U.S. beef returned to shelves in South Korean department stores in April expecting to grab the market dominated by homegrown "hanwoo" and Australian beef. But sales have fallen short of expectations in the ensuing months and some retailers are poised to remove U.S. product from their shelves.
Shinsegae Department Store, one key retailer, said Tuesday it will stop selling U.S. beef in its Masan store in South Gyeongsang Province as early as this week. It has already stopped selling U.S. beef in its grocery section at its Jukjeon store in Gyeonggi Province.
Sales of U.S. beef accounted for only 1% of all beef sales, or about 8 million won ($6,199) in those two stores in April and May, before the figure further dropped to around 0.4% this month.
Meanwhile, Aussie beef took up about 11% in the same period, while customers for hanwoo beef remained over 85%, both figures being about the same level before the resumption of U.S. beef sales.
Even attempts to introduce the American import in more branches ended in failure. Shinsegae's latest store in Centum City, Busan, sold U.S. beef when it opened in March, but yanked it in a matter of one week due to slumping sales and growing public criticism.
Hyundai Department Store, which started to sell U.S. beef in its five stores in April, is likely to follow suit, with its sales accounting for less than 2% of overall beef sales. The store says the exact timing of sales suspension was not fixed.
“We will wait and see customers' reactions before making a final decision,'' a spokesman of the franchise said.
On the bright side, U.S. beef sells better in discount stores. It sold 6.2 billion won at E-Mart with its beginning sales in December last year, but monthly sales have kept falling since at the nation's biggest discount franchise to 2.9 billion won last month. Monthly sales were more than halved in Lotte Mart, from 249 tons in last December to 103 tons in May.
Customers still don't appear to feel safe about U.S. beef, local importers say.
“Sales are well below the expectations. Consumers remain concerned about its safety,'' an official of the Korea Import Beef Association said on condition of anonymity.
Australia remains No. 1 among imported beef. In the first five months of the year, it accounted for 54.7% of all imports, followed by the U.S. and New Zealand with their shares tallied at 31.8% and 12.5%, respectively.