Commerce that cares at Beautiful Store

By Korea Herald

Beautiful Store celebrates 10th anniversary as pioneer in promoting sharing culture, environmentalism and ethical consumerism in Korea

Published : Nov 9, 2012 - 20:59
Updated : Nov 9, 2012 - 21:01

College student Kim Min-kyong, 21, is known as “Miss Donation” in her neighborhood. Since 2006, she has collected and donated more than 100,000 items to Beautiful Store, one in a pioneering chain of secondhand shops that raise money for charities in Korea and overseas.

Starting with her own things, her collection grew bigger and bigger as people in her neighborhood come to her whenever they had things to give away. She is not a millionaire donor. However, in recognition of her hard work and passion, the charity shop operator has listed her as one of the top 10 contributors in Korea.

“I’m happy because I have things to share with others. What I am doing here is the least I can do for people in need. Through Beautiful Store, I’ve come to learn that little things make a big difference,” she said.

Visitors walk out of the Anguk branch of Beautiful Store after shopping. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Her collection of secondhand products are transported to Beautiful Store’s chains nearby including the Anguk-dong branch where Lee Hae-sook, a 51-year-old housewife, frequently drops by to pursue the joys of “op-shopping.”

From leather bags, CDs, shoes and clothes to baby strollers, Beautiful Store holds a vast collection of good quality secondhand products. Every product has a price tag with jaw-droppingly low prices. For example, a blue dress with beautiful flower print is priced at only 3,000 won. Sometimes, lucky customers even find luxury goods such as a genuine Chanel bag there.

“My friends call me a fashionista. I feel happy whenever they ask me where I got those clothes and shoes from,” said Lee, pointing to the winter boots she bought from Beautiful Store for 15,000 won last week.

“Not only because the quality is good and the price is cheap, I come here often because it is fun. Each product has its own story and it is beautiful,” she said.

An increasing number of people such as Kim and Lee have been sharing and giving through Beautiful Store for the past 10 years. Started as a small charity shop in 2002 by Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, then a human rights lawyer, Beautiful Store now has 120 branches around the country and one overseas.

It has become the nation’s first successful social enterprise, establishing itself as a model of successful charity venture in and out of the country. A social enterprise is an organization that makes profits to tackle social or environmental needs. 

Shoppers take a look at the secondhand products sold at the Anguk branch of Beautiful Store on Wednesday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Operated by 300 staff members and about 8,000 volunteers, Beautiful Store collects about 10 million donated items a year and has an annual income of 20 billion won ($18.4 million).

It returned 4.2 billion won to society last year alone and 22 billion won over the past 10 years through a series of donation projects. Beneficiaries include children of parentless families, civil communities and the homeless.

It has also succeeded in building a wide-ranging donor network from individuals to businesses. Beautiful Store now has over 400 partner firms that make donations on a regular basis.

It borrowed on Oxfam’s concept of recycling donated goods for sale and developed its own operating system, business model and campaign series. Its sales management system, training manual for volunteers and even traveling stores were what Beautiful Store has invented for last 10 years. Beautiful Store has also been taking a lead in promoting sharing culture, recycling and ethical consumerism.

Every Saturday from March to October, Beautiful Store also hosts an outdoor flea market to increase public awareness of the culture of giving, and opened an online market and TV shopping mall to help other social firms that produce good-quality products but have difficulties finding sales channels.

“We had 10 years of preparation, inventing new ways and new systems to operate this charity venture. With our knowhow and experience, Beautiful Mind can play a bigger role in the future, changing people’s lives and pushing society to move forward,” said Kim Gwang-min, publicist for Beautiful Store.

Beautiful Store was a business arm of Beautiful Foundation, a community foundation solely dependant on individual donations, which was also established by Park in 2000. In 2008, Beautiful Store left the foundation to engage itself more in business activities and to put focus on expansion.

Outside Korea, Beautiful Store sends emergency relief to countries hit by natural disasters and donates books, clothes, shoes to children in Vietnam, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Since 2007, Beautiful Store has helped people in flood-stricken areas near the Ganges River with drinking water, portable toilets and boats for evacuation.

The organization opened its first “Beautiful Library” in a small village in Nepal to offer children with an opportunity to learn about the world from books.

“Children in Nepal don’t have proper shoes to wear or educational institutions in rural areas. We wanted to give children confidence that they, too, can learn and become a bigger person,” said Hong Myung-hee, chairperson of Beautiful Store.

Beautiful Store has been also taking a lead in fair trade business in Korea. It was the first social enterprise that brought the concept of helping small businesses in developing countries by importing their products for fair prices.

Through direct business deal, the charity venture imports organic coffee and chocolates from Nepal, Peru and Uganda. With the profit from the projects, Beautiful Store reinvests in building facilities at production sites and promoting the campaign on ethical consumption in Korea.

“We want to let people know that the conventional multiple distribution channel substantially raises the final price and how the producers have been exploited with unfair business deals,” said Hong.

Donated clothes, sofas and construction materials turn into accessories, toys and stationery by volunteering designers for Beautiful Store.

Through its recycling design brand “Echo Party Mearry,” the charity venture aims to promote global awareness on recycling and environment. For its creativity and good will, Echo Party Mearry products were displayed at the prestigious museums and galleries around the world including MoMa.

Despite the success, Beautiful Store and the culture of donation in Korea has a long way to go.

The number of donated items to Beautiful Store is far lower than those at similar charity ventures in the United States and the United Kingdom where the culture of donation has a long history.

The perception of recycled or used products is still poor, meaning Koreans are still reluctant to buy or use secondhand products.

“People in the U.K. think going to Oxfam is to get good products at a below-market price. They think it is what an ethical customer can do for society as well as for personal pleasure. But we don’t have such thinking,” Kim said.

“Who would think that people going to Beautiful Store are ethical customers? There are many people buying things at Beautiful Store because it is cheap and there is a negative view about that,” he added.

Kim added that the donation culture in Korea might be heading in the wrong direction. Koreans tend to think that donating is being moved by the image of devastated peoples’ lives. It is important to build a positive image of donation, that it is something joyful and fun, Kim said.

“Most charity organizations highlight the image of starving children to move people. But no, I think donating has to be something pleasant, something anybody can do even with the smallest things. Donation has to become a part of our daily lives,” he added.

By Cho Chung-un (

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