Premium markets for babies, toddlers boom in South Korea despite falling birth rate

Apart from the reasons of increasing affluence, child-friendly businesses are flourishing due to expanding social networks and e-commerce shopping. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Baby care products have usually taken up only a small section at department stores in South Korea, with a handful of baby care stores filling about half a floor.

But brands for babies and toddlers have recently expanded their territories at many of the major department stores here, which have traditionally targeted affluent women in their 40s as their main customers.

Buoyed by demand from parents looking further upmarket in selecting goods for their children, Lotte Department Store has filled the 2,700 sq m of the second floor of its Ansan store in Gyeonggi-do province with kids' brands.

Normally, the second floor at the department store is dedicated to women's high fashion.

The stores on the second floor now range from French fashion label Bonpoint to the 330 sq m Pororo kids' cafe.

Shinsegae has also dedicated the second floor of its new Starfied City Wirye to family and kids, targeting young parents and families with children residing in the surrounding area.

From eateries and toy stores, all shops on the second floor are dedicated for customers with kids.

These changes are happening at perhaps the most unlikely country in the world. Given South Korea's low fertility rate, the customer base for the baby business is actually shrinking.

According to government data, the fertility rate in South Korea came at 0.95 birth per woman as of 2018, the lowest figure on record.

Despite this, the size of the baby care market has doubled over the last decade.

In 2009, the baby care market was valued at 1.2 trillion won (S$1.44 billion), but has grown to 2.4 billion won in 2015.

In the same period, an average amount of money spent on a newborn each year increased from 2.7 million won to 5.48 million won per year, the market data showed.

"We have seen in recent years that the parents these days, regardless of their age, consider product quality more important than the price, even for a small baby product," said a Lotte Department official.

Another industry insider said that more department stores are operating kids' cafes and family zones to attract parents with young children, especially as parents prefer indoor places to avoid bad weather and fine dust pollution.

Apart from the reasons of increasing affluence, child-friendly businesses are flourishing due to expanding social networks and e-commerce shopping.

"Not only about high-quality strollers and car seats, mothers these days are exposed to a lot of information about organic baby food, toys and kids' utensils via online cafes and social network," said Kang Ye-ji, a mother of two sons, adding that easy purchase of foreign organic baby brands on e-commerce apps such as Coupang has given her wider shopping options.

Industry forecasts the market for baby care brands will only expand, not only in South Korea, but globally.

According to UK-based research firm Statista, the baby care market will swell to US$89.78 billion (S$1.22 trillion) by 2022.

Specifically, the toy sector will grow to be worth US$318 million by 2022, as it is seeing annual revenue growth of more than 20 per cent. The industry earned US$153 million globally last year.

Behind this growth is also an overall rise in the parents' ages, Statista says, as the older you get, the higher-income level you are likely to be, meaning that your spending power also increases.

In fact, South Korea's average age for the first marriage went up to 30.2 years old and 32.9 years old for women and men, respectively, in the last year. It was 24.8 years old and 27.8 years old for women and men in 1990.

This has naturally led to the increased age of one's first childbirth. As of last year, South Korea recorded 32 years old for the first childbirth, about two years older than the average among OECD countries.

Some point to the polarisation of income as being responsible for the quick growth of baby care business.

According to National Health Insurance Service data from last year, women in the top 20 per cent of households by income had an average of 2.1 children, while those in the bottom 20 per cent had 0.7 children.

"It's all parents' wish to give the best of best for their children, whether it is food, clothes or education.

With local baby care product market becoming more premium and luxury, it is true that the overall level of market quality has been pulled up, but does not mean that all mothers can benefit from it," said the mother of a seven-year-old daughter.

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