Remember arriving in Korea? Landing at Incheon Airport to be met by a recruiter and then being taken to a seedy motel with a mirrored ceiling for the night before being put on a train the next morning, only to be shown to an empty apartment and told to be ready at 9 a.m. the next day for work? You have no phone or internet connection, the fridge is empty and the bed has no sheets, so you sleep with your coat over you wondering what the hell you have gotten yourself into. Okay, so this was my experience, but it can’t be too dissimilar to hundreds, if not thousands, of other new arrivals to Korea.
In fact, something similar probably happened to Scot Sustad and Reuben Zuidhof, prompting them to start The Arrival Store, which has an office in Gyeonggi Province.
In a nutshell, The Arrival Store is a one-stop shop to help you set up a home in a new country, offering all the services you might need, and probably some you don’t—but that’s okay, as you can send back things you later decide you don’t want. Their model is simple, according to the website: “Offer competitive prices, great products, personal service and deliver them in an innovative and fun way.”
One unique feature of TAS is that it offers to prepare everything for you before you even leave your home country. You can literally have a box waiting for you at Incheon Airport with all the things you think you’ll need to get started – including bed sheets and a working mobile phone.
One of the staffers who once lived in Korea will even give you a pre-departure call to help quell any fears you (or your parents) might have. Shipping is done overnight from a location in Korea and payment can be made via bank transfer, PayPal or the normal credit card routes. TAS also offers an “order now, pay later” option that gives you 60 days to pay from when the order ships.
That’s convenient because unless you go with a chunk of cash, you might need to live somewhat frugally until receiving your flight reimbursement or first paycheck. As Sustad, who spent a few years teaching here and left in 2008, says, “(It) might be a month before you get a bank account set up, so how do you pay your first phone bill?” Well, they have that covered, too.
If your phone bill comes before you get your Korean bank account set up, they offer a grace period during which late fees accrue on your first bill.
Sustad and Zuidhof started a recruiting firm after living and teaching abroad in Korea, among other places, and it was the repeated requests for products and services from people they had sent to Korea that led them to conclude that there was indeed a market for resettlement products and services in English. Without language, you can be the most resourceful person in the world but still get nowhere.
Launched formally in August 2010, TAS is now in full swing with customer service available in English and Korean from people who have either lived the life of a new arrival or have had experience dealing with them.
February and August are their biggest times of the year, with EPIK (English Program in Korea) and the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education bringing in new teachers, but there is a steady flow of people arriving throughout the year.
Anyone who has been in Korea a while and had to deal with Korean companies will be able to appreciate the efforts that Sustad and Zuidhof have made in getting the company set up.
It sounds easy on paper, and Sustad says that people have had the idea before, but that nothing like this has really existed until now is a testament to the fact that it isn’t as easy as people think. The two say they have now “reached the hump” in terms of their business and, although they don’t predict perfectly smooth sailing from here on, they expect it to be a bit easier.
Stage one in their grand plan was always to take care of arrival essentials: a phone, bedding, power adapters and things you need to function for the first week or two once you arrive. And so far Sustad and Zuidhof are pretty happy about how things have gone.
In stage two, they say they will expand their range of products and services to include rentals such as camping equipment or longboards – things that you wouldn’t bring with you yet wouldn’t necessarily want to buy.
This might be the hook they need to attract recurring customers. Initially, people only need one mobile phone and one set of bed sheets. Their plan is to offer products and services that people come back for again and again, including foreign food items, which have made an appearance recently on the site. The range of those items, they say, will continue to expand.
In the distant stage three, part of the plan is to offer additional services such as event planning.
Despite the duo’s efforts, plenty of people are out there ready and willing to criticize. Message boards attract all kinds of people and there have been times when trolls – people who just log on to criticize, to put it bluntly – have said things about the business either for no reason or without really knowing what they are talking about.
Sustad has spent time, too much time, defending TAS on popular forums like Dave’s ESL Café. He says some customers will take a chance, but that others won’t because they are frightened off by nay-sayers who can come across as a bit bitter. There have been a few times when the two lads thought about throwing in the towel, too, but then they were reminded that there is a need for their services. Since they started, they have seen a 10-fold increase in customers.
One of the criticisms they’ve received is that the store traps customers into buying things they don’t need. Sustad says that was never the intention. “The last thing we want to do is sell a bunch of bells and whistles and stuff like that that people don't need,” he said. And why would they? They have been there themselves and know they would get found out pretty quickly, as word spreads like wildfire among the expat community. In some ways, TAS proves its worth especially outside of Seoul. “A lot of people living in Seoul will look at us and say, ‘I can get all of this stuff in Itaewon,’” said Zuidhof, who arrived in Korea in 2004. But that simply isn't the case in far-off provinces.
And for every troll, there is a slew of satisfied customers, as is indicated by the testimonials the company has received.
One customer named Ashley wrote: “If you are coming to Korea for the first time, or even if you’ve been here for a while and want to have a company you can count on in a time of need, then TheArrivalStore.com is the company for you! They will take care of you as if you are their closest friend or family. They are patient, understanding and genuinely concerned about their customers having the best experience possible while they are here in Korea.”
More to-the-point testimonials followed. “Everything was great, I got everything I needed on time and everything worked perfectly. Thanks so much,” wrote another customer, Nathan, from the United States.
Yet another customer named Rebekah wrote, “I have greatly appreciated your services these past 12 months and I will continue to recommend your service to friends in the future.”
Dozens of similar comments follow. And while this is starting to sound like an ad for The Arrival Store, it isn’t. TAS is a great concept that offers a service where one is lacking.
Yes, it’s a business, and yes, they make money, but there is something noble about providing a service that is needed, and often necessary, while making a living at the same time. Ultimately Sustad and Zuidhof want a TAS for every country, but for now they will settle for a goal of 20 in the next five years.