Old-timers shrug off chain invasionEnjoying a light summer breeze and the symphony of locusts, Kim Jong-sik sips his coffee and nods his head as he listens to a radio broadcast beneath a parasol sticking out from a round plastic table.
From time to time, a customer walks into his corner store, whose name, Hyeongjaesanghei, translates roughly into “brother’s firm” but whose tiny area of 31 square meters (310 square feet) barely merits such a lofty title.
Mr. Kim offers each customer some light chatter and a friendly nod.
For 17 years, Mr. Kim, 72, has manned this tiny shop in Yeonhui-dong, a north Seoul neighborhood unlike many in that it consists largely of private houses. People living here wend their way through narrow alleys so numerous they form a labyrinth of sorts.
A middle-aged woman, holding a vinyl bag in one hand, bows her head slightly to Mr. Kim as she enters.
“Ajeossi, did you get the big milk cartons that we spoke about last time?” she asks.
“Sure, talk to my wife. She’ll give it to you,” Mr. Kim answers, adding “How is your sonny?”
Waving her hand about, she says, “Oh, don’t even talk about him. I think he has reached the peak of puberty.”
Chuckling, Mr. Kim replies, “Don’t worry too much. Time will solve your problems.”
Sighing heavily, the woman nods her head slightly and disappears into the store where Mr. Kim’s wife, Kim Cheong-sun, 63, greets her with a loud voice: “How are you, dear?”
Mr. Kim shakes his head. He’s been around this neighborhood so long, he remembers when Ms. Park’s high school son was a kindergartner clutching his mother’s hand.
Customers come and go, each time greeting Mr. Kim, sometimes chatting for a spell.
Such scenes have defined Mr. Kim’s work life for 17 years. He does not know any other way to run the shop, which he opened after retiring from clerking at a small office.
“There is always something to talk about. Always ― you know?”
The store sells light bulbs, potato chips, ice-cold pop and more. Lacking any semblance of order, products are stacked haphazardly according to Mr. Kim’s whim. The cement floor, rusty iron shelves and dim lighting pose a huge contrast to the futuristic aura at look-alike chain convenience stores.
It may be the Kims’ cozy relationship with customers or it may be some other indecipherable factor, but Mr. Kim does not worry much about the brightly-lit, 24-hour competition that has popped up around him. A chain convenience store can be found only five minutes’ walk from him, with others nipping at the neighborhood’s edge. It is one of the growing number of chain stores that have popped up across the city and nation.
Waving his hand in a dismissive gesture, Mr. Kim says, “They come and go like weeds in the backyard. Don’t know how many have been there. I never bother to check what they have. Never had any problems.”
Mr. Kim’s making light of the chain store trend may be a unique case. According to the Korea Association of Convenience Stores, 6,460 chain convenience stores existed in Korea as of June 30. More are on the way.
The eight chains that dominate Korea’s urban streetscape are Family Mart, 7-Eleven, LG25, Buy the way, Mini Stop, Circle K, am pm and Lawson’s.
From seven stores in 1989, the chains have grown steadily through the 1990s, reaching 1,620 by 1995 and 2,800 in 2000. Industry analysts explain their success through two factors: the general population’s desire for clean, bright shops over dingy ones, and youth’s demand for the wider variety of items that those stores stock, which extends beyond groceries to cosmetics, stationery and magazines.
“It’s safe to say we are going to see 1,500 to 2,000 new stores every year for the next three years,” says Lee Dong-wook, an official with the association. The Seoul metropolitan area has already reached a point of saturation, he adds, and the chains are now poking their fingers into the smaller provincial towns.
Call him old-fashioned, but Mr. Kim never ascribed much importance to the interior look of his modest concern. Even the sticky air that gets an occasional clearing from a floor fan does not disturb him. “Yeah, it may look a little bit disorderly but I have got everything,” Mr. Kim says.
Lee Gyeong-ja, an elderly woman who lives down the block, has been a regular at the shop for nine years, stopping by for small stuff such as snacks and bar soap.
“It’s not the neatest place in the world but when I come here I feel so comfortable,” says Ms. Lee. “Here I am not just someone bringing in money but I feel like I am a person. When your name gets called out in a friendly voice it means something.”
The store’s not-so-official operating hours are 7 a.m. to midnight. But should someone need, say, some toilet paper after hours, Mr. Kim does not mind if they knock on his door.
After all, he is virtually always only a few steps from the store entrance, even when he is snoring: Mr. Kim and his wife share a single room attached to the rear of the shop.
“Well, I watch TV pretty late into the night and I’ve got nothing else to do,” Mr. Kim says. “Sometimes, it’s someone from a nearby house who needs to pick up dried squid to go along with a six pack. I don’t mind that. After all, they come here for a reason.”
Mr. Kim’s store has at least one feature which none of the convenience stores will likely imitate soon: free credit.
Women short on cash can still shop at Mr. Kim’s store. When they ask, he just nods with a big smile and says, “No problem.”
“Sometimes, they forget to pay me back but I never ask for it. I guess that’s why they keep coming back,” Mr. Kim says. Then, he scratches his head and adds, “Sometimes, I forget it [customers’ debt] myself.” Since opening his store, in fact, he has never maintained a written record of the debts owed him.
Since they have known most customers for years, the Kims never worry about shoplifting. During summer, in fact, Mr. Kim plops himself in a chair beneath the shade and waits for customers to come out. He accepts payment not at some high-tech cash register, but hand-to-hand from his plastic lawn chair.
Mr. Kim’s wife is his business partner. But often the latest soap opera playing on a TV perched on a small wooden platform takes priority. How does she balance business with pleasure?
Simple: she shouts at her husband. Such slothful behavior does not even lead to a reprimand from management.
The store also never had problems with theft. There was one exception, two years ago. “They kept asking for stuff that I don’t carry,” he recalls. “They made me look for it here and there and before you knew it they were gone with the cash.”
Mr. Kim shakes his head, still bewildered at the experience of such wrongdoing. “Whoever they were, they were not from here.”
Has Mr. Kim ever contemplated upgrading his store layout to match the chain stores?
“Why should I?” he shrugs. “My customers are old customers. I know what they need. I never heard them complaining. Besides, I don’t think they would like it.”
by Brian Lee