[Weekender] For Koreans, ’tis a time for spending

By Won Ho-jung
  • Published : Dec 22, 2017 - 17:20
  • Updated : Dec 22, 2017 - 17:20

For Koreans, Christmas comes with its own set of spending rituals.

It is no surprise that the beloved holiday is accompanied by quasi-mandatory consumption patterns, in a country where specific dates, like Nov. 11, are automatically equated with buying particular products.

The most notable Christmas product is Christmas cakes. Although the original tradition overseas is to bake Christmas cakes at home, in Korea consumers head to bakeries for their Christmas treats.

According to bakery chain Paris Baguette, cake sales routinely double in December thanks to Christmas cakes, which go on sale about three days before the holiday.
The “Camping Santa and Campfire” cake from Paris Baguette (Paris Baguette)

“The rising number of single-member households has affected cake sizes and designs,” said an official with Paris Baguette. “We began releasing small-size cakes for Christmas in the past few years.”

Bakeries are also experimenting with more designs as consumers increasingly make their purchasing decisions based on “what will look good on Instagram,” according to an industry official. This year’s offerings have included cakes with decorations that light up and cakes that have collaborated with popular character brands to create unique designs.

“I want to really enjoy the Christmas season, and cakes are an affordable way to do that,” says 24-year-old Lee Hyeon-seung. Consumer demand for smaller and more affordable cakes have been picked up by retailers, and now Christmas cakes can be found not only in bakeries but also in convenience stores and supermarkets.

Restaurants also seize upon Koreans‘ loose wallets during the Christmas season to roll out special Christmas menus. Many restaurants only serve the Christmas menu, often taking the form of a five-course menu priced at nearly 100,000 won ($92) per person.

“On Christmas Day, I go out for dinner with my friends, and sometimes it can be frustrating trying to find a nice restaurant that serves its regular menu,” said 35-year-old Kim Dong-hyun. “I feel like Christmas has become too commercialized, and lost its original meaning.”

Of course, Christmas gifts are another important part of the holiday for consumers. According to sources from department store operators, sales rise nearly 20 percent in the two weeks leading up to Christmas when compared to other months.

Jewelry and perfumes are strong choices for Christmas, as well as traditional gifts such as aromatic candles and scarves. According to data from e-commerce platform Gmarket operated by eBay, sales of luxury perfume sets spiked 1,043 percent in the week of Dec. 11-17 when compared to the previous week. Other categories that showed sudden spikes just before Christmas included silver bracelets (278 percent) and lip and eye care cosmetics (290 percent). 

Yankee Candle‘s recommended gifts for Christmas (Yankee Candle)

According to consumers surveyed by Shinsegae Department store, female consumers increasingly wanted to receive small household appliances and electronics thanks to the release of many design-focused electronics this year including Dyson hair dryers, Bluetooth speakers and capsule coffee machines.

Meanwhile, male consumers answered that they hoped to receive gifts such as clothing and cosmetics, testifying to a growing market for men’s grooming.

A survey from Gmarket showed that 35 percent of respondents planned to spend between 100,000 won and 300,000 won on Christmas gifts this year.

Although many lament the commercial nature of the holidays, there are some consumers who say that it may not be such a bad thing.

“It’s been a hard year for the country, both economically and politically,” said 30-year-old Kang Ji-ah. “Everyone, especially young people who have had trouble finding jobs, have not been able to buy things for themselves and others out of guilt. The holidays are a good time to find some cheer and to let ourselves indulge in things we normally wouldn’t buy.” 

By Won Ho-jung (