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It wouldn't be Chuseok without gift sets

2012/09/23 | 275 views |  | Permalink | Source

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Market shelves stocked with all imaginable gift sets, from Spam to hanwoo, or Korean homegrown cattle, are a tell-tale sign that a holiday is approaching.

The holiday scene in Korea was pretty much the same back in the 1960s, with the major difference being that the most sought-after gift four decades ago was a sack of sugar. A six-kilogram (13-pound) package of sugar manufactured by CheilJedang (now CJ CheilJedang) was priced at 780 won (70 cents) and a 30-kilogram package at 3,900 won.

Sugar is no longer a pricey item, but it used to be a coveted gift, according to the Museum of Commerce operated by Shinsegae Department Store.

With Chuseok just around the corner, here is everything you need to know about holiday gift-giving.

Things change

The term "gift set" first surfaced in Korea in the 1960s when a department store advertised its Chuseok gift sets in a newspaper. A box containing 50 packs of instant noodles was 500 won and a box of beer was 2,000 won. These gift sets reflected the life of ordinary people at that time.

"Laundry soap and stockings were luxurious gifts", says Bae Bong-gyun, a director of the Museum of Commerce. "With the start of mass-production of such goods, however, they evaporated from the list of holiday gifts. The dramatic changes in gifts reflect the rapid development of the economy over the past 50 years".

By the beginning of the 1970s, the number of gift sets available had soared to about 1,000 as a result of industrialization.

Facial soap, cosmetics and toothpaste were neatly packaged in gift boxes as high-quality presents.

A 12-inch black-and-white television with a price tag of 65,700 won was advertised as a Chuseok gift in 1976. Instant coffee sticks were also popular, along with sugar and artificial seasonings.

Prices of gift sets soared in the 1980s. The average price for premium gift sets was 20,000 won in the 1970s, but 100,000 won the following decade. High-end fruit and meat sets appeared on department stores shelves, and the number of available gift sets reached 3,000.

Not only foods, such as cans of tuna and ham, but accessories like leather wallets, belts and neckties were used for gift sets.

In the 1990s, rapid growth caused a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Department stores competitively launched expensive gift sets, such as a string of 20 yellow corvinas for 1 million won or a collection of whiskey for 1.3 million won.

Meanwhile, the first discount chain store opened in 1993, and these big-box chain stores started to promote budget gifts, such as cooking oil and socks.

Joy or nuisance?

Sugar, socks and soap were once the most popular holiday gifts, but these days they are at the bottom of most people's wish lists, according to a recent survey.

Ticket Monster, a social commerce company, surveyed 500 company workers aged 20 to 50, 41 percent said they don't want to receive socks or handkerchiefs from their companies for Chuseok.

Many companies purchase gifts in bulk and distribute to employees.

Soap and shampoo were also unwelcome gifts for 26.6 percent survey respondents.

Then what is the most preferred holiday gift? Regardless of gender or age, gift certificates and cash always come out on top.

Purchasing gifts for families and business associates on Chuseok and Seollal, or New Year's Day, often strains the wallets of many people.

But experts say the custom dates all the way back to the Silla Dynasty (57 BC?935). "There are many documents showing that people used to send their servants to seniors on holidays back in Silla Dynasty", says Kim Jong-dae, a professor of folklore at Chung-Ang University. "We assume that they must have sent servants not to say hello, but to deliver gifts, which means that presenting gifts is one of the oldest customs to celebrate holidays".

Inconvenient truth

Almost every Korean probably will purchase a gift set prior to the holidays, but they are not cheap. For example, a gift set that contains three 500-milliliter (16.9-ounce) bottles of cooking oil manufactured by Daesang is priced at 23,800 won, but a 900-milliliter bottle of the same oil is 5,950 won at a local discount chain store.

Civic groups also warn that expiration dates should be monitored closely when purchasing traditional Korean cookie and sweets sets. Some manufacturers and retailers make gift sets with products that have already passed their use-by dates.

By Choi Ji-young, Sung So-young [so@joongang.co.kr]

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