Today we went shopping at E-Mart. Although it sounds like an electronics store, it’s actually a discount shopping center here in Seoul run by a subsidiary of Samsung. We went to one not far from our home. I really enjoyed observing the store and customers (mostly Korean). I observed some interesting differences between E-Mart and the typical discounter in the United States. E-Mart most closely resembles a Target Superstore and a Safeway grocery store roll into one, although it features some subtle differences (Korean writing notwithstanding). Here are some of the differences I noticed:
- Although classified as a discounter, it appeared much cleaner and more upscale than the typical U.S. discounter. Employees kept the store very clean and were very accessible. Korean stores seem to schedule more staff on average than do American stores. The prices were also generally higher than they are at U.S. discounters such as Target or Wal-Mart.
- The store mannequins feature a darker shade of color, a darker beige, to reflect Korean clientele.
- Carts require a 100 won deposit (about 10 cents), reminiscent of European stores. I’m not sure why, because 100 won is a small price to pay for stealing a cart. The deposit is designed to get you to bring back the shopping cart when finished.
- The toys I saw seem to be more intricate and interchangeable than their American counterparts. Many of the toys in the boys’ section featured anime or "Transformer" type themes.
- The store featured ingenious automated metal ramps built by Hyundai, and the wheels on shopping carts were designed to grip the ramps so they stayed in place while ascending or descending.
- The store’s food court sold only Korean food, although one could buy ice cream at Baskin-Robbins or espresso at a coffee shop. The food court did not sell any drinks, which is a missed opportunity for E-Mart. The profit margin on beverages such as soft drinks is very high relative to food dishes.
- The store featured a children’s play area perfect for young kids aged two and over. My son is still a bit young and undersized, so we supervised him while he played. Still, I’m glad E-Mart provided our son with great entertainment. I really enjoyed watching him play with other children.
- Most products sold at E-Mart were Korean brands. I saw only a few non-Korean brands in any department. Seoul has one Costco, an American wholesaler. I’m looking forward to visiting Costco in Seoul to see how it differs from Costco warehouses in the U.S.
E-Mart is affordable, but it isn’t cheap. We don’t plan to go there too often, but it’s a great resource for local products.