How local supermarkets have become Koreans' new favourite restaurants
With lines amongst industries blurring, an increasing number of supermarkets have transformed themselves into "grocerants" -- a term coined combining grocery and restaurants -- stocking shelves with ready-to-cook foods and offering in-store dining.
"It's beyond just a food stand where people cook for you. Including the quality and freshness of the food, it feels more like a full-service type of restaurant," said a 31-year-old Hwang Young-ju, who said she enjoys the eateries after a round of grocery shopping.
The trend is fast spreading among customers who look for the convenient dining experience -- simply order food and fill the shopping cart as they wait.
While many grocery chains have caught on to this fad, it is Lotte Mart that has made some of the largest strides in capturing dining dollars.
Lotte Mart first opened Steak Station inside its Yangpyeong store in April last year. At Steak Station, just by adding 1,500 won (S$1.80) per beef pack, customers can enjoy a full dish of grilled steak that comes with complementary garnish which includes tomato and asparagus.
Buoyed by popularity among customers, who queued to try the quality meat at a reasonable price, the company opened a full grocerant-concept store in Seocho in July.
According to the retail giant, an average of 8,300 customers visit the Seocho store daily, about double the amount compared to some 120 other Lotte Mart stores on average.
Besides Steak Station, customers can pick and select to steam or grill their seafood such as salmon, shrimp and lobster at Seafood Station. Juice Station and Salad Station are other popular options. At least 150 orders are made at each station during the weekdays, while orders go beyond 200 to 300 during the weekends at the Seocho branch, the company said.
In fact, the concept of blending a restaurant experience with the grocery shopping is not new.
"Grocerants are just an extension of what's known as deli or food counters in upscale stores. But the recent trend has now taken these delis and grab-and-go salad bars to the next level with sit-down service, full bars and even chefs," said Kim Hyoung-ju, vice manager of the Lotte Mart Seocho.
"The competition of brick-and-mortar grocery chains will only grow fiercer, since retail channels have become more diversified and focused on providing an experience over the last four or five years," said Kim.
Industry insiders say changes in shopping habits have attributed to the popularity of grocerants.
While more shoppers increasingly want someone else to cook for them, but don't want to stop going to grocery stores either, they can go to supermarkets that offer experiential food destinations.
"When dining out, more consumers are choosing their local grocery stores because they can do more than just eat. In a world where customers can shop groceries with a few clicks online or via mobile phone, offline supermarkets cannot compete by just offering products or food for shopping but a memorable experience," said an official from Shinsegae.
"We try our best to provide enhanced grocerant experience to entice diverse shoppers into supermarkets, ultimately making them to choose grocerants over traditional fast food and restaurants," she added.
In August, Shinsegae has opened Live Lobster Bar at PK Market, a grocerant inside Starfield Hanam. At Live Lobster Bar, customer can order to cook their seafood -- steam, grill or fry -- at an additional 3,000 won (S$3.70).
Experts say customers from all age groups will continue to prioritize health-conscious values when choosing their food.
"Korea has recently gone through various food-related issues, such as the so-called hamburger disease and fipronil-contaminated eggs, and against that backdrop, grocerants provide a feeling of safety and relief since customers can pick their own food and even check how it is cooked in an open-kitchen environment," said professor Sung Mi-kyung of the Department of Food and Nutrition at Sookmyung Women's University.