On a Saturday night, I felt a sudden urge for instant noodles, a pack of frozen dumplings, tofu and some other trivial groceries, but didn't feel like going out ― it was freezing and around midnight, and the idea of having to get dressed for an outing was unbearable.
I picked up the phone and called a delivery service. The operator asked a few questions ― my name, address and the items I wanted to purchase. She acknowledged that it was a busy weekend night and the delivery might run a little late. I said that was okay.
About 45 minutes later, the doorbell rang and a little woman in a helmet appeared. She handed me a plastic bag with exactly what I had ordered.
I had to pay an additional 5,000 won (S$6) for the order on top of the purchased items. It is a large sum for a light midnight snack. But still, I told myself, it felt better than having to brave the cold, search for a 24-hour convenience store and return.
"We do everything for you except for harming and killing someone," joked Lee Young-hoon, CEO of Simdoly Quick Service, a motorbike delivery company in North Jeolla Province.
Simdoly, an Iksan-based company that claims to be the largest in the country, receives more than 5,000 orders a month. From simple things such as a pack of cigarettes to a pair of nylon stockings and sanitary pads, people seek practically everything, Lee said. And about 90 per cent of the customers are women.
Lee said there are three main reasons why women use the delivery service. The first is laziness. The second is anxiety over security at night. "We therefore have female delivery agents so as not to scare our customers," he said.
The third reason is the shyness of the customers. "I was surprised to learn that so many women were reluctant to go to supermarkets to buy sanitary pads or condoms. They would rather pay a large sum of money than go by themselves," Lee said.
For some women, facing delivery men can be scary. The Seoul municipal government installed women-friendly delivery lockers at 50 spots in the city in June last year and recorded that they had been used 60,000 times by the end of November.
The use of the locker service is simple: The delivery man puts the parcel in the locker, sets a password and sends the details to the receiver via text message. The receiver has to visit the designated locker and retrieve the parcel using the password.
The system can't be used for heavy or large parcels, but it guarantees a sense of security, users say.
"I was relieved when I first came across the service. Because I live alone, asking the delivery man to come to my home at night was a little frightening. The lockers are just three minutes away on foot from my place and I feel safer," said Park Hye-yun, a resident of Seodaemun-gu, Seoul, in an interview.
"The service was not intended solely for women. But we have found out that more than 85 per cent of the users are women, who find facing deliverymen late at night a little overwhelming," Ahn Gyeong-cheon, a Seoul Metropolitan Government official, told The Korea Herald.
The delivery lockers are installed at large apartments, too, apparently catering to women residents. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport has been installing the lockers near small apartments since 2010.
"Women are hearing bad things about having strangers around. They would like to pick up their items without being bothered," a ministry official said.
That women have become the main customers of such services is largely owing to the fact that a growing number of them live alone, industry insiders say.
According to the Statistical Research Institute, the average household has now shrunk to 3.4 persons from 4.4 in 1990. Another study by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs shows that 1 in 4 20-year-old men and 1 is 5 20-year-old women are likely to remain single. And although women may not need a husband throughout their lives, they may need other people's help, observers say.
"I think the market (for delivery services) will definitely increase. If you sit in front of our telephone for a day, you will be able to see how much women are in need of other people's services nowadays," said Lee of the Simdoly service.