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Temperature restrictions stifle summertime trend

[NEWS IN FOCUS] ‘There’s basically no difference in the temperature inside the department store and outside of it.’ - shopper Nam So-ra

Aug 20,2010
Each summer, Kim Min-ki gathers his wife and two children together for a few late-night jaunts to the air-conditioned confines of large discount stores near their home in Bundang, Gyeonggi. But shopping isn’t the main reason for these trips. In fact, the Kims often don’t spend anything. Rather, they view it as a way to kill several hours after work and school in a place where someone else is footing the air-conditioning bill.

But this year they’ve put a halt to such practices.

“Late-night shopping at E-Mart in the summer used to be great because it was nice and cool, which helped us save on our electricity bills,” Kim said. “But this summer, even late at night, the discount stores are pretty humid and I begin dripping with sweat after roaming the aisles, pushing a cart and handling two children.”

This summer, Kim said his family is avoiding discount stores as a way to beat the heat. Instead, they are instead barricading themselves inside the house with the air conditioner on high.

It’s a scene playing out across Korea this summer as the business world complies with vigorous energy conservation policies enacted by the government. In the past, many Koreans flocked to large retail stores and banks on the hottest days of the year as a way to cool down. But more residents like Kim are finding that those businesses aren’t quite as cool as they were in previous summers.

The Ministry of Knowledge Economy in late July ordered major buildings and service industry businesses, such as banks and hotels, to keep temperatures above 26 degrees Celsius (79 degrees Fahrenheit). The government enacted the plans to prevent possible blackouts this summer, which has been hotter than in recent years and is leading to an increase in demand for electricity. Violators are given a warning and are fined if caught again. Companies can save big bucks by letting the thermostat rise - to the tune of 7 percent for each degree, according to Eom Jae-young, deputy director at the ministry. “We see this as a long-term project, as our thoughts on energy must change,” Eom said.

Since the government introduced the new limits, it has become more common to see people waving fans or soaked in sweat at offices and major hangouts like COEX. Indeed, companies are even starting to hear about it.

“Until last year, we had absolutely no complaints about the temperature,” said an official from a department store in Gangnam, southern Seoul. “But this year, people have voiced concerns about it being too hot, and some have even asked to meet with the general manager.”

Shopper Nam So-ra said she has certainly noticed the difference.

“I was greatly disappointed when I came here to shop,” Nam, a resident of Gongreung-dong, northern Seoul, said while shopping at a store in Gangnam. “There’s basically no difference in the temperature inside the department store and outside of it.”

In recognition of the growing discontent among shoppers, some stores are looking to find a middle ground between the demands of their customers and the government’s new rules.

“We have been trying hard to reduce the heat by swapping out our halogen lighting systems with light-emitting diode systems,” said an official at the Galleria Department Store. “We also send out regular announcements apologizing for the higher temperatures at our branches so that customers know that this is for the good of the country.”

Shinsegae Department Store is even trying to come up with more novel ways of helping customers cool off.

“We are trying everything we can, including giving out free beverages and blowing the inside of our customers’ cars with instant air coolers,” said Hong Sun-sang, a general manager at Shinsegae’s headquarters.

Even office cultures are changing, according to some observers. A manger at Holly’s Coffee in Myeong-dong, downtown Seoul, said that it’s now common to see workers banging away at laptops or even holding meetings at coffee shops - which aren’t covered by the temperature restrictions - during work hours.

Despite the complaints, sales at discount stores and department stores have not been affected, according to industry reports. Quite the opposite: larger retailers have been growing as the economy recovers and the number of tourists to Korea escalates. Hyundai Department Store said sales rose 10.6 percent in July over a year earlier, while revenues through the first half of August are also up about 10 percent on the back of demand for fans, air conditioners and beverages.

Although many customers and businesses say they understand why the government implemented the restrictions, some think the regulations should be more flexible.

“When the customer complains, it might directly hit our profits, and we could even lose that customer completely,” said an official at a local bank branch who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This is why we try to keep things cool and make our customers happy.” On a recent visit, the bank’s indoor temperature was cooler than 25 degrees Celsius.


By Jung Seung-hyun [seungjung@joongang.co.kr]



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