Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Korea in Niles

Niles, Illinois, is a little to the east of our usual orbits, but we were there recently, and took the opportunity to visit a Super H Mart. It was, I think, the largest ethnic supermarket I've ever been to in the United States -- which is saying something. Later I heard that this particular Super H Mart had taken over the space from Kmart, just a change in letters, it seems, and the space did look big enough to have been a Kmart.

The ethnicity in this case is Korean, and Yuriko wanted to go because there's much overlap between Korean and Japanese foods, and the same items in Korean markets hereabouts tend to be cheaper than at the Japanese supermarket in Arlington Heights. When we went in Super H Mart, it didn't look that large at first, but the further you got into the store, the bigger it revealed itself to be. The supermarket proper takes up most of the space, but wrapped around the supermarket in an L shape was a mall of other, much small stores -- clothes, electronics, Korean books and DVDs, toys, even a small spot that would set up a water cooler in your home or office.

I felt like I was in Korea. Or at least in Asia. For one thing, I was one of only a handful of Caucasians, which is a constant in Asia. More than that, the supermarket aisles were Asian width, which I'd guess to be about two-thirds the size of supermarket aisles in the United States. This has the effect of intensifying a crowd, and Asia has an intensity of crowds. Though subtitled in English, the signage was mainly hangul, and at the check-out line, instead of lighted numbers to mark an open register, there were lamps arcing over the check-out aisle whose light bulbs were either glowing or not. I don't know if that's particularly Korean or Asian, but it certainly isn't American.

We left with fresh squid, fish cakes, mushrooms, mochi, soft tofu, chestnuts, and a huge wad of kimchi -- enough to fill two empty kimchi bottles we had here at home. Super H Mart's kimchi was $8, while these two bottles bought full from a nearby Korean grocery store in Schaumburg would be $12. Which tells me that Super H Mart, like many large retail players, has a competitive advantage against smaller shops.

A quick on-line check tells me that there are currently 24 Super H Marts, with four more in the works. I would have thought that more of them would be on the West Coast, but in fact most are on the East Coast -- it started in Queens, and is still headquartered in New York.


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