com/our-stores/) in addition to being a department store, also has an upscale supermarket offering a wide variety of imported as well as local goods.  They are rapidly branching out into the provincial cities, bringing those upscale goods with them to those markets. SM, of course, also has their supermarket in every one of their malls.

In the old days, it would have been completely unimaginable to be able to live in a provincial city, like Cebu or Davao, and run out to the store to buy, say, manchego cheese and air-dried beef along with a bottle of nice wine.  These days there are specialty stores, such as Santi’s (http://www.santis-deli.com/ ) all over the country—even in small provincial cities—that make buying those sorts of luxuries a reality.

There are grocery shopping “clubs” such as S&R (http://www.snrshopping.com/ ) and Pure Gold (http://puregold.com.ph/store_locator.do), that specialize in bulk shopping, a new craze which has swept the country.  Here at this link (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_supermarket_chains_in_the_Philippines) is a list of some of the grocery and convenience store chains in the Philippines.

In sum, amenities in the Philippines are pretty amenable!  Just about any product or service that is available to make life more comfortable in the First World is now within arm’s reach in the Philippines, almost anywhere in the country!  That concept may not be a big deal to people who come from developed nations, but for a developing country like ours, it is really amazing!

 

Lee Blumenthal from the Big Apple

Native New Yorker Lee Blumenthal grew up in the hustle and bustle of New York City. He loved the quick pace of life, the verve and the vigor of his surroundings… he even loved the cold weather in winter! Like many a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, Lee went into “Jewish Engineering”, the rag trade, and a career manufacturing ladies garments—mostly dresses and blouses. For years he did this, and for years he loved it and did well at it.

Eventually, as does everyone who is in the garment business, Lee came to Asia to try and source out a cheaper source of quality goods, and he wound up in Hong Kong.

“I thought I would LOVE Hong Kong, because it’s so similar to New York! The fast pace of life, the highly urban setting, the “get up and go”, the work ethic, discipline, and devotion to business…but I hated it!” says Lee. “People were very efficient, they produced a good product, but they weren’t particularly friendly to foreigners. Outside of the main part of the city, they didn’t really speak English, and didn’t really want to. I was able to get the product I wanted—needed, but I really wasn’t happy living there.” Lee started looking at other parts of Asia for garment production, and his eye landed on the Philippines.

The year was 1986, and the Philippines had just thrown out the perennial dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, in a bloodless coup. There was a new President, Corazon Aquino, English was the lingua franca of trade and commerce, and nearly everybody in the country spoke it with varying degrees of fluency. For those in the garment business, labor was affordable and the product that was turned out was marketable…and the Philippines had an abundance of a little thing called QUOTA into the United States.

“Quota” is the nickname given in the Philippines to the Multi Fiber Arrangement, or the MFA, which governed the world trade in textiles and garments from 1974 through 2004. The MFA imposed quotas on the amount of garments as finished goods that developing countries, such as the Philippines, could export to developed countries, such as the United States. During that time, factories in the Philippines “owned” quota—in ladies wear, jeans, t-shirts, children’s wear—which allowed them to manufacture and ship goods into the U.S. legally. Without the proper “quota”, goods would find it very difficult to enter their market.

Lee came to Manila and started to source factories that owned quota for ladies dresses. He then went to these factories and started to place orders to produce ladies dresses, which he then exported and sold to the buyers he knew back in the United States. Business was good, and in 1989 he decided to move to the Philippines.

A big part of the attraction in moving here was that English was a common language spoken and understood not just by the elite and educated, but also—in varying degrees—by the guy on the street. A legacy of American colonization, English serves as a unifying language in this country of over 100 different languages and dialects.

“I liked that I could go into a factory,” says Lee, “ and talk to an ordinary sewer about how to make something. Even if she did not respond to me, she would understand what I wanted. She may not answer me because she was shy, or because she wasn’t confident enough in her English speaking skills to answer me in English, but invariably she would understand exactly what I wanted.”

Despite living here for 25 years, Lee has never put up—or had the urge to put up—his own factory to produce the goods he sells. In his case, there was really no need for him to do so. Lee would go (and he still goes) to the associations of factory owners, like the old GTEB (Garment Trade & Export Board), or currently, to the GBAP (Garment Business Association Philippines) or one of the EPZA’s (Export Processing Zone Authority) to get from them a list of factories that produce his sort of product. Lee then goes to the factories and meets either with the factory owner or the general manager.

“Sometimes the owners of a factory would not want to work with me because I was a foreigner; other times, the factory owner would really want to work with me for that exact same reason!” says Lee. In the first instance, it was never a case of discrimination against a foreigner, but more of a factor of intimidation due to language skills (or lack thereof) or an unfamiliarity in dealing with someone from a different culture (Lee being the exotic creature).

“I would go to a factory and ask if they could produce XYZ product, and they would say yes or no. If they couldn’t—or if they didn’t feel comfortable working with me because of my “foreign-ness”, people would still be very nice to me. They would invariably tell me that they had a friend who had a factory that could produce what I wanted, and then they would pave the way with introductions.” Lee says.

A very important point that Lee stresses is that while doing business anywhere in the Philippines, it is polite business practice to engage in any undertaking with a Filipino who works with you. That person could be your Filipino partner or, as in Lee’s case, a highly adept employee whose “face” in the process is to facilitate any transaction and to sort of act as a cultural buffer if and when needed. In the garment business, and no doubt in other businesses in the country as well, sometimes a buying agent who is Filipino can fulfill this role. The important point is to do business with a Filipino at your side.

These days Lee is mostly out of garment production and “in” to the trading of garment overruns. “Overruns” in the garment business generally means that a factory has produced too much product, the order has shipped, and now they need to sell the product that is left over. In some cases, an order might have been been cancelled by the client, and the factory (now stuck with the goods) has to sell that product, usually at a very small profit, in order to recover their production costs. Lee got into the overruns business when an order he placed was cancelled by his client, and he got left holding the bag.

“Overruns are good business…when they are not your overruns.” says Lee. “When I got stuck with my own overruns, my wife’s uncle introduced me to one of the owners of SM department store, who took them off my hands.” Lee notes that in that particular case, the overruns were 30,000 pieces of sweaters! “Amazingly, SM sells a lot of winter garments! It’s jackets and sweaters mostly, not so much hats and gloves, and they sell them year-round, in spite this being a tropical country.”

Lee started buying overruns from the factories that used to make dresses for him. Business was very good for a long time, but as the Philippines priced itself out of the manufacturing of low-cost garments, factories moved to China, Sri Lanka and to Vietnam. Although the garment manufacturing business is picking up here again, the overruns are now from factories that make a higher-end product. The low-end, super cheap garments that the Philippines manufactured in the industry’s heyday are now a thing of the past.

These days, Lee is back into doing a little bit of production again—making blouses—just to see how it goes. He still doesn’t do the manufacturing himself, he places his order with an existing factory and they do the production.

By law, in the Philippines, foreigners cannot own a business (with a few exceptions in particular industries) in its entirety; companies must comply with the 60% Filipino ownership law. A foreigner can maintain control of their business if not its ownership. It may be that that the foreigner only owns 40% of the company, but the remaining 60% may be owned by a spouse who is Filipino, or barring that, it may be owned by a group of Filipino partners, none of whom own more than 10%-20% of the business in an individual capacity, but who collectively own the 60% majority. The company can then issue contracts granting the foreigner exclusivity in particular transactions. It makes doing business a bit more complicated, but not inordinately so. The services of a good attorney, accountant, and auditor answerable to the foreign partner are imperative to successfully maintaining control of the business (NOTE: take a look at the Index of Professionals on this website, under INDEXES, for referrals).

When asked, “Would you go back to the U.S. to retire?” Lee doesn’t hesitate in his answer. “No.” he says. “Life in the Philippines is easier. I never realized when I lived in New York that trying to make a living there is actually really difficult when compared to doing it here. Even though I used to love the winter and the cold, I couldn’t do it any more. Here the weather is good; it’s a lot easier to get cool if I am hot than to get warm when I was cold like in New York.

“The cost of living in the Philippines is low, comparatively speaking, and the quality of life is good. Being able to afford staff to cook, wash, and clean for me is something I could never hope to afford in the States, and because of it, I have the freedom to socialize more and do more of the kinds of things I enjoy doing.”

Lee has found it easy to make friends—good friends—in the Philippines. “People here very friendly, very warm, and very welcoming.”

Lee Blumenthal is home.