AT an Innisfree cosmetics store in Seoul’s popular Myeongdong shopping district, a saleswoman helps 21-year-old Chinese tourist Yang Hui carry her shopping baskets to the pay desk in front of a large display showing K-Pop star Yoona.
“There’s a lot to choose from,” said Yang, confessing to having bought more than she’d planned from the store’s range of around 900 products.
South Korea’s top cosmetics company Amorepacific Group launches some 400 new Innisfree branded products each year, about half of which are no longer available a year later.
It’s one of dozens of Korean mass cosmetics brands with a short product development cycle — a “fast beauty” approach that is increasingly popular among Chinese and other Asian millennials, gaining exposure in the United States and Europe, and attracting high-profile foreign investment. South Korea has become a hot-bed for applying to cosmetics the “fast fashion” principles of shifting designs quickly from catwalk to Main Street to capitalise on new trends.
Thousands of small cosmetics firms compete to get their new products to market, with third-party manufacturers cutting the time on testing and recipe alignment and providing the capacity for swift market launch.
Korean brands have cut product development cycles to as little as four months, compared to over a year for global brands, industry experts say.
“When we received an eyeshadow order from a major global client in 2004, it took us two years to begin production. Now it takes us one year from the word go,” said Lim Dae-gyu, a director at Cosmax Inc, a cosmetics manufacturer with annual sales of close to US$500 million.
“For South Korean mass brands, it takes less — just 4-6 months from planning to market launch is average,” Lim added.
South Korea last year overtook the United States and Japan to become the No. 2 cosmetics exporter to China after France. It shipped US$1.1 billion worth of skincare creams, facial masks, compacts and other cosmetic products to the world’s second-largest economy, according to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.
South Korea’s total cosmetics exports were worth US$2.59 billion, up 44 percent from 2014, with Hong Kong and the United States its second- and third-biggest markets, a long way behind Chinese mainland.
Sales are boosted by South Korea’s duty-free market — the world’s biggest — which caters especially to big-spending Chinese tourists. Cosmetics accounted for nearly half of the country’s record duty-free revenue of 5.8 trillion won (US$5.1 billion) in the first half of this year, customs data showed.
The trade is not without its downside. To counter unofficial re-sales, Korea’s Customs Service is considering setting a 50 product limit for duty-free buyers, a customs official said.