This is just a quick and easy guide for shopping in Seoul. Its based on my observations during my visit and it is by no means comprehensive so please feel free to add your input in the comments
Shopping for cosmetics
I stayed near the Myeongdong area, and I would highly recommend you head there for all your cosmetics shopping. The reason is simply because it has the highest concentration of Korean cosmetics brands I’ve ever seen in one place!
Sometimes, they are all laid out in a row, as you can see. Is it any wonder that they have to entice customers with free samples? The competition is horrendous!
In Myeongdong itself you can find most of the Korean brands you want.
Skin Food doesn’t give out samples at the door, but they are quite generous with samples when you make a purchase. I guess they are established enough that people will come to them regardless. Aritaum sells more expensive skincare from the Amore Pacific cosmetics group. You can find Laneige in here as well as Mamonde and a few other pricier brands in sets and kits. Laneige in general is slightly more affordable than it is here in Malaysia but not as much as the rest.
It’s Skin seems to be a little more elusive than the rest of the brands which are almost everywhere! You can barely turn around without bumping into TheFaceShop or Holika Holika or even Etude House.
I saw the more exclusive brands like Amore Pacific, Mamonde, Hera, Sulwhasoo and Laneige also sold at department stores like Lotte and Hyundai Department store.
Clockwise from Top Right: Sulwhasoo, Shiseido new serum, Hera cosmetics, AmorePacific
I realized that in most places, if you can communicate in Mandarin, there’ll be someone who can serve you. But if your primary communication language is English, you’re basically on your own. Not always a bad thing – allows you to make a quick getaway if you need to
At the Laneige counter at Lotte Plaza they were having a very good offer where you received a set of skincare samples with any purchase. Literally, any purchase. Too good to pass up really
Shopping for Clothes, Shoes and Accessories
For clothes, shoes and accessories, you can head for the markets, shopping malls or department stores. In the department stores like Hyundai and Lotte (the 2 I visited) you can find a very large selection of local brands and designers. There was a shoe sale on by a local brand Tandy, which I was told by my hosts did good shoes. They bought a couple of pairs which were on sale for about 89,000 Won (RM242). Granted, they looked good and were very comfortable. Otherwise, department store fashion is pricey. You can also shop the day away at Coex mall, which is H.U.G.E! Perfect for when it rains because its all indoors.
Myeongdong too have their clothes and accessories stores tucked away along each road. ITs a mind boggling array of fashion.
The option for cheaper clothing and accessories would be to go to the markets. Namdaemun Market is mostly open air, and covers a few streets. I believe there are something like 6 Gates which are the entrances to the market.
Take note of your gate so you don’t end up getting lost because the place is a maze! You can find clothes, shoes and loads of accessories. I stepped into a building selling accessories and there were at least 50 stalls in there with lots of very pretty inexpensive bling. If you opt to buy wholesale its cheaper but even then its not too pricey to buy just 1 item. It was very overwhelming. Namdaemun market is open only in the day so head here first so you don’t get disappointed. At night, most stalls are closed except for a few eating shops.
At night, head to Dongdaemun market. Arguably, you could head there in the day too where possibly more shops would be open, but since its touted as being open 24 hours, I had to go there at night.
I arrived at about 11.30pm and this was the scene that caught my eye. There are about 5-6 big stores in Dongdaemun which specialize in clothes – all kinds. In each store are stalls with all the fashionable pieces on show. I must say that it is no wonder Korean fashion is taking the world by storm. There is so much variety and choice and everything is so avant garde. I browsed around, and I believe you can bargain but I wasn’t looking to buy so I didn’t.
Shopping for Electronics
There is no better place to go than Yongsan Electronics Market. It is a huge area specializing in electronics and camera equipment so if that’s your thing, do make a day of it there. I only did a walk-though of the Yongsan electronics mall which is built over the Yongsan railway station. Imagine Low Yat Plaza and then multiply it by 10 I went up 2 floors and as far as my eye could see stretch rows and rows of cameras and camera equipment. All brands, all types. Anything you could possibly want. I don’t know how anyone shops in there but regulars do have their regular stores so its pretty much the same as everywhere else.
I was quite interested in the underground shopping that I’d read so much about before going to Korea. I was told by my hosts that the underground shops came about to make use of the bunkers built during the war. It makes sense, but I was quite disheartened when I did see these underground shops. I went to two – Sogung-dong near my hotel and Dongdaemun.
In both, the shops mostly looked like tourist traps, selling souvenirs, tailored clothes, fake bags and clothes. There weren’t many people buying or shopping at any time of the day, and I saw that most people simply used the underground as a pathway, to get around traffic overground and to stay out of the weather.
My personal choice for souvenir shopping is the Insadong area. I went there to take a look at the place and its quite interesting because if you go down the back alleys, you find the old houses still retained with most of them turned into shops selling antiques, or restaurants. I also found that Insadong had a high concentration of souvenir shops, and it was a good place to pick up things like fridge magnets and bookmarks and the like. There were also shops selling handmade clay items which were adorable but a little pricey.
Downtown Duty Free Shopping
Korea has quite a high GST rate – about 10% so shopping duty free is probably the best way to go about buying your cosmetics. The one I went to was at Lotte Duty Free, on the top floor of Lotte Plaza. Alongside the usual brands – Lancome, Dior, Estee Lauder etc you also find the local Korean brands, including, yes all the high street brands of Etude House, Tony Moly, Its’ Skin, Holika Holika, Hanskin etc. It occupies quite a large area, and prices are quoted in USD but are cheaper than if you get them at the store, because there is no tax. I reckon you could opt to pay in Won too.
The downside is that selection is more limited. There are fewer products available but most of the key items like sheet masks, BB creams, skincare etc are available so really, its worth stopping by here to see if they have what you want. They also do give samples upon purchase, just probably less than what you’d get in the actual stores. But the tax savings more than make up for it. As an example, my friend bought a pack of 20 masks for US$16 (17,600 won) while the same items were sold in store for 20,000 Won (US$18) and the Tony Moly snail cream was US$29 but was about 5,000 won more in store. Little savings do add up if you buy in bulk (and I saw people grabbing giant bagfuls of masks!)
In the stores, don’t forget to ask for your Tax Refund. If you purchase above a certain amount, the store will process the tax refund for you which you can collect at the airport. If you buy a lot, it can work out to be quite substantial.
I only visited 2 department stores – Lotte and Hyundai. Lotte was having sales on and on the top floor (1 floor below duty free I think) was their sale floor where clothes, shoes and accessories were on sale. That’s where I picked up my winter coats at a steal of 50,000 Won (RM140) each. Very stylish and very warm
On other floors, I found prices a little high so other than browsing, I did not get anything else. They had whole floors dedicated to their own local designers and I must admit that the clothes were very fashionable and very enticing. Pricetags (despite the sale) was still very high so all I did was look and salivate from afar.
And that in a nutshell is a quick guide to shopping in Seoul. I hope this has been useful and if you have any more to add, please feel free to leave your tips in the comments