Young consumers eye local brands instead of mass-produced products
On a cold Friday morning on Feb. 11, a long winding line of some 100 people formed in front of a small store in a back alley of Cheongdam-dong in Seoul’s Gangnam District. The area is known as a luxury fashion mecca, housing many flagship stores of famous luxury fashion brands.
Those shivering in the cold weren’t waiting for a limited edition bag or shoes from a high-end fashion brand, which isn’t a rare sight in the area, but for a grocery store to open its doors at 11:30 a.m.
On the shelves of the Simmons Grocery Store, which opened on Feb. 11 as a pop-up, there are items that can be typically found at grocery stores across the nation like cartons of milk, vegetables and packaged samgyeopsal, or pork belly.
But a closer look under the candy-colored packaging reveals that the milk cartons are filled with raw rice harvested from Icheon, Gyeonggi, and that samgyeopsal is actually a dish sponge.
Though it’s named Simmons Grocery Store, it’s actually a “goods store,” selling various unique merchandise Korea’s bedding company Simmons has produced by collaborating with local business owners in Busan and Icheon in Gyeonggi.
Since opening on Friday, the store has been attracting swarms of people, especially in their 20s, waiting for their turn to go in and snapping photographs of the store outside.
Following an arrow that says “Busan” will direct visitors up the stairs past the fake groceries to hamburger joint Burger Shop. By recreating the exact same interior and bringing the chefs from the original restaurant in Busan, Burger Shop attempts to allow Seoul foodies to experience the famous burger joint that they were previously only able to see in drool-worthy Instagram pictures.
A seemingly perfect marriage between a small burger store in the port city and Seoul’s luxury fashion street that used to be less appealing to younger Korean generation, experts have coined such collaborations as “local socializing.”
The popularity of local products over mass-produced items has actually been around since the 1970s.
After World War II and substantial industrial expansion during the baby boomer years, people in the United States were driven away from materialism and became more focused on societal issues and justice such as racial equality and ending the war in Vietnam.
Taking this trend into consideration, prominent global hotel chain Ace Hotel headquartered in Seattle began remodeling historical buildings to situate its hotels. Ace Hotel also brought in small nearby businesses to better portray the particular area’s local atmosphere.
In Korea, similar trends began appearing in the 2010s as young people strived to spend on products that aligned with their values rather than simply buying whatever caught their eye. They also preferred to go to places that had a distinctive atmosphere.
In accordance with the changing spending patterns, large companies began to look for local brands to collaborate with in order to attract younger consumers.
“Every region [or city] has its most famous store also called anchor stores that draws locals to the area and stimulates economic growth,” said Mo Jong-lin, a professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies.
“And as big companies work with anchor stores, they are now establishing the back bones of these local economies.”
This trend has been gaining momentum, especially in recent years, as the pandemic restricted people’s travels, even within the country.
Since last year, Simmons has been collaborating with different regions of Korea and opening up pop-up stores. The Cheongdam-dong store is its third pop-up. Last spring, Simmons connected local farmers in Icheon with small store owners at Seongsu-dong in Seongdong District, eastern Seoul.
In summer, it collaborated with Burger Shop and Busan’s local fashion brand Balansa to open up a pop-up store in Haeundae, which saw an average three-hour wait time to enter.
“I’ve never seen so many people line up in front of a store in this area that isn’t a famous restaurant,” said Kim Ki-ryeong, a vintage shop owner near the Simmons’ pop-up store in Busan. “[The pop-up store’s popularity] has helped other small stores on the street as people visited nearby cafes or bakery while waiting to go into the store.”
Major food companies are similarly working with local businesses to appeal to a younger demographic.
Craft beer company Jeju Wheat Ale holds tours of breweries outside Seoul where people not only get to visit a local brewery but also enjoy a meal in a new, often more rural city.
Yeonnam Bangagan, a food boutique in Mapo District, western Seoul, works with various local food spots outside the capital and introduces them to people in Seoul.
Currently, Yeonnam Bangagan is promoting eight of Gangwon’s specialties such as gamjappang or potato bread. The boutique is also opening pop-up stores.
Samjin Food, which is famous for its Busan-style fish cake, opened a local store called AREA6 in Busan. The space holds flea markets which sell a range of Busan-made items from food and beverages to magazines and books.
epigram, a lifestyle brand under textile manufacturing company Kolon Industries, has also worked with local brands since 2017. It opened pop-up stores in small cities and regions around the country such as Gyeongju, which is a city 276 kilometers (171.4 miles) south of Seoul; and Okcheon, a county in North Chungcheong that is 150 kilometers south of Seoul. In tandem with various business owners and locals from each location, epigram creates merchandise for limited sale and sells it at the brand’s flagship store in Itaewon, central Seoul.
epigram’s merchandise created with local business owners in Okcheon County was responsible for some 40 percent of the flagship’s total sales.
“The recent popularity of local products is partly due to restricted lifestyles due to Covid-19 and changed consumer patterns, but the trend is also related to young people’s desire to live a free and independent life,” said Mo.
“Many such individuals aspire to create local culture offline and become ‘local creators.’ So as both the demand and supply increases, the industry [collaborations with big companies and locals] is growing larger.”
BY YOO JOO-HYUN [email@example.com]