LIFE

AN ORDINARY DAY Similar but Different Lives of Convenience Store Clerks

Convenience stores are spaces where disinterest is a virtue. Most people who work there see their job as nothing more than a means of getting by. But actually, in this line of work, people also have their dreams and affection for what they do.

“It’s not enough just to stand at the register. An important task for clerks like me is going back and forth from the storage to the storefront and keeping the shelves neatly stacked with products,” Lee Deok-ju says.

Lee Deok-ju, a fourth-year university student set to graduate this summer, works at a GS25 convenience store near Bucheon Station in Gyeonggi Province. For the last three years, he has been working in a space of about 50 square meters from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon on weekends when he doesn't have classes. His hourly wage is 6,470 won, the legal minimum wage for 2017, which is 7.3 percent more than 6,030 won for the previous year. If you multiply that by eight, his daily wage works out at about 50,000 won, so working two days per week he earns enough pocket money for the following week.
Lee's case is probably not typical of the reality of Korean convenience store workers. His parents pay his university tuition, so he works only part time near home. He regards the work as part of a larger scheme: preparation to apply for an office job at GS Retail, the company that runs the franchise. This means he readily agreed to an interview while all the other 10 or more convenience store clerks I approached either refused right away or turned me down, after talking for two or three hours, when I asked permission to do a formal interview and take photographs.
To say that this country is now a republic of convenience stores is no exaggeration. Walk past one convenience store and it's barely a hundred meters before you come across another. Therefore, part-time jobs in convenience stores are some of the easiest to come by and the employee turnover rate is accordingly high. For Some, It's Preparation for the Job Market Convenience stores sell all manner of items. Lee said he didn’t know exactly what the number of product lines in his store was. But he did explain that, while there is a wide assortment of daily essentials on offer, drinks, snacks, and readyto- eat foods account for the lion’s share of sales. In the past, cup noodles, gimbap triangles, and small sachets of kimchi made up the typical convenience store meal, but a couple of years ago lunchbox meals hit the shelves and things haven’t been the same since.

Convenience store chains compete with one another by producing their own brand of lunchboxes, developing ever more appealing recipes and packaging. At the GS25 where Lee works, it is these lunchboxes that account for the highest proportion of sales. Last year, the chain also launched its own coffee brand. A large advertisement for freshly ground Americano, 1,000 won a cup, is strategically placed outside the store.
I threw all the questions I had prepared at Lee in quick succession. Is a certain type of personality more suited to the work? How do you learn to deal with the customers? Is there any particular knowhow for arranging products? Are there rules for how to put items into carrier bags? Who are the most difficult customers? Have you ever encountered a petty thief? While preparing for this article, I read Sayaka Murata’s novel "Convenience Store People," which won the Akutagawa Prize, one of Japan’s most coveted literary awards, last year. In this semi-autobiographical novel, written from experience working at a convenience store for over 18 years, there is an entertaining account of the two-week training program for becoming a "convenience store person," or, as the author puts it, a “uniform creature.” For example, you should look the customer in the eye and smile when you greet them; your voice should be cheerful and high pitched; when someone purchases sanitary towels you should pack them in a paper bag; hot and cold foods should be bagged separately; and when you receive an order for fast food, the first thing you should do is disinfect your hands.
But, judging from Lee's response, it seems that things are very different in Korea.
“I didn’t really go through any special training. Of course it’s great if you can be cheerful, but I actually avoid looking customers in the eye. They don’t particularly like it when you make eye contact," he said. "It’s plenty just to scan the barcodes correctly and say the total price clearly. There's no special knowhow for arranging the products, but there is one rule you have to follow: first in, first out. The items that come in first should be sold first; the store owner always emphasizes that I must follow this principle.”
In this area, there is a high concentration of studio flats which are mainly home to foreign workers. This means that many of the customers are from other countries and are looking to buy convenience food or daily necessities. Customers who have not yet learned to decipher Korean will sometimes ask for help in finding the products they are looking for. However, in the three years that Lee has been working at the store, there has only been one occasion when someone said anything to him that wasn’t related to a purchase. “I was sitting in the store on Lunar New Year’s morning when a man in his forties suddenly asked me, ‘Have you had a bowl of New Year’s rice cake soup?’ I couldn’t believe my ears," Lee recalled. "That was the first time anyone had ever shown any interest in me while I was standing at the register. They all just pay and leave without even looking at my face. That’s more comfortable for me, too."

“I was sitting in the store on Lunar New Year’s morning when a man in his forties suddenly asked me, ‘Have you had a bowl of New Year’s rice cake soup?’ I couldn’t believe my ears. That was the first time anyone had ever shown any interest in me while I was standing at the register. They all just pay and leave without even looking at my face. That’s more comfortable for me, too.”

To be fair, customers coming in to buy milk and toilet rolls, unshaven and dressed as though they’ve just woken up, or who come in late in the afternoon for a makeshift meal of triangle gimbap and cup noodles at one of the small plastic tables want nothing more from the convenience store clerk than disinterest. Rather than being a place where people meet, the convenience store is a place where people pass by each other mechanically, a place where one’s sense of self is irrelevant.
The clerks are not allowed to eat by the register. But neither can they leave the store to have a meal. So, Lee stealthily lunches on cup noodles or some such food when there are no customers around.
“I did once catch an elementary school kid trying to steal ice cream, but there has never been a scary thief. Male customers usually address me casually, ‘Hey, student!’ That’s the nicer version. Generally it’s just ‘Oi, you!’ Then there are customers who use rough words and those who don’t just hand the money over but practically throw it at me. It’s a bit difficult to swallow sometimes, but it’s what comes with this line of work. Rather than thinking about whether customers look down on me or not, I focus on how they react to the products. My ultimate goal is getting a job at GS Retail,” he said.

From his experience as a convenience store clerk for years, Lee Deok-ju has realized that the job requires not so much an appropriate level of friendliness but rather the proper level of disinterest.

The person I spent the longest time talking to over a number of occasions, was a certain Mr. Park, a man in his early fifties working at a Seven Eleven along the main road near Dongdaemun (East Gate). But he resolutely refused to be photographed. His situation was completely different from Lee's. Under the condition of anonymity, I couldn’t help but include his story.
First off, for Park this is his main occupation. He works 12 hours a day. Instead of a rotation of three eight-hour shifts, the working day here consists of two shifts of 12 hours. Park and the store owner look after the store half a day each, every single day, and these fixed working hours are due to the owner's special consideration of Park’s situation.
“This is a workplace where I can eat and sleep without any great interference. I’m not just working longer hours to earn an extra 20,000 won; these are the hours that I need right now,” he said. Park, who starts work behind the counter at eight in the evening and finishes at eight in the morning, does not have a home. He parted with his family after a failed business enterprise. Right from the outset he chose to work at a convenience store because he could spend the night behind the counter.
“It’s like a tiny prison cell. But one that you can get up and walk out of anytime. This place faces east, so every morning I get to watch the sunrise. It changes a bit with the seasons, but when the sun rises I know it’s almost time for me to clock off,” he said.

As an increasing array of freshly prepared foods are being added to convenience store product lines, the clerks receive more frequent deliveries from refrigerated trucks.

For Others, It’s Home
When his shift is over he usually starts the day by washing his face and brushing his teeth in the building's public restroom. On days when he’s particularly tired or wants to lie down, he will go to a jjimjilbang (Korean sauna) nearby. His target is to save 1.7 million won a month, which amounts to about 20 million won per year. If he keeps it up for five years, he will have 100 million won in the bank. He doesn’t drink or smoke. It has already been two and a half years since the convenience store became his universe, so he is now half way to achieving his goal.
“I’m indebted to each and every customer who comes in. With that in mind, I always greet people wholeheartedly... and there are a few customers who come in regularly because they appreciate that. A lot of regulars drop by even if it's just to buy a bottle of water," said Park. “The most important thing with people is not money, you know, it's feelings. That’s even more so for people who don’t have much else.”
Perhaps that’s why there are a number of customers who suggest they eat together when he finishes work or even some who bring him clothing left over from their market stalls. When he first started, he thought he had hit rock bottom, but when he got down here he said he realized it was actually a warm place to be.
Park’s daytime routine is not what you might expect for someone who spends the whole night behind the counter. He goes to sports dance classes at the local citizens’ center, where 14 hours of dance lessons a month costs only 20,000 won. He also frequents the local library. He has researched many different ways to spend the days productively without using any money. There are times when he feels his life is fuller and more meaningful than when he was a businessman with loads of cash to throw around.
His thoughts on working in a convenience store are pretty much an outlook on life. “Apart from university student parttimers who are saving for their tuition out of an extraordinary sense of independence or because their families wouldn’t be able to get by otherwise, the rest of us could be considered the losers of society. But, if you don't care to brag in front of others, this isn’t such a bad line of work. Is it only corporate employees who earn a salary? I earn a salary, too. The wages that come into my bank account each month, that’s the fruit of heaven. I realized that after I lost everything," he said.
Park knew that the number of product lines in his store was exactly 852. For parttimers at convenience stores, it’s merely a question of following the rulebook. But, looking around this store, it’s easy to see that the character of the clerk working there has a big influence on the atmosphere of the place. “There are loads of convenience stores around here, but ours is the most thoroughly cleaned and the bins are always in good order. I wouldn’t be able to stand it otherwise,” Park noted.
He said that there was no need to keep track of sales or balance the books because the register is programmed to do it automatically. The sales and stock totals appear on screen, so all he has to do is rotate shifts with the store owner. “It’s great if I sell a lot, but when the takings aren’t good, I do feel sorry, like it’s my fault. I guess those are the only moments when it’s not so easy,” he remarked.
From there, Park closed with his concerns for the nation: “Individual people aren’t the problem. The national economy has to improve, but is it possible when the big conglomerates are siphoning off huge amounts of money to people in positions of power? Even someone like me, who works 12 hours a day for 70,000 won, knows that much.”

Kim Seo-ryung Director, Old & Deep Story Lab
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer

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