K Banana Celebrates K-Beauty At Its New Store In Seattle—And Possibly Elsewhere In The Future

Mall shopping has gotten a whole lot cuter with the arrival of K Banana, a K-Beauty retailer that’s launched at Seattle’s open-air lifestyle center University Village.

The brainchild of Liz Kang Yates, K-Banana is showcasing the sheet masks, snail mucin skincare and pimple patches that have been strong in South Korea stateside with friendly customer service, an array of prices and Instagram-worthy design. After beginning with a 1,500-square-foot pop-up last year, it’s moved into a 650-square-foot permanent location at the shopping center that’s also home to Sephora, Bluemercury, Follain and Kiehl’s Since 1851.

“It feels like you walked into a Korean package,” says Yates. “We just want the customer to come and know they’re going to have a really happy, great experience, if they grab a sticker, want to try and touch new things or even just take a picture. Our employees are all so nice. They’re genuinely great people.” K Banana builds on the happiness theme with its slogan, “Happy Skin, Happy Me.”

K Banana Michael Garrett
After premiering with a pop-up last year, K-Beauty retailer K Banana has settled into a permanent location at Seattle shopping center University Village.

Growing up, Seattle native Yates, a Korean American with extensive footwear experience at Zumiez, Adidas and Vans, where she’s currently key account manager, traveled to South Korea biennially. She was enamored with the adorable products she encountered there, including stationery dotted with strawberries, oranges and bananas, which inspired the name of her store. She dreamed of importing a bit of South Korea to her hometown and, last year, connected with University Village, aka U-Village, to pitch it on taking a chance on a K-Beauty retail concept.

“I lived 10 minutes from the shopping center. I went to business school at UW. I loved the shopping center,” says Yates, continuing about K Banana’s U-Village pitch meeting held last June, “Everyone is doing online first, but we wanted to bring an experience to get people to come to the store. It’s a destination.” The pitch persuaded U-Village to give K Banana a temporary spot in a former Apple store. Apple had relocated within the shopping center.

“We just want the customer to come and know they’re going to have a really happy, great experience, if they grab a sticker, want to try and touch new things or even just take a picture.”

K Banana premiered four months later. Yates turned to artist Jesse Brown to create graphic, colorful murals to enliven its space and covered a wall with some 150 face masks to construct what Yates calls a face mask vending machine. In addition to beauty products, she injected sweets and stickers into the merchandise mix to keep the assortment fun and surprising. Although Yates expected K Banana to be embraced by students at nearby University of Washington, it became popular with customers across the age spectrum from young kids to baby boomers.

K Banana’s pop-up stint convinced Yates that it had legs and, when U-Village offered an opportunity for it to stay following the pop-up, she pounced on it. The location now has a slightly softer color palette than the earlier location and incorporates custom fixtures such as floating modular shelving by Austin Hicks of Glass Box Gallery, but maintains the playful vibe K Banana cultivated since its debut.

K Banana founder Liz Kang Yates
K Banana founder Liz Kang Yates

The store’s selection contains roughly 40 brands, and Yates is big on K Banana introducing fresh K-Beauty brands to Americans. She mentions, for example, that it stocked Skin Grammar by SkinRX Lab and Vika Nail before other stores in the United States. In terms of bestsellers, Yates says SPF is selling well at the moment, specifically Big Apple Sun Cream from LPKN. Pimple patches from Cosrx and Mighty Patch by Hero Cosmetics have been robust sellers as well. Yates tries to carry merchandise suiting a range of income levels. K Banana has $2 face masks from Missha and A’Pieu, and $6 to $12 face masks from Dr. Jart+.

In excess of half of the store’s sales are from face masks, and K Banana uses them as helpful entries into discussions of K-Beauty with customers. The store usually has two people staffing the floor. “Almost everybody knows about face masks: 70% to 80% of people coming to K Banana know about face masks. You can go to Trader Joe’s and see a face mask,” says Yates. “The gaps in what’s known about K-Beauty [involve] the brands and ingredients. You can buy a face mask on Amazon, but is it good for your skin? The customer needs to be more educated about the ingredients and what can benefit your skin.”

“You can buy a face mask on Amazon, but is it good for your skin? The customer needs to be more educated about the ingredients and what can benefit your skin.”

Yates declined to reveal revenue projections for K Banana’s permanent location. Retail analyst Jeff Green, owner and president of Jeff Green Partners, told The Seattle Times that he estimates U-Village’s average annual sales per square foot at $900 to $1,000. Based on that estimate, K Banana could generate $585,000 to $650,000 in annual sales. In the shadow of Amazon, U-Village proves that physical retail isn’t dead. In fact, Yates is bullish on a mall revival.

“It’s actually starting to rejuvenate again. Not with millennials, but gen z is rediscovering the mall. I think they are like, ‘Oh, I can go with my friends, try on clothes and discover things in person, not just online.’ They can get a bubble tea or ice cream and take pictures with them,” says Yates. “As long as retailers innovate and find ways to make their spaces exciting for the customer, malls will come back.”

K Banana face mask selection
K Banana’s so-called face mask vending machine features some 150 face mask varieties.

K Banana could be part of the mall recovery across the country. Yates is interested in expanding it beyond U-Village. Ideally, she’d nab a slot on the directory for the Los Angeles shopping center The Grove, but she emphasizes there’s no reason it couldn’t fit into malls in cities outside of the West Coast. “We would love to be in Middle America. We would be a new discovery for that region,” says Yates, adding, “I think it would work anywhere.”