Is Tokyo the only city on earth where you’ll find a shop stocking 200 varieties of coat hanger, or a luxury boutique especially for fishing reels? On a recent visit I discovered an idiosyncratic cityscape where dazzling retail architecture and immersive technology meet a craving for closer contact (just look at the proliferation of pet cafés) and complete decorum (no one shouts or pushes). The value of Japanese brands featured within Millward Brown’s Brand Z Top 100 had a staggering collective worth of $76 billion earlier this year, making Tokyo, home to 31.8 million people, the world’s largest metropolis and one of the most exciting retail capitals in the world.
Tokyo’s vast size means its retail landscape is subdivided into distinctive districts. Refined Ginza is home to luxury brand flagships, art galleries, elegant cafés and Roppongi Hills, one of Tokyo’s sleekest shopping centres, while Akihabara has become a mecca for otaku (geek) culture, filled with anime and manga shops, along with scores of electronic stores stocking the latest gadgets.
Harajuku is the focal point of experimental and playful fashion in Tokyo and a real must-see on Sundays, when the Harajuku girls don theatrical outfits to pose with friends. Buses drive the streets advertising blaring death metal music, seemingly sung by the ‘cute’ girls photographed on the side, and the Tokyo Rockabilly Club gather in the nearby Yoyogi Park for their weekly dance-off – all perfectly normal, apparently!
West of Harajuku, a far more refined neighbourhood by the name of Aoyama beckons. As one of Tokyo’s wealthiest fashion design districts, it’s no surprise that high-end labels set up second stores (Ginza being first) alongside the Comme des Garçons flagship and Prada’s architectural statement – 13 years old and still as striking as ever.
With strong competition for space, experts advise considering up-and-coming districts. “We will start to see retailers look at emerging areas such as Daikanyama, Yoyogi and Nakameguro,” says Zina Zhang, Senior Manager, Japan Markets at real estate firm JLL. “These areas already have a strong presence among youth fashion, specialty goods and lifestyle brands.”
For such an expansive city there is a distinct boutique feel across the majority of stores – not just the high-end luxury brands hailing from Europe but filtering into mainstream boutique chains such as Beauty and Youth, Beams, Journal Standard and Urban Research. There are meticulously curated product displays and the highest level of customer service; in some instances I was ushered to the shop door by staff carrying my recent purchases, who then bowed and presented my shopping bags with two hands.
Tokyo appears to have a curious penchant for American imports. Launched in March 2015, Q Plaza Harajuku mall houses a branch of New York hair salon Warren Tricomi and Hawaiian-style pancake shops, close to the firmly established New York boutique Opening Ceremony and Ralph Lauren’s RRL store. West coast brands such as LA clothing retailer Fred Segal and San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery are being championed at Log Road Daikanyama alongside craft beer brand Kirin’s Spring Valley Brewery. These homespun, provenance-focused concepts are fast eclipsing the popularity of McDonalds and the like – artisanal US coffee roaster Blue Bottle drew four-hour long queues in Daikanyama in April. Upscale NY burger chain Shake Shack is joining the mix in 2016.
An ingrained culture of hard work means there’s a need for services to be linked under one roof, making hybrid lifestyle/ retail/ hospitality concepts particularly popular. Automated retail, including smart vending machines, also fits the context well. This is, after all, a place where people are so reluctant to take a break that the government is proposing a Bill to force employees to take at least five days’ annual leave. You’ll see people sleeping wherever they can grab forty winks, whether it’s in a pod hotel or on a park bench.
The domestic manga market is bigger than the comic industries of the US, Britain and France combined, something that brands can take advantage of through smart collaborations. For instance, Casio Exilim digital cameras are themed around a number of popular anime and manga characters, and image-editing features allow users to drop favourite cartoons into their photos. This taps into the phenomenal popularity of Purikura (photo booths that snap heavily edited portrait photos and print these as instant stickers) among Tokyo teens.
By 2060, nearly 40% of the Japanese population will be aged 65 or over, with the number of registered deaths eclipsing newborns for the first time in 2014. Brands are already starting to adapt to meet the needs of the over 55s – Japan’s only growing consumer segment – including slower escalators, lower shelves, smaller food portions (including single-cup sake) and magnifying glasses for reading small print. Along with wider carpeted aisles and comfortable seating, Aeon Kasai mall offers seniors free shiatsu massages, financial services and a medical clinic, plus a whole range of activities and discounts.
Shinjuku railway and underground station has a daily influx of 3.6m commuters, making it the world’s busiest. Add to that over 800 stations in the wider metropolitan area, and it’s clear there’s a huge potential for smart concepts that can hook in-transit Tokyoites. In April 2014, Ikea made its move by converting a commuter train in Tachikawa station into a mobile showroom for two days, inviting selected passengers (chosen via a prize draw) to trial the brand’s products on their way to work. Japanese accessories brand Porter opted for a permanent stand at Shinjuku, where it stages a range of Trunk Shows showcasing collaborations with the likes of Marni, Aesop and Moleskine.
Dinner in a Ninja-themed restaurant, followed by a trip to robot cabaret via the Pachinko (pinball) parlour, anyone? Just a typical evening in Tokyo, it turns out. I found myself marvelling at the surprising, surreal venues, from cafés filled with rabbits, cats or owls that allow urban dwellers to play at having a pet, to a catch-your-own-fish sushi bar and a cocktail bar staffed by Buddhist monks. Service comes courtesy of androids at high-end department store Mitsukoshi and Mitsubishi UFJ bank. Even on a less obvious level, Tokyo’s metro plays birdsong to guide the visually impaired to stairs and escalators.
Though many of these quirks are unique to the Japanese capital, some of its iconic concepts are increasingly resonating with novelty-seeking consumers in other global cities – cat and owl cafés have both recently launched in London, for example, as has hot-tub karaoke. So even for those brands not aiming to break into Tokyo, the city offers a hotbed of innovation and inspiration with wider potential.
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