The competition for lunch box meals is getting fiercer among South Korean convenience stores, as the market is growing rapidly largely due to the rise of single-person households and the bad economy.
Sales of the mass-produced lunch boxes at convenience stores surged a whopping 65 percent during the first half of this year, compared with the same period last year, according to the country’s biggest convenience store chain CU. Sales of lunch boxes at local convenience stores such as CU, GS25 and 7-Eleven increased an average of over 50 percent this year from a year earlier, according to the companies. The rise was much steeper at outlets in major business districts in Seoul such as Gwanghwamun, Gangnam and Yeouido, the company said.
Over 26 percent of the country’s population lives in one-person households, and the proportion is expected to grow to 34.3 percent by 2035, according to government data. Single-person households, which are becoming a dominant demographic feature of Korean society, are one of the main forces behind the explosive market expansion.
Industry sources also point to the economic downturn. As it turns out, a bad economy is not always bad to all. There are some companies that cash in on such times. Boxed lunch makers are among the biggest beneficiaries.
Packed lunch boxes at convenience stores in Korea used to be disregarded as low-quality meals, but now retailers are offering diverse and healthy options at affordable prices, drawing keen attention from customers. According to industry insiders, the Korean lunch box market is showing a similar trend that Japan has been going through for years. Namely, Japan, a country that faced demographic changes such as the increase of single-person households, low birthrate and an aging population before Korea, has the highest proportion of people who purchase home meal replacement products including lunch boxes at convenience stores over other retailers such as hypermarkets and department stores.
“Although the food culture in Korea and Japan differ, the lunch box market has vast growth potential as local convenience stores try to catch up with the neighbor country’s trend,” a researcher at Daeshin Securities said.
Efforts by firms to lure their customers to pick up lunch boxes from their shelves are diverse.
7-Eleven Korea sells 41,000 boxed meals per day, focused on providing quality rice, as Korea’s staple food makes up the largest part of each lunch box.
The country’s largest convenience store brand CU gives variety to the selection to change with the seasons and occasions in a bid to meet changing consumer needs.
“Customers in their 20s and 30s showed high satisfaction over the cheap price of lunch boxes, but we found that they look for products that give feelings of home-made meals,” said Cho Sung-wook, product development director at BGF Retail, CU’s operator.
In April, CU introduced the “Double Big Table,” where the side dishes change three times a week. A lunch box meal that has nine different side dishes in one product became the best-selling lunch box over competitors.
The Korean lunch box market is valued at around 2.5 trillion won (US$2.22 billion), including lunch box specialty stores.