“It may look shabby, but this is a real department store. There’s nothing that’s not here besides electronics.”
Dongdaemun Market, a large commercial district located in South Korea’s capital Seoul, is one of the most famous markets in Asia. It is also considered as the birthplace of various street fashion trends in Korea.
Western Discount Department Store in Los Angeles Koreatown is essentially the Dongdaemun Market of Southern California for many Korean-Americans. During a period in which even many designer brands are struggling, the 32-year-old Western Department remains as vibrant as ever with its 45 businesses ranging from fruit shops to jewelers.
The space is limited with only three entrances and a parking lot that is only available, but many of the stores are still going strong as they have been around for the last 15 to 16 years. There is even a store that has been specializes in selling socks for the last 30 years.
The secret behind the longevity of the businesses, they say, is the “2.8 million miles.”
◇ High quality products and management of customer network
Happy Day, a woman’s apparel shop, did not seem too busy at 3 p.m. on a weekday. “The mall is not often extremely crowded, but we usually get wholesalers from Seattle, Denver and other cities on the West Coast who come here to buy our items,” said Susie Lee, the business owner.
Lee added that she has been traveling to South Korea on a monthly basis for the last 20 years. Seoul is approximately 12,000 miles away from L.A., which suggests that Lee has roughly traveled about 2.8 million miles and spent at least 4,900 hours on flying to the motherland.
During her trips to Korea every month, Lee visits Dongdaemun Market as a wholesaler to handpick items to sell at her store in L.A.
Her 20 to 30 other neighboring businesses at Western Department Store also do what she does to stock up on items. The regular customers at the department store is mostly in their 40s to 70s.
“This is a market with warmth,” said Yi-hyeon Kim, a Downey resident who visits the department store two to three times a week. “The items here are suitable for Koreans and those are really difficult to find in the U.S.”
Another business owner who runs a women’s apparel shop said: “Our regulars always come to shop for new clothes as soon as we stock up with new items from Korea.”
◇ Stable rent for tenants
Truth be told, Western Discount Department Store looks old compared to other large malls in L.A. However, that is one of the main reasons as to why so many Korean immigrants call it “L.A.’s Dongdaemun Market,” as the setting rekindles the memories they developed at the famous market back home when they were young.
Notably, the department store’s “Baik Yang Ssang Bang Wool,” a store selling timeless Korean underwear, has been around for 30 years now. The owner of this business, who wished to remain anonymous, first immigrated to the U.S. 40 years ago when he began to support his family through his underwear business. Although his grandchildren are now old enough to attend colleges, his business at the mall still remains strong.
“It’s not that the business ever grew exponentially big,” he said when asked about his longevity even during the rapidly changing times. “Unlike other malls, which shoots up rent every time a tenant changes, our rent has remained affordable at four to five dollars per square foot, while the revenue has remained relatively stable as well.”
◇”Korean Style Discounts”
To first generation Korean-Americans in their 40s through 70s, there is a culture of “ennuri,” a Korean term coined by old-school retail business owners, which describes the practice of leaving certain items untagged, so that they can sell them for cheaper to regulars while charging the less frequent shoppers more money for the same product.
“We’ve got regular customers who fiercely ask for discounts, so it’s hard to have a business here without ‘ennuri,’” said one men’s apparel shop owner at the mall. “But it’s also what helps us to develop a solid base of regular customers and building a sense of trust with them.”
Happy Day owner Lee added: “It’s important for us to continue to monitor trends and changing prices of different products at other larger Korean-American malls in Koreatown. We realize that customers here don’t just come because there’s nowhere else for them to go to.”
One interesting factor to note is that Western Discount Department Store rarely has a sale period. February, September and Mother’s Day remain as the only times during a year in which the store has a sale during a calendar year.
By Brian Choi