No smells, no drunks, no menLast year, when the Doota shopping mall installed a women's only smoking room, it was a cause celebre, but it was certainly no one-of-a-kind idea. There are plenty of "women's only" goods and services created by businesses looking to create a little space for their distaff customers.
Credit card, mobile phone and insurance companies have jumped with both feet into the women-only market, and many other companies are getting in on the sister act. One notable effort to cater to women was the Seoul subway system's reservation of female-only cars; every morning from 7 to 9, to ease women's fears of the rush hour crush, the first and last cars on subway line No. 1 are reserved for them. A weekly newspaper for women, Woman Times, started publishing in March 2001.
These new offerings are signs that women are becoming an important target for marketing experts. The new services provide more choices to half of the consumers out there.
But there are hazards to going "all women." An ambitious cafe for feminists in Sinchon, "Goma" closed down recently after a siege of red ink.
The JoongAng Daily visited three businesses that have successfully offered services exclusively for women.
Solo men have to get tentacles elsewhere
When Yoo Min-su, owner of the restaurant "Ajeossi's Nakji Dish," opened his nakji (panbroiled octopus) restaurant near Sinchon, western Seoul, in 1994, the place became famous not only for its spicy delicacy but also as a favorite hangout for late-night drinking. Then one night, a drunken ruckus caused by a group of men induced him to change the concept of his place. "I wanted to create a restaurant that had a refined, clean atmosphere," Mr. Yoo says. "But unfortunately, the men who came here tended to drink a lot more than women and cause trouble with other customers." On January 2, 2000, Mr. Yoo put up two yellow posters on the door of his restaurant that said, "Stop! Men not allowed unless accompanied by a woman."
This first -- a restaurant discriminating against men -- caused quite a stir, but brought astoundingly positive results. Women marveled at the idea and flocked to the place, sometimes with men and sometimes without. Now nearly 80 percent of the customers are women. Mr. Yoo says that when women are present, men behave better. Men who come in unaware of the restriction and unaccompanied by women are politely turned away. "Sometimes when we ask the men to leave, they swear and curse at our backs," says the manager of the restaurant, Jo Dae-jin. About five groups of men are turned away every day, which really does upset Mr. Yoo at times, Mr. Jo says.
The panbroiled octopus, the only entree the restaurant serves, is spicy and pungent; the boiled mussels on the side mitigate the spiciness. Park Jin-hee, 37, is here for the first time, and is eating with two friends. "I had heard about this place numerous times, and thought it would be a relaxing place without the men," Ms. Park says. A male patron, Lee Geun-soo, got in thanks to his wife, Kim Hae-eun. He came here to taste the nakji. "The food's pretty good," he says. "If my wife couldn't have come with me, I would have asked a female co-worker to come with me."
There's another immutable rule at the restaurant: only one bottle of beer or soju per person. If you look or smell like you're drunk you will be turned away. Even though the restaurant is making money, Mr. Yoo laments that it is known mostly for its rules. "I would rather be famous for my nakji than for the sign outside," he says. What began as a plan to create an amiable atmosphere turned his restaurant into a feminist icon.
Laughs come easier at this comics salon
If you want to find businesses that cater to women, what better place to search than the neighborhood around an all-women's university? Near Ewha Womans University in western Seoul is a comic book room that is off-limits to men: Ewha Comic Love. Opened in 1989 by Cha Won-jin, 38, the shop lends comic books to patrons who read them on the premises. Most of his first customers were female, but when men showed up, whether with girlfriends or alone, Mr. Cha saw that many of his female customers were decidedly uncomfortable. They were unable to kick back and relax. If the male customers were hoarding the sofas, the women would leave.
"In the summer, women who wore sleeveless tops could not summon up the courage to enter when they saw men in the room," Mr. Cha said. "They just felt uneasy with men around." At the time, male comic book readers made up only 10 percent of his customers, so Mr. Cha said he wasn't taking too big a risk in forbidding them altogether. Six years ago, Mr. Cha made his comic book room a "women's only" establishment.
A cashier in the shop, Yang Suk-hyeon, says, "The men who come here are politely turned away, but they don't seem to mind it much. They just appear flustered at first, but we refer them to another comic book room that allows men in."
Lee Yeong-su, 25, a student at Ewha, has been in Mr. Cha's comic book room for the past two hours with her friend Bak Su-hee, devouring comic after comic. "We like it here because it doesn't smell of cigarette smoke like coed comic rooms," Ms. Lee says, adding that the environment allows them to sail away into the fantastic worlds of comics without bothering about their appearance. Says Ms. Bak, "This place is also famous for having a good collection of romantic comic books and Harlequin books, as opposed to the action and adventure titles that men prefer."
Mr. Cha's business also caters to the woman who likes to light up. In a far corner of the room is a small area where you can smoke while you read. Two ventilation fans just above the area vacuum out the smell.
Mr. Cha says his Ewha Comic Love is doing very well, but he attributes the success to location, not discrimination. "As far as I'm concerned, operating a women's-only business is quite risky and doesn't make sense economically. I wouldn't recommend it unless location were a decisive factor."
And fewer snorers, we're willing to bet
The idea of operating a women-only express bus service began as a suggestion by an employee of a long-distance bus company, who listed his idea on a Web page operated by the Kumho Group. It was soon adopted, and Kumho Express Bus started operating a women's only service in April. The buses run on the Seoul to Gwangju route at 7, 9, and 10 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
"We decided to operate a women-only express bus because as we see more companies adhering to the five-day workweek, weekends are going to be alive with women who want to travel," says Yoo Chang-shin, a manager of the Kumho Express Bus company. At present, Kumho is the only express bus company to operate a service of that type in Korea.
The idea was a hit from the start. The weekend buses to Gwangju are almost always full, and Mr. Yoo said that the lightest load he has seen was 21 passengers on the 27-seat bus. A sign at the boarding gate identifies the special buses.
Mr. Yoo says buses for the women-only runs are nearly new, have television monitors, and feature the company's drivers with the best safety records. Some are women: Kumho is also the only express bus company that has women drivers at the wheel.
The service is impressive: the seats are spacious, definitely premium class. Several women said they prefer to travel on the women-only bus because they do not have to be subjected to the aromas of men who kick off their shoes. Ji Mi-yeon, 24, a first-time rider on the bus, says, "I bought the ticket for the women's only bus on a whim because I felt instantly that my trip was going to be more comfortable and tranquil."
Kim Su-won, the driver of the Friday 7:15 p.m. bus to Gwangju, says driving a women-only bus is a luxury that he and his colleagues always battle over. "Not only does it smell less when you drive, but the atmosphere on the bus is quiet and decent when you only have women passengers," Mr. Kim says.
Following the success of the inaugural route, Kumho Express Bus is planning to expand the service to include other popular runs such as Seoul-Yooseong if demand permits.
Mr. Kim says, "You know, it's really becoming a woman's world on the bus."
by Choi Jie-ho
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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