S. Koreans warm to candles and other home decor items
THE demand for home decor items is growing among South Koreans today, in a sensation that has been dubbed the "candle effect".
A spin-off of the "lipstick effect", which refers to a hike in the consumption of cosmetic goods during a recession, the newly coined term indicates the increasing popularity of small home decor items - such as scented candles, cushions and figurines - that are more affordable than furniture but effectively liven up the home ambience.
Virtually non-existent just five years ago, the South Korean market for decorative candles is now exploding, making it a heated battleground for global brands WoodWick, Yankee Candle, Izola, Aspen Bay and others.
Candles from luxury fragrance-makers Diptyque, Jo Malone and Penhaligon's are fast becoming some of the most sought-after gift items at department stores, even when priced at around 90,000 won (S$112) per jar.
A number of reasons are cited for the new consumer trend: a culture veering towards substantial lifestyle improvement, a changing attitude towards living space, an intensifying desire to boast of purchasing power on social media, and even the economic downturn affecting South Korea's housing and rental systems.
One factor widely agreed upon is the rise of single households.
More than 27 per cent of households in South Korea are one-person, significantly up from 15.6 per cent in 2000, according to Statistics Korea. Projections show that more than one-third of the population will be living alone by 2035.
Singles in their late-20s to 30s living on their own want to create an aesthetically pleasing personal space, said Lee Tae Hee, manager at the Hongdae store of lifestyle brand Butter.
"Before, students and office workers living alone favoured practicality over design," said Ms Lee. "They bought only basic household necessities. Now, there is a change in mentality - they are actively interested in decorating."
Launched to meet this emerging need, Butter offers a collection of home accessories ranging from plates to diffusers, towels and more. Tumblers and cushions are among the most popular items sold, Ms Lee said, because they are at once decorative and cheap.
Tightened purse strings, paradoxically, are seen as another reason behind the candle effect.
South Korea's consumer confidence index, which in part measures the willingness to spend, was ranked the second lowest out of the 60 countries surveyed, according to a Nielson report.
But when people cannot afford the big things, it seems, they seek out cheaper substitutes.
"People don't buy furniture when the economy is bad, but smaller accessories become even more popular," observed Ms Lee.
"Lampshades and sofa throws, for example. They are cheap, but can completely change the atmosphere of your home."
The abundance of identically structured apartments and the difficulty of acquiring a home in modern South Korea might also have contributed to the thirst for a unique environment.
"I've yearned for a space of my own ever since I was young," said Kim Dong Hyeon, lifestyle blogger and author of interior self-help book Nomad Interior.
"Even at work, I was surrounded by rigid desks and chairs that were far from creative. I wanted to create a cosy home after I got married."
Mr Kim said his passion for home decor is both a personal hobby and a way to provide a pleasant, albeit humble, backdrop for his family.
"When I see my house slowly transitioning into what I had in mind, it feels like my life is going in the right direction," he said.
"When I dine with my family at a well-decorated table... I feel glad to be able to provide a peaceful environment, even if it's not that luxurious."
THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK