Gift giving in South Korea

The evolving landscape of gift-giving in South Korea

Gift-giving in South Korea helps build and maintain relationships. It is a common practice to exchange gifts during holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, home visits, and other occasions. This cultural tradition not only reflects the value placed on respect and reciprocity but also serves as a tangible expression of connections that are formed through the act of exchanging gifts. In addition, despite physical distance sometimes limiting interactions, the gift market has continued to grow, especially with the rise of online gifting.

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Celebrating special occasions like Chuseok with gifts in Korea

While gifts can be given spontaneously, gift-giving in South Korea largely happens on special occasions. Among the most important occasions for gift giving are Chuseok (추석), commonly known as the Korean Thanksgiving Day, and Seollal (설날), known as Lunar New Year’s Day. On many traditional Korean holidays like these, families visit their relatives, often traveling long distances to visit them. In 2023, Lotte Members surveyed 4,000 consumers aged 20 to 50 about their Chuseok holiday plans. 46% of the respondents said they plan to visit their hometowns, parents’ homes, or relatives’ houses, followed by 30% of respondents who plan to stay home, and 22.4% who plan to travel.

The role of cash gifts in Korea’s gifting tradition

When visiting relatives in Korea, it is generally expected to bring gifts, as showing up empty-handed is not culturally appreciated. Similar to Chinese tradition of red packets, Korean customs include the practice of giving cash as gifts. Giving cash as gifts is a thoughtful way to show appreciation and respect to family members and loved ones. It symbolizes well-wishes and prosperity for the recipient. Typically, grandparents give cash gifts to their grandchildren, parents to their children, and financially stable adults also extend gifts to their parents, fostering a tradition that strengthens family bonds and demonstrates care and respect across generations.

Gifting on traditional occasions: From beef and fruits to electronic devices and household equipment

While bringing traditional gifts such as fruits, rice cakes, and beef are popular, there’s been a growing trend towards more practical and non-food items, including health supplements, household equipment, and skincare products. Based on a research done by Korean Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Cooperation, beef was the top choice for Chuseok in 2023, with apple, pear, and pork following closely. These findings align with the preferences observed in the previous year. Additionally, in a survey done by Korean e-commerce platform Gmarket, health and wellness products like Korean red ginseng were as the top choice for Seollal in 2022. This was followed by fruits, electronic devices, and household equipment.

Self-gifting: South Korea’s expression of self-care

Gift-giving in South Korea is largely done to build and maintain relationships with others. However, self-gifting is gaining prominence, as a gesture of kindness for themselves and as a reward for one’s hard work. According to employment platform Career, more than 80% of office workers have given themselves a gift. In addition, Korean e-commerce platform G-market reports that fashion products are most preferred choice for self-gifting, followed by hobbies related products and electronic devices. In the same report, 32% of the respondents answered that they are willing to spend from USD 75 to USD 226 for their own gifts. When it comes to price by age, younger generations usually buy relatively expensive gifts like electronic devices and beauty products for themselves. Older generations, however, buy relatively cheap products for themselves as they are more likely to buy gifts for others during holidays.

South Korea’s wealth gap effect: Polarization in gift consumption

With the growing wealth gap in South Korea, especially after Covid-19, the consumption trend for gifts is becoming polarized. High-end and low-end gifts have gained popularity, while gifts in mid-price range saw a decrease in sale. Korean e-commerce company Wemakeprice reported that cost-effective and premium gifts were the top choice for the customers, with the options in the average price range less popular. While sales of premium gift sets increased by 29% during Seollal in 2023 compared to the previous year, sales of mid-price range gifts declined. Similarly, expensive cakes sold in department stores, seen as a small luxury by the MZ Generation in South Korea, and affordable cakes sold in convenient stores experienced an increase in demand.  

Luxury gifting among young consumers

While consumption disparity widens, South Korea’s luxury goods market has been experiencing growth, fueled by people buying luxuries as gifts. According to Hyundai Department Store, foreign beauty products and luxury goods are the top choices as gifts among young consumers. In addition, pocketsurvey claims that 59% of the respondents claim to own luxury goods and among this group, 51.5% responded that they have given or received luxury goods as gifts.

Gift-giving in Korea
Source: Instagram user @mingzy0920 (left), Social media post thanking gift giver for receiving a luxury perfume through KakaoTalk Gift and KakaoTalk Gift (right), Top perfume brands in KakaoTalk include Jo Malone and Byredo

Gifting is going online, led by KakaoTalk Gift

With the rise of smartphone users, gift-giving in South Korea is gradually moving away from physical to mobile. The mobile gifting market exceeded USD 3.69 billion in 2022, and it is expected to reach USD 7.38 billion in 2027. KakaoTalk Gift is the most popular mobile gifting service, followed by Coupang Rocket Delivery and Naver Shopping .

KakaoTalk is the most used social media platform in South Korea, with most of the population using it. According to a survey published by NASMEDIA, more than 90% of the smartphone users across all ages use KakaoTalk. Integrated within the app is KakaoTalk Gift, which has been dominating the domestic mobile gifting industry for years. Its prominence surged during the pandemic, as the increasing number of online and mobile shopping customers propelled its popularity. In 2021, its market size reached USD 2 billion. It’s not only used by the younger MZ Generation who are familiar with technology but also the older generations who use KakaoTalk to communicate online.

Data source: Daehan Daily, designed by Daxue Consulting, KakaoTalk Gift’s market size growing from 2017 to 2021

KakaoTalk Gift stands out for its seamless gifting experience. It allows its KakaoTalk users to send gifts alongside their messages. Gift givers can conveniently access a well-organized range of products, from coffee and premium fruits to small luxuries and amusement park tickets. Moreover, they can gain insights into the most popular gifts through the detailed categories and rankings. Once they’ve selected the gift, they can purchase the gift within the app and send it via message. On the recipient’s end, they can input their address and have their products delivered to their house on their desired date.

Gift-giving in South Korea
Source: KakaoTalk Gift website, Recommended products categorized by gift recipient, occasion, and other criteria

E-commerce platforms threaten KakaoTalk’s leading position

KakaoTalk Gift faces competition from Coupang Rocket Delivery and Naver Shopping, both which offer distinct advantages. Operated by Coupang, often referred to as the Amazon of Korea, sets itself apart by offering a wider range of products. It’s particularly known for its fast delivery, making it suitable for last-minute gift shopping. Naver Gift seamlessly integrates with South Korea’s top search engine, Naver. It provides users with convenient access to its gifting services, alongside Naver’s diverse offerings, such as the news and Naver Shopping, all in one unified platform.

The evolution of gift-giving in South Korea: From tradition to modernity, beef to equipment

  • Gift-giving in South Korea helps maintain and strengthen relationships. Gifts are often exchanged during holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and home visits.
  • Self-gifting is becoming more popular. It serves a means of self-reward and self-care. Younger generations usually buy more expensive goods for themselves than the older generations.
  • Gifts are mostly exchanged on special occasions, such as Chuseok and Seollal. Food, such as beef and fruits, are commonly given. There has been a rising popularity of more modern, non-food items such as electronic devices and household equipment.
  • The growing wealth gap in South Korea has led to a polarization in gift consumption. Both high-end and low-end gifts gaining popularity, while mid-priced gifts see a decline in sales.
  • KakaoTalk Gift dominates the mobile gifting market, and it is highly favored by South Korean consumers. It had a market size of over USD 2 billion in 2021. However, it is facing competition from Coupang Rocket Delivery and Naver Shopping.