▲ One of Hyundai Millart’s loft-style studio apartments in northern Seoul. Photo courtesy Hyundai I-Park
When the 2010 Hyundai Sonata was unveiled in Seoul early in September ’09, car enthusiasts gasped at its bold coupe-like body line.
Sonata has been one of the best-loved family sedans in Korea, bought primarily by drivers in their 40s. Obviously, it was a big gamble for Hyundai to shed a substantial amount of head room from the Sonata’s rear seats, which have traditionally held a couple of kids.
The decision to design the new Sonata as a four-door coupe quickly proved to be a farsighted move. According to its latest sales data, Hyundai sold more than 100,000 Sonatas in four months, making it the best-selling new car in Korean automotive history.
Market analysts agree that the unlikely success of the coupe-style Sonata is due in large part to the rise of singles in Korea.
Unmarried adults, a rapidly growing segment in the Korean auto market, do not care much about rear headroom any more, analysts say. The largest group of Sonata buyers was in their 30s, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the total sales volume according to Hyundai’s sales data.
With the shrinking job market, countless number of Koreans in their 20s and 30s are postponing marriage. The share of unmarried women in their early 30s rose from a little more than 10 percent in 2000 to 19 percent in 2005, pushing down the birth-rate of Korea to 8.93 births per 1,000 persons, one of the lowest among the advanced economies.
In addition, more Koreans are separating from their spouses, and again returning to single households. The divorce rate of Korean couples was 3.5 per 1,000 per-sons in 2003, the second-highest number after the United States. (The rate dropped to 2.5 in 2007, assumed by analysts to be due to couples not wanting to divorce in times of economic hardship.) The number of single homes more than doubled from 1.64 million in 1995 to 3.34 million in 2008 and the government predicts that one in four households will be single homes by 2030 if current trends continue.
It is not just Sonata but the entire Korean consumer industry that is grappling to catch up with the fresh buying power of single householders.
Home builders, long accustomed to building ever bigger apartments as middle-income families expanded their homes to accommodate the needs of growing children, are including more studio apartments when they design new residential towns on the mainland and on Jeju.
The consumer electronics sector is also seeking to pander to the fickle tastes of single households. While the size of flat-screen televisions keeps expanding, Samsung and LG are selling more and more small refrigerators and washing machines optimized for the single person.
E-mart, the largest retail chain in Korea, opened a Mini-Mini Zone in its Gwangju store last July to test the demands of single buyers. The shelves were stocked mostly with single-serve food portions and other staples. After customers spent more than 5 million won on goods from the section in just a month, E-mart introduced the Mini-Mini Zone to a store in Seoul and plans to install it wherever it opens a new store.
With the explosion of single homes, Korea is going through a seismic social change that will have more fundamental implications in the future of the country and the island. Companies and stores are busy redesigning their businesses to satisfy the demands of this growing sector. It remains to be seen, however, if government policies can keep up with the rapid social changes as swiftly as demonstrated by the private sector.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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