Getting a snack shouldn't be this difficult.
To get a packet, you must outpace rival shoppers who constantly check convenience stores applications for restocking alerts. Otherwise, the only way to get the 1,650 won ($1.26) product is by buying it online for more than double the price.
The snack in question is Nongshim's pungent, addictive fish-flavored snack, Meoktaekkang.
Based on "meoktae," a type of pollack, this salty, sweet snack seasoned with zingy green chili pepper, is currently one of the most difficult items to obtain in South Korea.
In most of Seoul's GS25 convenience stores, the stocks for the snack are nearly zero, according to the stock-tracker application of GS25, Our Neighborhood GS.
The product can be bought on online marketplaces such as Coupang and secondhand market platforms such as Danggeun Market, but at double or triple the original price.
According to Nongshim, the snack’s maker, Meoktaekkang sold a million bags in the first week of release on June 26. As of the end of October, more than 8 million bags have been snapped up.
“We cannot reveal the individual sales figures of Meoktaekkang due to confidentiality issues, but we see its sales similar to Honey Twist Snack, our third-most popular snack (launched in 1972),” a Nongshim official said.
In line with the ever-rising demand for Meoktaekkang, the company extended its production lines to produce 600,000 bags per week in August, doubling the initial weekly production of 300,000 bags. But the full-throttle production does not seem to be enough to meet soaring demand.
Experts say the reason for the product's intense popularity is that it was well targeted at a certain demographic.
"Traditionally, the snack industry produced large amounts of products that could appeal to all ages," said Choi Chul, a consumer science professor at Sookmyung Women's University.
"However, now, in line with advancements in production technology, snacks that suit the taste of each age group are being released. These differentiated products are considered 'fresh' by consumers and received well. Meoktaekkang fit into that category," said Choi.
Choi added that Meoktaekkang's popularity likely gained further traction because the product became popular among the "MZ generation," or consumers born between the early 1980s to early 2010s.
"The 'MZ generation' consumers lead the consumption trend. On top of the consumer demographic actively utilizing social networks to popularize the product among themselves, the consumer demographic also affects other consumers, such as middle-aged consumers," he said.
"For example, middle-aged consumers ask them (younger people) about their consumption choices, as 'MZ generation' consumers conduct thorough research of what they buy. Because Meoktaekkang became a hit among the MZ generation, other consumers were likely to have been influenced by their consumption choices.”
The Nongshim official added that the product also likely gained popularity due to an emerging culture of drinking alone at home, especially among young people.
"Meoktaekkang is an optimal side dish to have with alcohol such as beer. With the increasing trend to enjoy light alcohol sessions at home by oneself, the company expects the snack to continuously record high sales," the official said.
In line with the continued demand for Meoktaekkang, Korean snack makers are currently producing a slew of similar products, also referred to as me-too products.
Lotte Wellfood released Nogari Chip early in September. Nogari and meoktae both derive from the same fish, pollack. UNI trade, a private brand under Seven Eleven, also released Meok-tato, a snack made using meoktae and potato, while a private brand under GS25 also released Meoktae Rice Chip.
Rather than gobbling up shares of the original Meoktaekkang, industry officials say, the me-too products are highly likely to drive up its sales.
"If me-too products are launched, the products attribute to making the original product even more popular. This phenomenon also helps expand the market for similar products, overall," a food industry official said.
"Moreover, it is difficult for food companies to exactly replicate the taste of a product. Consumers will likely be able to tell the difference in taste, and aim to buy the 'original' taste," he added.
It remains to be seen whether Meoktaekkang will be a “one-hit wonder” or a steady seller, but considering the product’s sales trend, Meoktaekkang has a competitive edge.
"In order to determine whether the product will be consistently sought after by the consumers, we have to see the sales trend of the product for at least six months. The fact that Meoktaekkang still hard to find offline even after five months after its release, connotes that the product has competitiveness, and is not the result of a one-time trend," an official from another food company said.