Cash is king: Holiday gift shopping made easyChuseok is coming this weekend, during which people will hit the road for family reunions, or just take a much needed break from the city. As the traditional harvest celebration, it is a time for feasting on traditional foods, performing ceremonies for ancestors and exchanging gifts in the spirit of sharing the harvest.
Unlike Western countries, where Christmas is the biggest gift-giving holiday, Chuseok means gifts in Korea. (Despite a huge Christian population here, Korean Christmas gifts are mostly for little children and lovers.)
Chuseok’s huge gift-giving tradition is based in the olden days, when Korea was a farming society and families gathered to celebrate a good harvest and pay homage at the tombs of their ancestors, thanking them for a good year, and asking their blessings for another.
However, as Korea developed into an industrial society and younger people moved to the cities, Chuseok became less about celebrating the harvest than “returning” to the country, bringing various gifts to one’s parents or grandparents.
This gift-giving culture has spread to other areas as well.
It became a general trend for younger people to present gifts to a respected older person such as a mentor, college professor or boss. It later became less of an emotional gesture and more of a formality, and then even a means of corruption in the corporate scene as gifts developed into bribes. The government has conducted harsh crackdowns to abolish these distorted practices.
While corporate gift-giving is discouraged, Chuseok is still a time for exchanging gifts among family members and friends. However, the tradition continues to evolve. In the past couple years, the preference for Chuseok gifts has shifted drastically. While in the past it was common to receive gift sets of household necessities and later fancy specialty foods, Koreans today are much more practical ―they want gift certificates or cold hard cash.
Survey says... show me the money!
About 50 percent of respondents in a recent poll said they most wanted gift certificates for Chuseok. The next largest group, 25 percent, wanted cash, while 8 percent wanted food. The survey was conducted by Samsung Card on 700 of its employees, who naturally have money on the mind, as they work for a credit card company. But other surveys showed similar results, with gift certificates usually the first or second most desired gift.
Meanwhile, department stores saw a big drop in Chuseok sales last year. This was attributed to the poor domestic economy, but sales of gift certificates rose by 15 to 20 percent in the same period. Incredibly, they accounted for almost 70 percent of total Chuseok gift sales at department stores.
“It used to be everyday necessities such as shampoo or soap sets. A box of soap would contain about eight or nine bars of soap. Then there was the fruit basket trend and the boxed ribs trend. That all seems to have disappeared now,” said Han In-tae, a buyer for retail chains.
“Other than gift certificates, the only things that sell are regional specialty foods or products with supposed health effects.”
It’s simply because times have changed, says Han Soo-jun, a 54-year old housewife.
“Gifts represent what people want and could not buy with their own money. In the past, that was household products, but now, social standards have gone up overall, so money is a much better present.”
“Also since a lot of gifts are received at Chuseok, sometimes you receive several of the same thing and in the case of food, which is perishable, you can sometimes end up wasting very expensive, good food,” she said.
For 38-year old automobile dealer Yoon Hoi-sun, the new trend makes shopping a lot easier. “Thank heavens. I remember a few years ago I had to carry a suitcase, two boxes of apples and a jar of honey while taking two kids on a crowded train for three hours. Now, I just bring two envelopes,” he said.
But there is always a downside to new trends. Choi Dong-yong, has been selling ginseng for the past 24 years in downtown Seoul, and says that gift certificates have killed sales of his ginseng products, once a popular Chuseok gift.
Jang Min-ja, 36, complains that she has to spend more. “I can shop around for good deals on nice gifts, but gift certificates have fixed prices and I can’t give somebody a used one. It actually costs more money,” she said.
Former instrument of economic policy
Gift certificates were created in the 1960s by the Korean government in order to boost the economy by making it easier for people to make large purchases. In 1971, eight companies and public corporations were officially designated by the government to issue gift certificates. They included the Shinsegae and Midopa department stores, the shoe-maker Esquire and various tourist related organizations. Unfortunately, gift certificates proved too popular and people began stocking up on them. Fearing that this would become a source of inflation, the government reversed its plans and halted the issuance of gift certificates altogether.
There were several aborted attempts to revive gift certificates in the 1980s, and they were resumed with restrictions in October 1990. However, it wasn’t until 1999, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, that restrictions on gift certificates were removed completely.
The zoology of Korean gift certificates
Department store gift certificates are perhaps the most widely distributed and highly coveted because they can be used for many different purposes (since department stores in Korea are operated by large groups that have many affiliates). This is the case with gift certificates from major department stores such as Lotte, Shinsegae, Hyundai, and Galleria. Lotte Department Store gift certificates can also be used at T.G.I. Friday's, Bennigan's, and Outback Steakhouse, and at the Lotte Hotel. Shinsegae Department Store gift certificates can also be used at Starbucks coffee shops, Calvin Klein shops, the Westin Chosun Hotel and discount store E-mart among others. Also, all department stores have a groceries section, so unless you want to make a major purchase, they can be used to buy groceries. Department store gift certificates usually come in 10,000-won, 30,000-won, 50,000-won, 100,000-won, 300,000-won, and 500,000-won paper notes.
Shoe gift certificates are also widely used, although not as much as in the past. Since dress shoes are expensive, however, shoe gift certificates are sold in larger denominations, typically 70,000-won or 100,000 won notes. Major shoe brands such as Kumkang and Esquire also sell handbags and accessories products as well.
For this high tech country, there are also “cyber acorn” gift certificates. Cyber acorns, or dotori, are the currency of Cyworld, an extremely popular community site where one can create personal Web and community sites and network with other people.
One needs dotori (1 dotori = 100 won) to decorate your mini Web site, the mini “room” in the Web site and your mini character in the mini room. You can also pay for music to play on the Web site. People really love receiving dotori so it’s a cost effective gift, says Kim Sang-jin, a 32 year-old teacher.
The company that runs Cyworld sold 50 billion won worth of dotori last year, so this year they decided to issue paper gift certificates. Meanwhile, other common gift certificates can be used at certain gas stations and cultural outlets (to buy books, music cds and movie tickets).
Where YOU can buy gift certificates
Gift certificates for retailers are available at their respective stores or websites. They usually come in a stiff envelope, sometimes tied with a ribbon. More casual gift certificates for cultural products or Cyworld acorns are sold at the nearest convenience store.
While stores sell their gift certificates at face value, they are sometimes also available online or at shoe repair kiosks (of all places) at discounts ranging from 5 to 50 percent.
However, we recommend against buying gift certificates on the Internet because of the danger of fraud. Most gift certificates issued these days are tracked with an ultraviolet or bar code, so it is suspicious when a large amount of gift certificates are available in bulk.
When legitimate, Web sites buy certificates at a discount from people in need of quick cash and re-sell them at a very thin margin. The best sites are those that display individual postings. Discounts may only be 5 to 10 percent, but if you have your eye on a $1000 television set, hunting around and buying up gift certificates can save you $100.
Another good option is to buy gift certificates at shoe repair kiosks, which usually offer limited amounts of shoe certificates and department store certificates at 20 percent discounts. The certificates come from department store employees who receive them as bonuses in lieu of cash, or from people who need quick cash, according to Park Man-woong, a shoe repairman.
Taking advantage of this, Eun Young-shil, a 26-year old office worker (and smart shopper), says she never shops at department stores with cash. "Usually, I don't shop at department stores because it's too expensive, but when I do go, I get gift certificates at 20 percent off and then go during the sale period," she said.
by Wohn Dong-hee