TOKYO — With the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics only two weeks away, the host city prepares to enter its fourth pandemic-related state of emergency. Still reeling from previous restrictions and an ongoing border closure, businesses including bars, restaurants and department stores are bracing themselves for yet another hit.
While Japan’s constitution prevents it from instituting strict lockdowns such as those enacted in Europe and the U.S. earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, the government is asking that department stores, bars and restaurants close by 8 p.m. and do not serve alcohol. Meanwhile, it was announced Thursday that the Olympics will be the first in history to be held without spectators.
Prior to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Japan was experiencing record numbers of inbound tourists from overseas, with even more expected for the Games, originally scheduled for last summer. As a renowned shopping destination, the tourism boom brought with it billions in retail sales to overseas shoppers. With the country’s borders now closed, retailers such as department stores are getting creative with how they appeal to domestic customers.
“We have good customers and they hesitate to go out, so we have started online customer service. Not only sales, but also showing what is going on in the store,” said Miyako Sekimoto, fashion director for Matsuya Ginza, a department store in Tokyo’s ritziest neighborhood, which was also the main destination for overseas shoppers pre-pandemic. “We are putting effort into e-commerce, and we started delivery service for cosmetics and food by taxi and bike. For the overseas customers, we do live commerce through WeChat, etc.”
Isetan Mitsukoshi, Japan’s largest department store operator, is taking similar measures. In November the company launched a remote shopping app designed to provide customers with an in-store shopping experience online. The app includes a chat feature, the ability to consult with sales staff via video, and even a payment platform.
“In order for customers to be able to shop on the Isetan Mitsukoshi site, we are also publishing content that addresses customers’ interests,” said a spokeswoman for Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd. “We have our buyers introduce curated product selections, special content related to Japanese sweets, and content that relates to special events that we are holding in-store, among others. We have published around 125,000 items.”
While overall sales are not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels for some time, measures to boost e-commerce sales appear to be working. For its fiscal year that ran from April 2019 through March 2020, Isetan Mitsukoshi’s online sales were around 20 billion yen. For the following year, they grew to 31.5 billion yen.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the postponement of the 2020 Olympics, and the subsequent states of emergency, department stores in Japan were no doubt planning to capitalize on the Games in order to boost their sales. Now, things are very different.
“We do not do direct Olympic-related campaigns or events under this circumstance,” Sekimoto said. “Instead we will offer special events which relate to Japanese culture such as Pokémon during the Olympic weeks. Also we will sell sets of food and drink for the people watching the Olympic Games at home.”
The latest state of emergency in Tokyo is due to begin Monday and run through Aug. 22, two weeks after the closing ceremony of the Olympics and just two days before the start of the Paralympics. Meanwhile, only 28.4 percent of Japan’s population has received at least one coronavirus vaccination shot and just 16.8 percent are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Prime Minister’s Office.
As Japan’s government has been slow to roll out the vaccine, it decided to allow private companies the option of purchasing doses for the purpose of vaccinating their staff and other related parties. However, after interest in the program was greater than expected and supply began to wane, the government temporarily put a pause on the program. Still, several large corporations including Fast Retailing, Rakuten and Mori Building took advantage of the option while they could.
One family member of a Fast Retailing employee said when he first heard that the company would offer him a vaccination appointment he felt “simply grateful and relieved,” as the public vaccination schedule for his area hadn’t been released at that time. Many municipalities are only just now starting to open up vaccinations to those under age 65, and others lag even further behind. In most areas, appointments are in high demand and difficult to secure.
“I think all companies should provide the chance [to be vaccinated] to their employees, but sadly there are not enough vaccines for workplace vaccinations, and they stopped accepting new applications,” the family member said. “The government needs to provide more of the vaccine.”