PYEONGCHANG, South Korea >> All Amber Batchelder wanted was a postcard.
There were plush mascots. T-shirts. Even an Olympic-branded tea set for $230. But nowhere in this popup city, where everybody seems to be selling something, could she find a few postcards to send to friends.
Visitors to the 2018 Winter Olympics may remember many things. The extreme cold during week one. The North Koreans participating. Russians here but not under their own flag. And then there is the odd mix of souvenirs and the enormous lines to buy them.
Some days, it seemed fans were more excited about the two giant, tented “superstore” gift shops than they were about the actual games. Now, as they pack up and start heading home, many might find they need a little extra room in their suitcases.
“It’s like going to Disney World. You always want something,” said Marc Pelini, an Olympic spectator who is in the U.S. Army and stationed at a military base in Suwon, South Korea.
His family waited 30 minutes just to enter the store. Inside, shoppers grabbed oversized blue sacks — large enough to make IKEA start worrying — and jostled their way from bin to bin scooping up gifts for everyone.
“It’s madness,” Pelini said. “It reminds me of Black Friday sales.”
The two stores saw a combined 46,000 visitors a day during last week’s Lunar New Year long weekend, up from 25,000 visitors a day during the rest of the Olympics, according to the game organizers. They did not release sales statistics, but almost everybody leaving the stores had multiple items in their bags. Many had multiple bags.
Some fans, intimidated by the snaking lines, bought gifts from smaller concession stands with a limited selection.
“I would have bought more but the lines were too long,” said Courtney Lemoine of Boston. “Our biggest fear is that we’re going to have to buy stuff at the airport.”
Had she made it inside, Lemoine would have found Olympic-branded selfie sticks for $9, toiletry kits for $22, chopsticks for $41 and crystal Olympic torches with LED lights for $65.
If none of those items bring shoppers close enough to the action, they could spend $18 on three round soaps with bronze, silver and gold medals inside. As they bathe themselves, they get closer and closer to having their very own keepsake medal.
(Fans watching at home, fear not: Many Olympic keepsakes are already being resold on eBay.)
The Olympics bring together the best athletes in world. And attract the world’s biggest corporations. As fans from Russia, Norway, Japan and Canada mingle, they are constantly reminded which beverages they can drink. Or that only one type of credit card is accepted.
Before reaching any of the ice venues, they must pass through a gauntlet of corporate pavilions, many with their own lengthy lines just to check out the latest cell phone or newest-model car. The pavilions themselves have become attractions; one near the Olympic torch sells itself as the darkest building on the planet. It’s become a key stop on the photo tour of the Olympics.
While the gift shop wants you to open your wallet today, these pavilions hope to empty it six months from now.
Mike Binder and his wife, Carolina Barbosa, started planning their Olympic journey four years ago. She’s a big figure-skating fan. The New York couple had been given a long list of gifts to bring home for friends.
“You keep thinking you see the end of the line,” Binder said, “but it keeps going.”
After nearly 40 minutes, they made it inside and spent about $300 on stuffed animals, gloves, earmuffs and a passport holder.
“It’s crazy to see the variety of items. They have a million different things, but a lot of it is out of stock or they only have children’s’ sizes left,” he said on the 14th day of competition.
Those gifts were in addition to the $300 Barbosa spent on K-pop CDs in Seoul for herself and friends.
“It’s my first time coming to the Olympics. I was really excited and I wanted something,” Barbosa said. “It helps that the mascots are cute.”
Exit the Olympic grounds and there is little else to purchase. Let alone postcards. Fans got a chance to spend money at local restaurants, but there are few stores near any of the Olympic venues or hotels.
Devon Holliday, a Canadian from Chestermere, British Columbia, started out the trip with his friends spending $50 to $60 a person on fancy Korean barbecue. One night in a subterranean karaoke lounge ran up another $375 bill for a private room and some liquor.
“Lately, we’ve been getting some better meals for $5,” Holliday said
Those commuting in from Seoul were met at the train station with a giant tent. Inside: a sterile “traditional market” with a sparse selection of local crafts that looked more at home in a shopping mall than local market. The adjacent tent hosts a “luxury boutique” selling cosmetics, cookware and high-end coffee. It could have been any large department store.
To be fair, Gangneung, the town where many Winter Games events are held, features a true traditional market full of fresh vegetables, fresher fish and dried goods to the horizon. So the slightly more intrepid among the visiting class can find keepsakes of their journey that trend toward the more local — if they venture beyond Olympic borders.
(Even the market, however, was offering up a glossy, spiral-bound, booth-by-booth guide in English so visitors could transcend language barriers and maximize their spending.)
Along the beach not far from Gangneung, visitors sat at a row of local coffee houses. Steam rose from pots at seafood restaurants serving oversized snow crabs. But the only line to be found there was to have a photo snapped with the waterfront Olympic rings.
It was the cheapest — and most popular — souvenir at the games.