Sticker shock reaches the grocery aisle as food prices soar

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Sticker shock reaches the grocery aisle as food prices soar

A large supermarket in downtown Seoul is crowded with people buying groceries on Sunday afternoon. [YONHAP]

A large supermarket in downtown Seoul is crowded with people buying groceries on Sunday afternoon. [YONHAP]

 
Park Sun-mee, a 41-year-old resident of Jayang-dong, eastern Seoul, uneasily picked up a carton of eggs at her local Emart last weekend.
 
“My husband currently works from home due to the coronavirus pandemic and my elementary school children also stay at home, eating all three meals at home," said Park. "So I have no choice but to buy these eggs. I come to the supermarket two times a week and I have seen the vegetable prices go up a lot.”  
 
Cabbages grown on Jeju Island were being sold at 1,980 won ($1.80) that day, cheaper than usual, so people rushed to the store to stock up. The average cabbage price has been in the 4,000-won range recently. Cultivation of plants like cabbage took a hit from the sudden cold snap, which led to a reduction in shipments and a 30-to-40-percent price increase.
 
“During the summer, vegetable prices rose due to the effect of the monsoon and typhoon seasons," said Park. "When it felt like they were about to go back down, the prices further increased supposedly due to the cold weather. The prices keep rising without any sign of going down.”
 
“On most occasions when I shop for a week’s worth of groceries, it costs between 100,000 and 150,000 won. From a month ago, I think I started paying around 180,000 won,” said Park.
 
The price of food has been in flux since the end of last year. 
 
Statistics Korea said consumer prices rose by 0.5 percent in December compared to 2019. Prices of agricultural, meat and fishery products rose by 9.7 percent that month. Most food and beverage items surged in prices. The price of 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of rice rose by 11.5 percent on year, 100 grams of pork by 16.1 percent and beef by 10.7 percent. The price of fresh produce like fruits and vegetables rose by 10 percent.
 
“These days, it seems like nothing is going down in price,” said a woman in her 40s surnamed Hwang that lives in Anyang, Gyeonggi. “Not only agricultural products, but also instant noodles and snacks are going up in price.”  
 
Consumers say that the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on their wallets as they have been shopping for groceries more often.
 
“I have been comparing prices between neighborhood markets and large supermarkets when shopping for groceries,” said Hwang. “The vegetables and manufactured goods are cheaper at large supermarkets and meat products are more affordable at local stores.”  
 
The retail industry attributes the surge in prices to two causes: The effects of monsoons and typhoons and the coronavirus pandemic. 
 
Fruit, vegetables and fisheries had a tough year last year due to the long monsoon season and effects of typhoons. Harvests of apples and onions were dealt an especially harsh blow. As of Friday, the price of apples had surged 50 percent on year and onions were up 60 percent. Apples that used to cost 12,000 won per box at large supermarkets in 2020 now cost 27,000 won, a 125-percent surge.
 
According to Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade, a state-run firm, cabbage and white radish were the only products that saw an on-year decrease in prices among the most used ingredients.  
 
Prices of meat products like pork and beef also rose due to the effects of the coronavirus.  
 
“There was quite a large supply of pork in stock from last year as people started cooking more at home, but it is now all depleted,” said Roh Seung-min, a pork buyer at Emart. “Beef purchases also surged, so prices are up by 10 percent on year.”  
 
Prices of poultry, such as chicken, duck meat and eggs, are rising further because of the avian influenza outbreak in November. At some supermarkets, a carton of eggs broke 7,000 won on Friday.  
 
Large supermarkets were crowded throughout the weekend, serving as a testament to growing food consumption at home. On Saturday from 5 to 6 p.m., Emart's Jayang branch had almost a 50-meter (164 feet) line of people in front of each counter waiting to check out items.
 
Besides markets that sell basic food ingredients, the food and beverage industry has also been gearing up for a price increase since the beginning of January. 
 
Companies say the price of raw materials increased due to last year’s monsoon season and typhoons.
 
Pulmuone, a domestic food company and leading manufacturer of tofu, said it will raise the price of its products by around 10 percent. 
 
Sempio Foods, which leads the canned food market, said it will raise prices of canned Pacific saury and mackerel by 42 percent on average, starting on Jan. 18.  
 
When leading companies raise prices, competitors follow. 
 
On Jan. 1, Coca-Cola raised the price of its 500-milliliter products by 100 won, and its 1.5-liter products by 200 won. Donga Otsuka, a local beverage manufacturer, raised the price of its Pocari Sweat by 100 won and Oronamin C Drink by between 100 and 200 won. 
 
Even luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Hermes raised their handbag prices by a range of between 4 to 10 percent at the start of the new year.  
 
"The real estate prices are insurmountable, and it seems like the cost of daily necessities is on the rise every year,” said a bank employee in her 30s. “Sometimes I wonder if all prices rise, except for my salary.”
 
BY BAEK MIN-JEONG, LEE BYUNG-JUN   [lee.jeeyoung1@joongang.co.kr]
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