In South Korea, there are entire streets devoted to beauty retail. Does new kid on the block Boots stand out from the crowd? John Ryan reports from Seoul

Over the last year, Boots has opened 13 stores in South Korea – arguably the world’s most competitive beauty market.   

Walk the streets of downtown Seoul and there are whole streets devoted to beauty. Whether it’s nail bars, which are 10 a won (there are just shy of 1,500 won to the pound at the moment), or shops dedicated solely to selling sheet face masks, this is a city where items to improve your appearance seem to be valued above most other things.   

In a country with a population of 51 million, the biggest retail group on the peninsular, Emart, says the beauty market was worth 1.7trn won (£1.16bn) in 2017.

This is up 0.5trn won on 2016, and stock market estimates suggest 2trn won will be passed this year. The average growth of beauty as a category has been 35% a year over the last five years.    

Boots enters the fray

Richard Thornhill, head of franchise and commercial arrangements in Walgreens Boots Alliance’s international retail arm, says the decision to head for South Korea as a new market for Boots was straightforward: “South Korea is today considered a leading market for skincare and cosmetics products globally. 

“We believe there is a significant opportunity to extend the reach of Boots’ own brands into Korea and place ourselves at the heart of this fast paced and innovative market.”

It’s a view backed by Minsoon Park, spokeswoman for Emart, Boots’ South Korean partner that operates everything from hypermarkets to convenience stores and wants to expands its activities in the health and beauty market. “While most of the offline channels face saturation, health and beauty stores [in South Korea] have ample room for growth,” she says.

Emart recognises that one of the advantages of introducing Boots to South Korea is that it is an unknown quantity, offering a potential point of differentiation from familiar local brands.

This means Boots’ own brands such as Soap & Glory or No7 are front and centre in its South Korean stores.

The flagship Korean Boots branch on the corner of a busy street in Seoul’s Myeongdong district. Thornhill points out that in a 700 sq m store, spread over four floors, there are more than 8,400 SKUs and over 600 brands, which is a lot more brand-heavy than the same type of space in the UK.

The store is a glitzy affair and what really hits the visitor are the screens. They are everywhere – from very large mood screens filling the walls in the staircase atrium in the middle of the shop to much smaller versions used at shelf-edge level to promote individual products.

Outside, there is a massive screen used predominantly to promote No7.

“The Myeongdong store has recently celebrated its first birthday but the competition is fierce”

Compared with the other 12 Boots stores in South Korea, this one is something of a one-off for Boots and Emart, in terms of size (the average branch size is 200 sq m) and the shopping demographic, which is heavily driven by tourists from nearby China.

The Myeongdong store has recently celebrated its first birthday and while it looks good, the competition is fierce with a very wide variety of different beauty formats in the local area.

But Boots and Emart have created a Korean store format that puts some clear blue water between it and its rivals, right down to the merchandise that is labelled ‘No Brand’ (flagged as such across a pair of perimeter modules and using Boots’ font in the light boxes above the stock), which puts it into the same basket as Muji.

The No Brand idea comes from Emart and it has been using it for a considerable time across its convenience stores as a way of indicating value, prior to Boots’ South Korean advent

When it comes to deciding what goes into Boots stores in this market, it is not one-way traffic from the UK retailer, Emart is heavily involved.

Some observers have said the Myeongdong store has more in common with a branch of Sephora, the tech-heavy French beauty retailer, than a UK Boots branch.

That said, there is no doubting the store’s provenance, even if the branding were to be stripped away. However, this has been adjusted to chime with local consumers for whom bright lights and a strong digital element are the norm.

A snapshot of the competition

Etude House

Forget the interiors, South Korean make-up brand Etude House attracts its downtown Seoul shoppers by creating a store that is pink and looks more doll’s house than shop.

Inside, it is actually fairly standard, but like Boots has an outsize screen on the exterior.  

Etude House has calculated that if you want to attract shoppers in a crowded street, the store itself has to act as the shop window, from the Georgian-style front door to pink rooftop.

Given the number of tourists in the area, who are only likely to venture out to any one area a few times, the store façade takes on an importance that it would not have in cities such as Busan or Gimpo (where Boots also has stores).

Nature Republic  

From the jade green fascia with white lettering used for the store logo, to the plain-wood fixturing and green foliage in the store, there is much about Nature Republic that is reminiscent of The Body Shop.

The sense is organic and sustainable, and the perimeter modules are lifted by a mix of light boxes and small screens.

The merchandising is relatively spacious, compared to many, in this store and the high and low lights combine to create a store that is a world away from the science-lab ambience of many of its rivals.

All Mask Story  

The gold-coloured female mannequin with extended arms and sporting a Lone Ranger mask is all the evidence you need that this is a beauty mask shop.

Masks with skin improving/rejuvenating substances are a big number in Seoul and All Mask Story is a shop dedicated entirely to a single beauty category.

It is one of many in Myeongdong and it is a measure of the competition in this part of the market that field markers were out in force on the day of visiting handing out free masks. Inside, discounts for multiple purchases were everywhere.

Innisfree

This retailer’s stores are everywhere and like Etude House, the Myeondong branch’s exterior is aimed at grabbing the gaze with a long porch whose ceiling is a screen showing sunsets and exotic climes.

By contrast, the branch at the Starfield shopping centre, on the edge of Seoul, has an open front and those heading into the store are greeted by an interior that combines The Body Shop’s natural credentials with the clinical, right down to the plants inside bell jars suspended overhead.

It is an example of how hard retailers have to work in this burgeoning market to ensure that they stand out from their rivals.