By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Oct. 2 (Yonhap) — It’s a crispy, cool autumn morning, but there’s no time to waste for eager shoppers to stroll along the famous shopping district of Myeongdong in downtown Seoul.
Mandarin chatter fills the air in front of Lotte Department Store as waves of Chinese tourists stand in lines, checking out their smartphones and travel guide books.
When the doors opened at 10:30 a.m., they swarmed into the store under the guidance of Chinese-speaking shopping assistants and handsome staff clad in black suits. Luxury brands and cosmetic counters at the duty-free store on the ninth floor were soon crowded with shoppers.
The reason for this sudden influx is that it’s Golden Week in China, a week-long holiday that kicked off with National Day on Oct. 1 — the day when the People’s Republic was founded in 1949.
It’s the time when affluent Chinese hop on flights and come to Korea for a yearly ritual: holiday shopping.
The state-run Korea Trade Organization (KTO) estimated about 210,000 Chinese will visit South Korea during the National Day holiday, up 30 percent from a year ago.
The duty free store in Lotte Department Store in downtown Seoul is crowded with Chinese tourists on Oct. 2, 2015 during the long-haul holiday season. (Yonhap)
About 164,000 Chinese travelers visited South Korea’s during last year’s autumn holiday season and spent 2.4 million won each on average, which amounts to about 400 billion won (US$341.5 million) in total, according to the KTO.
With so much money up for grabs, local retailers have prepared a bunch of promotional events and giveaways targeting Chinese.
Seoul’s busiest shopping streets have transformed to embrace deep-pocketed travelers, supplementing Chinese-speaking shop assistants in luxury stores and putting Mandarin signs for the latest beauty products.
Major shopping centers offered discounts on payments made through Union Pay, China’s largest credit card issuer, and Alipay, China’s No. 1 mobile payment application.
With “Grand Sale Korea” already under way, local retailers on Thursday started a massive promotional sales event called “Korea Black Friday” to woo foreign tourists and locals to buy goods with cheap prices for two weeks.
Operators of duty-free shops have also stepped up efforts to bring back Chinese travelers, the largest consumer group, which accounted for about 70 percent of downtown duty-free spending last year, up from around 15 percent in 2011.
The competition has heated up this year as retailers were trying to make up for a summer slump in the wake of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) since its first outbreak in late May.
The viral illness made a big dent on domestic spending as foreign tourists canceled their planned trips during the peak summer season, while South Koreans avoided shopping centers and other crowded places in June and July.
Top of their shopping lists are cosmetics, clothes, luxury goods and electronics home appliances like rice cookers, which are more expensive back home because of Chinese taxes.
While French cosmetic products were also on sale at duty-free counters and brand shops in Myeongdong, Korean brands were better off on their home turf on the back of TV dramas and show programs hugely popular in China.
“Some Chinese consumers show image captures from Korean dramas and magazines to buy the same item Korean celebrities used,” a clerk at the Laneige, one of the brands under South Korea’s top cosmetic maker AmorePacific, said.
Some visitors even come with huge shopping lists for their relatives and friends because their culture values gift exchanges.
“I used an Excel spreadsheet to so as not to forget about things I should buy for my family and friends,” Yu Qian, a 24-year-old tourist from Shanghai, said.
Market watchers say the influx of Chinese tourists will give much-needed momentum to revitalize the tepid domestic consumption, which will in turn drive up shares related to consumption and leisure.
“As the number of Chinese tourists is recovering to the level before the MERS outbreak, the Chinese holiday is expected to boost shares related to Chinese consumption, such as cosmetics, leisure and retailers,” said Oh Rin-ah, an analyst at EBest Investment & Securities.