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Japan Turns to Cheap Chic

Teens and twentysomethings seek a mix of style and price.

Shopping in Shibuya.
Appeared In
Special Issue
WWDStyle issue 02/01/2011

TOKYO — In Japan, the Baby Boomers have given way to the Bargain Bunch.

This story first appeared in the February 1, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Take Mayu Kawasaki, a 27-year-old retail manager from the southern Japanese city of Fukuoka, who is one careful shopper.

“For me, number one is quality and design,” Kawasaki said. “I always want to find something that can be worn or used long term. And second is price, because fashion changes all the time. So if I can get cheap stuff, I don’t feel it’s a waste to use it only for the season.”

Experts agree that Japan’s younger generation is less easily wooed by brand names and is more value-driven than its parents, who clamored for Louis Vuitton bags during the boom years of the Sixties through the Eighties. Instead, Japanese in their teens and 20s have spent all or much of their lives growing up in the post-bubble Nineties and 2000s, when the Japanese economy collapsed and subsequently stagnated.

In a report published by McKinsey & Co. in July, Brian Salsberg and Naomi Yamakawa noted that “almost 30 percent of shoppers under 30 named price as the most important factor they consider when shopping, compared to just 21 percent for those over age 50.”

Consumer spending, particularly on fashion goods, is in steep decline as Japan continues to battle tough economic times. Japan’s per-capita expenditure on clothing and footwear plummeted about 64 percent between 1995 and 2007, a trend that is expected to continue, according to Euromonitor International. The luxury goods market in particular has been hard hit, having shrunk 23 percent in real terms between 2006 and 2010 alone, forcing brands to scramble to replace what was once the world’s biggest country for such products. As of last year, the market was valued at an estimated 2.25 trillion yen, or $27.23 billion at current exchange. Yano Research Institute Ltd. noted the market is now less than half the size it was at its peak in 1996.

“I think my parents’ generation placed more importance on quality than we do, so they paid more for one thing,” said Naoko Ohyama, a 21-year-old artist in Kanagawa Prefecture, outside Tokyo, who does most of her shopping at used-clothing stores. “They shopped at department stores like Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi and Isetan, but for people my age, these are a little expensive. Now, most clothes and shoes are made in China, and Chinese products are cheaper than Japanese ones in general, so each item is less expensive. But I think there are more opportunities [for us] to buy clothes. There are more varieties and places.”

Layla Witmer, a 24-year-old store manager, said having an independent lifestyle prevents her from making large purchases.

“I love Miss Sixty, Armani Exchange and Theory, but I cannot shop at those locations without sales going on,” she said. “Usually, I will go to Mango, Zara, H&M and Abercrombie for casual shopping.”

Charles Spreckley, co-founder of Tokyo-based trend agency Five by Fifty, said, “Young people are still fashionable, they are just not as consumerist as they once were, and not as easily transfixed by brand names.”

Fflur Roberts, head of luxury goods research at Euromonitor International, said, “The rise of individual style, which has resulted in the mixing of exclusive brands with high street brands, combined with the proliferation of choice…have all contributed to both the diminution and fragmentation of the ‘luxury wallet.’”