The bright lights illuminating Korean cities at night are going out one by one due to lack of customers in the establishments that advertise themselves in neon.
More and more convenience stores and fast-food restaurants that opened 24 hours are reducing their hours of operation, while a growing number of bars are opting to stop serving drinks at midnight.
Part of the trend is a growing awareness of work-life balance among Koreans and a consequent drop in night-time activities. On top of that, the minimum wage hike is prompting owners to close down early due to soaring overhead costs.
◆ Office Workers Drinking Less
More and more bars and restaurants near major office districts are closing down early because the culture of enforced conviviality after work is gradually waning.
One restaurant in southern Seoul used to open until 1 a.m. three or four years ago since office workers would come and eat at midnight after an evening of heavy drinking. But now the owner says he closes at 11 p.m.
A sushi restaurant nearby said most office workers nowadays have dinner gatherings that last no more than an hour and no drinking sessions afterwards. "We shut down early at night and recently started opening for lunch," the owner said.
A growing number of office workers shun late night drinking sessions with coworkers to avoid making inebriated passes at female coworkers amid the spreading "Me Too" movement.
One restaurant owner in western Seoul said, "One company that used to have an office dinner party at my restaurant every month made reservations at lunch instead recently. We also close down at 10 p.m. now because of a lack of customers."
◆ Overtime Pay
The minimum wage hike has also contributed to this trend. Gas stations are now closing down at night rather than hiring part-time workers to tend to the pumps in the early hours of the morning. The owner of one gas station in southern Seoul said, "Due to soaring personnel costs, members of my family are taking turns tending to customers. I am thinking of running my gas station without staff."
One fitness center in downtown Seoul stopped opening 24-hours a day starting early this year in order to cut down on wage expenses. Many bars that open all night are also closing down at midnight due to a lack of customers.
One franchisee said, "We end up paying more in overtime wages to our part-time worker than the money we make staying open all night. We even tried cutting down on the number of staff but still couldn't make a profit."
Even convenience store franchisees are opting not to stay open 24-hours a day. Large supermarket chain E-Mart said the proportion of its franchisees opting to keep their stores open around the clock has plunged from 28.7 percent of new store owners in August of last year to just 8.9 percent in February of this year. That means only one in 10 stores are open all night.