Korean re-tale, a community retail story

This saturday morning, I went out to shop locally, something I do now as it is easily possible by foot within the ‘human scale’ of Bristol, the City I now call home.

On Bristol’s Gloucester road, there is a small Korean wholesale outlet, a shopping mecca if you happen to like cooking with Asian food.
The problem is that, as a customer, I don’t understand what is written on the packet or the tin or the tube of paste. The product ingredients are all in the language of the Asian manufacturers. This lack of comprehension is frustrating when, as a cook, you want to be sure what you are buying!

I occasionally like cooking with typically asian ingredients, so I’ll go into this shop, curious about the products I see and touch on the shelves, but sometimes quite unsure what they contain! They seem to promise so much, with their bright, colourful graphics and ‘meal suggestion’ images displayed on the front of the packaging.

How could this simple problem translate into an opportunity for Asian manufacturers and retail businesses who operate in or sell to the UK market? This is a question I wanted to explore in this blog.

Why are Asian food manufacturers and retailers so slow to grow their share in an established market, worth a staggering £85m for one UK manufacturer, who dominates UK sales in the the asian convenience food market?

Wanting to better understand the context, I take an opportunity to do some quick desktop research, which could help me get some market insight.

But for now, back to my story…
As one enters this modest retail space, one is confronted with a store layout, common to most unenlightened businesses, whose main trade is business to business and much less so, business to consumer. It offers a customer off the street only the bare minimum and shows little evidence that anything has actually been designed for the customer. There’s little effort made in the interior or information design to make the shopping experience anything but commoditised. In fact, it resembles any typical wholesaler ‘s premises, with a few standalone shelves stacked with products, the only thing in english is the price. The only other convenience to the customer is a person to take your money and give you a carrier bag to carry home your purchases.

If you take a customer-centric, designer’s view of why to re-invent this type of business, you can see there is a retail opportunity there simply delicious in scale!

Sitting still by the till reading a paper, there is a kind-looking old woman who probably minds the store alone all day and who appears to have very few customers to serve.
I empathise with her situation and, walking around, I begin to form an idea that would help her become more a socialised and successful retailer, and possibly even have more fun at work?

Having first established she was the business owner, I wanted to help her to think about how to generate some new customers she could interact with, whilst at the same time help her see an opportunity to ‘turn up the volume’ on her consumer business.

Her own level of english was hardly a barrier to our first foray in communication, perhaps because we had a shared love of food and were cordial to each other, so I persevered to see if she was at all interested in my thinking. I reflect that she eventually seemed to like what I had to say.

Speaking as an enthusiastic home cook, I reflect that this Korean retail outlet is the kind of “exotic food shop” I love among Bristol’s diverse range of convenience food outlets, and I would like to see it thrive and even grow in 2011. Perhaps the old woman does too?

I am sure there must be other Bristol foodies like myself, who like to experiment with the products that they can buy locally and are curious about food from Asian cultures. Speaking about my own kitchen store cupboard for a moment, you will find Korean, Japanese and Thai food too, as I sometimes crave all these Asian tastes in my home cooking.

I am undoubtedly not alone. “Premier Foods Chinese cooking sauces hold a total 28.2% share of the total Chinese cooking sauce market and are worth £15.8m – mainly through the Sharwood’s brand, which is worth £13.8m and growing at 10.1%”

My visit to this Korean convenience store is now an opportunity to offer some business advice. This little shop interests me, but it desperately needs some love!

love = business investment

To begin with, I asked if the old woman could help me choose what to put in my shopping basket, by accompanying me around the shop and offering suggestions for products that would give shape to and satisfy my ‘vague’ food cravings.

She accompanied me, as I picked up some fresh ginger, then some lemon grass, before I put them both down, unsure what it was I wanted to create. Then I picked up a can of something and tried to understand what was in it from the picture, before putting it back, none the wiser.
As this approach was going nowhere, I asked her to recommend something she liked personally. She led me over to another shelf, which contained more, very similar looking products but enthusiastically nodded and made gestures of preference for one or two things she had obviously tried herself.

It was rather an interesting way to shop and I loved the engaging and personalised service element, this seemed quite new to her too!

After selecting several Korean products with her help, I returned to her counter, which was very basic by UK standards and decided to share some other ideas, warming up in my creative oven-of-a-mind.

It seemed right to share it with her there and then, after all, there were no other customers in sight!
They were promotional ideas, which could create a two-way exchange of value, which is the lifeblood of any service business.

“The interaction between the firm and the consumer is becoming the locus of value creation and value extraction. As value shifts to experiences, the market is becoming a forum for conversation and interactions between consumers, consumer communities, and firms.”

One idea was to create a series of experiential marketing events, in collaboration with a Chef from a local and newly opened Korean restaurant, and others who could offer their particular skills to bring this idea to life. The events would be designed to raise Bristol’s awareness of an alternative to the single, dominant Sharwood’s convenience foods brand, mainly found in supermarkets. The Korean Chef could provide an interactive cooking showcase with those invited to the event, using ingredients available from the shop.

The target market of the campaign would be Bristol’s adventurous home cooks but also culinary-challenged students, who are attracted to the prevailing convenience culture in food.

I also conceived another idea, which with very little investment, could easily generate an increase in sales, providing a healthy ROI for the business. This could be in the form of  recipe cards, visually identifying the in-store products necessary to create a range of convenience meals with an english translation of the ingredients contained in each product.

As I was telling her all this, I began to warm to the idea more and I think, after a little time, she did too.
She gave me the mobile phone number of her daughter, which was Sellotaped to the back of her mobile phone, interesting…

She then showed me a marketing flyer for the launch of a local Korean restaurant – newly opened in Bristol and, perhaps somewhat proudly, mentioned that the business was Korean-run and owned. This lovely old woman was winning me over with her reciprocation of enthusiasm for some new ideas.

As I left the shop, I heard loud ‘honks’ on a car horn and eventually looked up to see some friends from the BBC. They were waiting in their car at a red light and had seen me emerge from the shop.
I went over and enthusiastically shared my ideas, as I wanted to test them and guage their reaction. “Wonderful” they both said, “we know a guy who puts on events in Bristol, who could help you”.

To conclude: this short story, drawn from my Saturday shopping experience describes what turns me on professionally. Primarily, it is the thought of being able to offer community business owners the seed of an idea, which can be nurtured and grow through collaboration and co-creation. The idea/s can then be translated into action, made possible, in part, by a shared sense of ownership.

Design is a noun and a verb. My passion is to work with client stake holders to help co-create new ideas, safe in the knowledge that, if necessary, servicejunkie can draw together the right project team to communicate the best ones through new service propositions, which can be implemented through new or existing business models.
Often, it is only by working together that we can breathe life into new product and service ideas, that can potentially create real value in people’s lives.

© richard louis arnott 2010


About servicejunkie

i AM servicejunkie “A designer works through and for other people, and is concerned primarily with their problems rather than his own” — Norman Potter, What is a designer? (1969) In my view, the only important thing about design is how it relates to people and this belief lies at the heart of everything I do and have ever done as a designer. My passion is using people-centred design as a process to make things better for people. I design and facilitate creative workshops, which enable people to learn how to ‘think and do like a designer’ co-designing solutions that create new forms value for the people the organisation serves, its customers. My purpose is to serve, by helping my clients frame more human problems to solve using design thinking and codesign. My integrity reflects a consistency in my actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations and outcomes.
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One Response to Korean re-tale, a community retail story

  1. Linda says:

    Two words spring to mind after reading this Korean re-tale ….. NEAT & SMART! Now I want to know more … what happened next? This is a story of a wonderful encounter … across the counter, across frontiers, across cultures … across the street …. not many would have taken the trouble to do what you did! Heartwarming … OK that’s three words. Nice!

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