Marco Werman: The next Winter Olympics after Sochi takes place in South Korea, but the drink in question there right now isn’t Coke, it’s coffee. Koreans have had a love affair with coffee in recent years, but that seems to be cooling off. We often turn to reporter Jason Strother in Seoul to explain all things Korean for us, so I asked him why coffee sales are down.
Jason Strother: Marco, there are a few reasons behind this latest trend here. One, Koreans just don’t have that much money any more. Household debt is super high, there’s youth unemployment that’s double the national average. People just don’t have the money to go out and spend $6 on a latte anymore.
Werman: That’s what it costs - $6 for like a small latte?
Strother: That’s not unusual, especially in the more trendy, posh cafes of let’s say Gangnam. Coffee is a really new thing here. Ten years ago when I first came to Korea, what you got basically was coffee flavored water. There was a lot of mix coffees with powdered milk or sugar additives put in, but it was really within the past several years that this coffee culture took place and it has become a real status symbol. Sitting in a trendy cafÃ© in Gangnam, sipping your latte, your Americano. It’s as much of a status symbol as it is carrying a Louis Vuitton bag for many Koreans. They want to be seen, they want to take the window seat. It’s a place to be, it’s a place to socialize â€“ especially for young women. But like most trends, things fade after time.
Werman: Are you saying that it’s just going from trend to kind of reality now? Enough of this expensive trend?
Strother: Sure, I think that the Korean coffee franchises here - Caffe Bene for instance â€“ they’ve put a lot of money into upping its brand value by signing on with celebrity spokespersons. Really advertising themselves as this posh, high-class sort of establishment to hang out and get your coffee. That worked in the years before, but now I think the economic reality has set in.
Werman: So what culture does the youth lose when they can’t go into these coffee shops anymore because they can’t afford it?
Strother: Because many young Koreans live with their families, they try to spend as much time out of the house as possible and cafes provided that type of outlet for them. It’s not a place where you have to pound alcohol, which was one of the main places where you spent time out of the house in the past. It was a place where you could sit down, you could have a coffee, you could check your email, you could read, you could chat with your friends. This type of environment wasn’t here before. I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon, but at least the amount of money the Koreans will be spending inside these cafes will probably decrease.
Werman: Seoul based reporter Jason Strother, thanks so much.
Strother: Thank you Marco.