[Anniversary Special] The pandemic is forcing small businesses to scramble for new strategies, new neighborhoods

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A main street in the Hongdae district of western Seoul is empty of visitors during lunchtime last week because level 4 social distancing rules are in place to prevent private gatherings. (Ko Jun-tae / The Korea Herald)

As COVID-19 sweeps across society, once-populated urban areas and tourist spots have become almost desolate, pushing small business owners to the brink.

Strict social distancing rules are taking a heavy toll on small businesses, which is clear from what The Korea Herald saw last week in some of Seoul’s best-known areas for social gatherings and entertainment.

Any day of the week, the streets of Hongdae, west of Seoul, should be packed with people. The region’s must-see university district, known as a hub for music lovers and trendy shoppers, has always been a destination for people to have lunch, dinner or a drink.

But under Level 4 social distancing rules, the hustle and bustle associated with the area is nowhere to be found. The stores were open, but only the owners were inside, peering out the windows, on the lookout for potential customers.

The stores looked well seen from a distance, with music coming out of the doors and items on display and ready to be sold. But on closer inspection, it was clear that most companies were far from doing well.

The chefs in some restaurants chatted with each other empty-handed, while the waiters looked at their smartphones. They didn’t seem to expect customers to come in at 12:30 p.m.

The clothes on display outside were only greeted by a hot, humid wind every now and then, and no customers were around to check them out or try on anything. Even the usual flocks of pigeons were not easy to find as the temperature exceeded 32 degrees Celsius.

“Get out there,” the owner of a clothing store shouted when the Korea Herald attempted to ask questions about how his business has evolved in recent days.

“I haven’t seen any clients for days, and now a reporter comes to me asking how miserable I am? I no longer need signs of bad luck. Go away.”

Stores in Myeong-dong, central Seoul, which mainly served foreign tourists, are closed and covered with signs looking for new business tenants.  (Ko Jun-tae / The Korea Herald)

Stores in Myeong-dong, central Seoul, which mainly served foreign tourists, are closed and covered with signs looking for new business tenants. (Ko Jun-tae / The Korea Herald)

The situation was much worse in Myeong-dong, in central Seoul, which had lost most of its tourist vibe and consumer base with the COVID-19 pandemic limiting international travel.

A shoe saleswoman had a large stack of leaflets in her hands, but there simply weren’t enough people in the neighborhood to pick them up. The employee said she had been there since 10 a.m. but had distributed just over a dozen leaflets in three hours.

“It has already been reported in the media hundreds of times that Myeong-dong is dead, and I know I shouldn’t expect people to take these leaflets, but it’s still part of my job, so I am here in a mortal situation. heat, she said. “Just walk around the neighborhood and you’ll know what I mean. “

The Korea Herald visited every corner of Myeong-dong to find that a large number of stores with Chinese, English or Japanese signs were vacant, with their owners leaving only piles of garbage and signs looking for new tenants.

Restaurants and bars for office workers managed to survive, but empty seats were everywhere by 1:30 p.m., when stores would normally still have served customers at lunchtime. Myeong-dong has even lost its iconic tour guides, dressed in hats and red vests, who are walking around to help anyone in need.

Still, changes are underway as small businesses promote new strategies to keep their heads above water.

Businesses have armed themselves to serve a wider range of customers. And they believe their lives can be better once social distancing rules are relaxed and the government enacts more financial and political support measures.

Some restaurants in Hongdae have posted signs that they now offer single serve menu options and also deliver. A Korean barbecue restaurant offered to sell a kimchi stew and pork belly combo for lunch, and bars offered to deliver drinks and snacks through smartphone apps.

“We know this situation is not going to end anytime soon, so we are trying to find ways to live with it,” said a manager of a Korean barbecue restaurant in Myeong-dong, which now has a new menu for those. who come alone.

“It’s not perfect, but we’ve had some success doing it. We now serve more nearby office workers than tourists, which could be our new business base. “

Accessory stores issued flyers to inform customers that certain product lines were now available for purchase online. Some were promoting aggressive sales – a clothing store in the Hongdae area was offering discounts of up to 70%.

More importantly, experts point out, consumers have flocked to fairly unexplored areas for social gatherings, mostly in residential areas, coupled with easy access to public transportation and trendy offerings of bustling restaurants and cafes. .

A popular cafe in Seongsu-dong, east Seoul (Ko Jun-tae / The Korea Herald)

A popular cafe in Seongsu-dong, east Seoul (Ko Jun-tae / The Korea Herald)

Seongsu-dong in eastern Seoul is a prime example. The neighborhood, nicknamed Seoul’s Brooklyn, has in recent years become a hub of stylish cafes and restaurants alongside former factory buildings.

Some neighborhood cafes were crowded with visitors when the Korea Herald visited last week. Dozens of people of various generations sat inside these cafes enjoying pastries and coffee while chatting in groups of four.

“We’ve definitely lost customers with level 4 social distancing rules in place, but we haven’t lost so many that we have to consider closing our doors or anything,” a cafe owner told Seongsu-dong while ordering his employees to brew coffee. for a large line of customers waiting in their place.

“Our income was affected by COVID-19, but it was bearable, so to speak. I know the situation is much worse in areas that have received a lot of media attention. I think we are doing well compared to them.

People roam the Apgujeong-dong neighborhood last week as it continues to remain a popular gathering center despite the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Ko Jun-tae / The Korea Herald)

People roam the Apgujeong-dong neighborhood last week as it continues to remain a popular gathering center despite the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ko Jun-tae / The Korea Herald)

Apgujeong-dong in south Seoul is another neighborhood that has stayed rather fit during COVID-19, as the neighborhood once touted as a hub of wealthy overseas students returning home for the summer has been secured a base. solid from loyal and constant visitors a few years ago.

Even though Level 4 rules were in place last week, it wasn’t difficult to find restaurants and bars filled with groups of two, and signs were lit to let guests know they were welcome. Reservations were made and the waiters were busy wiping down tables to serve another couple waiting to be seated.

The neighborhood has definitely seen its profit level decline due to social distancing rules, but the numbers showed that Apgujeong-dong did not lose as much profit as other areas, as many businesses in the neighborhood were already formed to serve couples in love or small private gatherings.

Experts believe these neighborhoods will gain momentum as COVID-19 continues, as virus fears drive consumers away from their preferred neighborhoods and cause them to stay closer to home when they meet acquaintances.

“Traditionally popular areas had already lost strength in recent years, and this vapor has transferred to other lesser-known areas like Seongsu-dong,” said Lee Eun-hee, professor of consumer studies at Inha University.

“It didn’t necessarily start with the COVID-19 pandemic, but the trend has certainly accelerated, and this is how things will be as we coexist with COVID-19. “

Lee believes that traditionally populated areas like Hongdae and Myeong-dong will recover after the virus goes away, but they will not be able to return to the golden age before COVID-19. Consumers have already changed their minds, which is difficult to maneuver, she says.

“The trend today is to go out to trendy restaurants or cafes near home dressed in comfortable clothes, maybe with flip flops too, and this is what young people are proud to share on the networks. social today, ”she added.

“In the months or years to come, we should expect to see a migratory pattern of small businesses moving to uncharted areas as borders and establishing fashionable new hot spots for social gatherings.”

On August 15, 2021, The Korea Herald celebrates its 68th anniversary as South Korea’s first English-language daily. To mark this day in times of pandemic and unrest, The Korea Herald has prepared a series of stories on the challenges we face and the prognosis for life with or after COVID-19. – Ed.

By Ko Jun-tae ([email protected])


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