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Business trends

Price hikes open door for South Korea's small-batch soju makers

Rising cost of entrenched 'bland lagers' also a boon for craft brewers

South Korea's biggest soju maker, Hite Jinro, sparked a bout of national hand-wringing in May when it raised the price of its top-selling brand. (Photo by Steven Borowiec)

SEOUL -- At Nokcheon, a traditional barbecue restaurant in Seoul's noisy Seongbok district on Saturday evening, diners crowded around sizzling platters of pork belly, cold beer and soju, the clear liquor that is South Korea's national drink.

But despite the festive atmosphere, these are tough times for lovers of the spirit made from grains and potatoes that tastes slightly sweeter than vodka and is often referred to as "the people's liquor."

Earlier this month South Korea's biggest distiller, Hite Jinro, sparked a national outcry when it announced its first price hike in four years, blaming higher overhead costs.

"We decided to minimize the rate of increase to ease the burden on consumers through cost-reduction efforts," the company said in a statement defending the 6.45% price rise. Lotte Liquor, the nation's second-largest soju maker, followed suit on May 23 with a 7.2% price hike.

Soju is big business in South Korea, delivering sales worth around 3.7 trillion won ($3 billion) a year, with most of that generated by the big two, whose products are found in almost every restaurant and retail outlet across the country. Hite Jinro last year posted sales worth 1.84 trillion won, compared with 638.5 billion won for Lotte.

How the recent price increases will affect their bottom lines remains to be seen, but small-batch soju makers such as Mackiss smell opportunity.

During the height of the public hand-wringing over the soju price increases, Mackiss, which recorded sales of 58.4 billion won last year, announced that despite feeling the heat from rising production costs, it was freezing soju prices until December.

Yipsejoo, another smaller producer, also announced that it would freeze its prices, at least until December.

"We know that many consumers are seriously affected by any increase in prices," said Park Jong-won, a member of Mackiss' communications team. "Our decision to not raise our prices is our way of sharing their pain," Park added, noting that while Mackiss has a small market share and that changes in the environment could still "have a shocking effect on us.''

According to Park, the price freeze will cost Mackiss an estimated 5 billion won in lost revenue, with the company hoping the sacrifice will earn it a measure of goodwill. "Our decision to freeze prices will strengthen Mackiss' image as a friendly company," said Park.

Still, with the big producers able to use their clout to keep their products on display in eateries and retail outlets, grabbing a bigger slice of the market will not be easy.

"It is difficult for new companies to break into the market because the two big companies dominate wholesale distribution," said Choi Pae-kun, a professor of economics at Konkuk University in Seoul.

The same dynamic is also at play in the beer sector.

In March, Oriental Brewery, South Korea's biggest brewer and purveyor of the ubiquitous Cass and OB brands, increased wholesale prices by an average of 5.3%.

That has opened the door further for imported beer brands, which are finding increasing favor among consumers tired of the bland lagers being served up by local brewers.

According to Korea Customs Service data, beer imports increased 18% on the year in 2018, and have doubled since 2015.

"Domestic beer producers' market share has decreased as the market share of imported beers has increased and consumers have had more choices. The domestic beer producers have failed to properly respond to consumers' changing tastes," said Konkuk University's Choi.

South Korean brewers are increasingly losing market share to imported brands and local craft producers. (Photo by Steven Borowiec)

The local craft beer industry also appears to be mushrooming.

"In the past six or seven years we've gone from there being almost no craft beer whatsoever to well over a hundred companies battling it out for a market that is growing but still pretty small," said Daniel Tudor, author of "Korea: The Impossible Country" and a co-founder of The Booth Brewing.

"In the next couple of years I expect there'll be a shakeout, with lots of smaller companies going out of business, eventually leaving a happy few to start growing again and doing well," he said.

While price increases for alcohol staples such as beer and soju may present an opportunity for some, they are also squeezing already-tight margins for mom and pop retailers and restaurateurs who rely on alcohol sales for much of their revenue.

"The unilateral price increases just shift responsibility on to the operators of small businesses and regular people," the Korea Federation of Micro Enterprise said in a statement.

"The liquor producers say their costs have increased because of the increase in the minimum wage, but before enacting a price increase like this, the industry should consult with small business owners to try to reach some kind of consensus, and should seek alternative solutions to the problem."

Standing behind the till at Nokcheon, watching patrons call out for more booze, owner Kim Shin-ja said he would wait and see how his competitors responded before passing on any price rises to his mostly local clientele.

"Soju and beer are for regular people," said Kim, who opened Nokcheon three years ago. "We won't increase prices unless it becomes the standard in the area."

And despite attracting more customers, he's taking home less.

"We've been getting more regular customers, so our sales are up," said Kim. "But with the rising costs of food, labor and rent, profits are getting smaller."

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