“A place with a hundred riches” is the literal translation for the Korean word for department store, baekhwajeom (백화점). Like its name, the main attraction of department stores is the one-stop shopping opportunity, in a chic and sophisticated atmosphere.
Korea’s main department stores have several branches within the country, in all the major cities. In Seoul, most of the main branches of the department stores (abbreviated as Dept. Store) are situated in the shopping hub of Myeong-dong. Several famous establishments have disappeared over the years but the most well-known have remained.
Shinsegae started off as a Seoul branch of a department store in the 1930s Japanese occupation era, on the same site where it stands today. In 1963, the store changed its name to Shinsegae, which literally means “new world”. The store was first to introduce the “bargain sale” (바겐세일) as well. Shinsegae’s main store is known for its long history and upscale clientele; with many top tier VIPs being from blue blood “old money” families. The merchandise caters accordingly; not only can you find many established brands but exciting new designers are also introduced quite often by Shinsegae.
Opened in 1979. Although the main store is in the administrative district of Sogong-dong, it’s more familiarly referred to as being in Myeong-dong because it’s right across the street. Lotte is known for its grand scale. Among all the department stores, they probably carry the widest price range of merchandise. From mid-price to premium (you honestly can’t find low prices at Dept. Stores), it’s all there. Lotte’s main store is adjacent to Avenue L, where all the shops are high-end luxury brands and also Young Plaza, for the young, casual and trendy fashionista.
Before the other Dept. Stores introduced luxury import brands within their stores, Galleria was the only place to shop for those brands. Comprised of two buildings facing each other, they are still called ‘Luxury Hall West’ and ‘Luxury Hall East’ to reflect this history. The stores have went through numerous renovations, but Luxury Hall West is now considered a landmark as the store lights up at night with thousands of LED lights, designed by the world renowned architect Ben van Berkel. The lights change constantly in multicolors and offer an entertaining distraction when you’re in the neighborhood. Like the other stores, Galleria has expanded their business to other cities and have various branches, all carrying the high-end brands as the main store.
AK Plaza (AK 플라자)
AK Plaza’s main store is in Seoul’s Guro, but its branches in Bundang and Suwon are probably more well-known. The store in Bundang was previously known as Samsung Plaza, before the current company Aekyung took over in 2007.
AK Plaza does not have a certain distinctive characteristic; it’s neither too upscale nor too overtly “friendly”, but a well balanced mix. The in-store brands differ by branch.
Daegu’s first Dept. Store. Besides the branches of the Dept. Stores mentioned above, the city of Daegu has two Dept. Stores that do not exist in other cities. Daegu Dept. Store started as a small shop in 1944. The name was changed in 1962 and in 1969, established itself in its current location on Daegu’s main street of Dongsungro.
The main store has probably the most standard layout of a traditional Korean Dept. Store. (See below.) There are no luxury brands within the store; their shops are all located at Debec Plaza, the more upscale branch of the store.
Another Dept. Store in Daegu, the store was established in 1972 and was in continuous rivalry with Daegu Dept. Store until other Dept. Stores showed up in the region. The store changed ownership in 2010 and the business is still going through various changes. There are more Korean national brands in store than import brands.
Other things to note:
Although each Dept. Store has its own distinctive style, the basic layout of the typical Korean store is:
- Basement floors – Supermarket, food and drink, food court
- 1st floor – Cosmetics, luxury brands, bags and leathergoods, jewelry, accessories
- 2nd, 3rd, 4th floors – Womenswear and shoes
- 5th floor – Menswear, sportswear and golfwear (sometimes with Childrenswear)
- 6th floor – Childrenswear
- 7th floor – Electronics, household goods (bedding, linens, kitchenware)
- 8th , 9th and higher floors – Restaurants and event hall
Korean Dept. Stores usually open at 10:30 am or 11:00 am and close at 8:00 pm, with closing hours extended until 8:30 pm or 9:00 pm during sales season. They are closed once a month, either Monday or Tuesday depending on Dept. Store so check out the opening hours before you head out. The stores are generally closed for the Seollal (Lunar New Year’s) and Chuseok (Mid-Autumn Festival) but are open for all other holidays.
There are four major sales periods per year: January, April, July, and October. The price discounts are highest in January and July, when the season’s merchandise undergoes clearance. Unlike many non-Korean clearance sales, gradual increase in markdown is not common. So an item that is 25% off today will not be 30% off the next week. The discount price tends to remain the same during the whole sales period. The only exceptions are some foreign brands, but these are few. Many Korean brands do not have discount sales whatsoever.
Besides the bargain sales, there are “gift certificate” (상품권) seasons which entitle you to a gift certificate of a certain amount upon purchase above another certain amount. The more you spend, the higher amount gift certificate you receive. “Gift of thanks” (사은품) are also very common. With every designated amount of purchase, there’ll be a gift of some sort that you can pick up from the customer center; it can be anything from everyday dishwashing detergent to a china tea set.
There is always an extra event going on during these periods, mostly lottery style, where various prizes are handed out as well.
The Dept. Stores also have their own credit card for which you can apply at the customer center. It’s customary for card holders to get a 5% discount, even during non-sales season and depending on the brand, extra discounts during the sales season.
Korea’s Dept. Stores have the tendency of ushering in the next season very, very early. (Which I personally find quite annoying.) It’s not surprising to see fall sweaters on mannequins while the weather outside is still sweltering. This is becoming more and more a problem, as global warming has messed up Korea’s natural weather changing sequence. Several Korean brands have been trying to amend this cycle by prolonging their seasonal items but unfortunately it’s still not widespread. So wait a bit before putting in all your previous season clothes in storage.
Most Korean Dept. Stores run cultural centers. They offer numerous classes in a wide range of subjects, from the arts to sports to philosophy to cooking to all kinds of hobbies imaginable. Competition for registration can be high, especially for the most popular classes so it’s advised to look into what classes are available beforehand and see if a waiting list exists.