By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
If you're looking for a great deal in Korea, whether its clothes, shoes, books or tour packages, the best way to go is online shopping. But if you're a foreigner living in Korea, you probably will not know about it because most of the cyber shopping malls are available only in Korean.
Some of the biggest online shops, Interpark (www.interpark.com), Auction (www.auction.co.kr) and Yes 24 (www.yes24.com) still do not have any English available that would make it easier for foreigners to register and use the Web site. Only Gmarket (gmarket.co.kr) has a separate English Web site.
If a foreigner understands the Korean language, it can be quite easy to sign up for an account. But for those who are not quite fluent, it can be a struggle.
Teresa Quach, a teacher from Sydney, wanted to sign up for Interpark to buy some concert tickets a few years ago. The registration process was all in Korean, and while she could understand some of the forms, she turned to online translation tools for some help.
``I had to cut and paste some of the more difficult words on a translation Web site. It worked but sometimes translations don't work properly,'' she said.
After filling out the registration form, Quach succeeded in signing up for Interpark and did not experience any problems when ordering from the site.
But the experience made her feel that foreigners are unfairly excluded from cyber shopping malls, especially since usually it is the most convenient way to buy stuff since it is delivered directly to one's residence.
``I do feel that foreigners are shut out from all the online shops,'' Quach said, noting that even airline Web sites like Jin Air and Jeju Air do not provide English-language booking.
John Redmond, a copyeditor who has lived in Korea for 10 years, agreed that it is very difficult for a foreigner to buy something online. He noted that many of the best deals for computers and travel packages can only be found online.
``I usually just get a Korean friend to help me out,'' he said.
While most foreigners are unable to buy from cyber malls, Koreans' love for online shopping has surged. Combined sales of cyber shopping malls hit 5.90 trillion won ($4.75 billion) in the first quarter of the year, 25.9 percent higher than the previous year, according to a report by Statistics Korea. Sales from online shopping mall accounted for 8.2 percent of total retail sales in 2009, up from 7.5 percent in 2008.
Actually there are a handful of Korean Web sites that have introduced limited English service, but few foreigners in Korea are aware of them.
Anne Ladouceur, president of the Web site Korea4Expats.com, noted that these Web sites are not properly promoting their global services to the foreign community in Korea.
``They're not reaching out to the foreign community... Maybe some of the other Web sites have started offering English, but there are limits on the service: some only accept foreign-issued credit cards while others require an alien registration number,'' she said.
Interpark has an English ticketing service (ticket.interpark.com/Global/), but only offers tickets to a handful of concerts. Currently, tickets to only seven concerts, including pop stars Usher and Mika, are available on its global site. This is compared with the dozens of Korean and international concerts, musicals, plays, sports and other shows that are offered at the Korean site.
Gmarket, the leading online marketplace in Korea, has an extensive English Web site (http://english.gmarket.co.kr), perhaps because it is owned by the U.S-based Internet giant eBay.
The Web site not only caters to foreigners living in Korea, but also overseas-based shoppers as well. Many sellers offer thousands of items such as apparel, accessories, beauty products, electronic items, shoes, bags, CDs and DVDs.
Although it is in English, most of the sellers provide information only in Korean, but there are a lot of photos that make up for the lack of English text.
Celine Hernandez, a 21 year-old from Manila, frequently shops for clothes and Kpop CDs on Gmarket.
``I can say it is foreign-friendly... Gmarket sellers that ship overseas usually have an English Web site, which makes it more convenient for foreigners... But the thing is, on some sites, the English is not really that understandable. I guess they can improve on the grammar,'' Hernandez said.
Meanwhile, a new Web site TheBestBuyKorea.com is providing a service ― helping foreigners buy from Korean cyber shopping malls.
Pak Chong-chin, president of TheBestBuyKorea, said he had heard a number of complaints from his expat friends about the difficulties in trying to purchase items on Korean online shops because of language and lack of a Korean ID number.
``They could not shop online though they know the selling prices on online are cheaper than at most offline stores. Of course, there are some specialized online stores in English for expats in Korea, however, you are often left with limitations on certain items and uncompetitive prices in those stores,'' Pak told The Korea Times.
Realizing there is an opportunity Pak established a business of providing a shopping service for foreigners, both living in and out of Korea.
``Internet shopping is supposed to be fun and convenient,'' he said.
While Gmarket may provide an English-language site for foreigners, Pak said the items are limited and still priced higher.
``There are certain limited items only listed in the English site compared to the immense number of items in the Korean site. The prices in the English site are higher usually as well,'' Pak said.
Importers can also use the Web site as a buying office in Korea, reducing the need to search for individual suppliers. Pak said they fulfill all their sourcing, inspecting, shipping and other needs.
"Naturally, importers want a price that is the same or lower than what they would pay, even including our commission, if they were to import directly by themselves. It is possible, due to our extensive buying power reflected in our 20 plus years of experience in domestic and international trading,'' he said.