Coming to Korea: grocery shopping

After five years and 1,300 blog posts, I was a little shocked to realize I hadn’t written a single post on grocery shopping in Korea. Let’s rectify that now.

Author’s note: ‘Coming to Korea’ posts are written with the newcoming expat in mind. 

Head to any major grocery store – Emart, Homeplus, and Lotte Mart being the three main ones – for the biggest selection of foods, drinks, snacks, and groceries. Expect a cacophony of noise coming from the fish and meats section – they’ve gotta sell them now! - which is typically close to fruits and veggies.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Carts require a 100 won coin to unlock. I used to keep a 100 won coin in my wallet for that very purpose. Change machines are usually around, though.

  • Pick up an ajumma cart for larger / heavier loads. What’s commonly called an ‘ajumma cart’ is essentially a hand truck or dolly with a single set of wheels – picture the sturdy frame inside a large suitcase. It folds up to be pretty small, and employs bungee cords (sold separately in most cases) to secure your box. Buy one, and it’ll likely outlast your stay in the country.
  • Stores frown on carrying in large backpacks or bags. Some have a sign (only in Korean, naturally) saying large bags can’t be brought into the store. Solution: use one of the lockers by the entrance(s) – most are 100 won, and you get that back when you re-lock the key in place.
  • Expect to jostle and be jostled. The average weekend trip to a department store can feel like a subway station – full of people in a fairly confined space.
  • The groceries are usually in the basement. I’m not sure if it’s just a convention that is followed by everyone, or if there’s a practical reason for it (my best guess: it’s more efficient to go from delivery trucks to store floor when they’re on almost the same level)
  • Despite there being many employees, few of them speak English. Pantomime, know the name of the thing in Korean, or meander to a different section.
  • Imported stuff abounds, but not evenly. Finding your favorite brand of toothpaste may be a difficult proposition
  • It’s got the same mix of stuff as you’d find in a Walmart or Tesco. On the same note, they have the same seasonal tendencies as stores back home – swimming stuff in the summer (and in the winter again for people escaping to warmer climates for vacations), and various pushes along the way.
  • Accept that some things will cost more than they did back home. Processed cheese, almost anything imported, and alcohol are just a few things that inevitably cost more. Some stuff is cheaper, to be fair.
  • Prices tend not to fluctuate much. If you’re the sort that waits for something to go on sale before you buy, you may be waiting awhile. If it does, it’s because it’s been returned, damaged, or is about to expire. While stores have a place where these things can be found, the Lotte Mart in Seoul Station has one of the bigger (and more eclectic) selections. Take the up escalator halfway, then look on that ‘in-between’ level before doing a 180 to go up to the second floor.
  • In general, trust the Korean brands. They won’t be exactly the same look as something back home. If you’re picky, however, read the labels carefully – especially with beauty products. Some of them have whitening agents in them – great for the Koreans who want whiter skin, but possibly not what you’re looking for in a skin cream.
  • Costco rocks. Your membership from your home country will still work here – and renewing takes about 10 seconds at the cash register. Three are located in Seoul, two in the outskirts of the capital city, and the rest are in Korea’s bigger cities.
  • If you can’t find it, don’t despair. Plenty of import stores are scattered across the country, though quite a few are located near Itaewon station in central Seoul.
  • Bags aren’t automatically given, and they’re not free. Stores are required by law to charge for bags – this can be as little as 20 won. A few places have the standard ‘paper or plastic’ option, while some plastic bags are legitimate trash bags for throwing garbage away. Note that these are only usable in the district of that store.
  • The box-and-tape section also rocks.  These work stations offer up plenty of boxes, wide tape, and ribbon for free. These are the same boxes as the groceries came into the store, so the selection will vary. While it’s bad form to pick up eight boxes for your next move bag of potato chips, it can be done if you’re quiet and quick about it.
  • Half the time, they’re closed on Sundays. Thanks in part to an asinine rule seeking to protect small-business owners, the big-box stores are obligated to close a couple days a month. In its current form, stores will be closed the 2nd and 4th Sundays.

Readers, what’s the most hilarious thing that you did (or happened to you) in a Korean department store?

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