As going out goes out of style, households stock up on beer, soju

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As going out goes out of style, households stock up on beer, soju

While going out for drinks with friends and co-workers has been one of the casualties of Korea’s social distancing drive, alcohol consumption appears to be booming at home, with individual retail sales of beer, soju and related snacks climbing dramatically last month.

Referred to as “homesul” - a portmanteau using the Korean word for alcohol - homebound imbibing has soared, according to sales figures released by Hite Jinro, a major soju producer and beer distributor. While noncommercial buyers of alcoholic beverages accounted for 49 percent of overall sales in February, compared with 51 for bars, restaurants and entertainment venues, that share jumped to 65 percent in March.

Kang Min-soo, a 45-year-old office worker, said he’s been using homesul to compensate for the lack of outside dinners and get-togethers.

“Despite the nice weather, I’ve been spending more time at home to comply with social distancing,” Kang said. “And I naturally find alcohol helpful to relieve my frustration at losing my spring to the coronavirus.”

Sales of snacks that go well with drinking also increased. According to Emart’s analysis of its sales in March, parboiled fish and fish jerky, which are often paired with soju and beer, increased 103.3 percent and 15.9 percent, respectively, compared with February. Sales of frozen dumplings increased 129.7 percent, and frozen foods increased 15.8 percent.

“I buy snacks such as simple frozen foods and snacks in advance so that they never run out,” said Lee Eun-young, a 38-year-old homemaker.

With her husband working from home since the outbreak of the coronavirus, she said they have been drinking at home more often.

The change in distribution channels is creating problems for suppliers. Wholesale and retail companies deliver liquor to restaurants and bars in plastic crates that carry 30 bottles of soju or 20 bottles of beer, while bottles of booze are packaged in paper boxes to be delivered to retailers. Alcoholic beverages companies say they lack the manpower to pack paper boxes.

“Even our office workers are being mobilized for box packaging for the first time, as we are running out of manpower,” a liquor industry official said. “The good thing is that sales to the business sector, such as bars and pubs, which require high sales promotion costs, have decreased compared to sales to households, which require less sales promotion costs.”

Still, the liquor industry’s overall sales remain sluggish. Oriental Brewery on Monday ceased operations at its Cheongju plant in North Chungcheong for four weeks, saying that inventory is piled up due to the decreased consumption of alcoholic beverages. The Cheongju plant mainly produces Cass products for entertainment and dining businesses.

With the factory closed down, about 60 percent of its workforce, or 180 people, will be partially furloughed, receiving only 70 percent of the average wage.

“As the entertainment and dining businesses are not doing well due to the coronavirus outbreak, we cannot run the factory at our normal pace, but it’s a relief that sales of beer supplied to supermarkets for households have not been greatly affected by the coronavirus,” the brewing company said.

Meanwhile, office workers’ gatherings and after-work dinners have largely stopped, and the delayed spring semester has impacted business in university districts. Sales of hangover cures have followed suit.

According to BGF Retail, the parent company of convenience store chain CU, sales of hangover cure products in February decreased by 13.9 percent compared to same month last year and dropped by 22.5 percent on year in March.

BY KWAK JAE-MIN [kim.yeonah@joongang.co.kr]

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