Ever since Tesco launched a virtual store in a Seoul subway station in 2011, grocery shopping in South Korea has seemed a decidedly futuristic activity.
But it’s not all virtual gizmos and interactive high jinks. Korea is also experiencing a renaissance in that most traditional of bricks-and-mortar formats - the c-store.
C-store sales increased 63.9% between 2009 and 2012, reaching 10.2 trillion won (£5.7bn) [Statistics Korea]. Whereas mobile shopping does a good job targeting young demographics, the c-store is increasingly the format of choice for 30 to 40-year-olds, says Lee Hyunkyu, PR manager at the Tesco-owned Home Plus. C-stores like Home Plus’s new 365 Plus store in Seoul’s Gangnam district (pictured) are targeted squarely at busy office workers, offering core essentials, hot food and chilled snacks and drinks.
Unusually from a UK perspective, many c-stores have areas for customers to sit down and eat, offering workers some much-needed time away from desks.
The retail love affair with the c-store here isn’t just about convenience-hungry consumers, though. There are tough Korean laws to protect traditional markets and family-run shops from supermarkets, meaning it can be tricky for retailers to set up large stores in prime locations. Plus, a city as densely populated as Seoul offers few opportunities for large stores to be built.
As for virtual shopping, Home Plus already has its sight on the innovation. Its e-merchandising manager, Kim Mee Young, says she ultimately wants to use the technology behind Home Plus’s subway store to create interactive leaflets or even interactive walls in shoppers’ homes. She won’t say when an in-home shopping wall is likely to come to market, but reckons leaflets could be on the market in as little as five years’ time.
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