A Brave New World: What We Had to Do to Get Our K-Beauty Fix Then & Now
Remember when you had like two options to buy K-beauty? And it was either super expensive, super slow, super sketchy, or all of the above? No? Well, then let an “old-timer” tell you about our “walked through five feet of snow” journey to get our K-beauty fix just a mere four years ago — and how good you have it now.
You K-beauty fans these days have it so easy.
I know that makes me sound like a total old-timer. That’s because in the world of Western K-beauty, I kind of am. And because I’m a K-beauty old-timer, I’d like to invite you with me on a quick trip down memory lane.
The year is 2013-ish. K-beauty is relatively unknown to mainstream America. Snail secretion skincare is a horrifying concept, and you won’t find any Missha sheet masks or LJH Vita Propolis Ampoules at Target. But online, in communities like Reddit’s Skincare Addiction and Asian Beauty and on a handful of blogs that predate mine, the K-beauty trend is beginning to percolate.
It wasn’t easy for early adopters to get our hands on the goods. In 2013, ordering K-beauty internationally was a Hassle with a capital H. Only a few online retailers offered English-language sites and international shipping. That shipping frequently cost an arm and a leg. That meant that hauls were infrequent but massive. If you have to wait that long and pay that much, you might as well buy big — that was the thinking, and it showed in the kind of hauls people posted to their skincare communities of choice once the packages finally hit their doorsteps.
“You could buy $30 worth of stuff and pay $30 for shipping, or buy $300 worth of stuff and pay $50 for shipping,” my friend and fellow blogger Cat of Snow White and the Asian Pear says. People often went in with friends on a group haul, in which case someone had to take on the additional burden of accounting for everyone’s products and money and shipping out individual packages once the haul arrived.
Now fast-forward to present day. What’s the landscape of K-beauty shopping in 2018?
Option 1: Buy a ticket to South Korea
Not a new option — you could do this just as easily in 2013 as you can now, and spending, say, a week shopping in Seoul sounds like a dream. Visit the beauty stores in Myeongdong, try and buy everything in person, no wait for products and no shipping fees.
Of course, that doesn’t take into account the fees it’ll cost to ship yourself, your luggage, and your extra empty suitcase for new purchases over to Seoul and back, let alone the cost of housing yourself in Seoul for your week or so of K-beauty nirvana. Just for fun, I looked up some round-trip rates from LAX to Seoul and back for January 2019. It would cost anywhere from $500 (if I’m cool with flying out at midnight on an airline not known for its wonderful safety record) to $1,200 or more, coach. Then I’m looking at around $100 a night for a comfortable hotel room in Myeongdong.
Yeah. So. Not really the most practical option if all I want to do is grab some beauty products.
Option 2: Stay home, buy from a Korea-based website
Korea-based e-tailers were the driving force behind the spread of K-beauty’s cult popularity, simply because for most K-beauty fans, the Korean e-tailers used to be the only accessible option for acquiring product.
Even today, Korea-based K-beauty sites have advantages over the competition. Due to their physical proximity to the brands and distributors, K-beauty sites generally carry the largest selection of brands and products, increasing the chances that a shopper will find what they want. The Korean sites also tend to carry the newest and hottest items first. They’re on the ground in the heart of Korean beauty and can spot trends as they’re developing.
On the other hand, the Korea-based sites continue to be plagued with the same issues they faced in 2013: comparatively long shipping times and comparatively high shipping costs. You can pay less for shipping if you’re willing to wait significantly longer for your products, or you can pay significantly more for shipping if you want your products as fast as possible.
Free shipping minimums on K-beauty sites mitigate this trade-off somewhat, but then again, if you really only want to buy just the one thing, a shipping minimum that requires you to purchase more items means you’ll end up spending more anyway.
Option 3: U.S.-based K-beauty websites
A few U.S.-based mom-and-pop K-beauty sites were doing business when I got into K-beauty, but I never felt compelled to buy from them. The ones I knew of focused more on circle lenses and false lashes than on the skincare products I wanted. By late 2014, though, several high-profile K-beauty sites had emerged with a heavy PR blitz.
These sites are still going today, and sometimes they offer things I want. As a general rule, though, the markup on products sold from U.S. K-beauty sites over the same products on Korean sites is startling. I’ve seen certain products sold in the U.S. for double the price that they go for on Korea-based K-beauty shops. You’re paying for the additional expenses the U.S. sites incur by importing the products in bulk. You’re also paying for the risk those sites take on by doing so. Not all the items they import will end up selling, so they have to make their margins where they can.
Sometimes the markup feels worth it, especially since shipping from the U.S. K-beauty sites takes mere days rather than long weeks. In my experience, though, it’s rare to see a product I want enough and impatiently enough to pay the premium from a U.S. K-beauty site. Unable to access or carry as many products as their Korea-based counterparts, U.S. K-beauty shops tend to feature much more tightly curated selections. And they, too, generally have set minimum purchases for free shipping.
Option 4: Amazon
I’d be negligent if I didn’t mention Amazon, which is where I shop when I’m in a real pinch for a particular product and can’t get it quickly anywhere else. Amazon has some major pros, primarily Prime shipping if you’re paying for a Prime membership. Prices can be comparable to Korea prices, too. The selection is OK, with many popular items available.
The major con of Amazon is a lack of trustworthiness compared to just about any dedicated K-beauty website, whether Korea-based or U.S.-based. While some brands have their own Amazon storefronts, ensuring that products ordered from them are authentic, they’re outnumbered by random Amazon sellers offering K-beauty products. Some people have reported getting burned (only figuratively, as far as I know) by purchasing a counterfeit product.
It’s especially problematic with high-end or very popular brands. Counterfeiting is a ridiculously easy process, since many packaging manufacturers will sell the exact same bottles or jars that famous products come in to just about anyone. A decent graphic designer can whip up a label that looks like a famous product label, and from there, the package just needs to be filled with some product, never mind whether it’s safe or effective or even similar to the product being copied.
Option 5: Physical stores in the U.S.
Finally, we come full circle to shopping in physical stores. Over the past few years, mom-and-pop and franchised K-beauty stores have sprung up in major cities with large Asian populations. Asian grocery stores now also stock sheet masks and other beauty products alongside staple hygiene products imported from the motherlands. Prices are generally higher than online, but easy access and instant gratification tend to make them worth it. Even major mass market retail chains are in on the K-beauty action these days, with at least a few sheet masks on offer.
Unfortunately, dedicated K-beauty stores are out of reach to the vast majority of the population in the U.S. The mom-and-pop stores’ selections can also be a little random and unconnected to what’s popular among Western K-beauty fans. K-beauty available at mainstream retail chains, meanwhile, is often overpriced and pretty hit-or-miss. The K-beauty selection at a certain big box retail store I frequent looks like it came straight out of early 2016, for example.
At Beautytap, we considered the landscape of U.S. K-beauty shopping carefully before launching our new BeautytapASAP Free 3 Day Shipping section. We wanted to provide the major pros of online K-beauty shopping while minimizing the cons. We’ve chosen not to require a minimum purchase for free shipping: It’s free for everything, whether you’re picking up one bottle of COSRX Snail Essence or 10. Packages come from U.S. warehouses, so you get them fast. And while our selection right now is limited, we have more products on the way and will be growing your choices with each new shipment to our fulfillment centers, so keep an eye out for more and more products to choose from in the coming months.
Even as we worked on the BeautytapASAP concept, however, we kept thinking about the incomparable experience of shopping at a really good physical K-beauty store. A physical store with a selection of products representative of Beautytap’s online offerings is our dream. Now, that dream has come true, too, at least for our fans in SoCal.
We’re K-beauty fans ourselves at Beautytap, and we’ve been through all the trials and travails as you. Finding ways to improve your K-beauty shopping experience so that you can try more and more products you might love drives our projects. We hope you love what we’re doing!
Where do you buy K-beauty, and what has your buying experience been? Do you think 3-day shipping is a good idea? Let’s talk about it in the comments!