Supermarkets. They’re not particularly interesting, right?
Introducing the Korean supermarket experience to blow that theory out of the water.
There are three Korean supermarket giants: Lotte Mart, Emart, and Homeplus. All three are very familiar to me after almost three years in this country. They all have their slight differences and unique quirks, but in general the supermarket experience here is just as bonkers regardless of which one you visit.
Firstly, much like everything else, these places are a violent assault on your senses. The bright colours, the flashing signs, the neon uniforms. The smells of sizzling meat and zillions of sweet baked goods mingling with the unmistakable stench of the fish department (yes, that’s department rather than aisle). The mad, bustling crowds of busybusybusy people elbowing you out of the way and bearing down on you at breakneck speed with their shopping carts. The flavours of the astonishing selection of free food samples you try along the way. And the noise… oh, the noise.
Sometimes just walking down the street can be too much for me, with the roaring traffic and frantic crowds and traffic cop whistles and the insanely upbeat kpop music blasting aggressively from every shop as over-enthusiastic sales girls scream “enticingly” at you from the doors of make-up and clothes shops. But when you take that level of noise and contain it all in a 6-storey building full of every conceivable product under the sun, it takes on a whole new level of intensity.
Here are some interesting (y’know… ish!) things about Korean supermarkets.
1. Free samples. This is a fantastic part of life here. You get free samples of everything, from beauty products to fried pork to melon flavoured vodka. It’s perfectly possible to have an entire meal while you do your shopping, just by stopping every time you’re offered something interesting-looking on a cocktail stick, and washing it down with a free shot of whatever drink they happen to be promoting that day. I’ve seen them brewing coffee, frying seafood pancakes, grilling meat, and mixing cocktails. It’s a wonderful system of which I whole-heartedly approve.
2. Costumes. In supermarkets in the West, you’ll find helpful signs and arrows pointing you to where things are. In Korea, you’ll find girls in ridiculous miniskirts and strange legwarmer things at the end of every aisle, greeting you loudly and trying to kidnap you into their own particular department.
3. Animated price tags. These are actually little TV screens dotted around among the shelf labels and occasionally scaring the living daylights out of you when you bend down to examine a packet of minced beef and someone suddenly starts screaming at you in frantic-sounding Korean from the previously blank and silent screen.
4. Seemingly random free gifts. You know how you might occasionally get something free with a product, as part of a promotion or something? You normally expect it to be vaguely related to the product. Like those nice Coca Cola glasses I went through a phase of collecting years ago, free with a 6 pack of Diet Coke or something. Maybe some free filters with promotional packs of coffee, you know what I mean. Well, here in Korea, there does not seem to be any such logic – but boy, do they love their free gifts! These come taped or shrink-wrapped to the promotional packs, and often have so little in common with the product being purchased that I have been known to simply stop and stare in wonder for a while, searching my brain for any possible explanation. Here, for example, we see a Spam-like product with some free kitchen roll.
That’s fairly tame (at least you’d expect to find them both in the same room of your house) when you consider the display of laundry detergent boxes I saw a few months ago with cans of dog food taped to them. I swear, last week in Emart I saw cereal boxes with huge free gifts shrink-wrapped to them – they turned out to be umbrellas. Umbrellas! With your cornflakes! There were brightly coloured jump-ropes attached to packets of shrimp-flavoured ramen once, too, and the other day I was somewhat bemused to receive a free bottle of orange juice with my mosquito spray. Sure why not, I suppose.
5. Things that look so familiar and yet so different…
6. …unless you go to Tesco. Yes, I said Tesco! Homeplus is actually co-owned by Samsung and Tesco, which was my preferred supermarket when I was still living in the UK. It obviously stocks mostly Korean products over here, but you can find actual British brands and Tesco’s own-brand items dotted around like little glimmering treasures.
I go there for two main reasons: mature cheddar cheese, and coffee. Of course my new healthy diet and weight loss plan means cheese is once again out of my life for the foreseeable future, but it was a wonderful discovery before that. I still go there for this, though:
My favourite cheap but good quality coffee when I lived in NI: Tesco’s own brand. Who would’ve thought it?! I was so overjoyed when I discovered this little treasure trove last year, I literally did a little happy dance right there in the aisle.
7. Singing. Or shouting, at the very least, but I’ve certainly witnessed one or two crazy song-and-dance routines! The shouting does my head in, as exciting as I found it all at first. It’s particularly bad in the fresh produce sections, where butchers run around wielding their knives and yelling about the meat, and middle-aged ladies with hairnets try to sell you their kimchi from the other side of the store. Not what you want after a long day filled with screaming kids! The singing and dancing is pretty hilarious, though, I’m not going to lie.
That’s probably enough for now, although I could easily stretch to two or three posts on supermarkets. Really. Sometimes the most ordinary, everyday things are the most fascinating for me!