“I was baffled when I went shopping in Korea,” said Sean Jeong, who is currently residing in California. Although his parents are both Korean, he was born and raised in the United States and had never been to Korea. “The shop assistants were very attentive to me. As soon as I walked into the shop, they sprang to action and asked me what I was looking for. Then they showed me several products that I could choose among,” he explained.
Foreigners who go shopping for the first time in Korea are sometimes confused when they experience the way that Korean shop assistants treat them. This article describes the kind of differences that exist in the ways that shop employees of Korea and the U.S. deal with their customers and the cultural reasons behind them.
Different Customer Services in Each Country
Compared to the United States, shop assistants in Korea are trained to approach customers in order to actively accommodate them. This can be seen in department stores as well. “When I shop at department stores, shop assistants approach me and start recommending products whether I ask for them or not, saying this dress is a popular sell or that these pants are en vogue,” said Kim Shin-bee, a Sophomore in Political Science and Diplomacy at Hanyang University(HYU).
On the other hand, Noelle Phan, a Junior in Public Administration at HYU said shop assistants in the United States do not perform customer service in the same way as shop assistants in Korea do. “When shop employees in the United States notice me coming in, they will greet me and inform me of what products might be on sale. Other than that however, they will usually stay behind the counter until I ask for help,” Phan said.
The Relationship Between Buyers and Sellers
In the United States, shop assistants act as selling agents of their companies, so they are simply in a transactional relationship with their customers. Therefore, shop assistants focus more on accomplishing their jobs as sellers, such as working as cashiers or responding to customers' requests.
“Shop assistants and customers in Korea also started out in transactional relationships at first," Yim Hyung-rok, an Assistant Professor of the Division of Business Administration at HYU said. "The relationship of the two gradually developed from a transactional relationship to an interpersonal relationship, a progress which did not happen in the United States. Koreans' tendency of wanting to be more emotionally involved with others is behind this evolution of the relationship between the seller and the consumer."
Shop assistants make use of this interpersonal relationship as a strategy to sell more products. “When buying shoes at a store in the United States, customers can just leave a store if they do not decide to buy any shoes displayed in the store. However in Korea, store clerks follow customers around, unwrapping shoe boxes to show customers what they can offer. Customers therefore might feel guilty about leaving empty-handed after all the effort made by the clerks,” Yim said.
Individualism vs. Collectivism
In Asian culture, people tend to define themselves through their surroundings because of a strong sense of community spirit and collectivism. This fact is supported by findings in the Individualism Index(Hofstede,1980) that shows the degree of collectivism and individualism of countries. According to the Individualism Index figures, Korea ranks 43rd, while the United States ranks first. As this data indicates, Koreans have a strong collectivistic inclination and thus they long to be accepted by others within the community with which they belong.
This is why customers in Korea are more sensitive toward how they are served by shop assistants. “Although I do feel uncomfortable when store assistants follow me around to the point that bothers me, I would also feel a little embarrassed wandering around a store without being guided by any store employees. I would think that I am being neglected by the clerks,” said Kim Hee-kyung, a Freshman in the Department of Policy at HYU. “Also, if a store employee just stands behind the counter, it would seem like he/she isn’t really interested in selling the products,” she added.
This trend of Korean shoppers’ wanting attention from shop assistants has been proven statistically. According to statistical data by Donga Department Store in Korea, 45 percent of feedback from customers consisted of customer complaints, where 37 percent of those customer complaints were about how customers felt they were served insufficiently. The percentage of customer complaints about customer service surpassed that of product dissatisfaction.
Also, according to Michael Harris Bond, an emeritus professor at Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, the difference between individualism and collectivism depends on the consideration of in-group need, when an individual makes a decision. That is why it is natural for Koreans to accept employees’ opinions when buying products. Kim Hee-kyung said, “Of course, shopping and getting advice from clerks is not as comfortable as shopping with my friends. But still, when an employee follows me around, I feel like I’m getting similar support that I would from a friend.”
In the United States, on the other hand, people prefer making purchases without interruptions because of the individualistic culture prevalent in their society. Jasmine McEntire, a Senior in the Department of Korean Language and Literature at HYU said there is no need for store employees in the United States to respond to customers like Korean store employees. “I feel pressure when store clerks come to me and explain things when I just want to look around. If I have any questions, I can just call them,” she said.
The Best for Both Consumers and Sellers
As a whole, services that are provided differently to customers in Korea and the United States are the result of efforts to fulfill the satisfaction of both consumers and marketers, respectively. In both countries, companies try to provide services that are in accordance with cultural tendencies that customers are accustomed to. At the same time, for the sake of marketers’ profit, they conduct marketing strategies which take advantage of cultural propensities. By keeping this in mind, Hanyangians will hopefully be able to go shopping in other countries like Korea and the U.S. without feeling confused or uncomfortable.