Old Markets vs. the New Malls

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Old Markets vs. the New Malls

On a small stage outside Myongdong Migliore, a 17-story downtown shopping mall that opened last June, there is always something going on. Passersby compete in singing contests, take advantage of free makeup sessions or watch miniconcerts by popular singers. There are even live television broadcasts. There is one aim - to attract shoppers.

A few blocks away, a different show is under way. In the crammed alleys of Namdaemun Market, a traditional market that is more than 500 years old, street vendors jump on their carts that serve as impromptu stages, calling out "Clearance, clearance," stomping their feet and clapping their hands, beckoning customers to see the bargains for sale.

A similar scene has been playing for more than two years at Tongdaemun Market, a collection of traditional markets specializing in clothing. The market is near Tongdaemun (East Gate) and the glittering, high-rise fashion malls in the heart of Seoul.

Namdaemun Market and Tongdaemun Market, the two bastions of traditional retail and wholesale business, are under challenge from modern incarnations that have been springing up in the last couple of years.

Indeed, when the nine-story Tongdaemun Migliore with 1,500 shops opened in August, 1998, it was hailed as revolutionary and quickly attracted big crowds. More than 10 such modern malls, including Doosan Tower, have opened in the area since then, hoping to duplicate Tongdaemun Migliore's success.

The malls were expected to reinvigorate Tongdaemun Market, which has operated since 1905. It had been in decline for several years as customers deserted the traditional bargain haunt for the convenience of department stores. The 1997 foreign exchange crisis drew people back to the traditional markets, and Tongdaemun Migliore was suggested as a modern model for revival. The shops, modeled after the traditional markets, have just enough room for two people behind the counter. Goods are stacked at the front, while the walls provide display areas.

The massive malls offer all the convenience of their upmarket cousins. Amenities include parking lots, children's play areas and cafeterias. But unlike traditional markets, there are try-on rooms. Another difference is the constant mind-numbing modern music blasting out of sound systems, complete with DJs announcing the bargains and highlights of the day.

Although these malls were touted as the modern way to do business, they have failed to lure many customers from the traditional markets. Son Hae-jung, the public relations officer for Myongdong Migliore, says this is not the point. Rather, she said, the new malls have created a new customer base of teenagers, who make up most of the customers of the malls.

But older shoppers apparently prefer to stick to the traditional ways.

"I like to bargain, that's why I like coming to Tongdaemun," said a 30-year-old shopper who was rummaging for a sweater at Cheil Pyonghwa Market, one of the several smaller markets that form the old Tongdaemun Market. "I think the shopkeepers here are more flexible about giving discounts compared to the shops in the new malls across the street. Where is the fun in coming to the market if you can't get discounts?"

For keen shoppers, the possibility of a bargain is worth having to negotiate narrow aisles and a maze of shops.

"If I'm lucky, I may find a nice suit for about 100,000 won that I can wear to the office," said a young woman who was holding up a suit in front of a mirror.

The traditional market is not just for those feeling the pinch.

"I go on a shopping spree when I travel abroad," said Ms. Hong, 34, who works as an interpreter. "But at home I shop mostly at Tongdaemun Market."

She said prices at department stores were too high but Tongdaemun Market offered good value for money.

"I shop there about twice a month with my friends," she said. Shopping, even at a bustling traditional market, was a social event, she said.

"It is important to come with friends because there are no changing rooms and we need to get feedback from each other," she said. Even then, she sometimes finds that clothing she buys sometimes does not fit well.

But she said this did not worry her.

"I know I will have a couple of failures," she said, "but with the prices often much less than what I would have to pay at regular shops, I don't fret about it too much."

Once in a while, she and her friends go shopping late at night, after most retail shoppers have gone home and the traditional markets take on a second life. After 10 p.m., the shops are ablaze with almost unnatural bright light accompanied by a cacophony of loud music.

Throughout the night, the shops cater mostly to busloads of wholesale buyers from the country, who arrive with plenty of cash. The markets are packed until 5 a.m., when the wholesale buyers, loaded with huge plastic bags, stagger back to their buses.

Although the all-night hours are mostly meant for wholesale customers, retail shoppers are there as well.

"There are definitely more items for sale at night, and there are more bargains," said Kim Kyung-ah, another fan of the traditional market.

There is also the fun of having something to eat.

"After being on our feet for a couple of hours, we usually head for one of the outdoor carts that sell noodles," Ms. Hong said.

At night, the area surrounding Tongdaemun Market is crowded with food hawkers whose menus feature a gamut of dishes, from the mundane kimbap to the more exotic pigs' intestines stuffed with glutinous rice. When the weather turns cold, shoppers relax and discuss their next move over steaming bowls of noodles.

Ms. Kim is unimpressed with the imposing high-rise malls.

"They are mostly for teenagers who are inexperienced shoppers," she said. "For those who know how to shop, traditional markets are the way to go."

In one respect, competition from the new malls has been good for traditional shoppers. Threatened by the new buildings with their swank interiors and clean toilets, traditional markets have been sprucing up.

"There is more air-conditioning now and ventilation seems to be better," Ms. Hong said.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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