South Korean office workers turn to convenience stores as 'lunch-flation' bites
Offering cheap instant noodles, sandwiches and meal boxes for under $5, convenience stores in South Korea are gaining in popularity as salaried workers seek ways to cut costs.
An employee in a Seoul convenience store restocks an empty shelf with ready-to-eat meal boxes, working quickly before the lunchtime rush of hungry office workers.
One such customer is Park Mi-won, 62, an office worker who had never bought her lunch from a convenience store, until her favourite lunch buffet recently raised prices by more than 10% to 9,000 won ($7) spurred by inflation which has soared to a 14-year high.
"After prices went up, I started going to convenience stores instead, where I think the prices are more reasonable while the food also tastes good," said Park over her convenience store rice roll lunch.
"So now I come here often, about two to three times a week," she said.
Global food prices surged 23% last month from a year before, according to an agricultural arm of the United Nations. The war in Ukraine has impacted supplies of grains from there and Russia and caused energy and fertiliser prices to soar.
South Korean convenience shop chain GS25 posted more than 30% increases in sales of instant meals in January-May versus a year ago. Seeing increasing demand, GS25 has also launched a new meal subscription service for office workers, which comes with price discounts and deliveries directly to offices.
Fellow competitors including CU and 7-Eleven have seen similar surges in demand, while Emart24 saw a 50% jump in lunch-box sales in areas with many office blocks.
The gains came as the prices of restaurant dishes in South Korea rose 7.4% last month compared with a year earlier, the fastest pace in 24 years, according to government statistics.
Dubbed "lunch-flation", the price of beloved dishes such as "galbitang" or beef soup with rice, jumped 12.2%, according to Korea Consumer Agency data.
Lee Sang-jae, who runs a galbitang restaurant in Seoul's central district has already raised prices twice this year, and now a bowl costs 12,000 won ($9.35) instead of 10,000 ($7.79).
"I am giving up some of my profit margins, as I also have to consider office workers' tight budgets these days, so I only raised the prices a little in sharing the pain with them," he said.
Lunch is considered a social activity for office workers. They go to restaurants with friends and colleagues for longer than the allotted hour to socialise. But with rising prices, relying on convenience stores for meals and eating these meals alone for lunch is becoming a common sight.
While many small restaurants are still benefiting from a bounce-back in evening dining after months of COVID-induced social distancing rules, economists warn prolonged pressure on consumer prices will weigh on consumption. Real purchasing power is bowing to fierce inflationary pressure, they say, and people will continue to find ways to reallocate their resources.