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Satisfying customers with freebies, personal drivers

2012/03/04 | 502 views |  | Permalink | Source

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Korea is generous with extra helpings in the service industry. Freebies are distributed everywhere, from restaurants to gas stations.

As the Korean market has developed, businesses have adapted to the needs and wants of its customers. Specific trends and niches have emerged over time, from food-delivery etiquette to street vendors' cute iPhone bumpers. Two specific phenomena allow for a deeper exploration of Korean culture: the ubiquity of freebies handed out by businesses and the availability of personal designated drivers.

Above picture: It's not rare to see many products being given out for free in Korea. Above, the Lotte Mart in Yongsan Distrct, central Seoul, holds a promotion on its instant noodles. By Michelle Kang

There's always something extra in Korea

"Service ju-se-yo!"

Some English words are used with different meanings in Korea. For instance, "cunning" is used interchangeably with "cheating". The term "service" fits in this category. The first meaning of the word is familiar to English speakers - namely the action of helping or doing something for others. But among Koreans, it is also used to refer to freebies.

When you hang out at a bar, have you heard your Korean friends asking for service to the wait staff? A free side dish for the table is delivered with no questions asked - as long as your bill is satisfactory. If you just pop in for a beer, don't expect anything, but if you are part of a group and spend some time and money, then you are very likely to get a snack thrown in for free.

Korea is generous with these extra helpings in the service industry. Freebies are distributed everywhere, from restaurants and supermarkets to gas stations and cosmetic stores. If you buy something, you will often get something additional in return.

There are some businesses that offer you a gift simply for the time and effort you invest in checking out their wares, even if you don't end up buying anything.

Most restaurants constantly fill up your empty plates with kimchi and other side dishes. Often times, restaurants and bars will serve you a complimentary dish of their choice if you ask them kindly. If you are still not content with the service, grab a handful of free candy at the cashier on your way out.

Not only eateries but bookstores will pleasantly surprise you, especially in the magazine section. Buying a fashion magazine can lead you to be showered with an extravaganza of free gifts like body lotion, lip gloss, makeup pouches and fashion accessories - and don't expect them to be the cheap items you find randomly on the street. They are generally brand-name products that you would be willing to open your wallet for on their own.

Myeong-dong, the capital's busiest shopping district, is one of the spots where you can experience the generosity to both locals and foreign visitors alike. Girls in white high-heels shout into megaphones, trying to talk passersby into their cosmetic stores by handing out free gifts from tiny baskets.

Just setting foot inside one of the stores is an opportunity to get freebies such as cosmetic cotton pads, facial masks or cute pencils. If you then buy any items, you will get even more in return, often a miniature moisturizer or a single dose of BB cream.

But what if you're not into cosmetics and you don't want to miss out on the free stuff? Fear not: Pull up at any gas station for a fill-up, and you'll be in on the freebie fun. The gas jockey will hand over your receipt, but don't roll up your widow just yet.

No matter how much you spend on fuel, the service staff will throw in a complimentary pack of tissues, a coffee or a bottle of mineral water.

If you don't own a car, then head to a nearby supermarket and sample free food while strolling around. Then load up your shopping basket with bundled products - two of the same item or two complementary items are often taped together for a one-plus-one deal.

So from now on, don't be in a rush to pay and leave right away. Next time you go shopping, have a big meal or hang out at a bar, politely ask, "Service iss-eo-yo?" (Are there any freebies?) You might be in for a pleasant surprise!

Phoning in a personal designated driver

After several rounds of drinks with his co-workers, Mr. Kim wisely decided to leave his car at the company parking lot. But he knew he would rather drive to work the next morning in the comfort of his own car rather than squeeze into a packed subway or bus. He was tempted to just hop into his car and hope the police didn't pull him over.

Drinking and driving is one of the most foolish and dangerous things you can do, but the hectic life of the average Korean businessman is a series of long, overworked days, followed by stress-relieving drinking sessions in the evening.

For those soju lovers, a throbbing headache the next morning is already enough of a pain, and to be jam-packed on public transportation during rush hour with a hangover is a nightmare. Thanks to Korea's drinking culture, a niche market was born that enables you to hire a designated driver.

What these designated drivers do is take intoxicated individuals home by driving their cars for a service charge. Like a temporary chauffeur, these people are hired to get you home in your own car not just to guarantee you aren't caught by sobriety checkpoints, but to ensure you don't get into an accident and hurt others. These designated drivers are easily found across the nation.

Drivers with cellphones are on standby. After receiving a call from a customer, they speedily move to the location where a drunken customer is waiting with car keys in hand. The service charge depends on the distance to the intoxicated customer's final destination, but the base charge within the city ranges between 10,000 won ($9) and 15,000 won.

Most calls for these professional drivers come between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., but they are much busier on Fridays and near the end of year when more holiday drinking parties occur.

Alcohol affects people in different ways, making some of us forgetful or sleepy and others rude or abusive. That's why the patient drivers first make sure to get the customer's address from a more sober drinking buddy in case the customer is too drunk to tell east from west.

Korea is well known for being safe and having a low crime rate, but I would have second thoughts about handing over my car keys and home address to a complete stranger when I am in a defenseless state. Regardless of my personal fears, I have never heard of any abuses by the replacement drivers, and I feel much better knowing that fewer people are drinking and driving.

I'm sure a series of upcoming parties are already marked on your calendar, assuring you will have plenty of nights spent drinking with friends and co-workers until the wee hours of the morning.

Make sure to call a replacement driver if you have a car, unless you are willing to be the designated driver every time!

By Michelle Kang Contributing writer []

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