Spring brings flowers, but in Seoul it also brings construction. Shops close suddenly, leaving a note on the door. Demolition starts that next day and a rush of activity creates something new. Often that something new is a cafe. Recent waves of construction are turning Seoul into a city of cafes, bars and restaurants. Small, local shops are slowly disappearing.
The pace of change differs from place to place, but the pattern is the same: places that sell things are losing to places that sell food and drink. Long-term residents often lament the changes and miss the shopkeepers who had become friends. Meanwhile, left-leaning city watchers chalk up the changes to the evils of neo-liberal-inspired globalization. Those who lean right, by contrast, dryly look at the changes as evidence of the market in “Dynamic Korea” at work. Most Koreans, however, shrug off the changes because change, more than anything else, is a constant in Korean life.
Ideologically driven positions fail to capture the whole picture. Something bigger is going on and Korea is not alone. Since the beginning of the new century, Internet-based e-commerce has changed how people spend their time and obtain goods and services. The analog way of life that included such routine activities as “going to the bank” and “going to the post office” no longer exists for many people. “Going to the store” still exists because most people would still like to pick out their own food or try on clothes before they buy. Things like books, computers and most other goods are easier to buy on the Internet and have delivered. Music and films are now downloaded.
As demand for analog retail declines, businesses lose customers and eventually reach the point where they can no longer pay the rent and are forced to close. In areas with a lot of foot traffic, cafes, bars and restaurants jump in to fill the void. Competition is fierce, and many soon close only to be replaced by similar establishments. To deal with the competition, others open a name-brand franchise only to find that they have to pay high fees to use the name. Areas with less foot traffic experience similar changes, but at a slower pace. Less foot traffic means that more stores will stay empty, waiting for a tenant that might never come.
This is only one side of the story. The Internet has changed how people spend their time. People under 40 would rather spend time tweeting or checking status updates than browsing in a bookstore. A quick look at any subway car in Seoul shows that most people are checking their smartphones, while a few are sleeping. Books and newspapers are hard to find. Others would rather be playing computer games or downloading films. The need to be connected and involved leaves people less time for analog activities, such as “going shopping.” Time pressures also force people to turn to e-commerce even if they prefer the nondigital alternative. The aging population exacerbates this trend because empty nesters and older people consume less.
Taken together, the future of analog retail indeed appears bleak. All the nostalgia in the world will not revive the days of the big department stores or the big bookstores. As the current generation of networked young people ages, print becomes a market for connoisseurs, much like film has in photography. Megatrends like the change from analog to digital never look back.
Some critics hope that “digital fatigue” will stir a revival in analog retail. “Digital fatigue” may exist in older people who remember the analog world, but it does not in younger people who grew up knowing nothing else. As time goes by, the “digital fatigue” set will become a fringe group that might support a few beloved analog businesses, but in ever shrinking numbers.
Internet and smartphone use in Korea is among the highest in the world, which insures that Korea will feel the effects of changes faster than most other nations. Indeed, a recent article in the New York Times lamented the closing of bookstores in Manhattan.
Throughout history, Seoul has never been the leader of a megatrend ― until now. Seoul offers a glimpse at the post-wired urban future where places to meet and work will greatly outnumber those that sell things. This is no doubt disturbing to those who yearn for stability and seek comfort in memories, but there is, alas, no turning back.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser is associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University. ― Ed.