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Animus for Japan took some sweetness out of Pepero Day

Nov 12,2019
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People pass by Pepero products displayed outside a convenience store in Myeong-dong, central Seoul, on Monday, which was Pepero Day. [NEWS1]
Pepero Day is one of the biggest days of the year for convenience store operators - like a Valentine’s Day in the fall.

This year, Pepero Day faced its biggest challenge ever: anti-Japanese sentiment sparked by the acutely strained relations between Seoul and Tokyo.

On Nov. 11, Korea’s smitten people exchange Pepero, the skinny, chocolate-covered sticks that can be made to look like that date - 11/11 - in numerical form. Pepero may be a Korean-made snack, but it’s directly inspired by Japan’s Pocky.

And the maker of Pepero snacks is Lotte, a group with deep historical roots in Japan that continue to this day.

Lotte owns 49 percent of FRL Korea, for example, which operates Japanese fast fashion brand Uniqlo in Korea. Lotte Chilsung Beverage also owns a 50 percent stake in Lotte Asahi Liquor, which imports Japanese beers to Korea.

Although some convenience store operators were fatalistic about promoting Pepero this year, others tried to get around consumer prickliness.

Korea’s largest convenience store franchise, GS25, said Monday that Pepero promotion sales saw an on-year increase of 4.3 percent from Nov. 1 through Nov. 10. GS25 emphasized non-Pepero snacks to celebrate the day, including wines and dolls.

While the sales of Pepero themselves at GS25 dipped 36 percent compared to the same period last year, sales of candies, jellies and chocolates - including Haribo jellies and Ferrero Rocher chocolates - jumped 84.8 percent.

Rivals BGF Retail’s CU and 7-Eleven refused to give sales figures on Monday. Spokespeople from CU and 7-Eleven said they tried to maintain a festive mood for Pepero Day as any previous years.

CU, however, confirmed it joined GS25 in not selling Japanese-made Pocky this year.

“We couldn’t ignore [the anti-Japanese sentiment] in the market,” a spokesperson for CU said.

GS25 argued it invested a lot in including this year’s Pepero Day in the Korea Sale Festa in November.

“Over the past years, only discount chains and department stores were active participants in the sales event in November,” said a spokesperson for GS25. “But we decided to join the event this year. One way we did that was to expand the types of categories we offered on Pepero Day instead of just offering Pepero snacks.”

The spokesperson also argued that the sales of Pepero retreated this year because a growing number of consumers chooses to purchase gift sets that contained Pepero snacks as well as other snacks.

Despite those claims, however, GS25 declined to employ the term Pepero Day and called its promotion part of a “One More Day” event it holds throughout November. According to GS25, the “One More Day” event absorbed Pepero Day.

The smallest convenience store franchise, Emart24, called its promotion “Sweet Day.”

“We changed the name to ‘Sweet Day’ over concerns about the current hostility against Japan,” said a spokesperson for Emart24. “We also aimed to promote the sale of sweets like chocolates for students taking the upcoming College Scholastic Ability Test, which falls on Thursday.”

BY JIN MIN-JI [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]