Seoul Searching2009.10.07 13:51

When the 2010 Hyundai Sonata was unveiled in Seoul early September, car mania here gasped at its bold coupe-like body line swooping down to the C-pillar. 

Sonata has been one of the most loved family sedans in Korea, sold primarily among drivers in their 40's. Obviously, it was a big gamble for Hyundai to shed a substantial amount of head-room from the Sonata's rear seats that have traditionally been crowded with a couple of kids. 

Hyundai' decision to design the new Sonata as a four-door coupe has proved to be a farsighted move before long. According to its latest sales data, Hyundai has since sold over 59,000 Sonatas, making it the biggest selling new car ever in the Korean automotive history.

Market analysts agree that the unlikely success of the coupe style Sonata is due in large part to the rise of single family in Korea.

Single families, the rapidly growing segment in the Korean auto market do not care much about the rear headroom any more, they note. In fact, the largest group of Sonata buyers was in their 30's, accounting for near 30 percent of the total sales volume according to the Hyundai's sales data. Other mid-size sedans, including the older Sonata models, have usually been sold more among the drivers in their 40's.

What is going on here? With the shrinking job market, countless number of 20's and 30's are postponing their marriage. The share of unmarried women among the early 30's has risen from little over 10 percent in 2000 to 19 percent in 2005, pushing down the birth-rate of Korea to 8.93 births per 1000 persons, one of the lowest among the advanced economies. 

In addition, many Koreans are separating from their spouses, and again returning to the single family segment. The divorce rate of Korean couples was 3.0 per 1000 persons in 2002, the 2nd highest number after the United States. All told, the number of single homes has doubled from 1.64 millions in 1995 to 3.34 millions last year and the government predicts that one out of four families will be single home by 2030 if the current trends hold up. 

Naturally, it is not just Sonata but the entire Korean consumer industry that is grappling to catch up with the fresh buying power of the single families. 

Home builders, long accustomed to building ever bigger apartments as the middle income families have steadily expanded their homes to accommodate the needs of growing children, are allocating more studio apartments recently, when they design a new residential town. 

Consumer electronics sector is struggling as well to pander to the fickle tastes of the single families. Whereas the size of flat screen televisions only keeps growing, Samsung and LG are selling more and more small-size refrigerators and washing machines optimized for the single family. 

E-mart, the largest retail chain in Korea, opened Mini-Mini Zone in its Gwang-ju store last July to test the demands of single buyers. E-mart stocked the shelf mostly with single-size foods and other staples good for a single serving. After seeing that the one-meter long shelf sold over 5 million won worth of goods within just a month, E-mart introduced the Mini-Mini Zone to another store in Seoul and plans to install it whenever it opens a new store. 

With the explosion of single homes, Korea is going through a seismic social change that will have more fundamental implication in the future of the country. Companies and stores are busy redesigning their businesses to satisfy their growing demands. It remains to be seen, however, if the governmental policies can keep up with the rapid social changes as swiftly as demonstrated by the private sector.

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Posted by PSB


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