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: 8/29/2019

E-commerce is a key component of the overall consumer market in Korea, a country with 99.2 percent of households having internet access via PC, mobile, or another device.  Characteristics of e-commerce in Korea include:

  • Domestic online purchases reached $100.8 billion in 2018 up from $80.7 billion in 2017.  Domestic electronic commerce, in 2018, comprised 30.8 percent of Korea’s total retail industry. 
  • High penetration of smartphones is the main factor driving market growth.  While purchases on PCs increased from $34.5 billion in 2017 to $38.8 billion in 2018, purchases on mobile phones increased from $46.2 billion in 2017 to $62.0 billion in 2018.
  • The most popular products sourced from domestic online retailers in 2018 are travel and transportation services (13.8 percent), clothing (11.2 percent), home appliances and electronics (10.4 percent), food and beverage (9.1 percent), cosmetics (8.5 percent), household items (7.9 percent), and food services (4.8 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 $2.8 billion in 2018.
  • 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 in 2018 are dietary supplements (16.7 percent), apparel (16.3 percent), electronics (12.1 percent), footwear (8.3 percent), handbags (6.7 percent), food (5.7 percent), and cosmetics (5.1 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 http://2016.export.gov/southkorea/industries/ecommerce/ecommmarketresearch/index.asp

Internet Penetration                                                                          

According to Ministry of Science and ICT, Internet user population and smartphone user population in Korea in 2017 reached 90.3 percent and 93.0 percent respectively. In addition, Korea ranked 16th globally with over 45 million internet users. 

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.
One of the biggest trends in online retailing is convergence with other platforms.  Internet portal sites, social network services, TV home shopping, etc. now all have online shopping functions and the popularity of their platforms are increasing since consumers want a one-stop shopping experience that includes product reviews and price, purchasing, and paying with new online payment solutions associated with the platforms. 

Domestic e-Commerce (B2C)                                                      

Domestic e-commerce sales have been increasing for the past few years reaching $100.8 billion in 2018.  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, Coupang, Ticket Monster (TMON), and We Make Price.  Based on the number of mobile and PC users combined, 11st was ranked the first in 2017 with 19 million visitors.  11st was also the first for mobile users followed by Coupang.

Cross Border e-Commerce                                                          

Online purchases from foreign retail sites reached $2.8 billion in 2018, up from $2.1 billion in 2017, with 53.3 percent purchased from U.S online retailers.  Although the United States is ranked number one, the U.S. Market share, which was 57.6 percent in 2017, has been continuously decreasing due to the expanded presence of E.U. and China.  

Business to Business (B2B) e-Commerce                                                                   

Korean B2B e-commerce market data is not available; however, due to the explosive expansion of business to consumer (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.  We Make Price started ‘We Make Price 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 2018, the most popular item sold through Korean e-commerce platforms was travel and transportation services, which makes up 13.8 percent of the total sales. Clothing (11.2 percent), home appliances and electronics (10.4 percent), food and beverage (9.1 percent), cosmetics (8.5 percent) and household items (7.9 percent) followed.  Compared to 2017, home appliances and electronics showed the biggest growth rate of 29.2 percent, followed by travel and transportation services (19.9 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.

Business to Government (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 $42 billion.  The site deals with more than 60 percent of Korea’s public procurement market, which is about $105 billion and is recognized for its high standards by the UN and OECD.

Online Payment                                                                        

According to a survey by the Bank of Korea, the most preferred payment method for PC and mobile shoppers is by credit card.  The next preferred method is by account transfer for PC and debit card and phone payment for mobile.
With the continuous growth of online shopping, electronic payment services via PC and mobile are increasing.  For Payment Gateway (PG) service based on credit cards, the average number of usages a day exceeded 8 million, and the amount of total payments reached $136 billion in 2018.  In addition, mobile payment and digital wallet service such as Samsung Pay and Naver Pay are attracting more users. On average 3.9 million cases per day were paid by smart pay services and the total sales amount to $41.4 billion in 2018.

Mobile e-Commerce                                                                            

Mobile e-commerce is the main driver of the explosive e-commerce growth.  While online shopping grew by 10.3 percent in 2018, mobile e-commerce increased by 31.7 percent.  Purchases from mobile platforms make up 61.5 percent of the total market value.

Digital Marketing

In 2018, the size of the on-line advertisement market was estimated to be $5.0 billion, up from $4.3 billion in 2017. As to each on-line advertising channel, the sales amount of personal computer (PC) advertisements remains almost the same, while mobile channel grew by 26 percent in 2018. PC advertisements takes up 34.7 percent of the on-line advertisement market in 2018, decreasing from 40.0 percent in 2017. Mobile advertisements, however, accounts for 65.3 percent, showing an increase from 60.0 percent in 2017. Among on-line advertisement types, display advertisement takes up 51.3 percent and search ads 48.7 percent. The on-line advertisement market exceeded the size of the TV ads market in 2016 and is expected to extend the lead in the 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.  When purchasing from foreign online shopping sites, Koreans also follow foreign countries’ buying holidays such as Black Friday in the U.S. and China’s Singles’ Day (Guanggun Jie) to get the best deals.

Social Media                                                                            

According to a 2018 study by App Ape, the most widely used social media in Korea is Band followed by Instagram.  In a 2016 survey by Korea Information Society Development Institute, Kakao Story was the most widely-used social media in 2016 but it became the third most widely used social media in 2017.

Opportunities                                              

Of the $2 billion spent by Korean consumers at overseas e-Commerce platforms in 2017, $1.1 billion was purchased from the U.S.  According to the Korea Customs Service, dietary supplements, food products, and apparel are the most popularly sourced items from the U.S. while cosmetics and electronics are sourced more from the E.U. and China.                                                              
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) – http://www.motie.go.kr
Ministry of Strategy and Finance (MOSF) - http://english.mosf.go.kr/
Korea Customs Service (KCS) -http://www.customs.go.kr/kcshome/site/index.do?layoutSiteId=english
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
www.export.gov/southkorea

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