Is Korea’s retail sector future-proof?

Technology and e-commerce trends are reshaping the global retail industry in profound ways, as the rise of online channels threatens to displace more traditional shopping experiences.

16 Nov 2018

By Claire Choi

Korea s Retail Sector
Technology and e-commerce trends are reshaping the global retail industry in profound ways, as the rise of online channels threatens to displace more traditional shopping experiences. However, Korea’s retail sector seems to be thriving in the face of this upheaval, with a 6% year-over-year increase in retail sales by Q3 2018. What are the factors fuelling this encouraging retail growth?

Firstly, improved relations with China and North Korea have energised the retail sector, with duty-free sales registering an impressive 34% year-over-year growth by Q3 2018. While this retail boost can primarily be attributed to the recent surge of Chinese tourists in Korea, it also reflects the growing international popularity of Korean beauty and lifestyle brands. 

E-commerce is also emerging as a key driver of Korea’s retail sector. Online channels have experienced rapid growth since 2010, and will only keep expanding their foothold as Korean consumers start shifting away from brick-and-mortar stores. With Korea’s e-commerce market predicted to grow by 21% this year, traditional retailers will need to find new ways of adapting to this rapidly evolving landscape.

Some retailers are already turning to artificial intelligence and other Industry 4.0 technologies in an effort to provide consumers with more innovative shopping experiences. For instance, Hyundai Department Store is using Naver’s virtual assistant Clova to answer customer inquiries – whether they relate to store locations or specific purchases.

Another interesting example is retail giant Lotte Home Shopping, which has developed its own augmented reality system so that customers can visualize how products would look in their home. As these new technologies get ushered into the mainstream, we can expect to see more and more retailers jumping on the AI bandwagon in the next few years.

However, this doesn’t mean that we should write off the traditional brick-and-mortar experience just yet. Major brands are still banking on attracting consumers with the enduring prestige of high street locations – such as Maison Kitsuné, which recently opened its flagship store in Seoul’s trendy Garosugil district.

Many global retailers continue to view Seoul, one of the world’s most famous shopping destinations, as a test bed in Asia. With cosmetics brands like Givenchy Beauty and Armani Beauty making their debut in Seoul this year, and renowned F&B brand Blue Bottle Coffee preparing to enter the Korean market in 2019, it’s clear that leasing demand from foreign retailers is still going strong.

If we look to other segments of the retail industry that are experiencing growth, it’s worth highlighting the surge of fresh food delivery services across the country. With double-income families emerging as a major consumer force, demand for overnight fresh food delivery has also been rising – and major retailers as well as food startups are turning their attention towards this potentially profitable market.

The rapid expansion of the food delivery market – and of the e-commerce sector in general – is proving to be a windfall for Korea’s logistics industry. Logistics developers are recognizing the need for large-scale modern logistics centers capable of storing and delivering goods nationwide, with faster delivery remaining the market’s key competitive measure. The growing demand for cold chain facilities is expected to fuel a mass redevelopment of older warehouses, especially in the Greater Seoul area.

So far, Korea’s retail industry has shown remarkable resilience against a backdrop of technological disruption. More brick-and-mortar retailers are offering F&B, AI and entertainment options to differentiate themselves from their e-commerce counterparts; and this trend will only grow as consumers seek out unique shopping experiences. The question is, will Korea’s retail market keep thriving in the long term? As long as technology continues to enhance – and not supplant – existing retail experiences, we can venture to hope that a bright future is in store for this challenging and dynamic sector.

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