중앙데일리

Yongsan Market offers a sea of digital gadgets

[Glimpse of Business in Seoul Ninth in the series: Yongsan Electronics Market]

Aug 04,2008
Yongsan Electronics Market in central Seoul consists of six main shopping centers along with shops scattered nearby. By Jeon Min-kyu
Like any other major train station in Seoul, Yongsan Station is always packed with thousands of travelers.

But often at Yongsan large streams of people often head in one direction: not to the train platforms but to cross “Gureum Bridge,” a skybridge connecting the Yongsan Station to the Terminal Shopping Center. Gureum is a Korean word for cloud.

Some 30,000 people cross the bridge on a normal day, and up to 60,000 during peak periods, according to Kim Jung-hwan, president of Yongsan Electronics Market Promotion Cooperative.

At the end of the bridge people enter the nation’s biggest electronics goods shopping center, a wonderland of shiny gadgets including cameras, laptops, MP3 players, GPS devices, camcorders and even candy-colored earbuds.

In addition to small digital gadgets large items are on offer as well, such as TVs, refrigerators and air conditioners.

There are also after-sales service centers for almost all electronics brands and retail shops specializing in restoring data lost from computer hard drives. All these are scattered around six major buildings: ET Land, Wonhyo Shopping Center, Electro Town, Najin Shopping Center, Terminal Shopping Center and Seonin Shopping Center.

Collectively, these comprise the Yongsan Electronics Market.

Over time, some buildings such as ET Land have renovated their exteriors and also built movie theaters to cater to young customers. But a couple of remaining worn-out buildings of Najin Shopping Center tell tales of the Yongsan Market’s past.

“People used to sell onions, garlic and other agricultural products at this site,” Kim said. “However as the agricultural market grew, the government relocated it to Garak-dong in southeastern Seoul, and urged computer-related business owners to locate here. They gave tax breaks in the early 80s.”

Soon, the Yongsan market started to grow both in size and importance along with the nation’s booming IT industry.

It was glory days for the Yongsan market, which had a near monopoly on high-tech retail until the advent of the Internet.

These days, Internet Web sites and many other electronics stores have replaced part of Yongsan. By logging onto the Web and typing in codenames of electronics goods, people can see the cheapest prices for items. Ubiquitous online shops sell discounted electronics goods.

Big-box chains also sell electronics products, such as Techno Mart, an electronics goods mall.

The Internet changed the way people shop, and also changed some problematic practices at Yongsan.

“I always check for the lowest price on the Web before I come here so as to avoid getting ripped off,” said Kim Sun-koo, a 20-year-old college student.

Since information is all over the Internet, consumers like Kim do not need to worry about being overcharged by retailers at the Yongsan market, which was once notorious for hawkers who used to cheat customers, especially young women, foreign shoppers and senior citizens who were not well informed about digital products. Thanks to the Internet, consumers can go to Yongsan and shop without worrying about being a target of shady operators. However, the Internet has also hurt retailers who suddenly faced fierce competition.

“If your computer is more expensive than another shop’s by 1,000 won ($1), you can’t sell it. The only way to survive is by selling things below cost,” said Kim, the cooperative’s president. Numerous retail stores had to shut down due to Internet-driven price competition, he added.

“Nevertheless, online is the last chance for us to sell products. About 80 percent of retail shops sell products online,” said Kim.

Despite the challenges, there are more than 13,000 shops in the entire Yongsan market, doing about 15 trillion won ($14.7 billion) worth of business per year. And hawkers from shops often still welcome customers as did their predecessors, by asking anyone approaching, “What are you looking for? Make an offer!”

With many options to choose from when it comes to shopping for digital products, many bargain hunters ? especially foreign visitors from Southeast Asia ? crowded in Yongsan one recent weekend.

“I prefer to have a look at real stuff instead of images on the Web,” said Kim, a college student.

“For foreigners living in Korea, it’s hard to buy something over the Internet because they have no residence registration number, a requirement to join Web shopping sites, and using credit cards on the Internet isn’t easy, either. That’s why they prefer to buy on the spot, paying cash,” the cooperative’s Kim said.

Migrant workers are big customers at Yongsan these days. Two Indonesian men whose hands were full with shopping bags made their way out of the building recently. They said they were happy with their shopping.

Under rapid change, however, the Yongsan market dreams of regaining its status with aid from the central government.

“The Japan-based electronics town of Akihabara underwent an extreme slump but it recently regained strength as the Japanese government allowed it to have duty-free shops to attract more foreigners, along with an overall renovation,” said the cooperative president.

But the Korean government is reluctant to do the same with Yongsan, saying it cannot favor one market over another.

Yongsan market faces some other hurdles before it’s reborn, according to visitors.

“They don’t have price tags, so I’m very confused,” said Michael McGuire, an American English instructor, who was looking for a digital camera.

“If I ask for a price, every shop offers me a different one,” said 15-year-old Australian Lucas Zabinski who was accompanied by his father. The boy wanted to buy an 8GB MP3 player.

One Korean college student also complained about Yongsan’s deep-rooted problem.

“I was going to pay 1.45 million won in cash to buy a laptop, but the retailer refused my request for a cash receipt,” said Park In-joo, a 26-year-old college student.

Most retailers at the Yongsan market prefer cash, and they offer bigger discounts when their customers pay in cash instead of using a credit card.

“One thing for sure, Yongsan offers numerous choices when it comes to digital goods compared to other online shops and nearby stores, and it is like a treasure island because you can find quality second-hand goods as well if you have an eye for it. As long as you don’t mind paying cash without receipts, Yongsan is a heaven for tech maniacs,” Park added.


By Sung So-young Staff Reporter [so@joongang.co.kr]



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