December 26, 2015 08:12
The narrow alleys of Bangbae-dong in southern Seoul are filled with clothing boutiques, interior decorators, leather, furniture and craft shops and other small stores. Many of them are run by either by former office workers and professionals or Koreans who used to work abroad.
Yet despite occupying some very specialist niches, the shops are doing good business with the trendy and young-at-heart who have caught on to worldwide trends for craft and bespoke everything.
"It's a lot of fun talking to the shop owners who are in tune with the latest trends," one frequent customer in her 40s says. "They are in a different league from department store staff, who parrot the same vacuous sales patter."
These back-alley shops sell a wide range of goods ranging from clothes to food and books. Owners have a lot of expertise in their fields, often acquired while working or studying abroad, and are quick to offer advice on the best choices.
Thanks Books in the trendy Hongik University neighborhood in northwestern Seoul is a prime example. There are no bestseller or self-help sections here. Owner Lee Ki-sup (45), a former designer, displays books according to a monthly theme.
"Unlike big bookstores that cater to the masses, I spend more time selecting unique books for customers with different tastes," Lee says.
This is a strategy taken by many small bookstores trying to survive in the age of Amazon.
The trend has created some unique enterprises. L'eau Magique, a perfume shop in the Seochon area of Seoul west of Gyeongbok Palace, does not sell the usual line of luxury fragrances. Instead customers can smell various fragrances and assemble a combination that suits them for themselves.
Jang Joon-young (35), who owns the shop, learned her trade while working for a large perfume company in the U.S.
Due to the refined tastes of their customers, these shops do not need to pay through the nose for space in the big commercial districts. Over the last few years, they have clustered instead in the Bukchon and Seochon areas near Gwanghwamun, as well as Hapjeong-dong and Sang-su-dong near Hongik University.
Middle-aged customers have followed the young trendsetters. "Unique and individual tastes will prevail over conspicuous consumption, as a growing number of hipsters lead the consumer market," said Kim Yong-sub, a market researcher.
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