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A good week to be in the mask business

Hygiene products are selling fast as fears of coronavirus spread
Jan 29,2020
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A Chinese tourist at Incheon International Airport on Tuesday with bags filled with masks purchased in Korea. [NEWS1]
Korean consumers have clearly taken note of the Wuhan coronavirus since the first infection was confirmed in the country a week ago.

Sales of hygiene products like masks and hand sanitizers have skyrocketed, according to retailers, following the Jan. 20 confirmation of a coronavirus patient in Korea.

Masks have been increasingly bought in bulk at stores in tourist areas, including airports and Myeong-dong, in central Seoul.

Sales of masks at CU convenience stores jumped more than 10-fold between Jan. 20 and Jan. 27, compared to the same period last month. Other hygiene products, like hand sanitizers and cold medicine, increased in sales by 121.8 percent and 250.2 percent, respectively.

“With the concerns over the Wuhan pneumonia spread nationwide during the Lunar New Year holidays, demand for masks at airports, terminals and rest stations skyrocketed to the point of being entirely sold out,” said a spokesperson for BGF Retail, which operates CU.

Another spokesperson said that Chinese tourists in particular have been buying masks as they look to extend their stays in Korea and delay their return flights.

CU attributed the closure of pharmacies and hospitals over the Lunar New Year holidays as a reason for the jump in demand for cold medicines.

Rival retail chain GS25 saw its on-year mask sales rise by 413 percent for the period from Jan. 24 through Jan. 27, while 7-Eleven saw a 523.1 percent on-year jump in mask sales during the same time span.

“All the [sanitary products] are being sold well right now, but KF94 and KF80 yellow dust masks are the most popular products,” said a spokesperson for 7-Eleven.

An acronym for Korean filter, KF is the metric used to indicate effectiveness, with higher numbers meaning that more dust is blocked out.

E-commerce operators also saw a rise in demand for sanitary items.

On-year mask sales at Gmarket jumped 21-fold while hand wash products skyrocketed by a factor of 26. SSG.com said mask sales from Jan. 20 through Jan. 27 increased 12 times compared with the previous week.

Coupang didn’t release sales details, but nine of the 10 most-searched products Tuesday afternoon were either masks or hand sanitizers. Apple’s second-generation AirPods was the only non-sanitary product to make the list.

As of Tuesday, Coupang saw at least 10 types of masks were sold out entirely, four of which were kids’ sizes. They were all yellow dust masks.

Discount chain marts and department stores have begun releasing guideline to its employees, as the government raised the alert level to the second stage of the four-stage level on Monday.

7-Eleven and CU started encouraging franchise store employees to wear masks while working. 7-Eleven further initiated special supervision on 40 stores that are frequently visited by tourists, like the ones in airports, Myeong-dong in central Seoul and Jamsil in southern Seoul.

Lotte Duty Free on Tuesday said it had organized an emergency planning committee. All employees are required to check their body temperature and wear masks at the stores and delivery areas at airports. It is also offering masks to visitors. Employees who visited China are mandated to take 14 days off.

Lotte Mart on Tuesday announced its guidelines, offering a day off to employees suffering from colds, and adding thermometers and more hand sanitizers at the stores. Lotte Department Store equipped at bathrooms and customer service centers with hand sanitizers. Its sales employees are encouraged to wear masks and gloves.

Emart last week said it is too early to take any particular measures against the coronavirus but said Tuesday it would hand out masks to its employees.

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