On his way home from work, Oh Jong-seok stops twice a week at a corner convenience store in southern Seoul where he usually buys a pack of cigarettes and sometimes takes care of “important” business: buying national lottery tickets.
The 34-year-old office worker is one of many regular customers of the store that’s abuzz selling tickets to people hoping to get rich quick by winning first prize in a weekly national lottery draw.
“For me, playing the lottery is not just for fun,” Oh, a father of two, said in an interview. “It’s kind of a magic card to usher in a new chapter for me.”
He says his wife labels him a “bonanza chaser.”
“I buy every week,” said Oh, who estimated he spends about 20,000 won ($18) a week on his tickets, including scratch-offs.
“When I hit the first prize, I expect the red carpet out.”
If he hits the jackpot, Oh said, he wants to buy a house for his family. “I want nothing more than that. That’s my dream.”
Indeed, the small store with a white facade and virtually no parking space daily draws a long line of customers hoping to become rich quick.
Many South Koreans buy national lottery tickets every day, hoping to beat the slim odds. Some travel far to find “lucky” stores that have records of having sold winning tickets. For one such store in northern Seoul, which is said to have sold winning tickets 10 times, dozens of people queue up there every day.
The national lottery, named Lotto, was introduced in South Korea in December 2002 to raise money for government welfare services and sports development. It has since undergone a few changes, including the price. The ticket price has been halved to 1,000 won, or less than a dollar.
According to Nanum Lotto, the nation’s biggest lottery operator, ticket sales fell more than 10 percent annually from 2003 to 2007 but have recently started to pick up.
Nanum said it sold tickets worth 2.43 trillion won ($2.2 billion) last year, up 3.1 percent from 2.35 trillion won the previous year. In 2008, 2.26 trillion won worth of tickets were sold.
Data also shows that a lottery ticket buyer spent an average 9,100 won per week last year, which compares with some 7,000 won spent in each of the past few years.
“Economic hardships may prod people to justify small-stakes gambling, including the lottery, even as they scale back on nonessential goods and services,” said Seo Dong-phil, an analyst for Woori Investment & Securities.
South Korea’s economy shows strong signs of recovery, but many ordinary people don’t feel it directly, according to Seo and other analysts.
“I think that’s why many people buy the tickets, although some economic data indicates that things are getting better,” Seo said.
“They’ve become more risk-seeking in order to catch up, and for them, the small hope of winning the lottery becomes more attractive.”
Chung Sung-chul, the owner of the store in Seoul’s Yeongdeungpo district, says ticket sales have risen steadily since late 2008 when the country’s economy was buffeted by the global financial crisis.
He estimates that his shop sells around 6 million won worth of tickets each week, but the amount sometimes exceeds 8 million won. Sales fluctuate as the prize money rises and falls, he said.
“They say the winning odds are almost more than 8 million to one,” said Chung. “But still there are winners. That’s why people buy lottery tickets.”
Chung says no one can blame ordinary people for seeking a windfall. For those who are under financial duress, a winning lottery ticket is their only way out.
He says his customer base is different. “They used to be mainly older men, but now even housewives frequent here,” he said.
Lee Young-kyu, a 53-year-old man who runs a small restaurant and often buys lottery tickets, said he hates high-ranking government officials who say the economy is making a strong recovery while he and others feel exactly the opposite.
“I cannot understand why the government keeps saying things are good, while everything is terrible down here,” he said. “Now, lotto is my only refreshment.”
For many of those who buy lotto tickets, there is at least an opportunity to dream of becoming a quick millionaire, no matter how slim the chances.
Song Ik-hwan, a 47-year-old man who works at a supermarket, says he sometimes dreams about hitting the lottery jackpot.
“Sometimes, I dream about traveling around the world without worries about money,” he said.
While some say they would go for extravagance if they win the lottery, Song is among those who would be satisfied with what he called small, humble wishes, many of which sounded practical.
“I would probably just buy a house outright, put a bunch of it into savings, pay off all my bills and give away some to family and charity,” he said.