The U.S. flagship of South Korea’s Mega Mart brings style, fashion, sophistication—and Asian, Hispanic and American groceries—to Georgia’s Gwinnett Place Mall.
By Richard Turcsik
Just about anything Asian can be found in Duluth, Ga., including an eclectic assortment of Asian supermarkets. In a one-mile radius of Gwinnett Place, the super-regional enclosed mall that is the area’s nucleus, are Lotte Assi Plaza, Great Wall Supermarket, Super H-Mart and Gwinnett International Farmers Market. Given this northern Atlanta suburb’s demographics it’s easy to see why. According to the 2010 Census, Asians comprise 22.2% of the population of 26,600, up from 12.8% in 2000.
Seoul-based Mega Mart now calls Duluth home, opening its first U.S. store there last October. Speaking through an interpreter, Jong Myong Youn, Mega Mart’s general manager, tells Grocery Headquarters, “This area is very populated with Koreans and that is why we chose here. We researched other Asian supermarkets, like H-Mart and Assi, but they are not convenient or clean.”
Unlike the other Asian stores, Mega Mart is not located on the traffic clogged arteries encircling Gwinnett Place Mall, but is in the mall itself, sharing anchor status with Macy’s, Belk, Sears and J.C. Penney. “We did our research, but never found a supermarket that is actually in a mall,” Youn says. “In Korea, we have supermarkets in every big mall,” he says, noting that some 450 malls dot the Korean landscape.
Owned by Nong Shim, a Korean instant noodle soup conglomerate that maintains a U.S. manufacturing facility in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Mega Mart is different from Duluth’s Asian supermarkets in other ways too. In addition to a complete clothing department on the second floor, Mega Mart also offers a scratch bakery, temperature-controlled produce room, cleaned-to-order seafood, in-store rice milling and innovative prepared foods offerings, including a steamed pork dumpling counter, an American-style coffee shop and a sushi bar with plates that go by on a conveyor belt.
While the other Asian stores in town clearly cater to an immigrant clientele, Mega Mart strives to reach a wider audience. “Since we are different from other Korean supermarkets, we are focusing on 40% Korean customers, 30% Hispanics and 30% mainstream Americans,” Youn says. “We have the 40% Korean customer target because we know best about what the Koreans want. The reason we are here is because of the Koreans.”
In South Korea, Nong Shim operates 56 supermarkets and sells wholesale to some 1,500 independents, Youn says.
“Our concept is that since people eat food every day, they need to grocery shop often, so why not just come to the mall where they can shop for their clothes and then do their grocery shopping in one stop,” Youn says. “It is a foreign concept in the U.S., but we believe the customer will realize that this is a convenient store.”
To target Americans, huge banners touting Mega Mart hang from Gwinnett Place’s rafters and discounts are offered to mall employees to entice them to lunch at Mega Mart. “We have a lunch combo just for employees,” Youn says. “They have a cheaper price if they show their mall I.D. and we are offering them coupons. Plus, we have specials like 99-cent coffee in our mall entrance café.”
Why open a flagship in Duluth instead of flashier and more densely populated Korean enclaves such as Los Angeles and New York? “There are actually more Koreans on the West Coast, but someone from here actually introduced this place to us and we thought about it and came here,” Youn says. “There are a lot of Koreans in L.A., so there are a lot of supermarkets there that are our competitors. We came here first where there are fewer competitors. We are studying the market and thinking about expanding to the West Coast.”
In Duluth, Mega Mart settled upon a three-story former Macy’s store in the struggling Gwinnett Place Mall. Originally built in 1984 as a Davison’s, the store sat shuttered since 2001 when Federated merged its Macy’s and Rich’s nameplates. “When Mega Mart picked this location, we had to gut it and do a total makeover,” says Kelly Zhao, marketing director. That included the installation of new escalators between the first and second floor that have separate tracks to allow shopping carts to traverse between floors.
Traditional escalators run between the second and still-closed third floor. Youn says Mega Mart has plans for the third floor, although he declines to be specific. A sign on the top of the escalators says third floor space is available for lease and some market observers say it may be partitioned into professional offices.
Shoppers can enter Mega Mart several ways. Mall entrances are on the first and second floors. There is also one outside entrance on the second floor and two on the first.
The second floor is home to t. view, Mega Mart’s women’s clothing department. It has all the trappings of the traditional American department store that women love—including a new shoe department—but in an unusual operational twist Mega Mart doesn’t own the department. It is run by various independent vendors, with Mega Mart getting a percentage of sales. “The layout of this floor is more in the American style because in Korea they will have a divider between the different vendors,” Zhao explains.
There is also a small men’s department and a children’s department specializing in traditional Korean fashions. “Every Korean Mega Mart has this department. The baby clothes are very popular,” Zhao says.
Sushi on a conveyor belt
Shoppers entering Mega Mart from the lower mall entrance are greeted with an East-meets-West twist on foodservice.
To the left is the Mega Mart Café, an American-style coffee shop decorated in rich, dark walnut paneling where coffees are brewed to order and American-style pastries are sold. To its right is the Sushi Bar—where patrons sit on high-back chairs and watch an endless stream of mouthwatering sushi items pass by on a conveyor belt and simply grab the plates of items they like. Diners are charged by the color of the plate, which range from $1.99 for the blue plate to $5.99 for the gold.
Foodservice continues further into the store where at the Shanghai Deli a series of counters peddle everything from cold cuts to kimchi, the traditional Korean dish made from fermented cabbage. “Kimchi is a staple of Korean life and many people include it in their meals three times a day,” states a sign in front of the kimchi counter. “The magazine Health named kimchi in its Top 5 ‘world’s healthiest foods’ for being rich in vitamins and aiding digestion and possibly reducing cancer growth.” At Mega Mart, kimchi is sold in everything from a quart glass jar to gallon plastic pail and even bigger plastic bags. It is accompanied by side dishes imported from Korea that include seasoned soybean leaves and soybean paste; seasoned dried radish; salted octopus nutrition mix and seasoned pollack guts.
Other counters are a virtual United Nations of domestic and international dishes. One has a vat of udon, a popular Korean noodle soup made with fish cake, while others have Korean rice paste, egg rolls, nachos, spaghetti and meatballs, corn dogs and fried chicken. “This is a Korean deli, but we carry fried chicken, French fries and onion rings,” Zhao says. “I’ve had some American people taste the chicken wings and they say it is different than American chicken wings. It is not as greasy, which they like.”
Another popular dish—and a real bargain at $1.99—is the Korean Mando, or big dumplings, softball-size pillowy mounds of steamed dough stuffed with a blend of minced pork tofu, mushrooms, cellophane noodles and cabbage. “We make these fresh from scratch every day and have a glass window so shoppers can watch them being made,” Zhao says.
Beyond the deli area is a self-service meat case, followed by a service case specializing in American and Korean cuts, such as thinly sliced short ribs, uncured pork belly and bulgogi (shaved rib eye) for Korean barbecue. “Probably 75% of our meat is cut in the Korean style and the other 25% is split between American and Hispanic,” says Glenn Abney, meat department manager. “Some of the Korean cuts are the same as American, but just cut down thinner,” he explains. “Our specialty Korean cuts are not something that you would find in Kroger.”
Adjacent to the meat department is seafood, which Zhao says is a leased department. In addition to the typical American salmon, shrimp, tilapia and catfish, the counter specializes in oddities like Sora meat (from a giant Chinese snail), monk fish head and Korean belt fish, a yard-long creature resembling an eel. A unique offering is the complimentary fish cleaning service. Shoppers simply point to one of eight different fish cleaning styles featured on a sign above the department and the fishmonger will clean the fish appropriately.
Across from both departments three aisles of coffin cases are filled with frozen meat and seafood items that appeal to more ethnic tastes.
Rice milled on site
Shoppers wishing to use their seafood in homemade sushi had best check out the nearby “Just Milled Rice” station. Shoppers can buy a 5- or 10-pound bag of American-grown brown rice and have it milled to four different grades in a home trash compactor-size miller. According to in-store signage, it is the first time such as machine has been introduced into the U.S.
“The more you mill it, it makes the rice more tasty,” Zhao says. In addition, an entire aisle is filled with 40- and 50-pound sacks of traditional rice.
Adjacent to the rice mill is Mega Mart’s produce department, a gargantuan affair spanning at least 10,000 square feet and specializing in traditional mainstream produce and ethnic specialties including banana flowers, fuzzy melons and assorted Vietnamese herbs, including Khingioi Kaot Hong. The department is bigger and more neatly arranged than its nearby competitors, with most items displayed on large wooden tables. While many American supermarkets feature walk-in beer coolers to keep beer at the ideal temperature, Mega Mart may be the only one to feature a walk-in produce cooler.
“We call it the Fresh Farm Produce Cold Chamber,” Zhao says. “In this room, the temperature is colder to keep the produce fresh. We don’t use water to spray on the produce, so this keeps it fresher.”
Once the produce is selected, it goes into a “fresh room,” which is designed to keep fresh produce at the perfect temperature. Officials say produce that starts in the fresh room will last longer at home. Items in the room include mushrooms, peppers, cucumbers, squash, cabbage, asparagus and cauliflower.
Naturally fermented bread
In the far corner of the store is the basQuia, Mega Mart’s scratch bakery. “Unlike the other Korean supermarkets here we do have our own bakery,” Youn says. “We also have the basQuia Bakery in Korea too, so we brought over a really good baker to bake for us.”
“We use natural fermentation for all of our bread, which is different from other bakeries,” adds Zhao. “Most other bakeries just use yeast, which is so much easier. This way is healthier.”
Popular items include milk bread, a square Pepperidge Farm-looking bread with a firm crust and snow white interior that is chewy, yet light and airy; Nagasaki sponge cake; crum pound cake; 7 mocha bread; chestnut bread; bean jam mammoth bread; sweet potato bagels; corn steamed sponge cake; whipped cream decorated layer cakes; assorted Korean pastries in chocolate, sausage, vegetable, red bean, white bean and custard varieties and a sweet yet savory garlic bread. “Lots of people come to our store just for this,” Zhao says.
Items are baked in small quantities and merchandised from wicker baskets. To encourage trial, samples are offered on many items. That’s a necessity, given how some items get lost in translation. The Butter Cream Bread looks like a hot dog roll, while Sweet Potato Pie ($3.99 an 8-pack) resembles rugelach, the Jewish cookies, instead of the traditional Southern deep-dish staple.
Similar conundrums can be found in Mega Mart’s grocery aisles, which were recently reset to merchandise by category instead of ethnicity. Sure, there are the cans of Rose Brand Pork Brains with Milk Gravy that can be found in many supermarkets in the South, but there are also scores of Asian specialties, including entire aisles and end caps devoted to soy sauce, fish sauce and curry paste. One 20-foot aisle has six shelves filled with Korean barbecue and other sauces, while there are at least 40-feet of instant noodle soup mixes from Nong Shim and other vendors. Soy sauce is merchandised from a 12-foot section spanning seven shelves.
Frozen foods include Jeno’s pizza, Pepperidge Farm cakes, Eggo waffles and Cool Whip, along with Korean ice cream novelties like Passitongtong, a sweet red bean ice cream bar; honey- and chestnut-flavored Bambama ice cream bars and Sweetie brand red bean, taro root and durian ice bars.
Mega Mart has a much larger wine and beer department than its other Asian competitors and sells Korean, Chinese and American brands, including Gallo, Glen Ellyn and Chateau Ste. Michelle.
Astute shoppers can even find Korean versions of mainstream American brands. Taster’s Choice coffee is sold in 100-count bags of single-serve pouches for $12.99, while Maxwell House coffee is sold in ready-to-drink 7-ounce cans.
The neighborhood is changing. Immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa and other far-off places are expanding across the country, bringing with them the potential for new customers and increased sales. What’s the best way to get these shoppers inside and turn them into repeat visitors?
Mark Lang, professor of food marketing at Philadelphia-based St. Joseph’s University, says retailers can become better ethnic merchandisers if they follow these key points:
Understand micro segments: “Hispanic and Asian aren’t real segments, but they are American constructions that are convenient,” he says, adding that consumers see themselves as Cuban, Mexican or Puerto Rican, or Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean or Japanese. “There are big differences in terms of beans, produce, roots, seasonings and beverages.”
To identify the correct group and its needs, Lang suggests retailers get out into the community. “Talk with people at religious, community and cultural centers,” he says. “Some stores have had really great success with getting community leaders together and having them walk, shop and critique the store. They learn so much by having them say ‘you’re missing this’ and ‘that’s not the right nationality.’”
Carry the right ethnic products: “Focus on key items that are used in traditional and daily cooking and do not treat them as specialty products and price them as specialty items,” Lang says. Retailers should also go out of their way to find the leading brands from the home country and take into account non-foods lines too. In some cases, like hair care for Caribbean customers, he says if retailers don’t have the right products, consumers feel their needs are not being considered.
Merchandise during relevant times: “You have to understand their key cultural and religious holidays and celebrations,” Lang says. “If you are speaking to community, religious and cultural leaders they can let you know exactly what is going on. You have to be willing to have a new kind of flexibility. You don’t need to carry all of the products all year long, but if you get the right symbolic items in during the holiday and merchandise them correctly you make a huge connection.”
Understand the correct references, symbols and colors: “If you are merchandising with the colors of the Mexican flag and you are in a Puerto Rican community, the customers will pick up on that right away,” Lang says. It is also a good idea to have same ethnicity employees on your staff. “They can speak the language and understand what the customer is looking for.”
Understand the customer and offer services that are important to them.: “There is a huge use and need for cost-effective money transfer services like Western Union because many immigrants are often sending money back home,” Lang says. It’s the same when it comes to offering international phone cards and other services, like Pharmacy. “A lot of these cultures aren’t used to visiting a doctor and in their home country they relied on the pharmacist, so you may need to have more pharmacist assistants,” he says.
Be sensitive to your non-ethnic customers: “The greatest sensitivity is to the English language. If you start putting too much foreign language in the retail environment, Anglo customers will respond back negatively,” Lang says. “They are very sensitive about English being the language of the United States and don’t want it to be usurped by another language. When you use another language it should be secondary and should always be accompanied by English.”