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  • Writer's pictureTingbin Tang

Korean Customers & City First Impression

Updated: Oct 13, 2018

My first trip to South Korea, I stayed over a month. It was a business trip, but as a user centered designer, I tried to understand Korean customers during my stay.

Before I arrived, I have read some customer insight report from my colleague, and saw some personas. However, no matter the personas about young mom or single college graduates, I did not see much difference from my understanding on any other such groups in other cities like Beijing or San Francisco. Maybe modern lives are quite similar everywhere, which cause user patterns are quite similar as well. Or another explanation is, maybe the user insight reports I read were not insightful enough. After all, to do user research is not to find something uncommon, unusual; instead, it is to find a pattern, something so common that many people may have just ignored.

During this trip, I stayed with several different families via Airbnb; I also had some conversation with Korean colleagues and friends; I work and lived there to experience; and I observed during my stay. So, these were the methodologies I used: interview, observation, and experience myself.

For confidential reason, I will not mention anything related to my project or company, but just my general impression on Korean customers and the local life there.

1. People are very polite

People here are very polite, and they will bow to show respect. Also, they say “si mi da” quite often which is a word for respect as I have been told. No matter in restaurant or inside an elevator, people are so friendly and polite.

2. Wait in line

People in the United States and some other places may also wait in line, but here, I see lines everywhere, and people wait in quite perfect straight lines. On the floor near the street, at bus station, there will be some marks. And people will perfectly put their feet inside the mark, and the rest of the line will be perfectly after the first person.

3. Walk in the same direction

This is a very unique phenomenon, and I have never seen this happened in any other places around the world. Close to where I stayed, there was a lake, I went there for a walk around the lake sometimes. What surprised me was, almost every person there are walking in the same direction, count-clock direction. When I took a walk at Olympic Park, to my surprise, people there also walk at the same direction. Does that mean Korean people like to follow the rules? Or they like to follow the leader? May need to dive in more to dig out, but it is definitely a very interesting habits.

4. Follow the fashion trend

People here really care about fashion I think. It is not like in the States, where most people just T-shirt and jeans. People pay more attention to their dress. Even an old lady who was running her dog with a baby stroller, were dressed so fancy with Leopard turban. A morning jogging man was dressing with cowboy leather jacket, hat, and boots. Many commute men dress in well-tailored suits or windbreaker. A popular fashion trend here, as I observed, is that people like to show their ankles. Their pants are short, or the trousers had been rolled up, their sockets are short too, so their skinny beautiful ankles can show up.

5. Love to do make up, care about appearance

Korean beauty and make up industry are famous in the world. Most people will do make up, including man. Not like in the States, men like to show their muscles and bronze skin, here people like to keep their skin light. Handsome male movie stars are pretty rather than burly. On the street, make up ads or plastic surgery ads can be seen, the beautiful lady at the front desk seems had done plastic surgery.

6. Do not be scared by masked ladies on the street

Some ladies care so much about their skin, and they do not want to be exposed to sunshine, so they will wear a mask, which looks like from Star War. What is the purpose of being beautiful? I wonder why those ladies do not want to show to the public their charming face since they care so much about their skin and protecting so well. Maybe they only want to show to their loved ones, which is a good way to think.

7. Streets are very clean

Streets in Korea are very clean, trash has been categorized when dispose. I saw several times well-dressed people in front of me will pick up a piece of trash on the floor and put into the trash can. I guess maybe that is why the streets have been kept so clean, and every citizen has a good sense to maintain this cleanness.

8. Christian is more popular here than Buddhism

I know in the history Buddhism should have been very popular in Korea, but now I see many churches, big church right behind a Buddhism temple; there are Christian program in the TV, and some Christian group on the street. Hallelujah!

9. Coffee becomes more popular than tea

I also believe that in the past, tea should have been very popular in Korea like China. But now I see many coffee shops around the streets, and people will go for some coffee after lunch. In the morning, some people may also hold a cup of coffee in their hands.

10. Food is mostly spicy

Food here are mostly spicy. I was born from Hunan province in China, where people love to eat spicy food; so I am not afraid of spicy. But I wonder Korean people may belong to another group, that they will be afraid if the food is not spicy. Some food on the menu looks not spicy but after I ordered, they often prove that I was wrong when it is presented on the table.

11. Kimchee/pickle is a must on table

No matter which restaurant you go to, even if it is a Chinese food restaurant or Italian restaurant, or American pizza restaurant, kimchee and pickles will always be served aside in small plate. There are so many pickles here, I had never tried pickle with beef before, which tasted very good. Also a special pickle with many many small fishes.

12. People love to travel around the world

As I talk to them, many of them have been to many countries. During my stay, there was an important festival there, Chuseok, some people back to their hometown and meet relatives and families; some people will travel to other countries.

13. Some tradition still well reserved

During Chuseok, I went to Hanok village in Jeonju, where I stayed in their traditional house with yard. I saw many people dress in traditional dressings. My host served me with Korean tea and pastries made from glutinous rice; of course I also tried famous traditional bibimbap there. I can tell, many traditions are still well reserved.

14. Has an influence from China and Japan

China, Japan and Korea had many things in common, I can tell Korea also had many influences from China and Japan. Some buildings have Chinese characters. Many local people also speak Chinese. Since I was from the south of China, my mandarin has an accent. However, some Korean restaurant owners I met here, their Chinese sounds like from Beijing.

15. Hip-hop is popular especially among young people

From the TV programs and music/videos my colleagues appreciating, I kind get a feeling that hip-hop music is popular here, especially among young people. Some young people also like to dress like a hip-hop singer, and that will be recognized as cool.

16. No ethnic contradiction, very friendly and united

Even though there are also many people from China, Japan, or Taiwan live here, but generally most people here are Korean. There are even only a few family names here, e.g. Kim, Lee, Park, etc. Which means most people here are the same ethnic group, and even may from the same family back in many many years ago. So unlike the States or China, there are no conflicts between different ethnics, between majorities and minorities. People here are quite friendly and united.

17. Very inclusive of different cultures

Even though most people here are Korean, but there are also people from around the world live here. One of the Airbnb family I stayed here was a Japanese family. Some people may think because of historic reasons, Korean may hate Japanese. But when I am here, I do not feel hate. It is a harmony society, very inclusive of different cultures. When I visited Itaewon of Seoul, I also see many people from around the world live there, Indians, Arabs, Africans, Thai, etc. I also see big Muslim mosque there.

18. No drug or gun issue, a peaceful land

At least as my knowledge, there is no drug or gun issue here, no robbery. I feel quite safe here, even at night, when I am walking alone on the street or around the lake. It is ashamed as one of the most powerful country, the United States cannot really give people the feeling of safety, which is one of the fundamental needs of human being.

19. Soccer is very popular

Many of my colleagues play soccer, the company has soccer teams, and many guys here play soccer almost every week. No wonder why Korean soccer team had great performance in FIFA World Cups and Olympics, etc.

20. Support national industry

On the street, most cars are Korean brand; even though I also saw some Mercedes, or even Toyota. People here use more Samsung phones than iPhones. So, I would say, maybe Korean like to support more for their national industry.

21. Samsung mobile NFC payment getting popular

In China, Alipay and WeChat pay have become popular, almost everywhere you can see people are scanning the QR code to make mobile payment. In Korea, I saw many people are using Samsung NFC mobile payment to pay for their restaurant bill, transportation, etc. I used to work with Nokia for NFC mobile payment solution 12 years ago, and I believed it was a trend, but it did not get popular till today, in Korea. In the States, even though some stores also accept Apple Pay, but mobile payment has not been accepted by the public consumers yet.

22. Men pay the bill for women

Many Asian countries have a tradition of Machismo, I think Korea might be the same. If guys and girls hang out together, mostly the guys will pay the bill. In the past, most women may become full time house wives, and men were the major income source. The old couple I met in Jeonju, the husband is a professor of law in a University there, and his wife does not work. Nowadays, since the living expenses have gone up, many women in the city also work, so men and women start to split the bill. But if it is a date, definitely the man pays the bill. So do not be stingy if you want to date a Korean lady, remember my advice, man.

23. Raising living expenses is also a pressure to many young white collars

Like in many other developed cities, living expenses have become so high, and it becomes a pressure to many white-collar people. Houses in Seoul are also quite expensive, the first Airbnb family I stayed with was a young couple, both work in big companies, work very hard, come back very late at night, always after 10:00pm. The apartment was just a very tiny three bedrooms condo, but this young couple only stays in one of them, and rent out the other two bedrooms. And they are not ready for kids yet, since it seems is a luxury.

24. Education and investment for kids are heavy

Like many other Asian families, Korean also put a lot of expectations on their children, hence they are also willing to invest a lot on their kids. However, for kids, it becomes a heavy burden. The kids here besides their school, will also have to go to many different training classes, after schools, and even the kids cannot back home till 10pm.

25. Become aging society, more and more young people marry late

Since living expenses becomes so high, work becomes so hard, and to have kids means big investment, more and more young people stay single or do not have kids till getting old. Hence the society has also become an aging society. One friend I met here, the two kids have already at their 30th, one of them even reaching 40, but they are still single, and still live with their parents.

26. Public transportation is well developed

Public transportation and infrastructures here are well developed. Not like in the States or Australia, here people do not have to own a car, and most people actually commute with public transit systems, and it is quite convenient.

27. Alcohol consumption here is quite high

Like in Russia or Northern China, people in high latitudes normally drinks a lot. Korean people are also mostly heavy drinker, even the ladies. When my colleagues suggest that I should go out to drink with my team, I said, maybe not a good idea, since most of my teammates are ladies. But they told me, never underestimate a Korean lady, she might drink more than a man.

28. Graphic design and illustration are popular

Some store signs have a little bit Japanese ukiyo-e style. Almost every store are well designed, logos, signs, posters are illustrated with cartoon characters or artistic fonts and letters. The packaging here are also well designed, a little bit similar to Japanese design, but has its own style.

29. Labor cost is also an issue

Like many other developed areas, labor costs have also become quite high. When I just landed, at the custom, I met a group of Filipino, and I’ve been told that they came here to work with a short-term working visa for some factories here.

30. There are still more spaces for internet services

Even though manufacturing industry is well developed in Korea, industrial design has been very good here, it seems for software area and internet service there are still many opportunities. I saw some sharing economy startups for bike sharing; I also see Samsung NFC mobile payment as I mentioned. But the most popular search engine here, Naver is not as good as Google at crawling and indexing. When I visited Jeonju, I saw many great traditional guest houses are not listed on Airbnb because of language reason, and I’ve been told that there are no such services like Airbnb in Korea yet. Of course there are still many things about Korea I do not know, but I do get such feeling, that this is a great market, and there is still a huge space of opportunities for internet services.

Anyway, these are my first impressions on Korean cities and customers. Maybe not exactly right, but I have already fallen in love with this place. I am sure I will come back more often.

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