Hwang Jung-ho, 26, looks into a smartphone app to keep track of retailers’ orders he and his team picked up at KwangHee Fashion Mall – one of Dongdaemun’s fashion wholesale market, central Seoul, in mid-December. [PARK SANG-MOON]
People in Dongdaemun, central Seoul start their day after the sun sets. The neighborhood is unlike anywhere else in Seoul. Shoppers, motorcycles and small trucks rapidly move around the narrow brightly-lit alleys, all carrying huge vinyl bags stuffed with clothes.
At 11:30 p.m. on a cold December night, Hwang Jung-ho, 26, started work. He swiftly moved through the corridors of KwangHee Shopping Mall, one of Dongdaemun’s largest wholesale fashion markets. It was close to midnight, but the fashion market was busy.
Hwang got off the escalator on the third floor and ran to a clothing store.
“Hi, I’m here for Linkshops,” he called out. “[We have orders for] five ‘vogue knit dresses’ and two ‘stripe blouses.’ Make it quick please.”
The employee pulled out a small bag with “Linkshops” written on the tag and handed it over.
Hwang visited a number of other shops, collecting small plastic bags as he went. When he had about 20 small bags he threw them all into a large bag, called a daebong, a Korean portmanteau meaning big bag. Hwang’s daebong is so big that even he could fit inside.
As many as 20 daebongs are filled on just one floor of KwangHee Shopping Mall every night. Each one weighs well over 15 kilograms, but Hwang says he often carries as many as four at the same time.
“I can use both hands, my wrists, shoulders and even thumbs,” he said. “The trick to lifting them easily is pushing with your knee before swinging them up to your shoulder.”
Hwang runs around the narrow corridors with his huge bags, rushing up and down the stairs in between floors instead of using the crowded escalators. He says this is the only way he has time to pick up all the orders received for the night.
When Hwang’s bags are full he loads the clothes onto trucks ready to be distributed around the country in the morning.
By 1 a.m. the corridors are absolutely packed with shoppers, stuffed vinyl bags of all sizes and men like Hwang, running the gauntlet of Dongdaemun’s wholesale shopping center.
Hwang is known as a sa-ib samchon, which literally means a personal purchase uncle in Korean. Hwang and his colleagues are the backbone of Dongdaemun’s wholesale business. They pick up clothes that have been ordered by retail stores around the country, pay on their behalf and then load the goods onto trucks to be delivered in the morning.
But Hwang has one trick that sets him apart from the rest of the sa-ib samchon. While his colleagues scurry around the market desperately trying to keep track of hand-written notes detailing their orders, Hwang keeps track of his business through an app.
Developed by local start-up Linkshops, the app shows Hwang and his team’s assignments for that night, detailing how many units of each item he needs to pick up, what store they come from and what building they’re in. Linkshops also takes care of the money, so Hwang no longer has to act as a financial middle-man for retailers, shaving valuable seconds off each collection.
“The app shows which orders we have to pick up that day and where they are – the store and the building,” he said. “Others cross off product names written on paper with a pen, but we check them off on our app so our entire team shares which orders are left.”