From salmon to salsa, discounters deliverDiscount stores mean many things to Korean consumers. They are a place to shop or have your jacket repaired, munch on snacks, trim your hair, and entertain your children with toys, books and rides. Some shoppers pamper themselves with a massage, or even nap while their spouses shop.
The recent takeovers of foreign discount stores ― Wal-Mart changing to E-Mart and Carrefour to Homever ― have fueled competition in local retail business, changing the concept of outlets from warehouse storage to trendsetting spots that save money.
The owners of discount stores in Korea say their prices are significantly less than most department stores. But that’s not to say their products are cheap.
Brand-name goods and imported items lure visitors to major discount stores today. The selection of soft liquor at Kim’s Club and E-mart, for example, varies from inexpensive American sweet wine at under 10,000 won ($10.70) to upscale brands that exceed 1 million won.
The items at discount stores in Korea show that the clientele is varied, including customers looking for department store quality.
Costco in Yangjae-dong, one of the top stores among its 14 Asian branches, is considered a home of imported products. The shop carries everything from Canadian salmon to a variety of frozen foods and up to 60 types of wine. Among popular items are bulk sales of pastries and imported English books for children. Parking problems, a hassle on weekends, are the shop’s flaw.
“You simply don’t get imported brands like Ocean Spray juice and Kirkland detergents anywhere else unless you go to a black market,” says Ahn Ju-young, a housewife. “Even the thickness of a cut of meat is different. Costco is the best place to shop when you have a big party. You can simply get a huge cut of meat, some wine and prepackaged salad, and you’re ready to go.”
E-land, a textile firm that took over Carrefour, the French discount store, last year hired 20 merchandisers to strengthen home accessories after a big renovation. They’ve also made rooms that feature different interior design concepts.
One of the company’s major changes has been expansion of fresh produce and meat, which was considered weak when it was owned by the French operation. Up to 70 percent of the company’s wide selection of vegetables and fruits since the takeover is purchased directly through local farmers across the country.
“Organic and imported fruits and meat (avocados, mangos and Australian beef) have sold 10 to 15 times better than last year,” says Jeong Ui-heon, a spokesman. “We plan to reach sales of 3.5 trillion won in 2007.”
E-Mart, noted for produce, has been expanding its leisure and outdoor equipment shops. It now has 200 sports brands. Sports Big Ten, the company’s leisure shop, carries equipment for the 10 most popular outdoor sports in Korea, including hiking, camping, biking, tennis, martial arts, climbing and kayaking.
The branch in Jukjeon has a premium club for golfers, offering high-end gear. Fashion and accessories have also been the shop’s latest hook.
“If you look at the market report, the success of discount stores around the world depends on the competitiveness of their clothing line,” said Park Eun-jang, director of clothing for E-mart. “We are aiming that up to 20 percent of the shop’s gross will come from our clothing section within the next four or five years.”
Lotte Mart has also set up a separate shop for golfers, Lee & Golf. Lotte recently announced to its Internet shoppers that it will reimburse customers who find their products at a cheaper price someplace else, the same marketing strategy used by E-Mart.
Kim Ja-young, a marketing consultant for E-mart, said discount stores set themselves apart by focusing on quantity over quality.
“While a department store caters to the high-end buyer by carrying top brands, a discount store carries everything from top to bottom,” Kim said. “You just have a wider selection.”
The convenience factor is another selling point, with a focus on one-stop shopping. Most discount stores have a pharmacy, laundromat, travel agency, flower shop, and increasingly, childcare.
Homeplus has a playroom and a nursing room where mothers can feed their children or change their diapers.
E-mart, which took over Wal-Mart last April, introduced a special shopping cart for children. Homever offer kids playgrounds and a theater to stage magic and music shows for children.
Companies are paying also attention to the ergonomics.
While E-mart lowered the height of shelves in some of their branches when Wal-Mart handed over the baton, Homever also adjusted the shelves of their cosmetics section from 2 to 1.6 meters so merchandise would be at eye-level for female clients.
Homeplus offers free delivery service as well.
Hours of operation have been extended to meet the needs of late-night customers. Homeplus and Kim’s Club are open 24 hours. E-mart is open 24 hours at selected branches Lotte Marts close at 11 p.m. or midnight.
“It’s amazing how many people come to shop at night,” said Kang Hye-seok, a frequent shopper at Kim’s Club. “I usually come after midnight just to avoid the crowd, but there are always people around. We even joke that after midnight, this is where you meet the hottest singles in town.”
As a general rule, most department stores in Korea offer up to a 60 percent discount on produce, fish and meat sold after sunset.
By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org