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Analysis of the Korean Retail Sector

1. Introduction

The full market liberalization on the Korean economy in 1996 has a significant effect and has restructured the retail industry to be more efficient. Whereas such liberalization has been evaluated generally positive in terms of economies of scale, intensified competitiveness level, technology innovation, and management efficiency, which determining an enhancement in the total factor productivity of retail industry in Korea. The retail industry has now become crucial as one of nation`s growth engine in Korea providing market to manufacturers and logistics and also playing the role of delivery window for nearly 50 million Koreans.

Strategically situated at the crossroads of trade and transport routes in Northeast Asia, Korean market has been attractive as a target country for FDI. In the domestic market, since mid 1990s foreign direct investment (FDI) inflow in Korean service industry has been increasing while its share in manufacturing has been declining. The strong purchasing power has put Korean consumer in the top of range in Asia. The country’s generally wealthy educated base consumers with more sizable middle-income classes are used to exceptionally high customer service levels, and rate price below convenience, quality and choice. The revenue of domestic retail market has been forecasted to attain about KRW183 trillion which increase up to 3.2% from 2008 with the non-store retailing industry and discount stores showing strong growth [1].

Likewise, large conglomerates, often known as ‘chaebols’, own diversified business units, and all of them merchandise everything from discount items to luxury goods through various retail outlet options. Their dominance has been characterized Korean retail distribution industry. It is also worthy to note that retailing in Korea contributes for approximately 10% of GDP and 19% of employment (Suh 2003). Naturally, the capital increase contributed to the rapid economic growth, consequently boosted production and consumer expenditure, causing the consumption increase. Korea has been portrayed as a country with a strong consumer base. The Koreans who are savvy consumers, their spending have remained a major contributing determinant in the growth of the domestic market. Therefore, it would be impossible to demonstrate a clear understanding of the Korean economy without considering the distribution sector.

Upon reviewing relevant literatures, it is widely accepted that Korean retail industry has been mature and very competitive market. In addition, it has acknowledged that only a few foreign retailers dominate the domestic market which creates fierce competition among local and foreign retailers. This resulted in withdrawals of global leading retailers such as Wal-Mart and Carrefour from Korean market. These have produced growing interests of many researchers to examine the cases. The main target of those researchers is to prove that successful penetration in Korean distribution sector does not necessarily guarantee success in business, and also success which is granted in a home country or globally might not exist in Korean market (Joe and Kim 2007). The failure of those multinational retailers has led to growing number of cross-border merger and acquisition (M&A) activities (Yeo et al. 2008). In such unfavorable condition, the strategy of merger might be much preferred such as the merger between Tesco and Samsung which could stimulate the innovation in the retail development in Korea. With regard to retail business competition after liberalization, it requires Korean’s government supervision to intensify the existing regulation for the benefits of retailers, suppliers and customers and helping small and medium-sized (SMEs) retailers to enhance their competitiveness.

The market liberalization in Korea was inevitable helpful for Korean retailers’ success. As it helps to expand their business and seeks opportunities in foreign markets abroad. This trend has allowed Korean retailers a) to take advantage of new opportunities both in products improvement and process; b) to capture information and to learn strategies developed abroad. As a result, the successful retailers have spread their formats, brands, concepts in all over countries. Because of the very reasons, retail business preserved itself as great potential market.

In the mean time, the Korean retail industrial structure has changed and become more advanced nationwide and worldwide stressing to greater competitiveness and higher productivity that make this a particularly interesting thing to study. Prior studies on Korean retail industry however have focused in general on the dramatic increase of Korean retail sector development. However, this study focuses on the exploratory examination of discount grocery stores with special attention to retail internationalization of Korean retailers.

In order to conduct a proper analysis of the Korean retail industry, this study will adopt a qualitative approach. Also, this study will provide a competitive analysis of retail sector in Korea. To address the importance gaps discussed above, the Michael Porter’s framework of competitive and industry analysis known as ‘the five forces of competition model’ is used on examining the Korean retail industry. This work will allow consideration of how retailing contributes to Korea competitiveness now, how this might change in the future and what needs to be done to maximize the full potential of the sector for the mutual benefit of retailers, suppliers and customers. Furthermore, this study reveals the evolution in the post-liberalization subsequently after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, considering that it is the most important critical point of retail development in Korea.

In line with this aim, the study proposes two objectives: 1) to analyze the competitiveness of the retail industry in Korea post liberalization through Porter’s 5 Forces and to summarize the key issues facing the industry; 2) to provide recommendation for industry and government. Hence, the main questions of this research are: 1) how has the performance of retail industry been in Korea after trade liberalization? 2) What is the relevance of Porter’s 5 Forces model in explaining the attractiveness of the retail industry in Korea? 3) What’s the implication for the industry and the government? This study outlines a comprehensive overview of the retail industry’s development in Korea and focuses on the discount stores as the most leading retail format. The result obtained in this study could provide valuable insights for global retailers willing to develop and expand the business in Korea. The study will also be a considerable interest not only to individual retail companies in Korea in order to develop appropriate strategies, but also to researchers wishing to extend the knowledge base of Korean retail industry. Consequently, the main hypothesis of this research is: Korean retail industry possesses a competitive structure in both domestic and global market.

Data for this study were obtained from the company websites, research institutes, Korean government and agencies, international institution such as Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), published journals and newspaper articles. The remainder of the study is organized as follows. The literature on Korean retail industry and the 5 Forces conceptual framework are reviewed in Chapter 2. The analysis of Korean retail industry using the framework is described in Chapter 3. Chapter 4 discusses the findings of the study and proposes a number of important implications. Finally, a summary of conclusion is discussed.

2. Profile of Korean Retail Industry

Retail sector stimulates production activity in supply chain such as fostering the creation of wider goods and services which have a high value-added and considering the adoption of information technology for production and operation efficiency with quality standards and management skills. Strong retail performance, in turn, helps enhancing international competitiveness and productivity, reduce transaction costs, and finally contribute to economies of scale. This chapter provides an overview of Korean retail industry and retail internationalization.

2.1 Development of Korean Retail Industry

Korea’s retail industry is regulated by the Korean Distribution Industry Promotional Act, which is enforced by the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy (MOCIE). Prior to the 1990s, the retail distribution sector represented as the most backward and the least productive sector in Korea. In line with global development, Korea’s retail ind ustry has brought extensive changes after joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1996. Within the implementation of General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and the accession to the OECD, Korea was strongly committed to liberalize the retail industry in 1996 which induced multinational retailers to operate business in Korea and buy land in Korea for store construction without limits as to their operation on the number or the size of their establishments. The financial crisis of 1997 also brought notable changes in the emerging discount stores due to consumers’ preference to low price merchandise.

The government liberalized the market to foreign investors in three stages. In 1989, the Korean government opened the wholesale and distribution technology industry. In 1991, the retail industry was opened with a maximum of 10 stores with 1,000 square meters or less of floor space for each foreign-invested company. The third stage occurred in 1993 when the limit of outlets per company was increased to 20 and 2,000 square meters for each store was allowed. As of 1996, the Korean distribution service sector was fully liberalized with no limits on the number of stores and its size (Sternquist and Jin 1998). Thus, in Korea, discount store establishments typically represent with a space of more than 3,000 square meters. In turn, competition in Korean retail markets changed markedly from a manufacturing sector which once was sustained the country’s economic development priority over the past thirty years to emerge rapidly as competitive distribution service industry when foreign retail companies enter domestic market.

The manufacturing sector has become less favorable while the services sector particularly the wholesale and retail has become more important. As illustrated in Figure 2.1, the number of employment in manufacturing sector decreased while that of in services, particularly in the wholesale, retail, hotel and restaurant business increased rapidly.

Furthermore, one of crucial reforms in the wholesale and retail distribution was the expansion of store and space limits for both domestic and foreign retailers which induced rapid FDI inflow following the liberalization. Consequently, the introduction of new types of retail business and the scale of retailers has increased.

Retail market sales has gradually changed from 2005 to 2009. Hence the performance of retail market might show a promising trend in terms of sales as it influence the increase of discount stores, department stores and supermarkets more than TV/internet shopping businesses. Furthermore, Boylaud and Nicoletti (2001) point out that since market liberalization, retail industry is becoming intensely competitive and has a large number relative formats. Table 2.1 provides the composition of retail formats in Korea from 2001-2007 which has gradually increased in the last few years. Initially the department stores have dominated Korean market; however in 2003 the discount stores have outperformed department stores with the increase of 2.1% from year earlier. The proportion of discount stores has continued to surge progressively while the department stores and others have experienced slow growth.

At the same time Boylaud and Nicoletti (2001) imply that since liberalization, the entry and the exit rates were high among the retailers. Especially, Korea is a unique country where the local retailers dominate multinational retailers. Having invested vigorously in the competition during initial stages, E-Mart has become the number one retailer in Korea. Wal-Mart and Carrefour meanwhile lost their opportunities to lead the market due to passive investment in the beginning of opening market. The retail environment in Korea made it difficult for Wal-Mart to achieve the growth of level and success it desired. The move was also identical for Carrefour because shortly before Wal-Mart’s withdrawal from the market, Carrefour decided to divest its operation in Korean market. In 2006, Wal-Mart and Carrefour, the first and runner up players in the world, have abandoned their operation in Korea. One of the reasons most frequently cited for this top global retailers to exit were both chains failed to localize their system to meet Korean’s consumer demands, such as providing eye-catching display outlets, focusing on food and beverage sections, and positioning strategically near to urban areas (Sung 2008). Indeed, the global retailers conducting retail business in foreign countries should be aware and adaptive to cultural differences.

In addition, the factor analyses of marketing mix investigated (regarding the firms’ operation) encountered missteps in product, distribution and promotion strategies that those retailers could not overcome even the low-price strategy. This means that ‘a lower price strategy’ only did not guarantee success. Up to present, only Tesco and Costco, the foreign retailers which have remained inroads into Korean market. Both of them have penetrated the market through merger and acquisition with local retailers.[2] Apparently, Tesco has been proven very successful in Korea[3] because its speed adaptation to local knowledge by joint-venture with Samsung Corporation to launch Homeplus chains. Also, Costco appears to have successfully differentiated itself from typical retail entities by sourcing American products for Korean market in the warehouse format. Most notably, the Korean market has offered great opportunity for U.S. retailers to export their goods due to the country’s lack of resources that makes their consumers have heavily dependency on agricultural imports. It indicates that the ‘glocal,’ a unique combination between global management and adjusting to local style and market reliance has become strategies for foreign retailers to succeed in Korea market.

2.1.1 Discount Store

Among the rapidly growing retail formats, the discount store is one of grocery retail concept and is one of dominant player in the country. With this retail format, global retailer has occupied in the foreign operation in the form of hypermarket and membership wholesale clubs (WMC). Through its modern distribution facilities and cost effective strategies, discount stores have been known can offer lower prices than conventional market.

2.1.2 ‘Super Supermarkets’ (SSMs)

Traditionally, the retail sector in Korea characterized in a bipolar retail format of small and mid-sized shops such as ‘mom-and-pop’ stores and department stores. While department store continues to capture middle up market segment, the survival of ‘mom-and-pop’ stores and traditional market has been threatened since leading discount stores have embraced another format strategy into smaller store in neighborhood area called ‘super supermarket’ (SSM). As the last update, Samsung Tesco has been now operating over 162 SSM Homeplus Express stores while E-mart has had the least number of E-Mart Everyday stores. The expansion of these large chains into the small store arena has led to concerns regarding competition with small store owners, and the Korean government has considered introducing a bill to regulate the opening of small supermarkets.

2.1.3 Home Shopping[5]

Although this distribution format has been around for about a decade, the industry has grown at impressive rates. Korea is possibly the world’s most ‘wired’ country with over 90% households having high speed internet access at home and high penetration of cell-phone. With this infrastructure, TV home shopping as well as online shopping malls have grown at impressive rate. TV Home Shopping has expanded at a slow rate fluctuation from USD 1.4 billion in 2005 to over USD 1.5 billion in 2007 (see Table 2.4). The first two TV home shopping operators were LG and CJ, later joined by Hyundai, Woori, and Nongsusan in 2001. While TV home shopping remains a strong and competitive retail channel, the fastest growing channel has been and continues to be the internet.

Meanwhile, the sales from online shopping malls have grown incredibly by more than ten-fold from USD 131 million in 2001 to over USD 15 billion in 2007 during just the last 6 years (see Table 2.5). Although this sales value has increased significantly, the actual number of malls has only doubled in the same length period (Sung 2008). Indeed, this again is due to a number of large online malls being owned and managed by Korean conglomerates, and/or the TV home shopping networks mentioned above, that are dominating the market, leaving only a finite portion to smaller online malls operated by individuals. On that account, it does seem plausible if the product is featured in the top ten malls listed below to reach the majority of online mall shoppers in Korea.

2.1.4 Convenience Store

The number of convenience stores operating in Korea has increased due to the stores opening in some cities outside Seoul. The increase in complexes within Seoul and its suburban, such as office, subways stations, parks, hospitals, dormitories, etc. has induced the development of convenient shopping. The GS 25 formerly known as LG 25 is the largest convenience store chain in Korea which has a market share of 46.81% in 2007 (see Table 2.7).

2.2 A Review of Retail Internationalization

The internationalization of retailing operations is considered as one aspect which is included in retail internationalization conception (Brown and Burt 1992; Dawson 1993; Moore and Fernie 2004) among several other aspects as Clarke and Rimmer (1997) states such as ‘international sourcing, financial investments by retailing firms in retailing chains operating in other countries, and the cross-border transfer of retail know-how, managerial skills and marketing experience’. This has emphasized that coping with operating retail business overseas acquires core competencies appropriate for future success.

Table 2.1 describes profiles of the world top 10 largest retailers engage in international operation in 2005 which ranked in terms of their sales volume. Among the world’s largest retailers, Carrefour has led the business with operation in 31 countries in 2005. Furthermore as the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart and Carrefour by far accounted for 10% and 3% sales respectively in 2005 (Nord?s et al. 2008, 13). Although there was a dynamic outlook of others to international expansion, it is noted that there were 2 world big companies, Kroger and Target which still depended on their home market, the US. This promising trend means that the internationalization strategy on retail industries has been importantly concentrated by most world largest retailers; it can be more developed in the future to other strong domestic players to more profits in the international market or to respond the limitation in the domestic market.

Apparently, the emergence trend in the retail sector worldwide has shown dramatic improvement. Although the bias started in European countries, it has spread to other continents in particular Asia. With those opportunities, a new developed country like Korea will improve their economy domestically and from the successful experience in home country, Korea has challenged the retail competition in the global market. In the shock of 1997 financial crisis, the domestic retailers are seeking to leverage new opportunities with global retailers at home and abroad. Large retailers has led FDI outflow into foreign countries increased rapidly and the competition between global retailers has intensified.

They undergo increasingly the foreign operation due to the domestic market has reached saturation or limited possibilities for expansion. The international operations have contributed a growing share of their total sales. With the internationalization of retail operation, the sourcing practices have progressively increased as its cost of production is lower which has become primary consideration of the retailers. Sourcing locally is being more structured for a better logistics coordination with compromise to the quality and local taste as well as driving for the consolidation of closer relationship with local suppliers, mainly for food products.

The Korean Government has also encouraged the expansion of FDI which is aimed to control and stabilize the domestic market. Most of successful businessmen are making investments overseas due to the relatively high domestic cost including the labor costs and land prices. Thus going international has been inevitable choice for large Korean retailers to look abroad for business expansion. If domestic stores are added on further, it could lead to higher distribution costs and lower efficiency. Big Korean retail chains may prefer to focus on other markets, such as China, rather than stay in Korea when faced with expansion limitations and China for Korean businessmen has been significant as overseas destination to advance into new markets.

Furthermore, as Burt (1993) and Pelligrini (1994) point out, the nature of investment primarily in domestic market and later international target market will be similar psychologically proximate to domestic market. Likewise, there will be a borrowing concept or technological system base adapted in the new established market. Considering that a source of competitive advantage of retail can be exploited by a secondary market, Vernon (1966) argues that tertiary market or more advanced market should consider innovations in a different method. Moreover, research by Alexander and Myers (2000) suggests that the concept of technology designs in initial market is a basis to advance the market expansion which may affect the international market. Indeed, there will always be opportunities of entering international market to drive technological innovation and services and further to accelerate respond to meet the changing market condition.

2.2.1 Lean Retailing Concept

The notion of ‘lean retailing’ itself has become an emerging trend in the last decade which previously has motivated apparel and textile industries. Similarly, since its development worldwide, the internationalization of retail concept is built on the concept of lean retailing. The lean retailing strategy can be regarded as spending less of everything to achieve high advantages for better control over the supply chain. According to Evans and Harrigan (2003,1), the lean retailing may represent model for the interaction of time and location and the linkage between retailers and local suppliers in host countries to the nature of retailing and its operation.

The lean retailing has critically supported business practice by using information technology systems to reduce inventory cost, minimize inventory risks and yields more profit. With low inventories, stores will not be stuck with large amounts of unsold goods even if demand collapses. In turn, with frequent restocking of inventory, stores will maintain stocks’ capability. Lean retailing requires: First, Bar codes, which allow retailers to check out the progress of product value chain from raw material until final delivery to sales stores. Furthermore, Abenarthy et al. (1999) observe that the Bar code can provide precise product identification and be the basis for inventory management. Second, Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) is a linked networks system for business-to-business communications, including purchase orders, shipping invoices and funds transfers. The function is not only to reduce paper use when mailing, but it also reduces costs, time delays, and errors associated with the process (Baum and Perrit 1991). Finally, distribution centers which have replaced the warehouse have rapidly channeled goods from suppliers to sales locations.

The distribution center involves the just-in-time (JIT) supply, and efficiently reduces the inventory process by providing information in real time to suppliers. Since no goods are stored there, the process is transparent due to no degraded goods in distribution center. Under this condition, it can be implied that the work method of distribution center is unique. Typically a retail store received 40 different trucks transporting the goods, but now needs only 5 trucks. It is because the distribution center can draw thousands of goods from suppliers/manufacturers, and then sort them by retailer’s orders. Overall, the lean retailing concept has restructured the entire distribution system and help to manage retail efficiency. The advanced techniques in merchandising and inventory management through enhancing ICT investment infrastructure in this globally competitive market as represented by the lean retailing practices have allowed retailers to emulate success.

2.2.2 Development of Private Labels

The flourish of retail business is subsequently followed by the strong growth of private label (PB) products. In the recent years, PB or ‘store brand’ has become an important component in retailer’s brand. PB is branded and controlled exclusively by retailer. PB is manufactured by retail chains or third party manufacturer. As they deployed effectively, they increase traffic to retail store and lead to consumer store loyalty (Jin and Suh 2005). The PB has enabled the smaller ventures as suppliers to build the partnership with the retailers. The retailers determine the types of products they would consider to make the distinction from the existing products. On the supplier’s side, this collaboration presents an opportunity to simplify the distribution channel, while on the retailer’s side; the PB products will drive more profit margins by selling them under their own brand names at a lower price.

According to Kumar and Steenkamp (2007) there are three types of PB as follows: generic, copycat brands and premium store brands. Generic brands appear with lower price and no frills. This might be popular in the situation of inflation when people hunt products with lower price. Copycat brands may try to imitate a manufacturer product in a cheaper price. Premium store brands is a product that have value added and has price near or higher than manufacturer’s brand.

The frugal consumers have considered PB as industrial/manufacturer brand or store/distributor brand which has pushed the growth of PB. According to ACNielsen (2008), among the Asian countries which have undergone the remarkable growth of PB are Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia and South Korea with the average growth of PB accounted for 48%, 30%, 21% and 17% respectively. ACNielsen also finds that the entry of global retailers in those emerging countries is strongly affected the introduction of PB. The development of PB and its impact on retail sales are not only based on the retail structure such as national brand shares, retail concentration, advertising, economies of scale and scope and talent brand matters, but also the consumer’s attitude toward the PB products (Jin and Suh 2005). Therefore, examining retail structure and consumer’s preference toward the PB products is necessary to support the retail internationalization’s process.

Most supermarkets chains offer consumers PB products that is manufactured and mass merchandised. Most products that are sold in PB are consumer goods that have characteristic of low risk manufacture, easy to be produced and basic necessities. The most categories of products that have been have been covered full line in PB are: First, products that are made from paper such as kitchen napkin, facial tissues and toilet tissues. The next category is daily necessities of non-food such as cotton and dental floss. And final category is basic needs such as rice, sugar, oil, fresh canned, frozen and dry foods, snacks, ethnic specialties and pet foods. Furthermore, the PB is to leverage the merchandise of generic gods that are less consumed. With the attached PB on the products, the consumers will have confidence to purchase them.

By far, all of the literature reviews highlights the importance of continued research in this area. This study will cover how those global issues affected to Korean retail sector.

3 Theory and Analysis of Korean Retail Industry

In today’s dynamic environment, the competition is more intense and coming from all aspects of worldwide businesses. Apparently in Korea, Korean retail markets are seeing competition growing both from local and global retailers. The aim of this analysis chapter is to describe Korean retail industry through Five Forces Model of Industry Competitiveness of Michael E. Porter. The Porter methodology uses five basic forces, which are diagrammed in Figure 3.1. Porter stated that there are five categories of forces that ultimately drive an industry’s competition and eventually determine the profitability of that industry (Porter 1979).

In this study, the forces are represented by different actors along the supply chain. The determinants of power are the suppliers/manufacturers and the consumers, while the existing competition is presented by retailers between large and small retailers. New entrants in distribution are multinational retailers. Substitute can be represented by relatively new retail format, online shopping malls.

I. Rivalry among existing firms

Traditionally, the retail sector in Korea characterized in a bipolar retail format of small and mid-sized shops such as ‘mom-and-pop’ stores and department stores. While department store continues to capture middle up market segment, the survival of ‘mom-and-pop’ stores and traditional market has been threatened since leading discount stores have embraced another format strategy into smaller store in neighborhood area called super supermarket (SSM).

Korean retailing is characterized by large discount stores belong to large conglomerates, often known as ‘chaebols’. They own diversified business units, and all of them merchandise everything from discount items to luxury goods through various retail outlet options. Due to the increase of discount stores, the competition is more intense and all existing firms compete to expand aggressively to make more share than most of their rivals. The local small-scale merchants strongly resisting the SSMs because the SSMs not only offer a great range of products at low price, but they are also conveniently located inside residential area with close proximity to individual homes.

With regard to the penetration of large retail stores operating to a niche market, SSMs has led to the fiercer competition in neighborhood market. The Korea Chainstores Association, which represents large distributors, and Kosamart Co., representing small merchants urged the government intervention to mediate a solution while a few large firms are going to ahead with launching SSMs in some areas. Table 3.1 shows the number petitions between the small-medium merchants and large firms which have urged the Small and Medium Business Administration (SMBA) to raise the issues as mediator to the local government. The domestic competition between retailers is problematic such as SSMs’ establishment inside residential areas which one hand, SSMs benefits consumers with the range of quality product at affordable prices and somehow lower prices than traditional and small shops. On the other hand, the SSMs stores might pose a threat to small merchants because those neighborhood market chains operated by large retailers could discourage their business operations. The giant retailers also have viewed that the expansion of SSMs has contributed to the job creation in the communities. The SMEs has expected that government can protect them

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