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Convenience Store Ethnography – the Korean nation and FamilyMart

Since moving to Asia it has been slammed home to me that there are fundamental differences between each country and culture. Even within countries massive differences can be detected; just think of Hong Kong and the Mainland.

And the question is, what is the best way to investigate this? I think I have found an answer in the ubiquitous small business of convenience or corner stores. Forget Starbucks in the U.S., Asia has been scatter bombed by high capitalistic yield convenience store cluster munition. And the differences between each of them tell you about the Korean ἔθνοςor or race. Hence convenience store ethnography or ethnology: the study of the origins, distribution, technology, religion,language, and social structure of the ethnic, racial, and/or national divisions of humanity through convenience stores (copyright pending TomEats).

So Korea like any Asian country has dowsed in convenience stores – multiple multiple multiple ones to every street – and they can tell you a lot about the Korean race. Well not really but it is fun to look anyway.

The Wake-Up

First, the wake-up. If you are a seasoned Korean expert or have ever met a Korean, ever, you will know drinking is a frequent occurence.

Convenience Store Ethnology - Seoul, Korea

Luckily FamilyMart absolutely caters for when you wake up in the street after a night drinking having not been home and needing to be in work shortly. See Blackout Korea for more details.

Convenience Store Ethnology - Seoul, Korea

You can buy all the supplies necessary to cleanse the smoke, alcohol and room salon debris off you and almost appear human. One use toothpaste, shaving kits, hair products, underwear; the lot.

Stay Awake

Second, the staying awake. Coffee is a way of life in Korea from the ubiquitous coffee shops which now compete with convenience stores for space to the shit-hole canned stuff you find here in the refrigerators.

Convenience Store Ethnology - Seoul, Korea

Any convenience store worth its salt will have diabolical over sweetened but quite potent concoctions to keep you awake. I find them most effective at 4:00am when you are doing an all-nighter at work.

Smokey time

Third, the cigarette.

Convenience Store Ethnology - Seoul, Korea

Korea seemingly has no restrictions on advertising. You can buy a Cuban mojito cigarette. Seriously. Want to buy a cigarette with advertising featuring a race car, or even a cat; no problem.

Convenience Store Ethnology - Seoul, Korea

And because of this Korea has the highest adult male smoking rate in the OECD with 42.6% of men smoking and a similarly high level of women (though under-reported due to gender pressures – see here).


Fourth, time for some cheap snacks.

Convenience Store Ethnology - Seoul, Korea

How about seriously depressing looking but quite tasty convenience store kimbap or some heinous packaged meats? Meats which look so rank even the Polish would say no? Done.

Convenience Store Ethnology - Seoul, Korea

Ramyeon party

Fifth, time for lunch or dinner and that means Korean style ramyeon.

Convenience Store Ethnology - Seoul, Korea

Now you have all heard of ramen but the Korean stuff is substantially spicier and – quite honestly – dirtier. But in a good way.

The Retox

Sixth, the getting drunk again so you can rely on FamilyMart’s extensive array of alcohol recovery tools. Somaek or soju and beer.

Convenience Store Ethnology - Seoul, Korea

This is a must. Either separate, combined but a necessity before and after everything you do and also whilst doing anything. And the best thing is you can drink the alcohol you buy in FamilyMart right outside on the chairs every convenience store provides. Cheap and easy.

Drunk and fat?

Korean culture is based around food and drink together. It is very rare to see people drinking without some kind of food. This is one reason Koreans always hold it rather impressively together.

Convenience Store Ethnology - Seoul, Korea

Definitely far better than my ἔθνοςor (the British) who by 7:00pm on a Friday night are so drunk they can’t stand and when they can stand they are fighting.

Slight preventative measures

I’ve already done a post on Korean hangover cures but the real skill is having them during a ‘session’. Or it is just very effective marketing.

Convenience Store Ethnology - Seoul, Korea

But what you are meant to do is have one of these little bottles for every bottle of alcohol you have. I think that would probably kill you but a couple here and there may well help.

So this is my first convenience store study. Hopefully Hong Kong, China, and Japan to follow on holidays soon… Oh and America. What has it taught us about Korea: well somaek is good.



  1. Tess

    Oh my gosh, I love this sort of thing. I study the convenience stores in San Francisco (or wherever I am) intently. You can learn so much! I really felt I’d arrived in California when I realized the teeny store on my corner stocked 3 kinds of almond milk. Plus a ton of British cookies & Mexican beers. Fascinating! The one down the street is excellent for Indian beer and salty Hawaiian snacks. Oh, and the one by my favorite thrift store stocks generic crap…and Lillet. CHILLED Lillet!

    • I am actually seriously gutted. I forgot to do one for Portland. It had such potential. There was organic / vegan / localised everything. Argh.

  2. Now, the thing i want to know is where Londis and Spar (the English version) will fit into this… And of course the symbiotic relationship between kebab joints and 24-hour corner shops.

    • Grubworm – come September I shall be indulging in a detailed study of such things. I really think it should be Tesco Metro though right?

  3. That fried chicken looks good but then fried chicken almost always looks good. Despite the knowing that chicken found behind glass is rarely edible I seem to fall for it over and over and over again.

  4. Thanks for the fun read Tom! 🙂

    A question: Do you know how come there are Family Marts in South Korea and Japan but none in Hong Kong? Another question: which is your favorite convenience store chain in Hong Kong — or is there no difference between them for you? 🙂

  5. I am a 7-11 man just because there are loads around and somehow the dim sum has found its way to my stomach a couple of times when super super drunk…

  6. mia

    hi, im korean living in seoul.
    your post is so interesting and.. so true. : )
    i cannot deny it at all especially about alcohole.
    and thank you for sharing good restaurants ill try some of them.

    • Mia – thanks for the comment. Strangely I think the approach to drinking is one of the things I find most comforting about living in Korea. It feels a bit like being home (London) as we drink that way to. I strangely think there is a similarity between our two peoples!

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