Shopping in Korea: A Love (Hate) Letter


Shopping in Korea:

“Who’s there?”
“A waygookin trying to spend money.”
“Oh f*ck no, not again…”

I love retail.  Shopping is a hobby of mine and it’s hard to beat in Korea.  When shopping in Korea, prices are cheap and clothes are cute.  With the 4 drastically different seasons (cue massive eye-roll from the expat community), there are plenty of opportunities to switch up your look.  Shopping in Korea is a bitch.  It doesn’t have to be, however. Korean retailers could opt to take advantage of the massive number of foreign workers (and their hard-earned won), but for some reason refuse to acknowledge this insane opportunity for profit.  I love you, Korea…but I’ve got some questions for retailers in the land of morning calm.

What’s the deal with “One Size Fits All”?

I fit into your OS clothing most of the time (yes – even non-stretchy stuff), but frequently things are just too short (I’m 5’8″ tall).  Skirt and pant length in Korea call for a whole new article (a belt is not a skirt, ladies).  It’s ridiculous that given the changes in Korea over the past 50 years you still assume that everyone is the same height.  Most of the Korea women in my workplace are actually quite tall.  While many of them are slender, most of them are actually quite voluptuous.  I don’t mean fat, I mean that several of them actually are taller and curvier than I!  Aren’t you tired of operating at a loss having to discount all the clothing that really should be labeled “one size fits 20% of our population”?

That Girl Cartier - Shopping in Korea

Why do you insist on being c*nty to foreign shoppers?

“As of September 2015, according to the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs, the foreign population in South Korea, including migrant workers, increased to 1.8 million, accounting for 3.4% of the total population.” – Chosun News.  That’s a rise of nearly a quarter of a million people over a period of 4 years.  I would estimate that we’re closer to 2 million migrant workers leading into 2017.  It’s not like we’re new, and it’s clear that we’re not going away (at least not en masse) anytime soon.  You’ve had a significant number of migrant workers in your country since before most of your retail associates were born.  Why won’t you reprimand your employees who are little shits to your customers?

I don’t have a Korean body, but I fit into your clothes just fine.  I’m tired of being told I’m not allowed to try on clothing because I’m wearing makeup.  It’s especially offensive when I don’t have a lick of makeup on.  I’m aware that you think I’ll stretch out your apparel, but newsflash for you Mr. Walter Cronkite – I won’t.  When I’m treated differently because I’m a foreigner, I tell my other foreign friends.  When I’m treated well, I tell my friends, followers, and people in line for coffee.  You complain about how Native English Teachers make more money than Korean.  Guess what?  We spend more, too.  There are plenty of ESL Teachers who don’t have bills to pay off and who enjoy shopping in Korea every…damn…weekend.  Get with the program and train your staff to treat all clients with respect.

Why does your footwear detract from every outfit?

When I moved to Seoul from Busan I was so concerned about not having an adequate wardrobe.  I live and work in an area adjacent to Gangnam.  The first time I went to Apgujeong I actually dressed up.  What a waste of time!  Most people have masks covering their faces (whether it be pollution or surgery).  What I’ve really noticed in both Busan and in Seoul is the footwear.  It’s atrocious!  You see these beautiful women in perfect outfits sullied by filthy, faded, knock off ASICS Sneakers.  You’ve got 7 seconds to make a first impression.  The first thing someone notices about you are your shoes, and you choose these?  At least I have an excuse – I’m waiting for my eBay order to come in because you won’t supply shoes larger than a size 8!

Did you know that there are black people living in your country?

Holy shit!  Korea is no longer a homogeneous society!  Now, you not only have multicultural societies popping up all over Korea, you’ve got their kids, too!  You lucky, lucky industry.  You would think that you’d figure out you’re completely missing the K-Beauty market beyond Asians.  The question I see come up the most in the expat forums is where to buy foundation for darker shades.  We were actually just talking about it this weekend with Star – 87Pages (pictured above with Mika The SeoulChild) and Sam – Expat and the City.  You don’t have to come up with something new altogether.  Places like Olive Young, LoHB (a Lotte brand), and Watson’s would make a killing if they imported products designed for black women.  Know the audience in your industry.

That GIrl Cartier - Shopping in Korea - Son & Park Shading Presso Bronzer

P.S. Big thanks to Olive Young and Son & Park  for bringing in the Shading Presso.  I needed bronzer and was about to spend my life’s savings over online at Sephora.  This product was designed for contouring, but I pretty much just blend it all together and make my face look less pasty.  Beauty blogger in the making right here, ladies and gents.

Korea, I love you but shopping in Korea is bringing me down.  When I want a new pair of kick-ass sneaks I shouldn’t have to go on eBay.  I shouldn’t have to be hustled out of a store, or directed to the men’s section.  Last time I went shopping in Garusogil and had planned on buying outfits for a friend of mine and I.  The dresses fit fine in each store and the prices were reasonable (expensive, in fact, by Korean standards).  They just weren’t what I envisioned for a night out on the town.  I didn’t need to hear “big size-y” while in the fitting room.  Hell – I didn’t need the side-eye when I walked into your boutique.  You need to give your head a big ol’ shake and realize that H&M, Zara, and Forever21 (pictured above) have cornered a market in which you should easily have jurisdiction…you’re just xenophobic.


That Girl Cartier

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That Girl Cartier is the alter-ego of a Canadian girl in Korea. A candid look at the expat life, That Girl Cartier explores Love, Beauty, Fashion and other finds around the world.

13 thoughts on “Shopping in Korea: A Love (Hate) Letter”

  1. I like the voice you wrote this with. Humorous but right on point. I hate that gd “Free Size”. And as a considered on the small side back home but called big size here, it really messes with your head. Oh how I shopped and enjoyed everything about being home recently. When oh when will they catch up here?!

  2. I actually despise shopping in Korea, but more because of the crowds of people and the service style, which involves the sales person standing right on top of me and following me around the store. ARGHH!! I just want to look around in peace. And you’re right about the make-up shades, they really need to expand the colour selection, not just for minorities, but even for Koreans. It should be a piece o’ cake for me to find a foundation I like (since I’m ethnically Korean), but they’re even all too light for me. Sheesh…what if I have a tan, like I do every summer???

  3. Being in Korea helped me cure my shopaholic tendencies! I was too tall for everything and had too big of hips. Yet, I noticed I had middle school students the same size if not bigger than me on a regular occassion. Where do they shop? I found Giordano to have great sweaters last winter that had sleeves long enough for me! I also agree about the shoes. They are terrible, luckily I packed enough to get me through my time in Korea! I would also be the only person singled out in the store (the only foreigner) and told I couldn’t try the clothing on while everyone else was able to. Have you also experienced Korean hair salons? They used to shriek at my hair and tell me how gross my psoriasis spot was on my scalp.

  4. I hear you…I feel awkward enough walking into a shop knowing that there’s high chance nothing will fit me (I’m 178cm), without the store clerks eyeing me or telling me “no size”. I found it a good a time as any to cut down on my shopping while living in Korea. It was that much of a deterrent. Love that dress on you in the last pic! Stunning!

  5. While I do agree a lot of the employees in these shops are rude, I don’t even bother. Since I am plus size and nothing fits in Korea, I find cuter, cheaper and better clothes online. I don’t find any need to get frazzled because like the employees, I just don’t care. 😛 The only thing I shop for in Korea are skin care products because they’re awesome and accessories because they’re adorable.

  6. As someone who rarely (and I mean VERY rarely) shops for clothing, I found this article informative and enlightening. You probably taught me more about shopping in Korea (or anywhere else, for that matter) in one blog entry than in all my previous experience in my 6+ years of living here!

  7. I guess I’m quite lucky to have a petite body. Their size fits me well. What I don’t like is that they are not allowing us to use the fitting room. LOL. I can totally relate with the skin tone thingy. I have a Filipino skin tone, and I always choose the darkest shade (#23). Some of my friends who are darker than me are asking me to buy some bb creams for them. I feel bad whenever I tell them that Korea only sells light shades.

  8. Thanks for writing this Kate! I hate shopping in Korea and getting made to feel like a beached whale in every shop I walk into. Like a few of the other girls have said, I’ve also cut down on shopping in Korea. Such a shame since the clothes are cheap and cute! I love the make up here but struggle to find anything that suits my olive skin- no, I don’t want to look like a porcelain doll, thank you very much! I always request bronzer in my care packages from home. The ultimate essential!

  9. Great letter! This is why I stick to places like H&M and Forever 21…haha. And don’t get me started with the shades for darker skinned people. It’s so annoying that they don’t have a shade for me. They even have my brand (Revlon ColorStay). I hope they introduce more variety at the makeup stores!

  10. I totally agree – why do cute outfits get uglied down by some sneakers. Are you an intern running around NYC as you day job and need to wear comfortable shoes to deliver 30 different types of skirts for the next photo shoot? Then, stop wearing sneakers like there are not other available shoe option to suit your outfit. There are plenty! And what’s up with largest shoe sizes being only 255. This 260-265 size girl needs to stop bringing 4 seasons of shoes every time she travels home and start purchasing from Korean vendors. Btw, sometimes those masks that you see people wear may be for surgery, lack of make up or *shock* lack of brushed teeth!

  11. I once read somewhere that 90% of adults in Korea are within 10-15% of the same body size. Whether this is accurate or not, I see it as the same problem tall people in America have when they need a shirt with an XL length but a L width. This does make for a funny list of shopping problems, though, as there are inherently going to be problems like these in any homogeneous culture. Whether or not there are non-Koreans living in the country, 96% of residents in South Korea are still ethnically Korean, so some generalizations in marketing makes far more sense than marketing to minute demographics. As a foreigner, unfortunately, this means I have to get my shopping fixes online!

    1. Maybe, but I see far more tall and portly Koreans than I ever expected. Having lived in Busan and Seoul I wonder whether those statistics are based on those living in the country-side, or whether they’re just out of date in general. As I mentioned multiple times in the article, I can fit into the clothes – they just won’t let me try ’em! It’s getting to be pretty infuriating, I must say.

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