Describes how widely e-Commerce is used, the primary sectors that sell through e-commerce, and how much product/service in each sector is sold through e-commerce versus brick-and-mortar retail. Includes what a company needs to know to take advantage of e-commerce in the local market and , reputable, prominent B2B websites.
Last Published: 6/19/2017

E-commerce is a key component of the overall consumer market in Korea, a country with nearly 90 percent broadband internet and smartphone penetration.  Characteristics of e-commerce in Korea include:

  • Domestic online purchases, including purchases on PCs and mobile phones, reached $55.9 billion in 2016 up from $47.6 billion in 2015.  Domestic electronic commerce, in December 2016, comprised 17.9 percent of Korea’s total retail industry. 
  • High penetration of smartphones is the main factor driving market growth.  While purchases on PCs slightly increased from $26 billion in 2015 to $27 billion in 2016, purchases on mobile phones increased from $22 billion in 2015 to $31 billion in 2016.
  • The most popular products sourced from domestic online retailers are travel & reservation services (17.4 percent), home appliances & electronics (11 percent), clothing (10.6 percent), home & car accessories (10.2 percent), cosmetics (7.9 percent) and computer (6.2 percent)
  • Online purchases from foreign retailers have also been rapidly increasing because Koreans find less expensive prices on overseas websites even after adding-in international shipping fees and import duties.  Cross border e-commerce has reached $1.6 billion in 2016.
  • Under the KORUS FTA, express courier service mailed goods under $200 are duty free when sourced from the U.S., and ‘made in the USA’ items under $1,000 are exempt from KORUS FTA documentation.
  • Multi-brand on-line retailers such as Amazon.com and eBay are the most frequently used foreign on-line shopping sites visited by Koreans. 
  • The most popular foreign sourced products from on-line retailers by Koreans are dietary supplements (16 percent), cosmetics (14 percent), food (13 percent), apparel (12 percent), footwear (8 percent), and electronics (7 percent). 
  • Following the implementation of Korea’s privacy for personal data in 2014, Korea Customs continues to push importers of record to clear shipments with a Customs Clearance Indigenous Code (CCIC), a Korea Customs-issued ID number, rather than a national ID number
  • U.S. based e-commerce companies should review the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) and ministerial data privacy/spam regulations, which may restrict e-commerce for firms managing user-data on international servers.
CS Korea completed a 16-page International Market Insight (IMI; April 2015) describing how Koreans make purchases from foreign online retailers.  This IMI document can be found under ‘market research’ on the CS Korea’s website 

Internet Penetration                                                                          

According to International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Internet user population in Korea reached 89.9 percent in 2015. In addition, Korea ranked 16th globally with over 45 million internet users.  According to a survey by Pew Research Center, 88 percent of Koreans have smartphones putting Korea ranked number one among 40 nations.

Current Market Trends                                                             

The growth of the Korean retail sector is led by e-commerce.  While e-commerce is growing rapidly, traditional retailing channels are suffering.  Consumers tend to go to traditional stores for window shopping but purchase goods at online retail sites to find the best deals.  In order to survive, traditional retailers try to integrate their offline stores with their online stores to provide a seamless customer experience while increasing sales through multiple channels.

As competition between e-commerce companies is increasing, quick delivery service is a key to attract more customers.  Coupang, one of the most popular e-commerce sites in Korea, announced in 2015 that it would invest USD 1.3 billion to build logistics infrastructure for its delivery service called “rocket delivery.” 

Domestic E-commerce (B2C)                                                      

Domestic e-commerce sales have been increasing for the past few years reaching USD 55.9 billion in 2016.  Online purchases surpassed hypermarkets’ sales in 2016 making e-commerce the biggest retail channel in Korea.  Popular e-commerce sites include Auction, G-market, 11st Street, Coupang, Ticket Monster (TMON), and We Make Price.   Based on the number of mobile and PC users combined, 11st Street was ranked the first in 2016 with 19 million visitors.  Coupang was first for mobile users followed by 11st Street and TMON.

Cross Border E-commerce                                                         

Online purchases from foreign retail sites reached USD 1.6 billion in 2016, up from USD 1.5 billion in 2015, with 65 percent purchased from U.S online retailers.  Although the U.S. is ranked number one, the U.S. Market share, which was 73 percent in 2014, has been continuously decreasing due to the expanded presence of E.U. and China.  

B2B E-commerce                                                                       

Korean B2B e-commerce market data is not available; however, due to the explosive expansion of B2C e-commerce and tough competition among e-commerce players, e-commerce companies have been looking to expand into B2B e-commerce on consumable sales to small and medium size companies.  G-market was the first one to launch a B2B shopping site called ‘Biz on’ in 2012. Auction also has B2B sites called ‘Biz club’ for food ingredients and ‘Biz plus’ for other consumables.  Interpark has ‘I market Korea’ that integrates B2B and B2C services.   Wemakeprice started ‘Wemakeprice Bizmall’ in 2016. With 5.4 million business owners and 3.5 million small and medium-sized companies, the B2B e-commerce market is expected to be very competitive.

E-commerce Services                                                                

In 2016, the most popular item sold through e-commerce platforms was travel & reservation services, which makes up 17.4 percent of the total sales.  Home appliances & electronics (11 percent), clothing (10.6 percent), home & car accessories (10.2 percent), cosmetics (7.9 percent) and computer (6.2 percent) followed.  Compared to 2015, cosmetics showed the biggest growth rate of 46.7 percent. Food & beverage grew by 29.5 percent and home appliances by 21.9 percent.

E-commerce Intellectual Property Rights                                             

It is illegal to sell counterfeited products on e-commerce sites and to bring any counterfeit goods into Korea via cross border e-commerce.  Before 2015, one item could be brought into the country assuming that it was for personal use.  However, Korea Customs Service is enforcing a stricter policy not to bring in any illegal counterfeited goods according to the intellectual property law.

B2G E-commerce                                                                       

For B2G E-commerce, Korea ON-line E-procurement System (KONEPS) is the only channel in Korea.  In 2015, 48,000 public organizations and 320,000 companies were registered on this system with a total volume of business at USD 42 billion.  The site deals with more than 60 percent of Korea’s public procurement market, whose size is about USD 105 billion and was complimented as a best practice by the UN and OECD.

Online Payment                                                                        

According to a survey by Korea Internet and Security Agency, PC and mobile shoppers preferred payment method is credit card accounting for 72.4 percent of PC and 68.1 percent of mobile shoppers.  Next followed debit card and account transfer (both Internet and mobile banking service).

With the continuous growth of online shopping, electronic payment services via PC and mobile are increasing.  The average number of usages a day exceeded 20 million and the amount of total payment reached $343.5 billion in 2016.  Payment Gateway category like Samsung Pay and Naver Pay is attracting more users. On average 860,000 cases per day were paid by smart pay services in 2016 and the sales amount to $ 22.3 million.

Mobile E-commerce                                                                            

Mobile e-commerce is the main driver of the explosive e-commerce growth.  While online shopping grew by 20 percent in 2016, mobile e-commerce increased by 41.8 percent.  Purchases from mobile platforms make up 53.5 percent of the total market value.

Digital Marketing

In 2017, the size of the online advertisement market is expected to be about USD 3.5 billion, up from USD 3.0 billion in 2015. As to each online advertising channel, personal computers (PCs) are showing a negative growth rate, -2.5 percent in 2016 and -1.8 percent in 2017. Mobile, however, grew by 6.1 percent in 2016, and is expected to grow by 4.6 percent in 2017.  Online media use PC advertisements (59.4 percent) more than mobile advertisements (40.6 percent). Among online advertisement types, display advertisement takes up 48.7 percent and search ads 45.2 percent.  Mobile advertisement sales increased to USD 883 million in 2015 and video ads on social media are driving the market. The market is expected to get close to the size of the land-based TV ads market in the near future.

Major Buying Holidays                                                               

Chu-seok (The 15th day of the 8th lunar month), Seollal (Lunar New Year’s Day), Parents’ day (May 8th) and Children’s day (May 5th) are major buying holidays in Korea.  However, when purchasing from foreign online shopping sites, Koreans also follow foreign countries’ buying holidays, like Black Friday, to get the best deals.

Social Media   

43.1 percent of the Korean population use social media, according to a survey by Korea Information Society Development Institute.  Kakao Story is the most widely-used social media (45.7 percent) followed by Facebook (30 percent).
Each age group uses different social media sites. Facebook is favored by teenagers and those in their 20’s, while Kakao Story is favored by those in their 30's and above. 

Opportunities                                                                          

The most popular items sourced from the U.S. are dietary supplements (27 percent), apparel (14 percent), and food products (12 percent).  Cosmetics and electronics are sourced more from the E.U. and China than the U.S., according the Korea Customs Service        
                                                           
Trade Shows
CS Korea was not able to identify any trade shows focusing on electronic commerce.  CS Korea does have an extensive list of Korean retail trade shows, which can be obtained upon request.  However, most of these trade shows tend to be B2C instead of B2B.
 
Key Contacts
Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE)
Ministry of Strategy and Finance (MOSF)
Korea Customs Service (KCS)

Local Contact
Ms. Jinjoo Lee
Commercial Specialist
Commercial Service Korea
U.S. Embassy Seoul
188 Sejong-daero, Jongro-gu
Seoul 03141, Korea
Tel: 82-2-397-4324
Jinjoo.Lee@trade.gov
 

Prepared by our U.S. Embassies abroad. With its network of 108 offices across the United States and in more than 75 countries, the U.S. Commercial Service of the U.S. Department of Commerce utilizes its global presence and international marketing expertise to help U.S. companies sell their products and services worldwide. Locate the U.S. Commercial Service trade specialist in the U.S. nearest you by visiting http://export.gov/usoffices.



South Korea eCommerce Industry Trade Development and Promotion eCommerce