Costco “Salad” & IKEA Meatballs
What do Costco and IKEA have in common? Well, they used to be favorites of mine in the States (ask anyone from my previous job and they’ll tell you that I’m one of Costco’s biggest fans!) but Korea has really turned me off from both. Why is that? Because of this added commonality: They may be two of the most popular shopping destinations in Korea!
Last week, I had the “pleasure” of going to both Costco (on a Saturday) and IKEA (on a Wednesday). I think I’ve now been to Costco every single day of the week, at various times, and I can say that there doesn’t seem to be an “optimum” time to go. IT’S ALWAYS BUSY! It seems like everyone (AND their mothers AND their kids) is there when I go. The aisles are so jam-packed that I just leave my cart in one location and walk around. If there’s someone handing out free samples, you can be sure that area will be congested. And free samples of meat (especially beef)? People will start queueing while the lady is still cooking!
After we checked out, I was starving, so we went to the Costco food court for lunch. We couldn’t find seats so I sat down with a family of three while Alex ate standing. The weirdest thing about Costco Korea is the Costco “salad” at the food court. I’m not sure if someone taught them to eat this, or if each person figured it out on his own… but EVERY table had a huge plate of ketchup, mustard, and onions (free condiments for the hotdogs), mixed together. People were shoveling the stuff down by the forkful. I don’t understand it! Do people think that it’s healthy? That it’s a salad? That THAT is how you’re supposed to use condiments? It’s mind-boggling, and also nauseating, as the condiment “salad” is all you can smell in the food court.
Besides the crowd inside the store, it’s also a hassle to get to Costco (subway to bus – 50 minutes, or taxi – 30 minutes to 50 minutes, depending on traffic). But, I don’t envy the drivers either- the line of cars waiting to get into and out of the garage is long too! Anyway, it’s usually a half day spent at Costco (when in the States I could zip into and out of a Costco in 15 minutes), so each trip is an ordeal!
While Costco has been in Korea for a while, IKEA Korea just opened very recently (after years of trying to get into the Korean market, with strong opposition from the Korean furniture lobby). It’s supposed to be the largest IKEA in the world, and I was very excited to visit. Having had experience with Costco, I prepped myself mentally for the long lines and crowds, but our short trip to IKEA lasted seven hours (including travel time)!
First of all, it’s technically outside of Seoul, in Gwangmyeong (in the west). It took my shopping companions and me one hour by subway, and then 30 minutes by bus to get there. Once at IKEA, our first stop was the restaurant, for a (very) late lunch. The lines were long, and everything looked delicious. We all got the Swedish meatballs set (kind of what IKEA is famous for), but looking around us, we noticed everyone else had bowls of pasta (Koreans love “Italian” food) or bulgogi and kimchi fried rice. (I guess people love what they’re used to.)
Having scarfed down the meatballs, we started walking through the showrooms. Now, normally, when you walk through the showrooms, you have enough space to look around at the furniture displays, but it was so crowded that we were sort of pushed through the showrooms. Young couples seemed to be there on dates (?), and mothers there pushing children in strollers.
Because Alex and I already looked at a variety of Korean furniture stores (when we first moved to Korea), I know how much coffee tables, couches, and dining sets go for (hint: a lot more than what you would pay in the U.S.). Even at the so-called Korean “equivalent” of IKEA, where we bought our sofa and coffee table, the prices were high. So, I can really understand why Korean furniture stores didn’t want IKEA in the market. Even with a ~20% mark up from U.S. prices, things at IKEA were… cheap (if not cheap, then at least reasonable).
After checking out (it seemed like half the things on display were “out of stock”, and after I got a 400 won- 40 cents! -frozen yogurt), we waited outside, near a sign that read, “taxi” in English and Korean. For 15 minutes. No taxis. We asked a staff member, who looked confused about the taxi sign, and said no taxis ever stopped here. OK… so then we walked to the main intersection (with our bulky purchases), and proceed to be passed up by several taxis. We finally learned that since we weren’t in Seoul, most local taxis wouldn’t take us. We had to call a Seoul taxi and waited around some more. All in all, we waited about 45 minutes for a taxi. And then… we hit traffic. It was, by this point, 6 PM, rush hour. The cab driver immediately regretted taking us, because for some reason, the taxi meters don’t charge very much for stopping.
Two hours later (and only 39,000 won – that was a poor return on the cabbie’s two hours), we finally made it home. We all agreed that it felt like we had gone through battle (and it didn’t even feel like we were on the winning side)! When I showed Alex a map of where the IKEA was, he said, “That doesn’t look like it’s that far away.” It really shouldn’t have taken so long. But, well, seven hours made it feel like a huge ordeal. And I’m not sure I’ll be going back anytime soon…