Greetings from Seoul where I’m winding up my spring trip to Asia! I spent the last two weeks in Tokyo: enjoying the city, exploring different neighbourhoods and doing some article research (I am writing a retail profile on Japanese store chain Cosmekitchen for CBM Magazine). I also visited most of the major art and design museums and galleries in the greater Tokyo area. Unlike last year’s visit, my first 2015 trip to Tokyo was culture-oriented rather than retail-focused.
In Seoul, however, I am making up for this: my visit here is all about brands, cosmetics and retail! Although this is my first trip to Korea I already know a good bit about the Korean beauty market and I’m familiar with many of the big retail brands. Korean cosmetics are popular across Asia and brands like Holika Holika, Tony Moly, Innisfree, Nature Republic, Skin Food, Etude House and Missha have a significant presence in East Asia and most of the South East Asian countries. Several of these brands also have retail boutiques in the US, by the way. And with the Korean hallyu blazing its triumphant path across the world, K-Beauty is only going to grow in importance.
Hallyu in this context means “wave” and refers to the surging popularity of Korean popular culture – music, celebrities, films, TV – in countries outside of Korea. The term was originally coined in the mid-1990s and at that time primarily referred to the Asian countries. Today, however, thanks to YouTube, social networks, blogs and vlogs, online drama/TV streaming websites et al., teenagers, young adults and not so young adults in many parts of the world know and love Korea’s pop-cultural exports. Gangnam style is just the tip of the iceberg.
I only have a few days in town so I decided to stay in a hotel in Myeung-dong, which is THE premier beauty shopping destination in Seoul. It is a comparatively small area of the city but the density of beauty stores (and Starbucks outlets, incidentally!) has to be seen to be believed. In fact, Myeung-dong is famous for its high concentration of cosmetics stores.The brand boutiques of Nature Republic, It’s Skin, Innisfree, Too Cool for School, Skin Food, Missha, Holika Holika, Tony Moly, The Face Shop, Banila, Etude House and The Saem line the streets. There are also stores that specialise only in face masks – like All Mask Story – and of course Myeung-dong also has retail boutiqes of Korean premium brands like Primera, which are usually retailed by department stores.
Every chain caters to a slightly different demographic, by the way. Holika Holika and Tony Moly, for example, focus more the younger, trend-oriented segment whilst Banila and Etude House are rather cute and colourful. Nature Republic and Innisfree, on the other hand, tend to attract consumers who prefer more natural-inspired brands.
These single-brand boutiques (which retail their own branded products) are interspersed with branches of the big drugstore chains in Korea (Olive Young, Boons, Watsons and LOHB’s), outlets of Korean beauty manufacturer AmorePacific’s multi-brand store chain Aritaum (which sells eleven of AmorePacific’s beauty brands) and the stores of specialist perfumery retailers like Belport.
Watsons, Olive Young, Boons and LOHB’s offer a mixture of Korean, Asian and Western mass market and more premium brands, as does Belport which also carries a number of European niche brands. The Myeung-dong Belport store, for example, sells Botanicus, a charming herbal beauty brand from Prague in the Czech Republic. The big Korean department store chains Lotte, Hyundai and Shinsegae, on the other hand, focus on the big mainstream Asian and international luxury labels.
As much as I enjoy visiting the colourful and fun retail environment of the single-brand boutiques, I prefer the drugstore chains because of their intriguing international brand mixture. The drugstore sector is also a comparatively recent retail channel in Korea. The biggest – and oldest – national retailer is Olive Young which was launched in 1999 and operates some 380 stores across the country. In 2005 Watsons opened its first store in Korea (they currently have some 100 outlets), followed by Boons in 2012 and LOHB’s in 2013.
Olive Young is also the only independent chain in the country. Competitor Boons is operated by Emart which in turn is a division of department store group Shinsegae. LOHB’s is part of the Lotte retail group whilst Watsons, of course, belongs to the ubiquitous AS Watson beauty division of Hong Kong-based retail giant Hutchison Whampoa. I checked out all four retail chains today – and whilst doing so I came across Olive Young’s new “Lifestyle Experience Center” store in Myeung-dong. A very cool store which merits its own blog post. Stay tuned!