Japanese consumers, once obsessed with luxury labels, lately are on the hunt for bargains — a tendency that appears to be holding steady this year.

Japan had been known for its free-spending parasite singles and brand-conscious consumers. However, it has seen its economy stagnate and, consequently, its appetite for high-end fashion dwindle for several years. But the trend has precipitated recently as shoppers learn they don’t need to spend a fortune to put together a look.

Fast-fashion brands Hennes & Mauritz, Forever 21, Zara and Japan’s homegrown Uniqlo are thriving in the current environment, offering shoppers a low-cost way to stay in style as they fret about their job security and financial future. Outlet malls, which are cropping up in increasing numbers, are doing much of the same thing.

“While the overall situation may have begun to stabilize, we have not yet seen or heard anything significant enough to suggest that the Japanese shopper will behave differently in 2010 from how he or she did in 2009,” said Brian Salsberg, who leads McKinsey & Co.’s Japan Consumer, Retail and Apparel Practice. “While the shift to [value-orientated merchandise] may not be permanent, it is neither something that will disappear in the short term.”

Last year, Tokyo-based Yano Research Institute estimated the 2009 market for imported apparel and accessories from the U.S. and Europe would drop to lower than 1 trillion yen, or about $11 billion, its lowest level in at least 14 years.

Department stores have been losing their luster with consumers, especially younger ones, for more than a decade, owing to a combination of factors. These include dated formats and increased competition from monobrand stores and shopping centers. But now, even they are turning to fast-fashion brands in hopes of reviving their fortunes. This year, both Zara and Forever 21 will open shops in the Tobu and Marui department stores, respectively.

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