Seoul is rapidly becoming the "fast fashion" capital of the world. Trends are changing so quickly that a pair of jeans you bought two years ago might be disapprovingly frowned on by the city's fashion elite or even some Dongdaemun shopkeepers. The city is a wonderful place to shop for clothing, especially if you are young and slim.  

Korean law requires all merchants to accept credit cards. You can even charge your card for an amount as low as 2,000 won at convenience stores. In fact, Korea has a much higher credit card usage rate than almost any other country in the world. This is because Korean residents get a tax refund for credit card usage. So most people use credit cards for nearly 100% of their purchases.

Having said that, many merchants (especially Dongdaemun clothing retailers) prefer cash. They will even give you a 5-10% discount if you pay in cash. This is because they do not want to pay the credit card fees and also they might want to underreport their earnings. This does not apply to major department stores like Lotte and Shinsegae. And in Dongdaemun, store owners at the slightly more upscale Doota are not allowed to bargain, so they do not care as much if you pay by credit card (though they can give you a free belt or other accessory if you buy a few items in cash). Merchants at Migliore and A/PM in Dongdaemun, however, highly prefer cash.

Korean shopkeepers have this superstition that if the first customer that walks in doesn't buy anything, then it will be a bad sales day. So they will do whatever they can to sell you something. This also means some pressure though. In the wee hours in Dongdaemun (between 3am and 5am), the shopkeepers are tired and want to sell whatever they can. So going at this time will get you good prices (but some shops are also closed then). It can be fun going shopping late at night - something you just can't do in most other countries.

You can be eligible for a tax refund on purchases of 30,000 won or more at shops that have the "Global Blue TAX FREE” or “GLOBAL TAXFREE” logo. Be sure to get the refund slip from the participating store and declare these goods at Customs at the airport which is located after going into the entrance for Departures (prior to Security and Immigration).

Shopping in Korea depends on the budget that you are looking at. In most countries, wholesale means cheap goods. In Seoul, things work a little differently instead. Of course, the cheaper it is, the lower the quality, therefore decide what kind of level of shopping you want to do before deciding on where to go. Let's just divide the level of shopping here into 3 levels, mainly: Cheap, Average Shopping, Upscale

Sinchon Ladies' Street (Cheap young ladies' goods) Sinchon is the area where two universities (Ewha Women's University & Yonsei University) are situated. Like most Asian cities, university areas cater towards the student crowds and therefore are the best places for young people to shop for cheap and fashionable products. Sinchon can be easily navigated by dividing the place up into two districts, mainly the shopping district and the eating district. The eating district is home to hundreds of food & beverage outlets offering tons of different menus. To arrive at this area, you can take the train and stop at Sinchon station. The shopping district can be accessed by alighting at Ewha Women's University or simply termed as Edae (pronounced "E-day"). There is a whole range of products that are availabe in this area, from shoes, dirt cheap bags and accessories to clothings and apparels. However, as the name is termed, Sinchon Ladies' Street cater to more ladies' products, therefore guys may find it hard to find a store where they can buy their own clothings and apparels. 

Insadong (Average Shopping for arts and handmade cultural products) is where you'll find traditional Korean arts and crafts such as celadon pottery and ink drawings. There are quite a few art galleries here as well. This is the place to buy that souvenir for friends and family back home. Be aware that many cheap imports are sold on the streets and it is best to buy authentically Korean items in a reputable shop. Always check to see where the product is made in before making your purchase decision. To be safe, go to Insa Korea (located across the street from 7 Eleven) which has a couple of dozen stalls with reliable sellers. Prices are all marked and very fair and you can even ask for a 20% discount if you purchase several items at a single stall.You can walk here from Samcheongdong and have a nice lunch at one of the hanok (traditional style house) restaurants. The main road is closed to traffic and becomes a pedestrian-only area on Sundays. Street vendors sell hoteok (pancake with honey and sugar inside) and other traditional desserts and snacks. 

Myeongdong (Average Shopping, mainly for retail goods and cosmetic products) is jam-packed with people on the weekends. It is mostly full of young Korean couples on dates and Japanese/Chinese tourists shopping for Korean cosmetics or a mobile phone key chain bearing a photo of their favorite Korean celebrity. The shops are very mainstream and you can find both international brands (Adidas, Nike, Ralph Lauren Polo, Uniqlo, Zara, H&M, etc.) and local brands for clothing and accessories (Bean Pole, Zio Zia, Polham, Esquire Shoes, etc.) and cosmetics (The Face Shop, Etude House, Skin Food, Nature Republic, etc.) Korea's answer to Zara and H&M, multi-shop 8seconds is very popular with the younger crowd. There are also the Migliore and Hi Harriet shopping complexes which have many shopping stalls like Dongdaemun. Also in Myeongdong are the Lotte and Shinsegae Department Stores. Shinsegae is not as crowded as Lotte and offers a more relaxed, upscale shopping atmosphere. Lotte, near the Myeongdong entrance, is a mega complex of buildings- the main Lotte Department Store, the luxurious Avenuel Department Store, the Young Plaza for young fashion, Lotte Duty Free, Lotte Hotel, and Lotte Cinema. The Lotte Cinema houses the ultra-luxurious Charlotte (pronounced "Sha-Ro-Te" in Korean) movie room (25,000 won per person on the weekdays and 30,000 won per person on the weekends- reservations required) where you can watch the latest release in a fully reclinable electronic chair, order food/drinks, and even get a blanket from one of the attendants when the air-conditioning gets too chilly for you.  

Dongdaemun (Average Shopping for clothings and accessories; ranking of cheaper goods to upscale goods: Good Morning City, A/PM, Migliore, Doota) offers nearly 24 hour shopping and a chance to practice your bargaining skills. Doota, Migliore, A/PM, and Good Morning City are large shopping complexes that house hundreds of stalls operated by individuals and small businesses. This is fast fashion at its best. Trends change every few months and it's all reflected right here. Doota is a bit more upscale compared to the rest and forbids bargaining. It also houses some of the hottest local designers who operate their own shops or provide merchandise for them. The other places will have salespeople calling you, even grabbing your arm, to get you to buy something and because there are no price tags, you'll have to bargain your way to the price you want. A short sleeve t-shirt will usually cost about 18,000 won and a pair of jeans about 45,000 won. So not the cheapest, but there are some items you won't find elsewhere in the world. This is young Korean fashion, fast and cheap. Most of the clothing, however, can be repeatedly found over and over as you move from stall to stall. Sizes are ultra-slim and rarely do they offer anything larger than medium or large. Dongdaemun has its own size system where a medium actually means a small. Doota is open 10:30am until 5:00am the next day, except when they are closed between 11pm Sunday until 7pm Monday. The other stores have similar schedules.

Dongdaemun Bargaining: You have to bargain at all the shopping malls in Dongdaemun, except Doota which forbids bargaining. But some Doota merchants will throw in a free belt or other accessory if you buy several items. Doota is slightly more expensive, so try to buy the mass-produced items at Migliore or A/PM. Actually, Good Morning City is dying for customers and so their merchants often offer even better prices. You can generally bargain about 20% off. For example, they will usually say 55,000 won for a pair of jeans, but then you bargain down to 45,000 won and ask for a free belt (worth 5,000 to 15,000 won) if you buy two pairs or more. Generally, pick a store you like. That store will likely have items that are chosen by a single person and match your style. Try to buy several items at once to get a bigger discount and be sure to pay in cash. But don't overdo on the bargaining. A Korean television program did a hidden camera research program on bargaining in Dongdaemun and the type of people they overcharged the most were high school kids, not tourists. Actually, some foreigners bargained too much and one even made a storeowner almost cry. The economy is not great. Just pay what you think it's worth. Anyhow, you can try walking away once and see what price they offer. If they don't cut down and let you go, then that's the final price and you can always come back to that stall.

Itaewon (Average Shopping) has larger sizes and mainly caters to American tastes (NBA jerseys, etc.) You'll find a lot of fake items on the street, but these are cheap knockoffs that look so fake the police don't really bother the vendors. It's funny because you can see a vendor selling fake Nike t-shirts right in front of the real Nike store. There also many fake upscale brands sold here, too. But the real class "A" quality fake Louis Vuitton and Gucci handbags are sold by the guys hanging out on the street whispering "Handbag?" to passersby.

Yongsan Electronics Market (No Comments: Electronics) is the largest electronics market in Asia. The electronics building next to Yongsan Station (train and subway) has many stalls selling digital cameras, handheld game devices, MP3 players, laptops/netbooks, etc. There is also the main Yongsan Electronics Market and many shops nearby.  

Times Square (Upscale departmental shopping) is the largest shopping mall in Korea. Located at Yeongdeungpo Station, Times Square is a modern Hong Kong-style "Urban Entertainment Lifestyle Center" that houses a sprawling shopping mall (Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Paul Smith, etc.), numerous restaurants and cafes, CGV Multiplex theatres, Shinsegae Department Store, Courtyard by Marriott Hotel, E-mart discount superstore, Gyobo book store, Amoris wedding hall, two office buildings, an outdoor rooftop garden, and a spa. The mall sometimes hosts b-boy dance and other performances in the main hall. For the latest trends in young Korean fashion, check out the Codes Combine shop for men and women below Shinsegae Department Store. Operating hours are from 10:30am until 10pm.

Gangnam (Average Shopping) has many mid-range shops (Etude House, Skin Food, Giordano, Adidas, Apple Store, etc.) and places to eat and drink. Be sure to check out any one of the many Media Poles lined up on the main street of the Gangnam area. You can check the weather, bus schedules, and news on the interactive touch screens of these 15 foot tall digitalized towers. You can also take a photo which you can edit with cute designs and instantly e-mail to your friends back home.

COEX Shopping Mall (Average departmental store shopping) is located at Samsung subway station. There are many local brand shops, a cinema, and an aquarium. It is also connected to the Hyundai Department Store, the InterContinental Seoul, and the COEX World Trade Center.

Apgujeongdong (Upscale fashion products) is an upscale neighborhood where Seoul's trendsetters go to shop, drink coffee, and people watch. Most stores cater to younger tastes (D&G, Tommy Hilfiger, etc.) and you can see all the beautiful rich kids walk by (or rather drive by... in their dad's Ferrari) from Chocolate Cafe in the heart of Apgujeongdong's own "Rodeo Drive" (that's what they call it). The fashionably decorated The Galleria Department Store has two buildings- the main building (housing Vivienne Westwood, Z Zegna, Louis Vuitton, Dior Homme, Gucci, etc.) with its divine B1 food court and the luxury building (housing Chanel, Hermes, Dior, Botega Veneta, etc.) If you take a taxi to Apgujeongdong (the subway stop by the same name is a 15-20 minute walk away from The Galleria Department Store), ask the driver to drop you off at "Galleria". There is also the high-class Dosan Park area which has a large Hermes shop and where you can find the chia pet-like Anne Demeulemeester store here.

Cheongdamdong (Upscale luxury goods) is probably the most luxurious shopping area in Seoul. Walking up the hill (heading east) from The Galleria Department Store in Apgujeongdong, you'll find Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Versace, Loro Piana, etc. There are also several "multi-shops" like the ultra-hip Corso Como, designed just like the one in Milan, that sell various brands and items all under one roof. The hill up from the Coach store is where the wealthy and young meet for coffee and drinks at places like Queen's Park and S Bar. Here a cup of coffee can cost up to 15,000 won and if you pull up in anything but an S-Class or 7-Series, your car may be parked by the valet in the side alley away from discriminating eyes of Seoul's bourgeoisie.  

Garosugil means "tree-lined street" and it's a beautiful narrow street filled with trendy cafes and shops. About 70% of the people walking down the street are women in their 20s and 30s, often with children or a stroller. It's a short taxi ride from Apgujeongdong and might be worth a visit as you'll see that it's unlike many other streets in Seoul with its quaint European-like atmosphere. Go to Paper Garden for a nice lunch or Buccella for delicious sandwiches. Avoid weekends when the brunch crowds come in unless you like to see and be seen. Epicenter is the large two-story coffeehouse Coffeesmith.

Popular Items to Buy

Ginseng (the airport has the best prices and quality), celadon pottery (go to a reputable shop in Insadong), wooden masks to hang as wall decorations (Insadong or the airport), green tea (department stores are probably your best bet), kimchi and gim (again department stores- they will package it properly for you), electronics (Yongsan), clothing (Dongdaemun), cosmetics (Myeongdong), soju (convenience store or mart), makgoli (department store or mart), bokbunja (raspberry wine- department store or mart), and bekseju (higher quality soju- convenience store, mart, or department store).