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[Meet the CEO] Groupon feels way around Korean market

Groupon Korea, the new kid on the Korean social networking commerce scene, brushes off the worries and sniping about its somewhat subdued entry.

“All of our options are open, and we want to try new things and experiment to get the gist of what works and what doesn’t,” said Hwang Hee-seung, Groupon’s chief executive told The Korea Herald in an interview.

And the experiments will go on, said the 27-year-old CEO, as Groupon navigates its way toward its long-term corporate goal of creating an effective and creative pilot market out of Korea.

Korean customers are high-maintenance, but that’s exactly why the country would become an excellent platform to test out new services and products.

Anything that works in Korea, should work elsewhere, he said from Groupon’s offices in southern Seoul, furnished in the company’s lime green theme color.

The atmosphere matched the vibrant hue, with the rooms filled with young employees in their 20s and 30s, donned in all kinds of fashion styles ranging from jeans and sneakers to immaculately tailored suits.

But social commerce is also about creating new value, Hwang said, to help make people’s lives fuller and more meaningful.

Social commerce, after all, is about being able to communicate directly with consumers to find out what they want in life that would make them happier.

In this line of business, one tends to quickly see what kind of social trends are taking root, and Groupon Korea was surprised ― and a bit saddened ― to find that Koreans were relatively less interested in outdoor activities or personal hobbies.

“We quickly found what services we should avoid and what we should chase after, but it was still a surprise,” Hwang said.

Consumer tastes also run a wide gamut, he noted.

For instance, the customers in Gangnam area preferred coupons for spas or other forms of physical relaxation, while in western Seoul, it was all about restaurants and eating out.

Thanks to the research, Groupon has closed 95 percent of all its sales since its launch on March 14.

But long-term success is still a daunting challenge, especially since Korean consumers are known to be among the pickiest, a trait that even Groupon’s headquarters are aware of.

“We know, and our headquarters know that the Korean market has picky consumers, and that’s exactly why this is such a great place to test what works,” Hwang said. 
Groupon Korea CEO Hwang Hee-seung. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Groupon Korea CEO Hwang Hee-seung. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Groupon also is up against fierce competition in a market filled with some 500 social commerce rivals, including powerhouses like Ticketmonster and Coupang.

The newcomer has a lot of ground to cover; Groupon’s daily sales amount to an average 30 million won, which pales in comparison to Ticketmonster’s 800 million.

But Groupon is confident of its future here, especially because of what it calls an “exceptionally talented” staff.

About 30 of Groupon’s 250 employees are in customer services, while 30 others are partner managers ― the employees who meet the service and product providers.

“We tell our partner managers to do everything in their power to close the deal,” Hwang said.

He said that one of his employees told him of how he stuck around clearing tables and cleaning up at a restaurant he wanted to team up with.

Needless to say, he got the deal.

Customer services are another core part of Groupon Korea, which offers a full refund to unsatisfied customers within a 7-day warranty period.

The company plans to eventually hire more customer service workers to reach about 15-20 percent of its workforce.

The decision to seat a young CEO such as Hwang himself is a reflection of the kind of company Groupon is aspiring to be, he said.

Hwang was previously head of a Korean social commerce company, LuCreative.

As chief executive of a new venture, Hwang has said he hopes to achieve monthly sales of 10 billion won ($8.8 million) and a market share of 20 percent.

By Kim Ji-hyun (jemmie@heraldcorp.com)
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