Monday, July 19, 2010

Online sales become the first distribution channel in Korea - or is door-to-door back ?

When I first came to Korea 20 years ago, Department Stores were becoming the main distribution channel for many consumer goods, taking over traditional door-to-door sales.

Convenience stores (FamilyMart, LG25 - now GS25 -, BuyTheWay, 7Eleven...) were also gaining ground. Then came the hypermarkets (eMart, Carrefour at one moment, Samsung / Tesco HomePlus, Lotte Mart...), and the SSMs / SuperSuperMarkets (Lotte mySuper, HomePlus Express, eMart Everyday...).

One by one, small groceries / mom & pop stores closed, and traditional markets plummeted, killed by discount shopping (or supposedly "discount" shopping : a recent survey pointed out that for many food items, traditional markets are actually cheaper). Survivors could count on a system that protected both food majors and small distributors : product packaging including the price tag regardless of the sales channel guaranteed the same price for such basic items as instant noodles or ice creams. But this system is about to be abandoned and anyway, it didn't mean much anymore : big discounters sell their own brands of instant noodles, and my local SSM offers a year-round 50% discount on all ice creams.

Even as competition raged between discount shops, many opening 24/7/365, Department Stores (Lotte DS, Shinsegae DS, Hyundai DS, Galleria DS...), sometimes growing into ambitious complexes (ie Shinsegae Centum City in Busan) remained ahead for many consumer goods and fashion.

Until now : online sales have just become Korea's first distribution channel.

This doesn't come as a surprise for anyone living in "ubiquitous" Korea : beyond pure players (ie Auction), even brick and mortar leaders are pushing ecommerce very hard, prefering cannibalization to the loss of a customer.

Somehow, we're back to square one and door-to-door sales. The first door is your mobile, PC or TV screen, but everything is done to deliver it wherever you live (home deliveries keep booming), wherever you work (Seoul would collapse without cheap express deliveries), and even wherever you go (ie location based services and mobile couponing).

Like for ADSL or FTTH, Korea's economy of access is unbeatable. Because of urban density, because major players are ready to offer what comes as a premium anywhere else, and furthermore because in many cases for smaller fish, the last mile is provided by people working under the legal hourly wage, ready to make a buck even if it doesn't make any sense if you simply take into account transportation costs. When you see a truck carrying about five hundred eggs on a highway, you know something is wrong. And when you order a book online, the delivery person is rarely twice the same plain-clothes individual.

I guess that's one of the reasons why Amazon is not in Korea. The retailer tried to do some business via Samsung / SIMS more than ten years ago but failed. So Amazon ships from other countries to international customers while Kim & Chang law firm securely protects URL.

Of course, Amazon would face pure players in cultural goods, such as Aladdin (now, or Kyobo Book Center (very ambitious in the ebook ecosystem), but I don't think it's about competition : players differenciating themselves on logistic platforms tend to struggle here. Carrefour left the country in spite of commercial success for regulatory reasons : it couldn't operate with its usual purchasing power model. I think the logistics equation could be very tricky for Amazon.

eBay is faring much better in Korea (as - it even wolfed down G-market, snatching it away from Inter Park... but eBay is more into auctions and C2C than into retailing and B2C. And when it advertised massively on internet shopping, big retailers pushed the pedal to the metal.

But the biggest revolution for e-commerce in Korea this year is the end of Microsoft Explorer's de facto monopoly since July 1st : since 1999, all online shopping and banking services had to use ActiveX systems, but the Financial Services Commission put an end to it following the recent boom in smartphones.

Seoul Village 2010

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