Saturday, April 12, 2008

Takeshi's Castle

"Your prestige will rise from the moment of choice. Lotte Castle will preserve your presitge."

It should immediately tell you something that when someone wants to sell you 'prime Busan real estate', but they have to put their sales showroom two districts away where there are more people walking by, that maybe the area they're trying to sell you isn't that great after all. Perhaps it will be after they've built a couple of dozen apartment blocks, but it's a chicken and egg deal where the early adopters are going to have to take a bit of a leap of faith as to the desirability of their new residence; they could equally end up living in a Pyongyang-style concrete block ghost town, particularly given the way Busan has a depopulation problem.

But then, the conglomerate behind this new vertical town is not one of the usual suspects such as LG or Samsung, but in fact the Japanese-founded Lotte corporation, who have a Lotte Mart supermarket located not 100 meters away from the construction. Coincidence? Not really, the strategy is straight out of the playbook of a certain British supermarket which long since realised that if you can't place your supermarket near your customers, find some way of placing your customers near your supermarket.

The showroom, like the area it's trying to sell, bears the name 'LOTTE CASTLE', or 'LOTTE CAST E' at night. Despite its questionable location, Korean Mother has been sufficiently intrigued to have looked around it once with my wife, and last Sunday I went along with them as they made a second tour.

It's ironic that while I do my best to respect people's privacy while taking photos, and was sensitive enough not to try pushing the perceived limit the day before at Busan Racecourse, I wrongly assumed that taking shots of the model apartments for our consideration later would not be an issue. Not so - because when the stern looking saleswoman realised what I was doing, she informed us in clearly unamused tones that not only was it not permitted, but they had the right to remove the photos from my camera (note - not ask me to remove them but physically do it themselves). Conversely, I have the right to relate the experience on the Internet, but let's face it, only one of these things was actually really likely to happen.

Lotte seem to be concerned at people stealing their interior design ideas - and there was I thinking they were actually trying to sell people apartments. Under the circumstances, you might think that a team of Nobel-winning Lotte scientists had slaved away for years in developing designs that would redefine the concept of Korean living for years to come, but it actually looked like the kind of place a Burt Reynolds movie character might have owned - in the 1970s. But that's Korea for you - dark wood is in... even if it means mixing four different types in the bedroom.

Anyway, the real irony is that - as you might expect - photos of the model apartment interiors are in their sales brochures, so what I was doing to them, that they hadn't already done to themselves, is a real mystery. Korean Mother was not impressed, and I think it's safe to say from the faces she pulled afterwards with an associated diatribe, the saleswoman, and possibly Lotte as a whole, lost any prospect she had of making a sale with her. The moral of the story is, if you're trying to sell £200,000 (384.5 million won) properties, don't be rude to your customers - even the foreign ones, and if not taking photos is such a big deal, put a sign up somewhere.

I stopped taking photos of course, while some of the Koreans who were also wandering around continued to snap away with their camera-phones - and not for the first time. Once again it seems the conspicuousness of my ethnicity and equipment has marked me out in Korea, and I dare say it won't be the last.

And amongst the various ornaments and books placed in the model apartments? The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which despite being out on a couple of desks, evidently isn't compulsory reading within the Lotte group.

But remember, Lotte will preserve your prestige - unless you're a foreigner taking photos.


Sperwer said...

It's a little misleading to make a point about Lotte having been founded in Japan, particularly in the manner that you do, which suggests it's a Japanese company. In fact, it is largely owned and controlled by Koreans, who happened to reside in Japan. It's as much of a Korean chaebol as the rest of the usual suspects

Mike said...

Hello Sperwer,

I think anyone who's read my blog for any length of time would probably recognise that I tend to write most of my entries with my tongue somewhat planted in my cheek. This is not to say I don't try to be factual with what I write. I may be wrong sometimes, but where necessary I strive to research what I put into words - in a way it's part of my learning process in Korea.

I appreciate where you are coming from on this, but I referred to the company as the 'Japanese-founded Lotte corporation', and I believe that is factually accurate - Lotte Corporation was founded in Japan.

I do not disagree that Lotte was founded by a Korean. According to what I have read it was founded in Tokyo, by Shin Kyuk-Ho who was living in Japan, and was known at the time by the Japanese name of Takeo Shigemitsu. But in modern business practice, a corporation is judged to be 'a person', which is to say it has a legal identity beyond that of any founders or officers. As such, the country of its incorporation is its nationality until such time as this is changed. It was born as a Japanese company.

To draw a parallel, eBay was never regarded as a French company even though it was founded in the US by French-born Pierre Omidyar, Yahoo was never regarded as Taiwanese because of Jerry Yang, Google was never regarded as being a half-Russian company because Sergei Brin co-founded it. Now if by some chance, for example, Jerry Yang had mainly employed Taiwanese people as Yahoo grew, would this then have made it a Taiwanese company? There is certainly scope for debate intellectually, but legally this would change nothing. Yahoo remains an American company so long as that is the country of its incorporation, no matter how many Taiwanese or people of one nationality it ultimately employs.

I accept that Lotte have gone quite far down the road of moving away from their Japanese roots, dual-listing on the Tokyo and Seoul stock exchanges and dual-headquartering to some extent. I think it suits them to be nationalistically ambiguous - creating the image of being a Korean company in Korea and a perhaps a Japanese company in Japan. The facts are not so simple though and certainly I have highlighted that.

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