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Buying K-pop merchandise in India is a horror tale. Customs delay, fake Instagram sellers

For a country like India, K-pop is an expensive hobby. The price of the cheapest album is usually no less than Rs 1,500. But there's no dearth of fans who will give it a shot.

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New Delhi: In 2018, when K-pop was at the cusp of asserting its presence in India, a young girl went to collect a package containing K-pop albums from the Customs office in Bengaluru. “They asked her, ‘Why are you following them (K-pop idols)?’, ‘Why are you buying stuff from outside India?’. She called me crying. Why do fans have to go through humiliation just because they are buying some albums?” recounts Shrutika Dhargave, a Mumbai-based admin of a fanbase – an organised group that undertakes projects to promote their image by streaming their music, hosting physical events and organising group orders to push album sales – of the K-pop group EXO.

Over the years, Dhargave has handled several group orders by fans. In the process, she has accumulated a repertoire of horror tales at Customs offices and ordeals people undertake to get their hands on albums and merchandise of their favourite K-pop groups and solo artists.

“When we used to go to the Customs office in Mumbai, our whole day was wasted and no officer would spare even five mins to talk to us. We had to go two-three times… In 2019, a K-pop group called Lucente came to India, and we ordered their debut album. To this day, we haven’t received the albums because the Customs never cleared the package,” she says.

From dealing with grumpy officers to paying hefty money for international shipping and import duties and, at worst, getting scammed by online sellers, K-pop fans – most of them teenagers and young adults – undertake a journey that doesn’t come cheap and is laden with uncertainty. Yet, the search for merch goes on undeterred.

To come across an Indian K-pop fan with a spotless record of receiving hassle-free goods is unheard of. While getting swift delivery of items — days after their release — in Korea means paying at a steep price, the other alternative of ordering through a third-party — Instagram sellers or fanbases, though economical — means a longer waiting time.


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The web of Instagram sellers

For a country like India, K-pop is an expensive hobby. The price of the cheapest album, including all the additional charges, is usually no less than Rs 1,500. Sometimes, when fans trade a rare photocard — a tiny 2.2×3.5-inch photo containing the image of a K-pop idol — prices can go as high as Rs 7,000. Within the unique culture of physical album sales dominating the industry, there is no dearth of fans who will give a shot at getting these items.

This has led to the mushrooming of stores selling K-pop albums and merchandise on Instagram. Largely an unchecked and unregulated industry, passionate fans prowl around, looking for sellers who offer the best deals and where purchases are counted on Korean album sale charts.

This frenzied rush to acquire tangible K-pop items has opened a can of worms — harrowing stories of Instagram sellers not delivering goods come in from every corner.

A BTS fan — also called a BTS ‘Army’ — has goods worth around Rs 50,000 stuck with an Instagram seller @kpop.bits. The amount piled up for orders made over a year. “She was a good friend of mine, and I trusted her,” the person said.

Most of these sellers follow a similar pattern — they’re a K-pop fan who have mastered the complex procedure of importing goods from Korea and go on to set up an Instagram store. Many start small and slowly grow through word of mouth.

Fans place their trust in these sellers — many of whom they are acquainted with personally – knowing they are attuned to the internal matrix of K-pop universe. They know that pre-orders boost the artists’ image, the invaluableness of photocards and dolls, the allure of posters, and the dollop of happiness packed in freebies comprising stickers, bags, tin boxes, or keyrings with the face of their favourite artists.

“At the end of the day, sellers are fans. Even if they are not fans of a particular band, the people who are buying from them are. And the fans are buying the albums solely for the fact that they want them to be counted on the charts, especially for the preorders,” explains Priyanka Basu Roy, who runs a small Instagram store called Utopia 365 apart from juggling a full-time job as a teacher.

Setting up an online store involves finding places in Korea that offer the cheapest prices and pre-order benefits, maintaining a warehouse there that allows payments through a Korean bank account, and navigating ways to lower customs duties. These help cut down hassles for fans.

“People underestimate how much all of these actually cost and how we need to contact so many people,” Priyanka remarks.


Also read: Sriya as a K-pop idol is no fluke. A well-oiled industry is hunting for Indian stars


A saga of going ‘MIA’ and consumer complaints

The vices of scamming and duping crept into the K-pop universe and amplified during Covid.

On a WhatsApp group called ‘Reason for anxiety’, over 90 K-pop fans, including Instagram sellers from across India, have come together in a desperate attempt to get hold of albums, photocards, posters, and concert DVDs they had ordered months ago on jdope.go. Links for Google spreadsheets and Drive recording proof of purchases are saved on the group description, but their K-pop goods remain elusive to this day.

“I run a store that faced loss in 2020. I gave up on recovering the amount and coughed up about Rs 20,000 to 30,000 from my pocket to replace the products for my customers. Currently, @jdope.go has over 20,000 worth of my personal merch that’s pending from 2019 as well!” wrote one person in the group.

Another seller is worried about albums and merchandise worth Rs 1.6 lakh that are still stuck.

In several online complaints on the National Consumer Helpline website, fans have detailed how the account went cold turkey on them. This WhatsApp group’s rallying to procure orders is a cautionary tale of things going terribly wrong within the ecosystem of K-pop fan culture where fans spend thousands of rupees every year on their hobby.

“Recently, this year, some people from the group complained against her, and notice was sent to jdopego. But she never replied to any notice, and no follow-up was done from the cyber team as well, according to the complainants. And because of the same reason, many of us are demotivated to file legally since it’s a long procedure. Jdope.go is not a registered business, and legal proceedings are costly as well,” says another Instagram seller @hangukindo.go.

ThePrint reached out to @jdope.go go via call and email but didn’t get any response.

Fighting to get their goods out isn’t the only battle fans face. Sometimes, these stores also deliver second-hand merchandise.

“It happened with an EXO lightstick. I got a second-hand one delivered after it was delayed for almost three months. It even came without a photocard. The price was too high, I could almost get a lightstick and even an album for that amount. The shipping and Customs were ridiculously high. And the culprit was @thekmerchstore,” rants another fan.“Although she replaced the lightstick, it was still very annoying and too high a price,” she says.

The IG seller hit back at the accusations, saying there have been instances of false claims. “Official items, unless resold, can’t be second-hand. We can provide all proofs of placing orders as well. So, we don’t claim these complaints as correct ones,” they said.

“Whatever is completely paid for, if it arrived timely and sent out on time by the official stores, is sent out on time by us as well. If official stores delay in sending, then we also received the package late and hence delays may occur,” they explained.

The lust for merch

Despite its music going digital and computers getting rid of the CD drive, the K-pop industry continues to sell millions of physical albums each year, driven by the power of photo books and photocards. As a sales masterstroke, each release comes with more than one album cover and slightly different photobook content, enough to fuel fans’ need to collect all versions. There are also tour albums, repackaged albums, magazine covers. And then around New Year’s, there’s a rush to order the season’s greeting of a group comprising calendars and stationery.

“The best and one of the most meaningful indicators of success would be hard copy album sales because digital streaming can still bring large attention as long as the music is popular. It’s like you would still listen to good music even if you are not a fan of that musician. But when it comes to hard copy albums, only the true loyal fans will purchase them,” J.Y. Park, the founder of leading K-pop agency JYP Entertainment, said during a seminar in 2018.

The billion-dollar K-pop industry efficiently pulls the heartstrings of fans who go on to buy these albums, with pre-orders being a bragging point within the community.

Although Instagram sellers still hold a significant monopoly in the chain of acquiring goods, many times, fanbases of groups come together to hold non-profit group orders to contribute to sales. Also, with international fans having established themselves as major consumers, Korean sites often extend discounts to circumvent high prices and have eliminated many roadblocks to make purchases easier.

Meanwhile, in Bengaluru, Mihika’s Ateez album set occupies a place of pride at her home. But not before a year-long wait and a lot of squabbling with @jdope.go. “I got tired of waiting and agreed to pay extra for transportation despite having already paid for it. She had blackmailed, blocked and wasn’t communicating (with people who placed orders with her) after a point,” she recalls.

Her albums are a token of love, but they have also become a bitter reminder of the fraud within the Indian K-pop merch supply industry.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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