Department stores rule South Korea’s retailing scene. Western brands need a distinctive offer to create a stir in this sophisticated market.
Ask any Far Eastern watcher about South Korea and a common response is along the lines of: “It’s like Japan was 15 years ago. Lots of potential for western brands.” My trade contact at the British Embassy in Seoul, Sunhee Jung, was more realistic.
“If you think there is a latent desire for British brands here, there’s not,” she told me. “We are a very mature retail market, it’s very competitive and we have many good domestic brands. It is also price-conscious. Of course, there is always room for new names, but they will have to be bringing something relevant, interesting and something that offers a good price-value ratio.”
She also confirmed that fashion retailing in the Republic of Korea is dominated by department stores, which definitely is a similarity with Japan.
With only a couple of days in Seoul, I got on my walking shoes and visited four of the biggest stores of the four major players - Galleria, Hyundai, Lotte and Shinsegae - in central Seoul. As about half of the country’s 50 million people live in the metropolitan area around Seoul, it seemed a good way of getting a flavour of the market.
They are certainly striking retail practitioners, with huge, impressively appointed stores. Once inside, it is sometimes difficult to remember which you are in as the vast range of foreign brands and domestic labels appears to be common to most of them. It is hard, on a speedy tour, to spot which brands (if any) are exclusive. Noticeable, however, to British eyes is the density of sales staff - it is high to what we are used to at home.
There is no doubt that in theory South Korea offers opportunities for British and other western brands, but the onus is on the incomers to prove their worth.
The country, which is proud of its 5,000-year history of civilisation, is seen as an influential market leader by other eastern Asian countries, especially China, but also Japan. It boasts some huge conglomerates - such as Samsung, Hyundai-Kia, LG and Daewoo - a highly educated population and it has (by some distance) the fastest internet connection services in the world, so this is an online culture.
UK brands wishing to board Bread & Butter’s Seoul Train next year need to have a lot to offer a savvy and well-supplied market.
Eric Musgrave travelled courtesy of the team from Bread & Butter, which is planning an event in Seoul in September 2015 as a platform to introduce brands from Europe, the US and Japan to South Korea.
Shinsegae, which was separated from the Samsung Group in the 1990s, traces its origins back to 1930, when its first store appeared as a subsidiary of Mitsukoshi of Japan. It was acquired by Samsung in 1945 and renamed Shinsegae in 1963. Its name means ‘New World’ and it is reportedly the largest retailer in South Korea, with sales approaching the equivalent of about £2.5bn. Its store in Centum City, Busan, South Korea’s second city, is recognised as the largest department store in the world, covering 14 storeys and 3.1 million sq ft (so more than three times bigger than Harrods).These images are from its store in Gangnam-gu.
The Lotte Department Store group was established in 1979. It has 36 branches, including nine in Seoul alone. It alters its merchandise mix to be appropriate to whichever district it is in. Drapers visited
its most stylish branch in the Gangnam district (Gangnam means ‘south of the river’. In Seoul’s case, the river is the Han).It has some very impressive own labels.
The Hyundai Department Store group operates from 14 locations that produce more than £217m in annual sales. Opening its first store in 1977, it unveiled its flagship in the affluent Seoul district of Apgujeong, Gangnam-gu, in 1985. It has seven other stores in the Seoul area.
Galleria is an upmarket department store business owned by Hanwha Group, one of the largest conglomerates in the country. It was originally a manufacturer of explosives and is still involved in this sector today. The store business has five branches across Korea, but it is best known for the Luxury Hall West (these pictures and previous page) and Luxury Hall East, which is nothing like as futuristic. These are located alongside each other in Gangnam-gu.