Traditional market stores turn to technology to survive in South Korea

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 7:21am


Seoul's traditional markets - bustling, narrow streets of small vendors selling cheap, fresh produce - have largely opted out of the high-tech charge to make the South Korean capital one of the most wired cities on earth.

But for those working in the country's 300 or so traditional markets, competing with supermarket chains like E-Mart and HomePlus with modern, spacious, air-conditioned stores and ample parking space is a daunting challenge.

Squeezed by competition and dwindling custom, these family operations are slowly going digital, replacing well-thumbed ledgers with tablet computers, and cash pouches with smartphones that can scan credit cards.

Yoo Hyung-Geun has been selling sesame oil at Seoul's outdoor Junggok Cheil market for the past 14 years. Two months ago he ditched his trusted manual cash register and replaced it with a Samsung Galaxy touchscreen tablet, provided free by the country's top mobile operator, SK Telecom.

The tablet not only functions as an electronic cash register, but also features software to help small businesses improve their performance.

At the most basic level, it stores and provides sales and inventory data. But it also lists and stores items bought by individuals, allowing Yoo to promote new products via text messages or e-mails to regular shoppers based on their buying history.

"These days, I'm trying to analyse this data in different ways," Yoo said, adding that his sales jumped nearly 30 per cent since he took to the new technology.

Yoo was one of an initial batch of 14 merchants in Junggok Cheil market to receive the tablet and specialised software.

So far, SK Telecom has provided 26 tablets and accompanying software to merchants in two markets in or near Seoul and plans to do the same in other venues later this year.

The mobile operator also provided mini electronic kits that can scan credit cards - addressing one of the main complaints of shoppers who seek to stay loyal to the old markets. "It's much more convenient if I don't have to carry wads of cash whenever I come here," said Kwon Hyuk-Sung, one of Yoo's regular customers.

Junggok Cheil is not the only market where vendors have accepted that new technology can give them a fresh foothold in a rapidly-changing and increasingly-competitive environment.

In the southern city of Busan, one traditional market teamed up with a local government office to create a mobile phone app that offers discount coupons, information about each of its 100 stores and directions to the nearest parking lots.

Some have begun to offer a free WiFi service - an important move in attracting younger buyers to the cooked food stalls complementing the grocery stores.