Koreans build an interest in home decor

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Koreans build an interest in home decor


People line up in front of H&M Home’s first flagship store in Korea on Oct. 30. Provided by H&M Home

On Oct. 30, when H&M Home’s first flagship launched in Korea, hundreds of people lined up to get a glimpse of the goods on offer at Swedish fast-fashion brand H&M’s interior decor offshoot.

“About 1,300 people queued in front of our store before the 11 a.m opening, which was the largest group of people to form a line in front of any of our shops since the opening of H&M’s first flagship store in Myeong-dong in 2010,” said Jung Hae-jin, head manager of H&M Home.

A similar situation was seen on Nov. 14 when Ikea, another Swedish-based furniture store renowned for its reasonable prices and do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos, was spotted high on the list of Korea’s major search engines’ most-searched-term because it launched its Korean-language website revealing the prices of its appliances on that day.

Ikea’s flagship store for Korea opens next month in Gwangmyeong, Gyeonggi.

Experts say overall interest in decorating households has grown over recent years in Korea, just like with fast-fashion brands and foreign desserts.

“‘Lifestyle shop’ is the new key term for the market in 2015,” said Jeon Mi-young, a consumer science research professor at Seoul National University.


Top: H&M Home’s Christmas table settings. above: A model home decorated with living room furniture from Hanssem. Provided by each company

Swedish home-furnishing brand Ikea opened its first Asian flagship store in Japan in 1974. However, due to a lack of research on the country’s culture, the giant retailer failed to make inroads in the local industry. It re-entered the country in 2006 with a new strategy.

To avoid repeating past mistakes, the furniture brand has done much prior research on Korea’s lifestyle and housing culture and was surprised to find out how “humble” Koreans were with their houses.

Or, to put it more frankly, surprised at how little the tastes of residents were reflected in their homes.

“Many Koreans consider home decoration as something that should be taken care of when they first get married,” said Ahn Ji-sun, the editor-in-chief of lifestyle magazine Lemon Tree.

“Also, Koreans don’t have so much of a ‘guest’ culture where you invite your friends and colleagues to your home, which is why people don’t invest much in decorating their house,” Ahn added.

According to Choi Soon-hwa, a professor of International Business at Dongduk Women’s University, people categorized home decor as an extravagance in the past. However, recent interest in consumption has “rapidly shifted from food and fashion to home decoration,” Choi said.

Korea’s major furniture retailers are also seeing the change.

Hanssem, one of the largest furniture retailers in Korea, saw a steep rise in the sales of home decor items compared to kitchen appliances.

Jaju, a lifestyle brand owned by Shinsegae International, recorded 180 billion won ($162 million) in sales this year and is expecting the number to rise to 500 billion won in 2020.

Global franchises have also set eyes on the golden opportunity in the domestic market.

Following H&M Home’s entry into Korea, Zara Home, the home decor brand of Spanish fast-fashion label Zara, will open its first flagship store at Coex Mall in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, on Thursday.

Niko And..., a Japanese lifestyle brand which made its entry in Korea in July, now owns four flagship stores, including its most recently opened one in Lotte World Mall.

Home: A changing notion

There are many universally valid reasons for the recent surge in the home interior market. An increase in income, for example, were one of the vital factors behind the creation of so many lifestyle shops in Japan.

But in Korea, the changing real estate market was a more important cause.

“In the past, Koreans considered ‘house’ not as a residential place but as a reliable investment target, which also acted as their life goal,” said professor Choi. “People desired their own apartments under their names, and the bigger the house, the better.”

Koreans therefore saved every penny to purchase a house and turn it into an investment source. For those who were always ready to move into a bigger place and sell their previous home, spending money on interior design was considered a waste of money.


Choi went on to explain that the situation has now changed with real estate prices having increased so much.

“Now, the cost of a house is too high and even if you purchase it, these real estate investments don’t guarantee profits anymore,” said Choi.

Consequently, people started to use the idle money to style their homes instead of saving it to buy a bigger one.

“It’s like buying a new set of clothes for a new season. … People are now living for actual living, not for investing, which made them a little more relaxed about decorating their houses,” Choi explained.

When people born into the poverty of the 1950s and 1960s became the country’s main consumers, making ends meet was their first priority.

However, now the baton has been passed down to the next generation who see life as for living rather than surviving. This group wants to improve the quality of their existence.

Surging singles

Demographics certainly play a part in the growth of a market.

“When people who live alone move into a new house, they rarely invest money in doing up the interior as much as newly weds,” said a representative of Hanssem. “They just want to change the mood around with just a few items.”

The domestic furniture business largely relied on newlywed couples, but that was before the rise in single-person households.

Just-married couples tended to buy furniture or curtains thinking that they would use the items for at least 10 or 20 years.

As a result, furniture with bland but timeless designs was the trend, and people were therefore very picky about brand value and quality, even if it meant paying a little more. However, with more people choosing not to marry and have children due to income instability and a lack of job opportunities, affordable interior items that come in various designs are becoming the next “It” items.

Jeon Young-soo, a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies of Hanyang University, identified singles in their 30s with a high level of education but a low budget as “the Ikea generation.”

“[They] want Chanel in their heads, but consume Daiso in real life,” Jeon explained.

(Daiso is the Korean equivalent of America’s dollar stores.)

The same goes for single people who are relatively wealthy. Because they no longer have to adhere to their parents’ tastes, this demographic are strongly inclined to decorate their personal space despite having to spend their own money.

“A desire to arrange their houses in their own style certainly stands out among singles who are in their 20s and 30s,” said Shin Na-young, an interior designer and representative of Living Design, an interior decorating company.

Increased use of social media

According to a survey of 2,334 people between 10 and 59, Albacheonguk, one of the largest part-timer recruiting sites in Korea, said the fifth-highest reason for using social media was because of the “desire to peek inside other people’s private space.”

Adversely, this means that individuals now want to show off their personal tastes to as many others as possible.

“I take a photo of my living room and the items that I picked out on my own and upload it on my SNS [social networking service] account such as Instagram and share it with other people,” said Yang Tae-oh, an interior designer.

“Having done that for some time, my house’s interior is a strong promotional tool for my brand. … Clothes and shoes are not enough.”

Professor Jeon at Hanyang University also noted that “while people followed what was in magazines or on display in furniture shops before, now they want to show off their taste through their own interior props”

Another consequence of social media on people’s purchases is “crowd mentality,” said professor Choi at Dongduk Women’s University.

“Koreans have a strong tendency to follow what other people are doing,” she said.

“Especially with how widespread SNS is and the quick dissemination of information, they want to buy what seems trendy that other people have bought. While it was the Louis Vuitton bag in the past, the trend has moved on to the home brands.”

Fast fashion, fast living

Interior items have been on the market since the late 1990s, before the Asian financial crisis in 1997. They re-emerged in the early 2000s when E-Mart launched lifestyle brand Jayeonjuui in 2000, which was rebranded in 2012 as Jaju by Shinsaegae International. Japanese lifestyle label Muji also entered the Korean market in 2004.

However, industry insiders project that the era of “living shopping” has recently opened with international franchises such as H&M Home, Zara Home and Ikea, which are so-called “fast living” brands paving their way in the domestic market.

“The existing interior market in Korea was thoroughly polarized into a low- and high-priced market,” said Ahn from Lemon Tree.

“[Items] were either too expensive so that you wouldn’t think about buying them or else the very cheap ones, which were low in quality and only available on the Internet.”

Now the “fast living” labels are not only putting affordable items on the market, they come with stylish designs as well.

“What is most important about ‘fast living’ is that it is for an individual person,” said Choi.

Furniture brands such as Hanssem and Casamia offered good-quality products in the past but because of their strong image as family-based furnishers, individual consumers felt reluctant to shop with them.

Choi says, however, that with European franchises brands such as H&M Home appealing more to individual buyers, they are expected to expand further in the domestic market.

BY AHN HYE-REE, YOON KYUNG-HEE [jes@joongang.co.kr]
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