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Ewha streets no longer Seoul's 'it' shopping district

An empty shopping district near Ewha Womans University. (Kim Ji-hyun/The Korea Herald)

Publication Date : 28-11-2012


The streets and alleys of Ewha Womans University used to be filled with youngsters on the lookout for a bargain on new clothes and new shoes or just browsing with friends.

The shoppers usually ranged from preteens to college students, mostly girls, making the area so popular that “let’s go to Ewha” equated “let’s go shopping”.

That was 10 years ago.

The same streets have taken on a much different look over the years, and the changes are not all good.

“I’ve been here for a long time, for more than a decade, and it’s not the best of times,” said Noh Hwa-dong, head of Woori Real Estate nestled in a corner some distance from the school.

Rent prices are going down, and sources say some of the stores go for less than 100,000 won (US$92) per 3 square metres.

Last year, the shopping district of Ewha and neighbouring Sinchon showed the smallest increase in terms of rent prices out of Seoul’s top seven commercial areas, according to Korea Establishment Realty Agency.

Noh said she knows why the shoppers have left this once popular shopping district.

“It’s the online stores and the foreign brands that have done it,” she said.

Korea, the most wired country in the world, draws massive crowds from online shopping malls.

As of September this year, there were almost 30 million people who shopped online from their PCs, the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry said citing a survey. The figure reflected a slight downturn compared to five months earlier, but still accounted for three-fifths of the population.

In addition, more people were found to be shopping with their mobile apps, with the number more than doubling from last year to slightly over 10 million in September from April.

The so-called “fast” fashion brands such as H&M, Zara, Uniqlo and Mango also are taking over the no-brand clothes shops in the streets of Ewha.

“I used to come to Ewha a few times when I was a freshman, but I prefer the big chain stores now because there’s a bigger variety and the prices are reasonable,” said Kim Yu-mi, a 21-year-old who was browsing the area. “Today I came only to see what’s trending. I’ll be making the actual purchase at the shopping mall I usually go to.”

Another downside to shopping at these small clothing boutiques, Kim said, was the rude sales staff and lack of fitting rooms.

The manager of Zahir, a shoe store that’s been open for almost a decade on the back of steady customers, said only a handful of shops like hers which cater to regulars are able to stay afloat.

Many others have left these streets, some to open online stores of their own to stay in the competition.

To survive, Zahir has implemented drastic marketing strategies, which includes delivering preordered items to customers, free of charge. It was a service the once-bustling stores would never have dreamed of offering.

The owner of Isaac Toast, a small toast and sandwich store in the center of the Ewha shopping district, said sales had gone down for eateries as well, due to the dwindling shopping population.

In place of the students and young girls who have departed, there are the foreign tourists.

“I’m maintaining the status quo for now thanks to the tourists, but even they are not so eager to open their purses anymore, possibly because the attraction has worn off, and partly because of the economic conditions everywhere,” said Kim, who owns an accessory shop at the foot of Ewha’s shopping district.

He also said most of the shoppers were not looking to spend serious money, largely because they come on tourist packages that include trips to shopping malls.

“Here, they’re really just looking around and buying trinkets.”

The owner dropped his voice and added that the cosmetics stores in the streets of Ewha ― there seemed to be half a dozen lining each sidewalk ― were probably not generating business because the tourists have already made their bigger purchases at the malls that are a part of their package tour.


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