There’s been a riot of complaint about the trend in Korea of little local mini-marts run by the big chain stores, like Homeplus/TESCO and Emart. These little shops set up in plain-jane neighborhoods that have, well, not much in the way of mini-marts, and because of the name value and a slightly higher diversity of products, they seem to win out among those who either aren’t grocery shopping online, or who happen to need something right away. (As we did this morning.)
The complaints are mostly that these shops are hurting the mom’n’pop stores, and, well, they are. Of course, the mom’n’pop stores kind of suck. I mean, sometimes the service is great: there’s one such shop in my neighborhood I used to support as a matter of principle, since the family running it was just so nice. But they tend not to stay current, to diversify their offerings, to have a lot of stuff in stock. They’re limited, of course, but as much by imagination as by finances.
So the SSMs — “Super Size Marts,” I think that means, because in Korea a “mart” is a little shop with necessities — are able to move in and fill up a large mom’n’pop-type space with way more than the surrounding shops offer… so people flock to them. And why wouldn’t they? They have a better range of cereals; a better range of rices and flours; more little extras (like jalapenos and green olives) and so on. Not a lot, mind you — they don’t carry any cheese but processed cheese slices, and more often than not at my own local Homeplus Express, they don’t have fresh cream nine times out of ten — but they carry just enough to attract the local shoppers.
As a side note, the bigger, “mothership” versions of these shops are slowly diversifying their offerings. You can get blue cheese at a lot of them now. (More easily than cheddar, even.) It used to be the big-box supermarkets here served basically one clientele alone — the unimaginative, middle-aged woman whose cooking options are limited to the same ten things her husband has been eating all his life. That’s changing, like I said, slowly. But the SSMs, they still primarily serve that clientele.
The thing is: I can’t speak for all SSMs, but my local one, it’s good for some things, and awful for others. One gets the feeling any vegetables that the mothership needs to sell off get sent to the Express locations… and arrive, you know, a day or two before their best-before date. I’ve bought onions there and discovered the whole bag was off; I’ve had no luck with garlic from these people either, and the veggies as often as not look quite depressing, putting one off food altogether for a while.
That’s the amazing thing, to me: people get into all kinds of rants and complaining sessions about the SSMs, and I’ve heard a dozen or more students talk about it so far this year. But nobody, and I mean not one of those people I’ve heard complaining or criticizing them, has mentioned the issue of quality. I don’t know if they’re just a younger generation and used to the (also somewhat lower) quality of the produce at the mothership locations, or whether they don’t shop for themselves and thus don’t know.
While I promised I wouldn’t rant, I will relay some dialog from which my complaint of today ought to be evident:
CLERK: I need to ring through the ice creams in your bag.
MISS JIWAKU: I know. But please ring them through last.
CLERK: But I need to ring them through.
MISS JIWAKU: Okay, but do these first.
CLERK: (Wordlessly takes the bag of ice creams and rings them through.)
MISS JIWAKU & GORD: (Staring in shocked annoyance.)
GORD: Thank you for shopping at Homeplus Express, where every customer is considered a potential criminal.
MISS JIWAKU: Yeah, I feel like walking out.
GORD: Thing is, she doesn’t realize she has no manners. By the way, does she know we’re getting this delivered?
MISS JIWAKU: Oh yeah. (Switches to Korean.) We’re going to get this delivered, please.
CLERK: (silence, no sign she’s heard us at all)
MISS JIWAKU: We’d like to have this delivered, please.
CLERK: (more silence)
MISS JIWAKU: She’s not answering me. What the hell is wrong with her?
CLERK: (rings things through, starts dumping stuff onto our ice cream and crushing it.)
MISS JIWAKU: What the hell?
CLERK: (rings everything through and then hoists the bag of stuff to be delivered and puts it on the ground, then turning to Miss Jiwaku and, in Korean:) Address please.
MISS JIWAKU: We live in so-and-so building.
CLERK: We can’t deliver there, there’s a gate there. We can’t get past the first floor.
MISS JIWAKU: No, thats the sososo building. We’re not in that building, were in the so-and-so building.1
CLERK: I understand, but we can’t deliver there, there’s a gate there. We can’t get past the first floor.
MISS JIWAKU: The sososo building and the so-and-so building are different. They’re not the same building. We get deliveries from you all the time!
GORD: (To Miss Jiwaku, in English) Just ask her to get the delivery man out here. He knows.
CLERK: I understand, but we can’t deliver there, there’s a gate there. A gate. Do you understand? We can’t get past the first floor.
MISS JIWAKU: (livid, looks at me but says in Korean) There’s no gate on our building!
GORD: Seriously, honey, just ask her to get the delivery guy. He knows. That’s how I do it every time. Because this happens every time I come here.
MISS JIWAKU: (In English) What’s wrong with this woman?
GORD: (in Korean, yes) The sososo building and the so-and-so building are different buildings. There is no gate on the building.
CLERK: Oh, they’re different buildings? Okay. What’s your address?
(Ten minutes later)
GORD: Honey, we need to sort out your computer. Once we have Internet Explorer set up, let’s never go there again.
MISS JIWAKU: I’m never going there again. Never.
Wait… what was my complaint? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s that Homeplus ought to hire non-lobotomized people? Or is it that their staff seem to have managers who don’t, you know, push them to be polite?
All I can say is that only in the richest parts of Seoul to I find treatment like anyone and everyone gets in the grocery stores of Jakarta. Trust me, we went to a few of those local, cruddy, “What’s that weird smell?” grocery stores in odd parts of Jakarta, and even in those places, staff was friendly, smiling at everyone, bagging your groceries for you, and not rushing you out the door as a matter of course. Whereas, in every grocery story I’ve been in outside of a few posh neighborhoods, you’d think people are paid more for poor service and stressing out customers.
Of course, things being as they are, people are used to this, and don’t see it as a situation of underservice. Having nothing to compare it to, people assume it’s the way it is, and do what we’re trying to do… shop online.
If only one could do that in Korea with something other than Windows… but the collossal disaster that is Miss Jiwaku’s computer situation, that will have to wait for another email.
1 The morons who name buildings on our campus named the new, giant building at the front of campus that houses the gated dorms and gated foreign prof residence (the one locked with a bike chain at night) the International Hub. Which, being that this is Korea, sounds stupid and takes many syllables to say, so everyone calls it the Gukjae Gwan. Which unfortunately was already the official name of the building in which I live. When this fact was pointed out at first, I was told, “No, no, the new building is called “Inteonashineol Heo-beu.” I said, “We’re in Korea, though, so everyone out there is calling it ‘Gukjae Gwan’.”
A few months later, the idiot who insisted the official name was English was also calling it “Gukjae Gwan.” And food deliveries, postal deliveries, and everything were always going to the wrong place. And still are. But, you see, my building is now Gukjae Gyoryu Gwan. Which everyone calls… you guessed it. And since delivery people are not usually the highest intelligence, and the job turnover rate is very high… Ah, the things that make Korea so much easier.