For decades, free door-to-door food delivery service has been a common option for all kinds of South Korean restaurants.
Not just pizzas, fried chicken and Chinese food, but also soups and meat dishes are just a phone call away – for delivery to homes, offices and even parks and other public spaces.
The advent of digitalization, however, has led to the rise of online on-demand food delivery service platforms. Homegrown mobile apps, including Baedal Minjok, Yogiyo, Baedaltong, as well as expat-tailored Shuttle Delivery, have made food delivery services possible even for restaurants without designated staff.
But for app operators, restaurants with their own delivery services are still considered strong competitors. According to estimates by the Korea Rural Economic Institute, nearly 90 percent of Koreans placed delivery orders by phone in 2018.
This is behind the key argument that Germany-based Delivery Hero’s proposed acquisition of Korea’s No. 1 Baedal Minjok operator Woowa Brothers will not translate into a market monopoly – even though it also owns controlling stakes in the operators of Yogiyo and Baedaltong.
A man walks in the Woowa Brothers headquarters in Seoul. (Yonhap)
So despite a market share of over 90 percent in the food delivery app industry through the three apps, Delivery Hero claimed that the app-based platforms are not the only players in the entire food delivery market.
The proposed $4 billion deal is awaiting the results of a Fair Trade Commission review. Market watchers are paying close attention to the outcome, as it could reflect shifting sands in the way the FTC defines thing: The market for the apps can be categorized as either food delivery apps, food delivery or delivery not limited to foods.
Based on the definition it chooses, the FTC will look into possibilities of price hikes or reductions in quality if it approves Delivery Hero’s 100 percent acquisition of Woowa Brothers.Vocal politics
The proposed deal is likely to face complaints during the FTC review as opponents have already raised concerns about Delivery Hero’s alleged monopoly status, which might affect restaurant owners and deliverymen. The most vocal entity to lash out at the deal so far has been Korea’s ruling Democratic Party.
On Monday, the Democratic Party’s labor advocacy group Euljiro Committee and labor unions told reporters at the National Assembly that FTC should review the deal on the basis that the market it operates in is solely composed of mobile app operators, and should be seen as separate from restaurants own delivery services, in order to protect restaurant owners and deliverymen.
“A market monopoly is highly likely upon FTC’s approval as the same company owns Baedal Minjok and Yogiyo,” a statement by Euljiro Committee said. Democratic Party Rep. Park Hong-keun, who heads the committee, added that the press conference as “not meant to urge the FTC to reject the acquisition deal.”
The claim, however, has been met with criticism that politicians are again holding back the growth of innovative companies and succumbing to pressure from labor unions, ahead of the nation’s general election in April.
Park of the Democratic Party in October last year proposed a bill to ban van-hailing service Tada, by revising the Transport Act. The bill is currently pending in the parliament, leaving the mobility service with uncertainties.
Woowa Brothers has played down the possibilities of a merger between Korean entities of Delivery Hero to dominate the delivery app market.
“We will continue to encourage competition in the local market and contribute to restaurant owners’ growth in revenue,” a Woowa Brothers representative told The Korea Herald.Low entry barrier: Throwback to eBay Korea deal
Contrary to concerns from political circles, industry watchers said the low entry barrier for the food delivery market is leaving room for giants to jump in, adding that Delivery Hero’s dominance in the Korean delivery app market is not likely to last.
The same monopoly concerns were raised a decade before, when the FTC approved eBay’s acquisition of Gmarket, Korea’s No. 1 e-commerce player in 2009, for $1.2 billion, and a year later, its merger with a Korean subsidiary that operates Auction. The antitrust regulator cited room for new players’ entry.
The M&As gave birth to eBay Korea, with over 85 percent market share through Gmarket and Auction. But its market domination soon ended, as SK Group-led ecommerce platform 11st grew quickly, while Naver came up with its own platform. Fast forward a few years, and Coupang, which did not exist at the time of the deal, now occupies the No. 1 position.
“The online shopping market as a whole was small in size at the time of the acquisition, but over the course of a decade, consumers began to turn to online shopping. This has invited conglomerates to the marketplace with their respective platforms,” said an industry source who declined to be named.
The same could be true for the food delivery market in Korea, as mobile food delivery apps are evolving.
For example, Baedal Minjok in its first five years since its launch has strived to become a full-fledged third-party food ordering platform. Food items available for order expanded from fast food to those to which delivery services had never been offered -- like handmade burgers, steak and pasta, among others.
Woowa Brothers, founded in 2010, is tapping into a new realm of the industry. Its newest service, called “B-Mart,” is a micro-fulfillment service that would enable a consumer to place an online order for a smaller portion of food items from retail giants.
Moreover, the apps are facing challenges by competitors at home and abroad, as more giant competitors -- from Coupang to Google -- have joined the bandwagon of food delivery market growth recently.
FTC has yet to clearly hint whether it will approve the merger. But it has signaled elsewhere that it is taking industry changes into account changes.
FTC Chairperson Joh Sung-wook recently said in the agency’s latest M&A review result announcement that the antitrust body has been “embracing the convergence of broadcasting and telecommunications” when reviewing M&As between telecom firms and cable TV operators.
By Son Ji-hyoung (email@example.com