The phrase “shopper’s paradise” is often inserted into advertising that beckons tourists to a variety of goods from the simple to the sophisticated, but the term can truly be applied to South Korea. Each province in South Korea has shopping unique to that area, providing a truly unique and enjoyable shopper’s tour.
Most shops even in rural areas offer fixed prices. Bargaining and haggling seems more common in the hustle and bustle of the city street vendors. Korean currency is fairly straight forward and a few choice Korean phrases will help make your shopping experience most enjoyable. Take an interpreter or study up on your Korean language phrase book. Even without a word of Korean though, shopping can be a fun experience, with clearly marked prices and an understanding of the currency. The Korean Won is quite stable, and one US dollar equals about 1,200 Won. Ten thousand Won sounds like a small fortune—but do the math, and you’ll see that it’s just a little less than ten US dollars. Take a little solar powered hand calculator with you and know the current exchange rate if shopping is your mission. And bring something to hold all those Korean Won bills.
The phrase, “I’m just browsing” or “ku-nyung toolo-bawgaw ee-ssumneeda” helps keep eager store sales people at bay. Otherwise their cultural eagerness to please, may make you feel more hovered over than you are used to back home. Retailers speak limited English so try to brush up on a few key phrases before you hit the streets.
In addition to the usual retail shops and street vendors, many attractions including temples have gift shops filled with unique local crafts and some surprising finds of Korean Celadon pottery. Korea’s pottery tradition is almost a national treasure in itself. Japan so coveted Korean pottery skills that they kidnapped thousands of Korean potters during the Japanese invasions of the late 1500’s, taking them back to Japan to reveal their pottery secrets.
If you buy fragile items like pottery, most Korean retailers are happy to wrap them for shipping in special containers or boxes with extra padding or for the long plane flight home.
Korean shop owners consider it bad luck if the first customer of the day disturbs the tranquility of the morning with aggressive haggling or bad manners. Your behavior in the morning will reflect on the rest of your countrymen, so be at your most patient and cheerful best when shopping before noon.
Be cautious buying items that may be antiques, as genuine antiques may not be taken out of the country without special permission. If this is your mission, be sure to check into the rules and procedures before you buy. A legitimate antique dealer should be able to arrange the permit for you. Also, take care to avoid counterfeit or imitation brand names as these maybe confiscated as you leave the country.
Street markets and sidewalk displays are a big part of the shopping experience in Korea. The entrances to most attractions, including the spectacular limestone caves of Gosudonggul in the province of Chungcheongbuk-do, feature a “tourist village”. Don’t let the name throw you. These open air markets often have authentic Korean crafts and lots of interesting foods that can give you the energy for a strong finish to your shopping adventures.
Taking the time before your trip to research special gift items along with key shopping phrases and cultural courtesies will make your shopping experience in South Korea pleasant and memorable, especially if you finish each transaction with a smiling bow and a heartfelt Ka Ham Sa Ham Nida.