Walmart follows Carrefour in exit from Korea

Walmart logo

I know I’m behind the times on this one. I’ve been focusing on the London Korean Festival and so have been neglecting other posts, but I didn’t want to lose this story. I can’t say that I’m sorry that big foreign retailing warehouses aren’t succeeding in Korea. This article is from the International Herald Tribune, on 22 May.

SEOUL Wal-Mart Stores followed Carrefour on Monday in pulling out of South Korea, the latest global brand to flounder in trying to break into one of the world’s biggest economies – with some of the most demanding consumers.

Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, said that it had agreed to sell its 16 South Korean outlets to Shinsegae, a local retailer, for $882 million.

Having failed to adjust to the tastes of South Korean consumers, Wal-Mart added its name to a list of multinationals, like Nokia, Nestle and Google, that have failed to adjust quickly enough to the tastes of South Korean consumers.

“Wal-Mart is a typical example of a global giant who has failed to localize its operations in South Korea,” Na Hong Seok, an analyst at Goodmorning Shinhan Securities in Seoul, said. “It failed to read what South Korean housewives want when they go shopping.”

In the deal announced Monday, Shinsegae, a leading department store and hypermarket chain in South Korea, will operate the former Wal-Mart stores under its E-Mart brand.

E-Mart is the biggest discount store chain in South Korea, with 79 outlets.

The French retailer Carrefour, the world’s second-largest retailer, sold its 32 South Korean stores to the local retailer E-Land last month for $1.85 billion.

Analysts said both chains were slow in opening stores – not only to win more customers, but also to build the kind of market share that would allow them to press suppliers on pricing.

Before the acquisition Monday, the E- Mart chain accounted for 30 percent of the local market, followed by Homeplus, owned by the British company Tesco, with 17 percent; and Lotte Mart, owned by Lotte Shopping of South Korea, with 12 percent. Carrefour and Wal-Mart trailed with much smaller market shares.

“In contrast to Wal-Mart, the British retailer Tesco is a remarkable case of succeeding in localizing,” Na said.

Samsung Tesco is 89 percent owned by the British retail giant but has relied heavily on local managers from Samsung. It is one of Tesco’s biggest overseas success stories, generating a third of its overseas sales.

“Wal-Mart and Carrefour were not aggressive enough in expanding their networks in South Korea,” said Koo Chang Gun at Korea Investment & Securities. “Once they lost the race, they could never catch up.”

Wal-Mart and Carrefour said that leaving South Korea would allow them to focus on the retail industry in China. Analysts estimated South Korea’s discount store market at 24 trillion won, or $25.2 billion, last year.

“As we continue to focus our efforts where we can have the greatest impact on our growth strategy, it became increasingly clear that in South Korea’s current environment it would be difficult for us to reach the scale we desired,” Michael Duke, vice chairman of Wal-Mart, said.

With its lead secured at home, Shinsegae can shift more of its resources to China, where it opened its seventh outlet this month, its chief executive, Ku Hak Su, said Monday. E-Mart plans to have 34 stores in China by 2010.

Wal-Mart’s arrival in South Korea in 1998 triggered shock among domestic retailers. But its performance was lackluster. It posted a net loss of 9.9 billion won last year on revenue of 728.7 billion won.

Wal-Mart and Carrefour, which entered the country in 1996, also put off South Korean consumers by sticking to Western marketing strategies that concentrated on dry goods, from electronics to clothing, while their local competitors focused on food and beverages – the main segment that experts say attracts South Koreans to hypermarkets.

The Wal-Mart and Carrefour outlets in South Korea are simpler in appearance than those of E-Mart and other competitors, which tend to be more stylish and luxurious. Wal-Mart and Carrefour sold products by the box, while E-Mart and Lotte constructed eye-catching displays and hired sales clerks who hawked their goods with megaphones and hand-clapping.

Over the years, South Korea has been a graveyard for some of the most competitive global brands. It is hard to find any Nokia cellphones in South Korea, for example.

Local giants Samsung and LG, which were quicker to come out with popular clamshell models, dominate and Nokia, the world’s primary cellphone maker, basically stopped promoting its cellphones here in 2004.

Google is hardly a player in the local Web search engine market, which is dominated by the Naver Web site of the South Korean company NHN and the portal of Daum Communications.

Naver and Daum encourage users to post questions and let others answer them, creating a fast-expanding Korean-language database that attracts Web surfers.

Nestle, the leading food and beverage company in the world, also failed to make a mark here with its flagship baby milk segment, also due to tough local competition.

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