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2009/09/16 15:39 KST
Matchmaking firms grow amid changing socioeconomic landscape

By Lee Sung-yeon
SEOUL, Sept. 16 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's matchmaking agencies have grown in recent years on the back of changes in the socioeconomic landscape and advances in information technology, despite the criticism here that they promote materialism.

   Duo, one of South Korea's leading matchmaking firms, says its membership has grown steadily by 10 percent annually since 2004, signing 16,000 new members in 2008 alone. Sales for the company peaked at 17.8 billion won (US$14,554,000) that same year, compared to 12 billion won in 2004.

   Duo says the company brought together some 10,000 people in marriage for the five years from the beginning of 2001 to the end of 2005, and that for the next four years the number reached nearly 10,000. Duo expects that for the five years between January 2006 and December 2010 the figure will top 12,000.

   The growth indicates that consumers' general perception of the matchmaking firms may be changing towards positive direction. There have been complaints and mistrust from some clients of the matchmaking firms about their business practice.

   Such mistrust harkens back to the negative stereotypes that surrounded the industry in its early years, when matchmaking firms were criticized for such practices as charging excessive fees when clients attempted to end their membership, citing "damages for breach of contract."

   Some firms draw their revenue from membership fees, which can vary according to a client's preferences, including the occupation and income of possible matches. Other firms make yearly contract with their clients.

   Sunoo, another leading matchmaking firm, says its membership spiked from 8,400 people in 2006 to 24,900 in 2008, adding that a majority of the new members are female.

   Company CEO Lee Woong-jin says when Sunoo was first started 19 years ago, "we had to make efforts to recruit female clients, so females were exempted from the annual membership fees. Now, the tables have turned."

   While the increase in female membership has contributed to the growth of the matchmaking industry, the trend also suggests that the traditionally negative perception women had towards such agencies may be changing.

   According to Sunoo, the number of its female members increased 3.9 percent to 15,800 in 2008 from two years earlier, and it expects the number to continue to grow.

   Lee says that in the 1990s some 60-70 percent of its total members were male, but that since then the number of female members has steadily increased, surpassing male membership in the early part of this decade.

   Shin Kwang-yeong, a professor of sociology at Seoul's Chung-ang University, says matchmaking firms are promoting the notion of marriage as similar to finding employment.

   "These firms seem to be taking advantage of a current socioeconomic trend known as 'employ-age', which combines the terms employment and marriage," he says. "Some women regard marriage as a type of employment, and the current economic crisis and tight job market prompts highly-educated females to pursue early marriage instead of a career."

   A critic of the matchmaking industry, Shin says the agencies also promote materialistic values within society, as clients tend to prioritize income levels over all other prerequisites. "Most women prefer to meet only men who have a high income level."

   In response to such criticism, matchmaking firms have been making efforts to include other factors in their services. Thanks to advances in information technology, preferences beyond income levels can now easily be factored in so that firms can more accurately locate prospective matches for clients.

   Duo employs software developed in conjunction with a team from Seoul National University headed by Professor Choi In-chul of the Human Life Institute that can locate an ideal match for members on the basis of 160 pre-set qualifications.

   Sunoo, which currently holds four patents on matchmaking software, said that its system was able to match some 514 people in just two hours, 312 of whom later met for a second date. Lee says that prior to these technologies, it usually took 15 days to match the same number of people.

   He added that in addition to income levels, other factors including physical appearance, number of family members and personality traits can be calculated within its "index." "Then, the computer will find the ideal person for a particular client."