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H-Mart introduces a taste of Korea

The Korean grocery store adapts to its changing demographics

Changing demographics and an ever-increasing Asian cultural amalgamation in the Lower Mainland has prompted Korean grocery store giant H-Mart to officially open its first store in Richmond at Aberdeen Centre today, Friday, Jan. 20, at 11 a.m.

With Chinese people making up nearly half of all immigrants in the Lower Mainland, and a visible trend of less Koreans coming into Canada, it was time for a shift in the companys business strategy, said H-Mart account manager James Kang.

Among 47 stores in North America, the first of now four LM locations (there are also H-Marts in downtown Vancouver and Langley) was built in Coquitlam in 2003.

The flagship store originally catered mostly to people of Korean descent with staff speaking and signage displaying the native language.

Business boomed, but recently, an improving economy in Korea, combined with expensive local housing, has meant less of their target customers moving into the area and coming through the door.

We noticed we cant just rely on Korean customers, so we decided to have (the text on our price tags) in English, Chinese and Korean, said Kang.

There are now employees that speak the above languages, as well as Japanese, he added.

We want to move forward to (include) multicultural customers like Caucasians, Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, so we made a team back in May (to expand our market).

One of the first tasks for the new business team was to find a central location in the area that had the biggest mixing pot of people from different backgrounds, and Richmond fits the bill perfectly.

Richmond is the fourth biggest city in B.C., so thats huge, he said. Most of the customers (that) live in North Van or West Van or the Vancouver area, they dont actually go to the downtown store to shop because of the commute and the parking is not so great in downtown so they actually shop at the Coquitlam store so its a long commute.

We actually measured the distance between downtown, Coquitlam and Richmond (and found) if we started a store in Richmond, its actually a better commute (for everyone).

Not only is the new store breaking new ground in terms of location, but will for the first time be featuring a snack bar serving authentic fresh Korean delicacies like rice cakes with fish and red bean.

We wanted to emphasize (unique items) for the Richmond stores because I know a lot of Chinese customers are very, very interested in Korean foods, so yeah thats one of the main focuses.

Right next to the bar will be a restaurant offering up hot meals such as the always popular bibimbap (mixed rice, meats and vegetables with spicy sauce) and japchae (stir-fried sweet potato noodles).

Construction started in the mall in July, and everything has gone relatively smoothly, said Kang. The only real challenge has been to find a way to fit all of their 15,000 products into 12,000 sq. ft. of space, one of the smallest they have built.

He said they were fortunate to have secured their current spot because the size they needed was hard to come by in Richmond.

Luckily, when the new business team was scouring the city for possibilities, Fairchild Group which owns Aberdeen Centre as well as operating Asian broadcasting groups Fairchild TV and Radio came forward and expressed interest in forming a partnership.

Fairchild came up to us, and they actually wanted our business and thats how everything got started. And they are very supportive.

Joey Kwan, promotions manager at Aberdeen, said they are very excited to have H-Mart come aboard.

Located on the ground floor where the old fresh produce mart previously was, H-Mart fit perfectly with the vision of making the mall an east-meets-west shopping destination for everything Asian and Canadian.

We want a mix of everything it is different from an ordinary shopping centre because we try to bring nice things (from all the different) countries so whenever people come from, (say), Korea, they can go to Aberdeen Centre and find goodies.

Also opening at the mall is Saboten, a Japanese chain restaurant specializing in Tonkatsu (deep-fried pork), the first one to be established outside of Asia, she said.

The ribbon cutting ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m., and there will be raffle prize giveaways of 10 Apple iPads, 20 Vancouver Canucks tickets and five 46-inch LED TVs.