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'Purchasing uncles' keep Dongdaemun night market alive

Time:2019-01-16 03:16Shoes websites Click:

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'Purchasing uncles' keep Dongdaemun night market alive

A 29-year-old "Purchasing uncle" Hwang Jung-ho carries a huge vinyl bag stuffed with clothes, after visiting a number of shops in Dongdaemun, Seoul, Wednesday. Korea Times photo by Kang Aa-young.  

By Kang Aa-young

When the clock strikes midnight, it's time for many to go to bed. Some have already fallen asleep.

But there is a group of people who start their day at midnight. In a freezing mid-winter night on Tuesday, Hwang Jung-ho, 29, just started his day, business as usual.

Wearing a military-style parka with his signature glasses, he smoothly entered Dongdaemun shopping street, the nation's largest wholesale market. It became vibrant at night with a flux of local and foreign purchasers.

A former barista, Hwang started his new job as a so-called "purchasing uncle" two years ago, following pieces of advice from his close friend who recognized Hwang's business acumen.

"Purchasing uncle" is a slang term referring to a "middleman" who shops for clothes from wholesalers for their customers on a margin. Their customers are mostly online shopping mall owners in other cities or overseas.

So far, so good, Hwang says.

"I mean I have been doing great over the past two years," he told The Korea Times.

'Purchasing uncles' keep Dongdaemun night market alive

Staff from LinkShops are sorting orders by region in order to send them on time.  

Hwang said he has always liked clothes and was into fashion. "A year ago, my goal was to start an online fashion mall on my own after learning the knowhow. But now I have become even more ambitious as my business is going well. I want to earn more money to open a cafe on the scenic Jeju Island."

Big wholesaler malls, including Nuzzon, Chung Pyong-hwa just opened their business at midnight.

With over 1,000 stores, the malls are packed with small-sized shops in the six story building.

Each store has its own specialized items, such as clothing, shoes, jewelry, bags, and other fashion-related items. Some fashion experts say Dongdaemun is emerging as a fast-fashion hotspot. The area was rediscovered by some foreign tourists who were inspired to visit the country for K-pop or hit Korean TV series.

As small apparel businesses in Dongdaemun are thriving, so are purchasing uncles like Hwang.

Unlike many purchasing uncles who work independently, Hwang works with an online business dubbed Linkshops. The online business has a website and a smartphone app and is a platform through which local and international customers can connect with purchasing uncles to make orders and get products.

Linkshops is a game changer. With the app, its members can have access to details of all Dongdaemun wholesalers' products, such as names, units of the clothes, as well as store names in each building.

Based on the information, local and global customers check out the clothes and make orders. Linkshops has nearly 20,000 overseas subscribers from about 30 countries.

The global network brought a lot of change. In the past, purchasers had a hard time getting a closer look at samples to make an order.

But for Linkshops customers, they get a 1-day guarantee with order updates. Globally, Linkshops has a seven-day guarantee to get their items delivered to customer's doors. Many of their customers are from Asian countries including China and Hong Kong.

Linkshops charges their customers 3.3. percent commission.

Hwang does not have to bring cash with him as the app is taking care of the finance side as well. Payments are made solely online. Every night he drops by at least 1,000 stores to get what he needs for his customers.

That night, he started off from the top floor of Apm luxe mall. Luxe is one of the "high-end" malls that attract lots of Chinese purchasers. It was even hard to move around the building.

"It's Linkshops," Hwang said to the owners of each store. Then they hand him over what he ordered on behalf of his customers. Hwang picks up his orders at an assigned area and checks with other team members and ships them to his customers, nationwide. Five-ton cargo trucks leave at 3am for Busan. A purchaser's work is all about being punctual and showing up at the right time. Otherwise the whole process will be delayed.

"Being late is a disaster," Hwang said. Time management as well as problem-solving skills are essential for those who want to be purchasers.

If one fails, one will lose all customers.

Although he is now successful, Hwang said he had a rough first start as a purchasing uncle two years ago. There were and still are barriers to entry in this world, he said.

Wholesalers don't do business with those who they don't trust. So first-timers have a hard time getting what they want.

"The wholesalers would never sell their clothes to someone they do not know, especially who's buying only one or two pieces," Hwang said.

'Purchasing uncles' keep Dongdaemun night market alive

A store clerk checks receipts and items with LinkShop's staff to make sure there aren't any mistakes.  

With years of good working relationships with wholesalers, Hwang said some wholesalers even refund for some of damaged clothes from Linkshop customers, which was unthinkable to other purchasers.

"In the past, those who purchased the products were supposed to take the risk and brace for the loss," Hwang said.

Pretty much every shop owners recognized him at once and greeted him with smile. He was easy going, easy to get along with anyone. But he became a very different person once the brief greeting is over. He is cool when it comes to business.

Hwang was fast. He dropped by each store and skillfully picked items that drew his attention. The shop clerks picked out a small package with "Linkshops" written and gave it to him. Soon his vinyl bags, called "Daebong," were full of his picks, just like snowman.

Carrying huge vinyl bags on his shoulder, Hwang said Tuesday was not just another day.

"Actually it's my birthday," Hwang said. He said he has been working on his birthday and even holidays without rest ever since he started the job. The only day of the week he can rest is the day the market is closed ― Saturday.

He loved his job. Everyone in the industry is very trendy, they care a lot about how they look.

"For two hours after work at 7 p.m., I check out store's newest clothes, just to learn the trends," Hwang said. He sure is a workaholic. He spends about 12 hours straight working after he arrives in Dongdaemun.

'Purchasing uncles' keep Dongdaemun night market alive

A Chinese seller sells clothes on a live stream. When sellers display items on their stream, customers can take photos of items they want to buy and message the sellers directly. The night market in Dongdaemun is packed with Chinese sellers.  

For Korean purchasing uncles, Chinese live-streamers are competitors.

The Chinese broadcast items to show them to their customers, encouraging them to choose what they want. "They are a little annoying," Hwang said.

But they are welcomed by wholesalers and sometimes get special treatment because they buy about ten times more than that of Korean purchasing uncles.

"When giant Chinese live-stream sellers arrive, shop owners sometimes close their store temporarily for other clients in order to show the big buyers the hottest items, exclusively," Hwang added.

He recalled the time when Korean online shopping mall Imbly's major wholeseller was once discovered by a Chinese giant seller. The seller pretty much bought it all. The other sellers had to wait for the factory to make more. The fur jacket was a big hit in the Chinese market at that time, according to Hwang.

Like other shopping districts in Seoul, Dongdaemun was hit hard by the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) debate that pitted South Korea against its largest trading partner, China. Fashion suffered the fallout from the security discourse.

Chinese tourists stopped coming to Seoul which ultimately negatively affected shop owners who were heavily dependent on big Chinese clients.

'Purchasing uncles' keep Dongdaemun night market alive

A woman delivers late night meals to shop owners.  

At that time, shop owners in Dongdaemun mega franchise wholesale malls like APM were desperate as their business had gone slow. They were anxious to have the Chinese back, Hwang explained. "Shop owners hosted huge promotional events, such as free $500 gift certificate to attract the Chinese and now the newcomers became steady visitors."

Midnight in Dongdaemun is unlike anywhere else in Seoul. Everyone's moving fast including shoppers, motorcycles and small trucks. They move around the narrow brightly-lit alleys, all carrying huge vinyl bags stuffed with clothes, to meet their times.

'Purchasing uncles' keep Dongdaemun night market alive

A one-ton truck packed with orders for Busan is getting ready to leave.  


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