Penny-wise in Peking and Pyongyang
Mini-Me, you complete me. – Dr. Evil, Just the Two of Us (remix).
A friend with long experience working on non-governmental projects and exchanges with North Korea once noted that DPRK delegations in the United States often want to visit the local Walmart. The giant American retailer, seen by some as the embodiment of capitalism and unbridled consumerism, is also paradoxically applicable to socialist central planning, providing cheap, generic household goods to the masses through the wonders of modernity and vertical-integration.
Over a decade ago the same friends once predicted Walmart would be the first American retailer to set up shop in the DPRK. Over the past few years growing demand for decent consumer goods sold at low-prices shows his prediction was not far off. Enter Miniso! This Chinese pseudo-Japanese chain store, known for its sleek products and cheap prices, recently opened a branch store on Pyongyang’s new Ryomyong Street. Walmart is still a contender for the prize of first American corporation on the ground, so is Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Costco would likely also do well. For the time being, Minso is the lone foreign retailer ranger.
Simon Cockerell, Koryo Tours General Manager, reports from his 164th trip to the DPRK:
On July 12th I made a quick visit to the brand new and somewhat controversial branch of Miniso in Pyongyang, situated at the east end of the newly-opened Ryomyong Street and in the shadow of the Monument to Immortality this is an unexpected find in Pyongyang but something that evidently has generated some buzz among local residents; my guides were more excited than me to go there!
There is no external sign for the shop but once inside it looks indistinguishable from its counterpart in Beijing (and elsewhere no doubt) with the same kind of stock available, and prices (marked in DPRK Won, at the official rate – so payable in foreign currency, but they also said they would accept local money too at the market rate). In the half hour I spent there maybe 30 people came in and out of the shop, I saw people buying neck pillows, perfume, children’s toys, and sunglasses – I myself decided I had better buy something so despite selfies being not banned in the DPRK, I bought a selfie-stick, paid 22 Chinese RMB, only to find it didn’t work on my IPhone, so a gift for my guide it became.
It was a somewhat uncanny feeling to be inside an international brand shop which could be literally anywhere but to realise you’re in the centre of Pyongyang at the same time, especially when a man in military uniform came in to try on sunglasses, and the place is evidently popular – their most sold item? Packs of face wipes to combat greasy skin, they had sold out of these by the time I got there.
Miniso is in the same building as a restaurant which will soon open to tourists, so looks like it will see more foreign shoppers as time goes by. Judging by how popular it was on this visit there may even be a future in expanding across Pyongyang, let’s see how it goes!
There are a few businesses you can visit in both Pyongyang and Peking. Among them are the Air Koryo and Air China ticketing offices, Okryugwan and Haedanghwa Restaurants (although the Pyongyang home branch of Haedanghwa has changed its name and Okryugwan’s current Beijing branch is actually outside of Beijing city limits), and now Miniso.
We checked out our local Miniso to see what is hot in Peking (besides the weather these days):
Our local Miniso is located about a 5 minute walk from the Koryo Tours office in the Sanlitun neighborhood of Beijing. The store can be found at the entrance to the popular bar street (no, not that bar street!) behind the high-end Taikooli Shopping Center. Miniso is a welcome addition to the rather high-priced area, especially for local residents like yours truly, and has significantly improved the quality of life in the area the decimation of much local business by immurement.
Unlike the Pyongyang branch, this Miniso has the company logo above the entrance and even a small sign advertising global franchises. Yet once inside, the store is indistinguishable from Pyongyang save the prices listed in Chinese RMB – the same wide variety of household products, accessories, and toys. What were people buying? Umbrellas (it is likely to rain this week), cosmetics, mouthwash, a neck pillow, and lot’s of face wipes, which as you may recall were sold out in Pyongyang! In Beijing (and the rest of the world) people call this a "coincidence", in Pyongyang some might call it "staged".
There were no soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army at the store, as far as we could tell.
Our pick of the day: Minnie Mouse slippers by Miniso. What will they come up with next?
'Sundays in Peking' introduces sights and activities in Beijing with even the slightest connection to Korea. Sometimes we just write about other stuff happening around Beijing.