First, you have to choose a hotel in the Myeong-dong district. Everything that you will probably need or want is within a square kilometer, while the secondary shopping areas such as Namdaemun, Dongdaemun, Insa-dong, Hongdae and Gangnam are easily accessible via subway. We stayed at Hotel Savoy along the southern edge of the Myeong-dong shopping zone, surrounded by Uniqlo, The Face Shop, Skin Food, Roxy, Mango, The Saem, Nature Republic and Giordano. Savoy's excellent location allows hard-core shoppers to quickly drop off their shopping bags and packages at the hotel in between forays.
About our accommodations: I liked Hotel Savoy. The rooms were a bit small but clean, and the mini refrigerator and wifi were very much appreciated. Toiletries and a hair dryer were provided, and we had a bathtub-- a pleasant surprise given the relatively cheap rate. But I probably wouldn't stay in Myeong-dong again because there's not much to see or do except shop. In fact, the whole area is dead quiet between 11PM and 11AM.
Second, if you find shopping a confusing and slightly stressful activity *raises hand*, ask your friends and relatives who've been to Seoul if there's anything they would like you to buy for them. That gives you a starting point. Also, ask Google. You'll notice that most of the information online is about cosmetics-- make-up, skin care, hair care ad infinitum et ultra-- so just go with the flow.
|Pink Grapefruit Facial Mist, Pomegranate Scalp Care Hair Pack, Moisture Egg Hair Pack, Avocado Leave-in Fluid and some free samples, all from Skin Food.
|Dinoplatz Dear.Brachiosaurus blotting paper and Maybe Baby Lip exfoliant and balm from Too Cool For School. Laneige Snow BB Cushion and Missha Perfect Cover BB Cream.
|Ms. Ever Mini Me Perfumed Stick solid perfume, Silk Scarf Hair Moist Pack, Silk Scarf Hologram Hair Serum, Apricot Stick tinted lip gloss, BeBe Foot Mask, BeBe Elbow Mask, a nail file for my mother, and lots of sample sachets. All from Etude House.
It's amazing how many freebies I got from just the five stores where I bought stuff, but this bounty is nothing compared to what my friends were able to collect.
|Complimentary loot from Skin Food, Too Cool For School, Laneige and Missha.
My brief consumer report: Being OC, I'd already read the product reviews beforehand so I knew what to expect, but after personally testing the goods, I must say that my favorites are: 1) Skin Food's Moisture Egg Hair Pack smells heavenly and works wonders on my super unmanageable hair, 2) Missha Perfect Cover BB Cream matches my complexion perfectly, provides just the right amount coverage and feels light on the skin, and 3) Etude House BeBe Foot Mask removes dry skin in the most satisfying way ever-- peeling off in huge sheets just like a snake molting.
Of course I wouldn't be me if I didn't buy any food. I'd like to thank the interweb for the following:
|Market O Real Brownie. I'm not sure how "real" they are, but they're undeniably yummy. Chocolatey, moist and just the right size for snacking.
|Binggrae banana-flavored milk and Lotte Buon Gelato ice cream on a stick. Cool and sweet (but not too sweet), they really hit the spot after a spicy meal.
Third, ask your travel companions for their recommendations. For sure they've done some reconnaissance of their own.
|Skinny Fit Tinted UV CC Cream by IPKN for days when I don't feel like wearing BB cream. Nice consistency and gives my skin a subtle glow, but has a faint "little old lady" scent. The toner and masks were free.
|Pouches, a sleeping mask, a bath scrub, notebooks, pens, a cellphone case for my mother and an umbrella. Cute randomness from that evil place, Artbox-- full of stuff I don't really need but can't resist.
Finally, keep your eyes open. You never know what you'll find.
|My haul from Daiso where everything is 1,000 won (less than US$1) only: Tteokbokki-flavored snack, stick-on nail art for my sister-in-law, Doraemon and Hello Kitty band aids, dental floss, a tub of gochujang and Elastine shampoo sachets.
|Refrigerator magnets for my growing collection. I buy at least one in every city or country I visit.
Tip: Don't forget to ask for your tax refund. To avail, you have to spend at least 30,000 won in a single transaction at a participating store. Show your passport to the cashier and ask for a refund slip. (Instead of a refund, Etude House offered me a straight 10% discount. I took it because the tax refund is only about 5%.)
You can claim your refund at the airport. Go to your airline's check-in counter first and tell them that you're getting a refund. The airline personnel will then take you and your baggage to the oversize baggage check-in counter where the customs officials may or may not ask to see your purchases, depending on their mood. After going through passport control, proceed to the refund counter in the departure area. Make sure you're in the right queue, as there are two companies handling the refund services: Global Tax Fee and Global Blue Tax Free.
Some useful links:
How to find the right BB cream
What to buy at a Korean supermarket