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[Weekender] Seollal as much a time for business as family

Lunar New Year a time for solidifying business relationships with gift boxes, and showering family with gifts of cash

Feb. 14, 2018 - 14:38 By Won Ho-jung
The holidays are a time for cheer and spending quality time with family, but it is also an important time of year in South Korea for solidifying business relationships -- with boxes filled with seaweed, Spam or shampoo.

On the largest traditional holiday of the year, the Lunar New Year, or “Seollal” in Korean, retailers and logistics companies are flooded with bulk orders for gift sets to be sent to business acquaintances.

An employee at Hanaro Mart in Yangjae-dong, Seoul, adjusts a displayed gift set that comprises homegrown agricultural products to fit the revised limit of presents from 50,000 won to 100,000 won for the public sector. (Yonhap)
From convenience stores to department stores, retailers take this time of year to roll out gift sets across all price ranges. Many of the gift sets are focused on the practical, with popular choices being nonperishable foods such as canned tuna or Spam, or household products like shampoo.

“It really didn‘t hit me why grocery stores were suddenly filled with all these boxed sets of seaweed and tuna until I got one of those sets from my company,” said a 29-year-old American working in Seoul with a Korean firm, who asked not to be named.

“It’s a little bizarre that you‘d have to give your business connections gifts for the New Year, but it’s also kind of nice that you‘re saying thank you for the past year of working together.”

The practice extends beyond business relations, with government agencies also sending out gifts in bulk.

This year, President Moon Jae-in’s Cheong Wa Dae office announced that it would be sending Seollal gifts to those who have contributed to the nation and to victims of national tragedies such as the earthquake in Pohang.

The presidential gift box includes a bottle of traditional liquor made from potatoes, as well as regional delicacies.

However, some Koreans feel that the practice of giving gifts to business partners is outdated, or has the potential for corruption.

“It‘s just another component of the holiday stress,” said 30-year-old Kim Jeon-il, who works for a state-run agency.

“The weaker party in a business relationship is usually the one giving the gift, which just solidifies the power imbalance,” said another office worker who works for an electronics company. “It’s like a tribute. At our company, it‘s firm policy to send back all gifts.”

Models show envelopes designed for Saebaetdon, cash gifts exchanged among family members, as part of the Lunar New Year gift set sold at Emart in Seoul. (Yonhap)
More companies are opting out of sending and receiving gifts especially after the implementation of an anti-graft law in September 2016, which set guidelines for the value of gifts and meals that could be given to public servants and members of the press.

After outcry from the agricultural industry, the law was revised to raise the price ceiling on gifts of agricultural and meat products.

“Unlike last year, when we saw popularity in gift sets in the 10,000 won ($9.20) to 30,000 won range, this year we are seeing popularity in gift sets priced between 50,000 and 100,000 won,” said an official with e-commerce firm Gmarket, where sales of higher-priced Korean beef and red ginseng gift sets rose 113 percent and 65 percent on-year, respectively.

Although private companies are not subject to the anti-graft law, some have voluntarily chosen to end the practice to prevent any optics of impropriety.

Gift boxes are not all that change hands on Seollal.

Between family members, it is more common to exchange cash -- adults give money to their parents as a token of thanks, while they give pocket money to children in the family to give them a boost in the New Year.

According to a survey from education company Hunet, office workers expected to spend an average of 544,000 won this Seollal.

Of them, 69.3 percent of the respondents in the survey said the largest proportion of the expenses would be used in cash gifts to parents or other family members. 

Customers browse through Seollal gift sets displayed at Lotte Department Store in Seoul. (Yonhap)
In Korea, where cash or gift cards are a common choice for gifts between family and friends, most people who spoke to The Korea Herald seemed to view it as a positive tradition.

“Korean families are, in general, not very expressive when it comes to showing appreciation for each other,” said Cho Young-ji, a 43-year-old office worker.

“Holidays like Seollal and Chuseok are nice reminders to show gratitude for those closest to you. It’s not about the amount, it‘s about the gesture.”

By Won Ho-jung (