South Korea has a thriving online retail market, with annual growth averaging 22.5% for the past ten years(2012-2021). The sector is expected to continue growing, with a projected 16.8% share of total retail sales by 2026, up from 15% in 2021 according to estimates by EIU. The government’s digitalization strategy, which includes the development of cloud data platforms and digital fulfillment solutions such as drones, is expected to support this growth.
In South Korea, there is an ongoing trend where large technology companies such as Kakao, Naver, and Coupang are growing their market share in the retail space. They are expanding their offerings in a way similar to the super app model seen in China, offering a variety of services and features, including e-commerce, and are becoming increasingly competitive with traditional retailers.
However, these platforms may face increased regulatory intervention in the coming years, as policymakers seek to better protect consumers, workers, and vendors. The Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) has already begun implementing new competition rules for platform operators. The rise of the platform economy is also contributing to staffing shortages in offline sectors like restaurants and shops.
The top online marketplaces in South Korea include Coupang, 11Street, and SSG.com. Shinsegae, the parent company of SSG.com, recently acquired an 80% stake in eBay Korea and rebranded it as Gmarket Global in order to expand into fresh food and cross-border shopping. Home-shopping cable channel operators are also entering the online shopping space, with the fresh food delivery segment being a particularly strong area of growth.
Mergers and acquisitions in South Korea’s retail industry have been on the rise in 2021, with major deals taking place throughout the year. This has led to significant disruption as traditional brick-and-mortar retailers and larger e-commerce companies have acquired promising e-commerce firms. One notable example, as previously stated, is Shinsegae’s acquisition of eBay Korea, which has helped the company climb to the third position in e-commerce in 2021 in global brand owner terms. This acquisition is expected to have a significant impact as Shinsegae has the resources to implement a true omnichannel strategy using its physical store network and eBay Korea’s expertise in the marketplace.
Coupang, the leading player in e-commerce in South Korea, has attracted new customers with its extensive product coverage and signature dawn-delivery service. The company has invested in expanding its delivery network by building new warehouses in cities outside of the Seoul Metropolitan Area. Coupang’s subscription service, Coupang Play, is provided as a complimentary service to those who sign up for free delivery membership, encouraging customers to spend more time on the company’s mobile platform. The success of online grocery shopping and food delivery has also played a key role in retaining customers within Coupang’s ecosystem.
M&A Accelerates: In 2021-22, mergers and acquisitions in South Korea intensified with major deals taking place throughout the year. Within retailing, the acquisition of promising e-commerce companies by traditional bricks-and-mortar players or larger e-commerce competitors caused significant disruption.
The most notable deal in retailing was Shinsegae’s acquisition of eBay Korea, which helped the player to climb up the rankings to third position in e-commerce in 2021 in global brand owner terms. The acquisition is expected to have a significant impact since Shinsegae is equipped with the resources to implement a true omnichannel strategy based on the company’s powerful network of physical stores, ranging from convenience stores to department stores, and eBay Korea’s expertise in the marketplace.
Social Media as a Sales Channel: Social media is emerging as a new retail channel as companies seek to engage with customers even when they are not consciously looking for items to buy. In addition to reaching out to potential customers through sponsored advertisements and celebrity marketing, brands encourage social media users to take immediate action such as clicking the product description or visiting the brand’s website to learn more about the company and product.
For instance, in December 2020, a South Korean tech giant Naver Corp introduced Blog Market where bloggers can use the company’s online platform as a marketplace. While global social media companies, such as Instagram, require sellers to have their own domain to link with their social media account, Naver Blog Market sellers do not need to own a separate website, which clearly lowers the barrier of entry to the wider pool of potential sellers.
Direct-to-Consumer Model: Direct-to-consumer model becomes A priority for brands. Historically, e-commerce in South Korea gained momentum along with the introduction of online marketplace business models. Brands and store-based retailers did not hesitate to register as sellers on leading marketplace platforms as it saved costs and effort compared to launching a new website. However, leading e-commerce players started to charge higher fees as the market became more concentrated than before, which gave companies an incentive to consider operating their own direct-to-consumer channels.
Foreign E-commerce & Cross Border Opportunities: Foreign e-commerce remains an opportunity. Albeit remaining low, sales of foreign e-commerce witnessed steady growth in the past decade. South Korean consumers buying merchandise directly or indirectly from foreign e-commerce sites such as Amazon (US) and Rakuten (Japan) will account for a growing share of retail demand in South Korea. Amazon has no direct presence in South Korea.
In South Korea, There are about 63.7% of people use credit cards, and 75.3% of people use debit cards. While there are 72.5% of people purchase on the internet, there is only 67.1% of people with online banking accounts.
% with financial accounts
% with credit cards
% with debit cards
% get paid through digital channels
% buy on the internet
% with internet banking
% pay bill through online
% E-Commerce Penetration
There is 38.20 million consumer goods e-commerce users in South Korea, and they spend total of around 114.4 billion USD dollars in 2021. That makes a per capita spending on consumer goods e-commerce of around 2995 USD. Also, in those e-commerce users, about 65.5% of them purchase through their mobile phone.