Transformation is underway in Korea’s traditional markets. From home delivery services and updated facilities to the addition of budding young entrepreneurs, artists, and fun programs for all ages, the changes in the marketplace are drawing growing crowds. More convenient, more accessible, and more crowded than in years past, today’s markets are showing signs of regaining some of their former glory as repositories of the diverse flavors, crafts, and stories that make up Korea’s local culture.

Newcomers on the market scene

At the historic Nambu Market in Jeonju, Jeollabuk-do (North Jeolla Province), twelve new shops have opened up alongside the carts and stalls of longtime vendors. Designed and managed by youths, the unique shops include a board game café, a store that sells insect-eating plants, a recycled handicrafts store, and a cocktail bar where customers can receive advice and counseling for their problems.

Korea's traditional markets are undergoing transformation with the implementation of creative new policies designed to make the markets more convenient and accessible to the public.Korea's traditional markets are undergoing transformation with the implementation of creative new policies designed to make the markets more convenient and accessible to the public (photo courtesy of the Agency for Traditional Market Administration).

The young shop-owners have taken advantage of Internet blogs and various SNS platforms to advertise their stores, and during the two months since they opened in May, Nambu Market has seen sales increase by approximately 20%. Special weekend events such as extended night markets and cultural performances, held to celebrate the latest additions to the over-500-year-old market, brought over 1,500 visitors each night.

Now included, delivery and leisure

At traditional markets in Incheon, customers can now receive free delivery of their goods within an hour or two of purchase. Six locations in the city currently operate a joint delivery center with funding from the city government that offsets costs for vendors while increasing convenience for customers. Since the delivery centers began operations, the number of customers at the markets has increased threefold, and bulk buyers in particular have become more common.

Inwang Market in Seodaemun District, Seoul also began offering free home delivery services early last month for purchases over 30,000 won. In addition to the new delivery center, which sits alongside over 350 individual stores and vendors, the four-decade-old market now includes a play area for children and a gallery area where various artists have set up installation pieces, sculptures, and other artworks that depict the history of Korea’s traditional markets.

There are over 1,500 traditional markets throughout Korea. At Gwangjang Market (above) in Seoul, a customer looks at various fabrics.There are over 1,500 traditional markets throughout Korea. At Gwangjang Market (above) in Seoul, a customer looks at various fabrics (photo: Jon Dunbar).

A modern facelift

One market in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do has introduced a new model for maximizing customer convenience while preserving the atmosphere and the customs that make traditional markets unique. Gunsan Public Market reopened in March as the country’s first mall-design traditional market.

While the exterior of the new Gunsan Public Market building resembles any other multi-story chain brand supermarket or department store, inside the building are grain mills, smitheries, traditional medicine stores, and other sights that are rarely seen together outside of a traditional marketplace.

Most of Korea's traditional markets offer a diverse assortment of traditional foods and popular snacks .Most of Korea's traditional markets offer a diverse assortment of traditional foods and popular snacks (photo: Jon Dunbar).

On the first and second floors, where shops are grouped by type of ware, including fruits and vegetables, meats, and clothing, customers and vendors haggle over prices in wide, well-lit, well-air-conditioned spaces. On the third floor, a women’s education center offers classes and other cultural programs that are attended by an average of 500 local residents each day.

Moving sidewalks, elevators, and plenty of clean bathrooms make for a comfortable shopping experience that has increased sales 20% since the market’s opening.

The fun of picking and choosing

Tongin Market in Seoul is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike.In Jongno District, Seoul, a new landmark has cropped up alongside the relics of Korea's royal kingdom. Since opening a dosirak (Korean lunchbox) restaurant in January, the vendors at the over-50-year-old Tongin Market have watched their market become a favorite lunch and early dinner stop for locals and tourists alike.

For 5,000 won, visitors to Tongin Market receive an empty lunchbox tray and a set of tokens that can be exchanged for individual helpings of banchan (side dishes) from participating shops throughout the market. After filling the tray, buffet-style, visitors take their food to the central dosirak café, where they can exchange their remaining tokens for rice and a bowl of soup.

“Visitors to Tongin Market are rediscovering the atmosphere of warmth, human connection, and interaction that make traditional market culture so special,” said Jongno District Mayor Kim Yeong-jong. Tongin Market is set to open a used goods store and a Hangeul classroom for local senior citizens next month.

Traditional markets go online

Another innovation bringing the traditional markets closer to the people is online shopping and home delivery. Last month, the Ministry of Knowledge and Economy launched its online traditional market, which collects product information from markets across the country.

Visitors to the website can search and choose from a range of products, including regional agricultural goods, household goods, clothing, and other inexpensive items. Payment can be made using credit card, cash, account transfer, or e-gift certificates.