New Yogurtmobiles in Korea Cause a Stir

05-Apr-2016 Intellasia | WSJ | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Some delivery women find motorised refrigerators hard to swallow, others love them; pink helmets, no seats

South Korea prides itself on being at the cutting edge of manufacturing technology, from tiny semiconductors to massive floating rigs that drill into the earth’s crust for gas and oil.

Among its recent engineering breakthroughs: motorised refrigerators for delivering yogurt.

A fleet of bathtub-size four-wheelers started hitting the streets here last year, to better transport the little bottles of the yellow-colored yogurt drinks South Koreans have long consumed to aid their health.

At the helms are thousands of delivery ladies, as they are known, who for decades pulled carts, hauling heavy ice boxes filled with the drinks to bring them to customers’ doorsteps.

For these women, the unfamiliar vehicles are a technological revolution so bold as to be awkward at times.

“I felt like a monkey at first because people gave me odd looks,” said Lee Chang-sim, an 11-year yogurt-delivery veteran.

Whipping up a yogurtmobile wasn’t a smooth process, even in a place where innovation is part of the culture. Manufacturers were baffled. Officials couldn’t figure out how to classify them. Some of the delivery women didn’t know how to drive.

“It seemed like such a preposterous request at first,” said Lee Young-tae, an executive at DaeChang Motors Co., one of four companies that signed up to develop and manufacture the vehicles.

The best-known seller of yogurt drinks, Korea Yakult Co., started door-to-door delivery in the early 1970s, transporting a successful business model from Japan.

The company now sells around two million bottles of its mini yogurts each day. Its army of 13,000 delivery ladies – there are no men – reaches almost every corner of the country, including remote islands. Customers typically take deliveries once or twice a week for about 15 cents a bottle.

Facing competition from online retailers with delivery trucks selling rival products, Korea Yakult earmarked $67 million for 10,000 electric vehicles to be introduced through 2017. The new wheels are being accompanied by a redesign of delivery ladies’ uniforms with brighter colors and pink helmets.

One of the first challenges was finding a manufacturing partner, said Kim Seung-young, a manager at Korea Yakult involved in development of the yogurtmobiles. No one really understood the type of vehicle the company was trying to make.

Trucks and cars weren’t under consideration, because the company didn’t want to deviate too much from its current system; the delivery women generate about 90 percent of the company’s revenues. Company officials tapped makers of golf carts, but they struggled with the idea of a mobile refrigerator that operated perfectly while out on bumpy roads in all temperatures.

Korea Yakult made competing developers go through a total of 16 mock-ups over a year.

Putting test vehicles through paces, with delivery ladies at the helm, “the developers literally sweated this project,” says Kim.

“They ran like hell trying to keep up with the ladies who were testing out the prototypes.”

Staff and developers visited government agencies to get the cart approved for road travel. Officials looked up rules and flipped through books trying to figure out the right way to classify them.

“Nobody could really give us an answer,” said Stephen Kim, chief executive of TS Co., another partner company.

Government officials initially decided that by one definition, the vehicle should be categorised as a motorised bicycle. But Korea Yakult needed it to be classified as a car to be allowed to freely use roads.

After some research, the company found cars that travel under 25 kilometers, or 15.5 miles, an hour don’t have to be registered as standard automobiles but are allowed to use roads. The carts have a maximum speed of about 5 miles an hour.

Authorities agreed to also classify the cart as a basic form of car. To avoid stricter safety regulations, the company opted not to give it a seat.

One of the delivery ladies’ husbands didn’t get the memo and jury-rigged a chair onto her cart, sending company officials scrambling to remove it. The lack of a seat has also generated discussion online, with one blogger writing: “Why no chair? It would’ve been perfect if only for a chair!”

Many Koreans gulp down yogurt drinks each day in hopes of maintaining healthy digestive systems. The special ingredient is a strain of the Lactobacillus bacteria discovered by a Japanese scientist nearly a century ago that yogurt sellers say complements the production of digestive enzymes.

A recent survey by the Korean Society of Coloproctology showed fermented-milk products were the most favoured remedy for constipation.

The moving refrigerators, which can carry up to 3,300 mini yogurts, are equipped with backlights and side mirrors.

The vehicles are a world’s first – and only – according to Korea Yakult.

Delivery women must have drivers’ licenses and stick to one side of the road. Driving is prohibited on sidewalks.

The rollout, of 4,000 carts so far, has had a few hiccups.

The vehicles emit a loud beeping noise when reversing for safety reasons, resulting in a bout of complaints in a neighbourhood where Korea Yakult operates about 38 carts.

“If they all move out together, it can get pretty loud,” said Kim. The beeping isn’t required by law and can be muted, the company says.

These days, Lee, the delivery woman, stands on a contraption that looks something like a Segway with a 485-pound fridge attached to the front.

She can choose from two speeds, “slow” and “fast.” She always goes for fast, pushing a button and driving off at 5 miles an hour, delivering to about 170 households.

While the new wheels let her make her rounds faster, Lee says she has put on some weight since switching from walking her route to driving her refrigerator.

“I didn’t realise how hilly the roads were until after I rode the new carts,” she says.

“After the cart experience, delivering on foot was so tough. I need to do more walking now, for exercise,” she said. “But I don’t want to walk.”


Category: Korea

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