Unintentional Self-Parody in Retail: Coffee and Cell Phones, Together at Last

Jamsil Cell Phone Stores

Apologies for the blurred artifacts in the middle of this photo. I took it with my phone’s “panorama” feature while my hands shook with excitement.

In the ancient Korean conception of the universe, the Earth was flat and sat atop a coffee shop at one end, and a cell phone store at the other. These in turn rested on more coffee shops and more cell phone stores.

One medieval scholar, asked by a student what was at the bottom, quipped over his rice cakes, “It’s coffee shops and cell phone stores all the way down.”

Okay, I lied. That’s actually the belief system of contemporary Korea. Or so one would be tempted to believe after walking around Seoul.

Consider the outlandishness depicted above. A store that sells phones with contracts for the three major Korean carrier companies will open less than 20 feet away from another store that sells phones with contracts for the three major Korean carrier companies.

The new phone store will be attached to a major coffee franchise. Unseen in the photo, the new coffee shop is around the corner from an independent coffee shop and across the street from a failed independent coffee shop. It is literally next door to a Paris Baguette store, which also serves coffee. It’s also a block away from the famed purveyor of coffee drinks, Dunkin’ Donuts.

Two coffee shops in Jamsil

Two coffee shops next to each other in Jamsil.

How much demand exists for these products? I have a cup of coffee several times a week at Paris Baguette. Sometimes it’s busy and sometimes it’s dead, but I’ve never had more than one person ahead of me in line.

What about phones? I’m skeptical. Even the manufacturers fear not much. That’s because the phone market is nearly saturated. There’s not much room for growth when even some 8-year-old children I taught in Bundang had phones better than my basic model. If you’re Korean and don’t own a smartphone by now, your flip phone is probably going to the grave with you.

One analysis even says there will be negative growth in Korea’s smartphone market by 2016. And yet, here it is, a phone store next to a phone store and less than 200 meters from another phone store. We’re talking about stores selling the exact same products at the exact same prices.

Worse, someone thought it was a good idea to invest in a month-long interior renovation to build a store combining cell phones and coffee. That’s right — they will sell phone contracts inside the coffee shop. It’s like all the jokes I ever make about Korea are slowly becoming real-life scenarios. (Hagwon teachers might want to take cover, since I also have joked that instead of killing themselves, disgruntled students will eventually figure out that terrorism is a far better method for venting their angst.)

I could be wrong, though. Seoulites seem eager to blow money on overpriced fru-fru coffees. But according to this academic paper citing government sources, Seoul had more than 12 thousand coffee shops in 2011, a 54 percent increase over the previous year. How many more lattes can the deeply indebted public afford to keep this bubble inflated?

I’m not the only one who suspects it’s a bubble. The Korea Times reported last year about the “cutthroat” nature of the Seoul coffee scene.

In a bubble, everyone invests without considering the downsides because there is no perceived downside. By the time clueless people have heard about a trend and decided to throw money at it, it’s already inflated most of the way.

Speaking of clueless people, here’s a hilarious quote from the Times story. Just keep in mind that clueless people can also staff giant corporations.

“We’ve decided to open a coffee shop because we thought it would be a relatively easy business to run,” said Kim, one of the two young owners of a small coffee shop along the street. “But it turns out it isn’t.”

Physical labor is the hardest part of the job, she said.

Maybe Coffine Gurunaru, Cafe Bene, et. al will take a page from the Poonglim playbook and start forcing their employees to buy unsold coffee inventory with their own wages when off the clock.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Daily Life, News

A Korean Menage a Trois: Overproduction, Overconsumption and Overeducation

Bluth Model Home

Sudden Valley, a Poonglim venture.

In Korea, if you can’t speak the language, you are forced to be a passive observer of everything you see. Sometimes I have no way of knowing if what I notice is just a one-off occurrence or whether it’s part of a larger trend. I keep the things I notice in the back of my mind and sometimes I make a similar observation later, or catch a blog post or news story where someone explains what I saw. Then everything comes together and a more complete picture forms.

Here’s something I’ve noticed since I first arrived in Korea three years ago. Take a bus out to Incheon, Yongin or Pangyo in the suburbs of Seoul, or spend a day in Busan, and you can’t escape the construction; it’s everywhere. New apartment buildings to the sky, with names ever more evocative of prospective residents’ aspirations  — “Noblesse” is my favorite.

I know that Korea is a country with an aging population and children live with mom and dad until they get married. The overall trends is toward later marriages and fewer children. New births recorded this past March reached a 32-year low.

“Who,” I wonder, “is going to move into these buildings?” Apparently, nobody.

According to Reuters, desperate construction companies are convincing their own employees to buy up the unsold inventory. Construction workers are literally propping up the housing market with their own backs. Many are already neck-deep in debt, though.

South Korea’s household debt has doubled over a decade to levels where debt-to-income ratios are in excess of those in the United States before the sub-prime crash in 2008.

Hit by debt and the prolonged property market slump, January-March private consumption fell for the first time in five quarters as Koreans kept a tight hold on their wallets.

That’s right, Koreans’ spending priorities are as wacky as Americans’.
An afternoon walking around Seoul will quickly reveal to any visitor the local mania for conspicuous consumption.

When I first moved here, I just assumed that Korean youth were really enthusiastic about photography and attended photo hagwons. Every other 19-year-old I saw had a Canon DSLR setup worth thousands of dollars hanging around their necks. Curious, I observed anyone with a camera to see what they took pictures of. This pro-level gear was basically used to take snapshots of their friends in Auto mode.

Of course, high debt doesn’t lessen demand for luxury goods. It just means that demand is satisfied through new channels . Gotta keep up with the Kims, amirite?

It doesn’t stop at handbags and cameras. After living in one of Korea’s richest areas for the past two years, I currently live in what can best be described as a lower-middle-class neighbourhood of so-called villa homes, laundromats and chicken hofs. Walking down the street, I am confused when I see as many Mercedes, BMW and Audi cars as I did living in affluent Jeongja-dong. My housing is provided by my employer, as cheaply as they can get away with. If you live around here, you sure as shit aren’t fooling anyone as you dodge vegetable ajjummas with that Benz.

Massive consumer debt, combined with overproduced and overpriced housing inventory, should lead to a price correction. Indeed, that’s what’s happening according to the Reuters story.

Due to oversupply and lack of affordability, apartment prices in the Seoul metropolitan area have fallen 14.7 percent to end-2012 from July 2008, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Unfortunately, despite the high per-capita number of college degrees, few can afford these low prices. According to the Korea Times, “Nearly four out of every 10 young workers in their 20s and 30s said they were overeducated.”

More and more people with college diplomas have to work as bank tellers, clerks and other simple labor jobs that have long been filled by high school graduates. If they don’t take such positions, many of them have no other choice but to remain unemployed.

A certain smug blogger needs to understand that the heli-tiger moms and their unrealistic expectations are killing the country’s labor force with every violin, EFL and Chinese calligraphy lesson they push their dead-eyed kids to sit through. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic. This is from the Korea Times article quoted above (emphasis added):

The finding indicates that the problem has reached a critical point where the nation’s socioeconomic structure is threatened. The ratio of college graduates to the total population surged to 43.2 percent in 2010 from a mere 6.6 percent in 1970. It is a matter of time before the figure surpasses 50 percent.

The chaebol are just helping the heli-tiger moms finish the job. Like in the US and Cyprus, regular people are being coerced into bailing out incompetent companies and their investors.

Forcing employees to personally take on your company’s risk is shadier than than any black-listed hagwon owner I’ve ever read about. Pity those poor Poonglim employees and their kids who will be under that much more pressure to level up in my classroom.

(Hat-tip to Expat Hell for bringing the linked sources to my attention.)

1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Culture Shock, Daily Life, News

“I Wasn’t Secure Enough with My Self Image to Live in South Korea”

I guess I should give Buzzfeed some credit for trying to post something with depth, but this article by Ashley Perez is still doggy-paddling in the shallow end of the pool. As a personal narrative, this piece lacks self-scrutiny; there is no dynamic change in the author’s attitude or approach to life. Her solution to  her “problem” was to leave the country altogether, rather than seeking understanding and enlightening readers as to the socio-economic conditions of Korean ideals of beauty.

Ms. Perez complains that she had to leave South Korea after a year  because clothing stores made her feel fat:

And so at some point I gave up, tired of living in a culture I literally couldn’t fit into, despite my best efforts.

I would not be accepted as a true fellow Korean.

The author’s conflict comes with her claim to a Korean genetic background — she wants to be considered a true Korean (She does not clarify her Korean lineage, nor  her level of familiarity with Korean cultural traits like language.) A fair enough desire, but her “best efforts” at “fitting in” only seem to include trying on a pair of jeans in a Korean clothing store. By her logic, you can only fit into a culture if its community accepts you as unequivocally beautiful.

If that’s the only facet of a culture you care about, maybe you have no business traveling in the first place you really need to get out more.

Ms. Perez is eager to blame others for what appears to be her own lack of self confidence:

… I found it almost impossible to find anything that fit me. Whereas in the United States I’m smaller than the average woman — size 8 bottoms, medium tops, and a size 8.5 shoe — in Korea, I truly felt like a whale … Nothing will destroy your confidence faster than a store clerk shouting at you from across a crowded store, “no, no — very, very big” as you hold a dress up to your body in the mirror.

“Waaaah, this store doesn’t carry clothes to fit a small minority of its target sales demographic! That stranger I will never see again made me feel like a whale with her matter-of-fact explanation given to me in my own foreign language.”

Ms. Perez may also want to consider whether the opinions of children deserve so much priority in her self-estimations.

I was sick of my students calling me “plain face” or “tired teacher” on the days when I wore no makeup …

“Oh noes! The kids are judging my looks! Now I’ll never be a true Korean!”

Lamenting the kids’ lack of understanding when it comes to the concept of “inner beauty,” I wonder whether she bothered to make herself an example of it. I’m guessing not, since she decided to just bitch about them to Buzzfeed.

Ms. Perez closes with a Helen Lovejoy-esque appeal to “please think of the children,” and the admittedly sad truth that many will feel the need to get cosmetic surgery at some point in their lives. Still, it rings hollow after reading an entire piece devoted to her personal “hardships” buying clothes and feeling crappy about herself.

In my experience here, with many friends of various Asian ethnicities and citizenships, they are usually treated as Koreans on sight. Shopkeepers address them in Korean first, and usually speak to them assuming they are translators for their social group. This would have been a perfect way for Ms. Perez to fit in. She is just too image-obsessed to notice it. Maybe she fits in here after all!

13 Comments

Filed under Culture Shock

A Map for Non-Korean Bundang Residents

I started this map in early 2013. Many in the Bundang and Yongin area have contributed to it. It’s publicly editable so please feel free to add locations.

It’s also not limited to Bundang, so if you know good locations anywhere in Korea, please add them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Life, Travel

Russia

Our trip is finished!

Irkutsk & Lake Baikal
Trans-Mongolian Railway
Moscow & St. Petersburg

Leave a comment

Filed under Travel

Mongolia

Golden Gobi Guesthouse
Ulan Bator
Mongolian Steppe & Ger Stay

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

China

Happy Dragon Hostel
Beijing
Great Wall of China

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized