Life · Life in Korea

3 Things I Learned as a Convenience Store Clerk in Korea

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Coming from central New Jersey, where I lived next to a soy bean field, I was fascinated when I first saw 7-Eleven’s on every street corner in Taipei. When I lived in Tokyo this past summer, I relied on the Lawson’s below my apartment for everything from miniature tiramisus to photocopying.

The set-up of convenience stores also varies by country (and I assume city). It was in Taiwan that for the first time I saw convenience stores with restaurant-style tables inside and cafe-style seating under the eaves. In Korea, I’ve seen quite a few convenience stores with circular tables outside, where old folks chat over beers. (The photo above is of a convenience store along the Cheonggyecheon Stream). On the other hand, I’ve rarely seen convenience stores used as a leisurely space in Japan…

When a classmate told me that there was an opening in the 7-Eleven she was working at, I immediately pounced at the opportunity. The convenience store was in the train station just a 7-minute walk from my house, and my shift was Saturday and Sunday, 3pm-12am. For various reasons, I ended up quitting after my four shifts, but here are the three biggest things I learned while there:

1. Koreans Smoke… a lot

Whereas in New York City, cigarettes cost nearly $15/pack, in Korea, they cost max 2,500 won or around $2.50, making them the cheapest in any OECD country. In addition, over half of all males in Korea smoke, compared to the OECD average of around 25%. As a result, a large proportion of the convenience store clientele is middle-aged male smokers. (And it’s not just men. Once, a cute female college student bought a pack of cigarettes with a pink macaron!)

A typical initial encounter with a smoker:
Customer: One DEESU PURRASU, please (디스 플러스 한 개 주세요.)
Me: … come again? (…어떤 거죠?)
Customer: DEESU PURRASU, I said! (디스 플러스라고!)
Me: *still struggling*
Customer: *motions impatiently* 2nd row from the bottom, 3rd from the right (밑에서 2번 째 오른쪽에서 3번째)
Me: *oh! they said “THIS plus”*

2. There’s not much to convenience stores.

I was expecting to be able to learn a lot about how a ubiquitous business works, but by the 4th day, I felt that I had already seen it all… My shifts more or less went like this:

  1. 3pm: Count the amount of cash in the two cash registers. If any of them were missing money, fill it up from your own wallet.
  2. Fill up the refrigerated drinks section. Rush out to check items out for customers.
  3. Refill the other cold drinks section, while checking out for customers.
  4. 8pm: The daily shipment of drinks, bread, sandwiches, and sausages comes. Punch in the time for the delivery man (who seemed to have a grudge against me for some reason.) then check each item off a list to make sure the right number of products were delivered. Then fill up the shelves again.
  5. 10:30pm: Take out 200,000 won (~$200USD) from each cash register and place in an envelope that would be later slid into a safe in the back office.
  6. 11:30pm: Close shop. Count the cash again. Leave only 100,000 won (~$100) in each cash register. Enter any items that have expired into the system and throw them out or take them home. Shutter and lock the store.

At first, it was cool learning about all the different kinds of things that go into a convenience store (so many different kinds of cigarettes and ramen and coffee and kimbap and milk!). It was cool seeing customers from behind the refrigerated drinks section. But after getting the ropes down on my third day, it became just tedious. Also, since the only heating in the store came from two space heaters behind the counter, anytime I had to leave the counter (to fill up shelves, etc), it was FREEZING. This brings me to my final takeaway…

3. The convenience store industry runs on minimum wage workers.

The minimum wage in Korea is 5210 won, but it is common knowledge among Koreans that convenience stores don’t usually pay that much. While I was only working at 7-Eleven out of curiosity, it still came as a bit of a shocker that my hourly wage was was a mere 4500 won/hour. (Even in this part of Seoul, it’s hard to buy a meal for that amount.) To put this in context, the honorary chairman of 7 and I Holdings Co, Ltd, which owns the global 7-Eleven chain, is the 10th wealthiest person in Japan

When I asked the classmate who introduced me to the store why she didn’t want to find a higher-paying job, she said some of her friends were promised wages of 7000 won/hour at restaurants only to be scammed; their bosses would often make them work overtime and refuse to pay wages. At least our boss paid on time.

Overall, I’m glad I tried it out, but also glad that I don’t have to be working this job anymore! Besides the fact that I usually sleep at 10pm, eighteen hours every weekend was a huge time commitment, and I’ve already gotten my fill of what the convenience store life is like.

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