By  on February 19, 2008

High and low, young and old, it's all happening on Tokyo's famous shopping strip.

TOKYO — Just call it "The Greater Ginza."

The openings of the Armani and Bulgari towers before Christmas fueled the appetites of Japanese consumers with luxury on their minds — 13,000 people poured into the Armani store each day in its first weekend.

But the fabled street also is attracting lovers of casualwear at more accessible prices. Hip retailers Abercrombie & Fitch and Hennes & Mauritz each announced plans to come to Japan's most famous shopping district, which McDonald's and Gap also chose for their launches into the Japanese market.

New shopping complexes including Marui and Marronnier Gate have created a flow of younger customers in their 30s, and a network of underground passages connects various buildings and the Yurakucho subway station with the heart of Ginza.

Real estate prices around the Ginza 4-chome ("chome" means "block") crossing, where established domestic retailers like Mitsukoshi and Wako are located, are still the highest in the nation. And two blocks away, Ginza 2-chome is gaining popularity since Bulgari joined the project as the fourth major luxury brand last year, after Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Chanel.

The landscape of the Ginza has totally changed from 10 years ago, when land prices hit bottom after the nation's bubble economy collapsed. In 1992, prices hit a record high of 36,500,000 yen ($341,700) a square meter, or $31,800 a square foot, in Ginza, as the economy was booming, but they had dropped to one-third of that high a decade later. Some brands, such as Gucci and Chanel, bought space in 2003, beating a steady price hike.

Land assessments as of Jan. 1, 2007, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, rose 33 percent at Ginza 4-2-4 (the official research point) to $286,000, or 30.6 million yen (converted at current exchange) a square meter, or about $26,640 a square foot, compared with a year ago, although the actual selling price of parcels here could be considerably higher, since the area is in great demand. This year's assessment will be announced in March, and another hike is expected, according to the sources, edging closer to the 1992 record.Also prompting luxury houses to open their own stores in the Ginza district is a decline in the number of visitors — and sales — at the nation's department stores. Since the bubble economy collapsed in the Nineties, this decline has continued. For example, in 2003, apparel sales at department stores tallied 3.21 trillion yen. In 2007, that figure had fallen to 2.89 trillion yen.

Luxe labels have found that here, as is true around the world, their own stores are the best way to communicate their complete brand message in a grand fashion.

Bulgari's 10-story building that opened last November has special services like a bridal salon and VIP shopping spaces for fine jewelry, and houses Bulgari Japan's corporate offices and selling space of more than 10,000 square feet.

A restaurant with panoramic views tops off this "jewel box" building, one of the tallest on the Ginza.

"Flagships [on Ginza] are a must for the luxury brands," said Francesco Trapani, chief executive officer of the Bulgari Group, whose sales from Japan make up some 25 percent of the entire business.

Bulgari's Ginza store, its largest in the world, opened a few weeks after a 6,500-square-foot unit opened in Omotesando. The two mark the brand's 20th anniversary in the Japanese market.

Indeed, making a major brand statement on this world-renowned shopping street has been the strategy of numerous international houses, whether they are established in Japan or new to the market.

- Louis Vuitton opened its flagship of over 13,000 square feet on the first and the second floors of Matsuya Ginza department store in November 2000. In September 2006 it renovated the interior, and just before Bulgari opened, Vuitton renovated its facade to burnish its presence on the street.

- Cartier opened a three-story store within a nine-story building in 2003, and renovated its facade last November.

- Giorgio Armani invested 15 million euros ($22 million) to build its 12-story tower, which also includes a spa, restaurant and bar.

"Japan generates 10 percent of the brand's entire sales — which is still small," said Armani at a press conference. "To showcase the whole world of Armani, we needed this symbolic building to heighten the brand's value."Armani also has been in the Japanese market for two decades. Reflecting on the changing market, he told WWD at the tower's opening, "Ginza was much less developed and there were not that many designer brands [20 years ago]. Today, it's not dissimilar from New York's Fifth Avenue, with mixed and diversified retailers and consumers. And Tokyo, as well, reflects the new average customer who has no money issues, but also shops at lower-priced stores and mixes high-end designer clothes with fast-fashion pieces."

- Last December, Alfred Dunhill opened a three-story building on the Ginza. It, too, "lets customers picture the life of Alfred Dunhill," said a spokesman for the brand. Dunhill included its first in-store lounge and bar, as well as its second barber shop in the world.

- Last May, Bottega Veneta opened its largest store in the world, a five-floor, 9,700-square-foot complex on the Ginza. It houses three levels of retail space and the brand's full product range of apparel, leather goods, fine jewelry and home furnishings. Its Japanese offices and showroom occupy the upper floors of the building.

"Ginza is a mighty area," said Kana Sasaki, analyst at Equity Research Division of Mitsubishi UFJ Securities. "These stores are not only shops for presentation, but they're also very profitable. The brands' investment will pay back later because Ginza attracts consumers of many ages from wider areas."

"The new Ginza was revitalized with development of the surrounding areas," said analyst Yasuo Takauji of Kazaka Securities Co. Ltd. "Before, people from the age of around 40 into their 50s were the main shoppers, but now Ginza attracts those in their 20s and 30s. Younger generations come to shop in Ginza, while other areas, such as Shinjuku and Shibuya, declined as key shopping destinations. This was mainly due to a lack of development, including the opening of brand stores."

Next month, De Beers is scheduled to open on the Ginza, and Tiffany will renovate its flagship in November.

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