Monday, September 22, 2014

Shopping can be this uncomfortable: paying $10 and waiting a week just to avoid Gmarket

I had a peculiar problem. Ever since I broke or lost my decade-old Timex Ironman watch a few years ago, I have been running with a series of cheap watches bought from stalls at Korean road races, and one Pinyin-laden contraption from Nepal, that have broken after 8-10 months and cost significantly more than buying another Timex would have. So, when my latest iteration of the 10,000-won "marathon watch" you can buy at any Korean road race broke after falling out of my backpack, I decided to buy one of the Timex watches I loved so much.

I don't think anyone runs with Timex watches anymore, though I could be wrong. Just about everyone I know runs with a GPS and the price differential is getting to be so small that buying a 30-lap Timex is more a matter of stubborn pride than it is cost, although, like using a smartphone to make a phone call, I suspect that a GPS watch might well be a terrible choice for the basic functions I want.

I found a running store in Seoul that sold one, but for 2-3 times more than what it cost online, so I went to Gmarket. I made a Gmarket account five years ago and if I could ever get into my account, I'm pretty sure I'd find a 30,000-won credit from a purchase I made a long time ago where the item wasn't available, but I couldn't even get into my account. The identity matrix that requires you to provide an ID number, cell phone number or even the new I-PIN system of verification that is backed up by an ID number ended up requiring me to call Gmarket to regain my account.

I thought that I could try making a new account that wouldn't be linked to my ID number and therefore would work, but I got stuck on the part where I had to enter my address. For those who have never entered their address into a Korean website, you can never type in your own address, in the form of "123 Fake Street, Lubbock, Texas", followed by a zip code. It works by selecting the large city or province where you live, then the district and then you can search for a building or apartment complex and select it from a list. Only at that point can you enter the building and apartment number by yourself.

For some reason, this happens in a popup and, for some reason, after completing the process, the popup wouldn't close and enter the details automatically into the address field on the registration form. It was here that I simply gave up. There was simply too much working against me. The registration process, with its jigsaw puzzle of ID numbers, phone numbers, the ID number under which the phone was registered and so on, was only the first step. The process of buying it would be another ordeal marked by a cumbersome bank transfer at the very least. I went to Amazon, logged in, Googled a watch, saw that it shipped to Korea for $10 in 9-12 days, added a book to my order and I had completed

Yes, I realize that this is an anecdote that beats a dead horse. Yes, I realize that Gmarket may work perfectly fine for you, especially if you use it in English or haven't forgotten your login information. Yes, I realize that I could have asked someone else to order it for me. Yes, I realize that I could have tried another website or done any number of things that would make this easier, but this is an anecdote. Yes, I realize that with a little bit of patience, I could have saved $10 and had my watch within a few days.

But online shopping is supposed to be convenient. If I wanted a cumbersome way of saving money, I would just run twenty miles to the outlets in Guro. Online culture in Korea being something like 5-10 years ahead of what it is in the West, free shipping is a given within Korea, usually within 1-3 days, something that Amazon has only recently started doing with Amazon Prime. The sole catch in Korea is the mind-numbing complexity of registration and online transactions, both bank transfers and credit cards.

This is a problem highlighted by the inability of overseas consumers to make purchases from Korean companies, but there's a growing recognition among Koreans everyone from the president to ordinary people who have gone to remarkable lengths just to buy products from overseas, that the existing system in Korea is needlessly complex, counter-productive and not doing what it is designed to do, which is to prevent fraud and protect personal information. Repeated leaks of personal information, the most significant being early this year, has shown that a better system is necessary.

Just as the use of ID numbers online has declined sharply from its peak about 4-5 years ago, despite my pessimism, we have probably seen the peak of Active X and maybe even the peak of terribly-designed websites. Certificates for online transactions will eventually disappear, taking much of the impetus for Active X with them, and the growing reluctance of customers to share personal information online will probably lead to personal verification processes, cumbersome as they are, that rely on cell phones, I-PIN or some variant, or maybe even just emails.

For those who aren't from Canada, the title for this post comes from TD Bank's slogan, "banking can be this comfortable". See my related post from 2011 on just how uncomfortable banking can be.

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