If America’s cosmetics toting “Avon lady” epitomizes home-visit sales, Korea’s “Yakult lady” is no less an icon of door-to-door business. A familiar figure since 1971, she is more than someone merely delivering probiotic milk drinks to homes and offices. She symbolizes a friendly, trustworthy neighbor.
“Yakult lady” Kang Mi-suk leaves home at 5 a.m. to start a workday that requires an exhausting 10,000-plus steps, but she always greets her customers with a warm smile. Having worked in the same area of Seoul for 19 years, they feel more like close neighbors to her.
No woman walks exactly the same way in jeans as she does when wearing a dress. Clothes affect a person’s behavior. Among the many types of clothing, uniforms are perhaps the most restrictive. They demand that specific duties be fulfilled, regardless of a person’s character. More people than you might think spend their lives wearing uniforms. Among them are soldiers, police officers, students, monks, nuns, and cleaners, to name just a few. And then there are the “Yakult ladies.” Kang Mi-suk is one of them - and she loves her uniform.
“Even on days when I’m feeling serious pain for whatever reason, I think of the customers who are waiting for me and it gets me out the door. Then, when I get to work and put on my uniform, I find myself feeling much better. It’s really curious. A friend I used to work with once said, ‘This uniform is like a superhero cape,’ and I think it’s really true.”
Kang Mi-suk began making deliveries in April 1999. Nineteen years on, she has yet to miss a day of work. Today, there are around 13,000 Yakult ladies like her, wearing the same uniform and also delivering probiotic milk drinks to homes and offices. But since their debut in spring 1971, they have come to be regarded as far more than employees of Korea Yakult. “Yakult lady,” after nearly half a century of crisscrossing the nation’s neighborhoods, has practically become a moniker for a friendly and trustworthy door-to-door salesperson.
Much has changed since Mi-suk began donning her “superhero cape.” Her uniform has been updated several times and the number of products that she offers has increased exponentially. Her daily delivery route, which requires more than 10,000 steps, is now less demanding, too. An electric-powered cart with a refrigerated storage unit has replaced her previous push cart. But her routine remains unaltered, still the same as it has been over the many years.
“Every morning I get up at 4:30 and leave home at 5. I board an express bus from my home in Paju and fall asleep. Then, an hour and a half later, I arrive at my workplace in Dongja-dong. As I change into my uniform, I think to myself, ‘Right. Today is the start of a whole new life.’”
The Dongja neighborhood of Yongsan district (gu) is close to Seoul Station, the capital’s transportation hub. An endless stream of taxis, local and express buses, and subway and high-speed trains converge around the station every day. There is a constant swirl of travelers making connections through a clean, well-lit labyrinth. But outside, the view changes drastically.
Walking across the plaza outside Seoul Station, you come face to face with homeless people sleeping or strolling around, some seemingly intoxicated, even early in the day. And immediately behind the high-rise buildings surrounding the station, there are narrow alleyways only two to three meters wide, lined with time-worn housing units that look like they could collapse any moment. The occupants are elderly have-nots living alone, who either roam the alleyways outside their homes or pass their time in their dim-lit rooms.
Mi-suk’s refrigerated cart is filled with about 200 liters worth of items, ranging from classic fermented drinks and milk to pre-prepared meals. Her delivery route has her ascend to sleek offices high in the sky and then descend back to ground level, maneuvering through the alleys barely wide enough for a passing car, to deliver drinks to the elderly. Thus, she meets customers in shirts and ties and fine dresses as well as those enduring their threadbare existence. But in Mi-suk’s eyes, her many customers, who are as unalike as night and day, don’t seem all that different.
“All the people I meet are basically the same. No matter how high your position in whatever company, once you’re out walking on the street, isn’t everyone just the same? I’m someone who works on the street, so they are all just the same to me.”
Following Mi-suk around for a day, it seems as though she knows every single person in Dongja-dong.
“I greet everyone I meet. There are lots of people who are friendly with me even though they aren’t my customers. When I go to deliver drinks to office workers’ desks and they aren’t there, then the persons at the next desks, who I always greet, will let me know what to do. Whether they’re not in the office that day or just popped out somewhere and will be back soon. Some of them end up becoming my customers, too.”
Rather than urging people to buy her products, Mi-suk simply gets along well with everyone. This must be the reason why she won the Friendliness Award in her company’s annual nationwide contest for Yakult ladies.
Over the nearly 50-year evolution of the “Yakult lady,” the mode of deliveries has changed from a shoulder bag to push cart and now a mobile refrigerator unit called Coco. The selection also has expanded beyond dairy drinks to ready meals and coffee, but Mi-suk’s earnest dedication remains steadfast.
Discovering the World
The company policy discourages route reassignments. The average Yakult lady has nearly 10 years of continuous service in the same neighborhood. They are often more acquainted with the situation along their delivery routes than local residents. About 300 households are Mi-suk’s fixed customers, who pay her directly. She also serves approximately 70 households of elderly people living alone. Welfare organizations or the government provide assistance to pay for the products that Mi-suk delivers to them.
“Perhaps it’s because Dongja-dong has the Seoul Station Tiny-Shelter Village Counseling Service that there’s a larger number of applications for food support here, and it seems as though more elderly people are coming to live here because of it,” Mi-suk surmises. “Among the 70 elderly people I visit, around 10 are in very bad condition. No matter how busy I am, I try to drop in on them every day.”
Whether she is dealing with office workers in neat suits, elderly people living alone, or those sleeping rough, Mi-suk’s attitude to her customers always remains the same. She never judges anyone else’s life but simply hopes to be of help to everyone. “People often ask me if I’m not scared of all the homeless people in this area, but I’m not afraid at all. Even if some look frightening, it’s only because of the drinking. They are not bad people.”
During the time she has spent in Dongja-dong, Mi-suk says she has never had any untoward encounter with any of them.
“I think it’s thanks to the uniform. Once, when I left my cart for a moment, a homeless man started handing out the products in it to passersby. Even then I didn’t get angry. I just thought to myself, ‘Alright, sure, enjoy it. Fill yourself up and be healthy.’”
In 2002, she enrolled in a Department of Education course at Korea National Open University, aiming to become a counselor and help people overcome their troubles.
“When I just lived as a housewife, I really knew nothing of the outside world. I thought housekeeping and raising my kids was the most important thing in life. Rather than listening to what my children had to say, I raised them so that they would never disagree with me. If I think about it now, I’m really sorry. Living as a Yakult lady I learned about the real world. I guess I could say I gained a wider perspective. You get to see so much, and then you start thinking differently, too.”
Whether she is dealing with office workers in neat suits, elderly people living alone, or those sleeping rough, Mi-suk’s attitude to her customers always remains the same.
Mi-suk’s delivery route near Seoul Station includes huge high-rise office blocks and homes crammed into small alleys. Inaccessible places on the Coco make her deliver on foot, up and down the steep, rainbow-colored stairs.
Wear the Uniform Until 70
The 1997 Asian financial crisis led Mi-suk to her job, which she takes so much pride in that she would encourage her daughter to join her if she also wanted to become a Yakult lady. When the economy weakened, her husband, who had been running an advertising typesetting business, suddenly had to get work at construction sites.
As a housewife who loved books, Mi-suk opened a book rental shop to help shoulder her family’s expenses. She did so without understanding the market or consumer behavior. She did not realize that during a severe economic downturn, people immediately halt spending on culture- and entertainment-related items and activities.
“It would have been much better if I’d just started this work from the beginning, rather than doing the book rental shop, but how was I to know back then?”
The book rental shop soon closed down, and Mi-suk had to find a new job. She was impressed by the Yakult lady whom she met when buying yoghurt drinks for her children, and she liked the fact that no large initial investment was needed to start working. Also, being self-employed, earning a commission on sales rather than being directly employed by a company was appealing to her. Having become a Yakult lady with those attractive conditions, Mi-suk always thinks positively about everything. So, people call her “positivity queen.”
“In the old days, about 10 percent of the customers took items on credit and then couldn’t pay their bills. But now that’s gone down to one or two percent. Thanks to credit cards there’s no need to buy things that way anymore, but people’s civic awareness has increased a lot, too. Meeting kind young customers, I’ve learned that the future of the country is actually pretty bright. And by meeting homeless people and elderly people living alone, I’ve learned that I need to be responsible for my own well-being. I want to prepare for my old age well so that I don’t become a burden to my children later on. If my health allows, I’d like to keep doing this job until I’m 70. After that, I’m going to do whatever it is I want to do. I might even carry on with the Open University course I started and put on hold.”
If it’s the uniform and customers that have nurtured and matured the Mi-suk of Dongja-dong, it is religion that has taken care of her outside of that neighborhood. On Saturdays and Sundays, she usually is at her local Catholic church. Mi-suk’s baptismal name is Bernadette. Saint Bernadette was born in 1844 and at the age of 16, she saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes. She was named a saint in 1933. Mi-suk has never had a vision of the Blessed Mother. But perhaps her baptismal name has led her to become a positive presence on her countless customers over the years. Somehow, her uniform suggests a truth seeker, not a simple Yakult seller.