All For The Home

Daiso’s new store in Tokyo is completely dedicated to furnishings and kitchenware

Cheap and cheerful Daiso is already where one goes to find inexpensive stuff for the home. But now, the retailer of 100-yen anything (or S$2 here, as you know) has opened one in Tokyo, where only home ware is available. Yes, no nail polish or boxer shorts, but, interesting, there are wristwatches! And not everything is sold at the standard price of 100 yen; new prices are between 330 and 770 yen. The new Daiso store is called by another name, too: Standard Products, presumably to stand out from the (generally) one-price older sibling. And also to set itself apart from the original store, but not nearly enough for it to be different from more established compatriot brands, particularly Muji and, to a degree, Nitori. In fact, so much better looking is the new store—and higher the prices—that Tokyoites happily call it “upmarket Diaso”.

Opened in March and situated inside Mark City in Shibuya, just a hop from the Shibuya Bus Station, Standard Products will inevitably draw comparison with Muji and such (some even likened it to Ikea!). For starters, it’s much better looking than the average Daiso store (if you’ve been to those not in big cities, you’ll remember them to be quite humble). There is also the more staggering variety of products, and better storage/displays (attractively stacked!), even with a veritable semblance of visual merchandising. There is also a neatness not usually evident in Diaso. But that, for some, may take the fun out of shopping in Standard Products: it’s too posh and orderly. And it does not have quite the you-don’t-know-what-useful-stuff-you-may-find madness. If Standard Products makes you miss Diaso, the later is, in fact, just round the corner, and with the unmistakable hot-pink shop front and the crazy jumble inside too.

When approaching Standard Products, Daiso regulars might think they have stumbled upon a home emporium in the hipster neighbourhood of Daikanyama. The main store front is top to bottom aluminium-framed glass panels, on which the name is emblazoned in massive, black sans-serif font. There is no window display. The interior is for all to see. Merchandise immediately greet you at your first step. Inside, you will take a while to get used to the orderly space and wrap your head around the fact that this is a Diaso offshoot. As you explore the surprisingly wide aisles, you’ll find yourself wondering if you are, in fact, in a Muji store (like we said). Even the industrial-space-meets-modern-barn of some corners are unmistakably Muji. And the wares? You need to be a hermit just descended from Mount Fuji not to see the similarities and the matching minimalist aesthetics.

Stuff for the kitchen or dining takes up at least half of the reported 1,300 products available. There are more bowls, plates, mugs, and glassware than you’ll ever need, but truth be told, most of them are truly appealing, especially if you are susceptible to neutral-coloured ceramics and stoneware in simple shapes that can show off their equally stylish content. There is also a surprisingly large selection of acacia wood accessories such as caddies, platters, and pot holders, all handsomely fashioned. What seems to be missing are appliances. Still, the selection of merchandise is so extensive and the products so appealingly designed that it is hard, we think, even for the not house-proud to successfully resist.

Although retail in Japan is going through hard times due to the still-raging pandemic, retailers there have not given up or stopped innovating. Daiso going specifically into home ware with Standard Products makes sense. As WFH is still prevalent and the preferred work-place arrangement, consumers are opening up their wallets or Google Pay to shop for items that can spruce their domestic interiors, rather than those that will fill an already over-stuffed wardrobe. Instead of going by way of the even less expensive route (can they go lower than 100 yen?), the Hiroshima-based company has chosen a retail concept that is a winning combination of friendly prices and accessible designs, both in a setting that reflects the growing sophistication of the pandemic-era homeowner. But this isn’t the first time Diaso has adopted the more-than-100-yen merchandising approach. There is the Threeppy chain (which, according to the parent company, is a conflation of “300 yen and happy”) that was introduced in Japan in 2018. A year later, the first of six Threepy shops (they are nearly always smaller than Diaso) outside Japan opened here at Funan Mall. Will we also see a Standard products store here in 2022?

Despite the unmistakable home theme of Standard Products, the merchandising team also took pleasure in defining what home is or where it could be. As we well know, as long as there is access to the Internet, home (and the home office) could be anywhere, even in the mountains. Well aware of this, Standard Products has also a section for camping kits, complete with a tent, set up to give context to its attendant products, such as thermoses, water bottles, and even mess tins! Standard is clearly not quite the defining quality of the store, fun is.

Photos: Jiro Shiratori

Cool Convenience

Tokyo Report | Japan’s Urban Research fashion retailer has teamed up with convenience store Family Mart for a capsule collection in a delectably charming space

It’s hard to imagine Family Mart beyond what it essentially is: a convenience store. Yet, in Japan, such stores can be shopping destinations in themselves. Many, including 7-Eleven and Lawson, provide such an experience in selected stores that tourists consider them must-stops or places to visit when other regular shops close. Some of them carry ‘fashion items’, such as those from Muji, but Family Mart, the second largest convenience store chain in Japan behind 7-Eleven, takes it one step further. They’ve teamed up with the fashion and general goods retailer Urban Research to create both merchandise and retail space that give konbini added cool.

Opened in February this year, the store is called by a rather modern-yet-matriarchal name of Urban·Famima!! (yes, double exclamation marks. Famima!! was, in fact, the name of the now-defunct Family Mart stores in the US). It is not only a nod to Family Mart’s own konbini heritage, but also Urban Research’s fashion retail flair. One of Urban·Famima!!’s first stores is located in the opened-this-year Toranomon Hills Business Tower, between Akasaka and Ginza, close to Hibiya Park. Toranomon Hills is a retail-and-office complex that is part of the ‘Hills’ development by Mori Building Company, creator of equally posh projects such as Omotaesando Hills and Roppongi Hills. Japanese retailers, it has to be said, are ever so inclined to dream up new concepts to fit the building or neighbourhood their stores are situated in. Urban·Famima!! is one such realisation.

According to Toranomon Hills’ media release, Urban·Famima!! is “based on the concept of ‘urban life convenience store’. This is a next-generation convenience store that proposes a new lifestyle that combines fashion and convenience stores.” In essence, it’s two different retail businesses coming together as one, which is not different from BICQLO, the nine-level behemoth in Shinjuku that houses both the electronics giant Bic Camera and Japan’s fast fashion leader Uniqlo. Urban·Famima!! is, of course, smaller, and with the food, makes the pairing perhaps even more compelling. And as the space is relatively small, but still large for a convenience store, the merchandise is even more judiciously selected and the space appealingly laid out. The typical konbini aesthetic does not really come to play.

The idea of a clothier (or celebrity designer) creating a retail outlet that pays homage to Japan’s more-sophisticated-than-elsewhere convenience store is not entirely new. One of the earliest to do so was everyone’s favourite design maven Hiroshi Fujiwara who created, in Ginza, The Conveni, which was recently shuttered. The Conveni, with its literal fit-out, was more kitschy, even derivative, while Urban·Famima!! is more boutique-like and a lot more compellingly merchandised. The store describes their offerings as “lifestyle miscellaneous goods”, but the miscellany is far more controlled than a typical Family Mart store. The clothes have the city-smart aesthetics that Urban Research is known for. Not exactly the stuff of Harajuku or nearby Aoyama, but fashion that would keep you longer in a convenience store than you normally would spend time in. Will there ever be a day our Cheers goes this cool?

Photos: Jiro Shiratori for SOTD

Tokyo Is Back!

Apart from the return to business, new stores are opening. Can we look to the Japanese capital for inspiration?

 

Uniqlo HarajukuThe new Uniqlo store in Harajuku, Tokyo

After Tokyo announced the state of emergency imposed on the city to be lifted on 25 May, six days before it was due to expire, news began to emerge that a raft of new stores would be opening in June. The revelation was not met with shock, not a whimper of surprise. Japanese retail is an evolving, ever-changing behemoth. While COVID-19 has impacted both business viability and the appetites of consumers for shopping, as seen everywhere else in the world, it has not dampen the spirit in Tokyo for keeping retail going, and with verve.

Here, we’re mostly exposed to gloom and doom. It is widely reported that the global economy is expected to shrink by 3% on average this year. Our economy, as reported by CNA last month, is expected to contract by 4% to 7%. According to Singstat, retail sales fell 13.3% year-on-year in March, which was the sharpest fall in two decades. The Business Times wrote that apparel and footwear saw the steepest drop of 41.6% in the same month, compared to last year. These figures are those before the Circuit Breaker measures were introduced. They are, therefore, expected to be bleaker.

Official Japanese numbers are not especially encouraging either. Retail sales, as reported by the Japan Times recently, have fallen 12.3% in May from a year earlier, with apparel retail hit especially hard. Japan Department Stores Association figures showed apparel sales in department stores to be ¥97,548 million for April, compared to ¥243,870 million in the same month last year. That’s a decline of more than half. Yet, in Tokyo, retailers, do not appear to succumb to such dismal prediction. They are actively participating in the on-going rejuvenation of shopping belts, such as Harajuku and Shibuya.

To be sure, many of the stores that opened in the past month were planned much earlier to coincide with the now-postponed Tokyo Olympic Games, which was projected to yield nation-wide retail sales of ¥4 trillion, now probably not to be realised. Undeterred by the double whammy of the rescheduled Games and the COVID-19 pandemic, some retailers are forging ahead with not just opening new stores, but also creating novel shopping experiences for a market that is already far more compelling and innovative than most. Harajuku, a district in the Shibuya ward, with a youth fashion history younger than Shinjuku’s, appears to be leading the recovery as some of big boys of retail open new, crowd-drawing stores.

Uniqlo Harajuku Style HintUniqlo’s first physical Style Hint corner in its new Harajuku store. Photo: Uniqlo Japan

Uniqlo leads the pack with not one, but two new stores opened, just eight kilometres apart (also new in neighbouring Yokohama is so mega a store that it is called Uniqlo Park). There is Uniqlo Harajuku situated in the new mall With Harajuku that faces Yoyogi Park, across from the equally new Harajuku Station. Then Uniqlo Ginza, a refurbished and larger “Global Flagship” in the swanky shopping belt of the same name. Despite skeptics saying that Uniqlo is over-stretching itself during an unending pandemic that has subdued consumer spending, Tadashi Yanai, the founder and president of Fast Retailing, parent company of Uniqlo, told the media during the opening of Uniqlo Harajuku that “the coronavirus has accelerated change, but this store is to be a part of the recovery.”

Such positive and upbeat sentiments are reflected in the 2,000-square-metre Harajuku store itself: a hub of happy vibes. While habitués of Uniqlo would recognise the typically neat interior and layout, they will spot one new stand-out concept. Housed in a separate boutique-like space in the basement of the two-level store is Style Hint. One visitor last weekend described it as “a bit experimental”. Perception aside, Style Hint is tech-centric to better serve its digital-savvy customers. Inside, the highlight is a wood cabin-like wall of 240 touch screens that feature influencers and customers all fashionably togged in Uniqlo pieces. The pictures are reminiscent of those in the now-no-more local magazine Fruits. If any of the photos catches your fancy, you may touch any part of the outfit, and corresponding information will pop up to guide viewers to where the clothes are available, in-store or online. Also new to Uniqlo Harajuku (and any Uniqlo, for that matter) is a flower shop(!) that offers bunches of blooms (ten varieties, according to a staffer) for sale.

The new Global Flagship store in Ginza is not the biggest as the accolade still belongs to its older, similarly titled sister—the world largest, in fact—on Ginza’s main drag. This must-stop for tourists is oddly sandwiched between the swanky Ginza 6 mall in front and the edgy Dover Street Market Ginza in the rear. The new store, located in Marronnier Gate Ginza 2 (of three buildings) in the Yurakucho area, just 500 metres away (or 10 minutes by foot) from the sibling, sits amid less pricey names such as Loft, Tokyu Hands and Muji, whose first hotel is practically round the corner. Spread across 4,500 square metres of space across four flours of the building designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, this Uniqlo features the first LifeWear Square, a sleek space with exposed skeleton of the interior that brings to our mind Nike Town.

20-06-27-17-34-07-781_decoNext to Uniqlo is Ikea’s first compact store

Not to be outdone, Ikea—increasingly inching into the fashion sphere—has also opened its first “city-centre store” two weeks ago, in Harajuku. As a matter of fact, they have Uniqlo for an immediate neighbour. In the past, Tokyoites who wanted to get their Ikea fix would head to Tachikawa in the west of the city, about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo Station. Out here, the Swedish company’s first store opened as recently as 2014 (it arrived on our shores in 1978). That Ikea has opened in “cool” Harajuku (ironically losing its DNA as more mass-market brands have set up shop here, including Daiso) has many living in the heart of the city quite thrilled, even if the store offers mostly small Yamanote-Line-friendly home ware—more Färgrik mug than Klippan sofa.

While Ikea’s retail director Jaap Doornbos told The Straits Times last month that Ikea at Jem (slated to open next year), similarly a “smaller concept—within a shopping centre—will be the first of its kind in the region”, Japan beat us to it. In fact, it is possible that Ikea Harujuku is a foretaste of what the upcoming Ikea Jem would look like. The 2,500-square-metre “compact” store, as the Japanese media called it, is, like Uniqlo, unmistakable in its image. Just imagine its Market Hall shrunken and given a steroidal boost, and a visible shop front. Once inside, the merchandise arranged to greet shoppers is reminiscent of Ikea’s closest competitor, Nitori, with a nine-storey store less than a kilometre away, in the Shinjuku neighbourthood.

People come to Ikea to be inspired by their “room” set-ups, and here they mirror the average Japanese homes—small. But unlike those of Muji’s home department, the merchandise here do not seem to be specifically designed for Japanese living spaces and quirks. However, Swedish lagom seems to work fine with Nippon wabi-sabi, such as the yet-to-launch-here Symfonisk speaker-lamp and desk lamp. People come to Ikea for the food too. Unfortunately, their famous meatballs are not available at the Swedish Café. Instead the main comprises tunnbröd, Swedish flatbread sandwiches with assorted fillings. There is, unsurprisingly, a Swedish Food Market—with familiar combini-style fittings— that is called, what else, Swedish Combini. Even cup noodles with the Ikea branding is available (they are labelled as “plant ramen”). A shopper, out with his wife for the first time since the state of emergency was lifted, smilingly told us that, Ikea Harajuku “is a good date place.”

20-06-27-23-58-10-755_decoBustling, as always, at the Harajuku intersection of Meiji Dori and Omotesando

Harajuku—kawaii central—seems to be where the action is taking shape (nearby Shibuya too, but that’s for another post). Apart from Uniqlo and Ikea, beauty giant Shiseido has opened a new “digital store” called Beauty Square (also at With Harajuku) that is reminiscent of their retail concept from the ’90s known as the Cosmetic Garden (situated at a basement unit of a donjukai apartment at the adjacent Omotesando that is now replaced by the shopping centre Omotesando Hills), where customers can visit to discover things, but now with a digital, also app-driven component. Another Japanese brand that has opened a new store in Harajuku is Snow Peak, which is, to us, a more advanced—design wise—The North Face (except the only-in-Japan The North Face Standard). For hipsters who camp! The new store, dubbed Land Station, has a more urban vibe—industrial rather than outdoor.

It cannot be certain that much of the buzz is to meet pent-up demand, but Tokyo, with 14 million inhabitants, has always been the hotbed of hype-prone retail activity. Not only are the Japanese brands getting into the scramble, foreign names are, too. Kith, the New York-based sneaker retailer, now with their own clothing line—including a Vogue collab, has announced that they will open their first overseas store in Shibuya next week, in the recently unveiled Miyashita Park, a 67-year-old public area with a playground that was once a conduit of sorts between Harajuku and Shibuya, now turned into a shopping complex. It is hard to say how Kith’s entry into Tokyo will pan out, given the presence of local sneaker retailers such as Atmos and Mita Sneakers, but Kith will no doubt add excitement to the mix.

Last Saturday, the crowd on Meiji Dori, a thoroughfare that cuts through Harajuku and the swanky Omotesando, is as large as it typically was before COVID-19. From new malls to the indie shops of Aoyama further south, people succumbed to retail therapy with palpable joy and corresponding reward. If retail performance can be gauged, even superficially, by the number of people with shopping bags, then this particular weekend, a month after the state of emergency was lifted, could be indication that, for Tokyo, retail isn’t doomed. Two weeks after our own Circuit Breakers measures were eased into Phase 2 and retail businesses resumed, things are not looking as jaunty.

It is often said that comparing us to Tokyo is pointless. The common conclusion is that we are not even near Hong Kong. Nationally, the Japanese enjoy shopping and are not fashion-averse. And they have made many retail businesses buoyant through their collective interest and curiosity, and consumption. Isetan Department Store in Shinjuku alone reportedly sees retail sales amount to about ¥720 million per day. While, in general, Japanese fashion retail volume has registered deficits since 2011, it has not put a damper on the spirit of creating good, usable, attractive products and selling them in spaces that can rightfully claim to be experiential. Japanese retailers are often thought to be more intrepid and innovative than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Perhaps, here on our island, retailers can abandon predictable, and try plucky and leading-edge too.

Photos: Jiro Shiratori

Unconvincing Convenience

Tokyo Report | From pool to car park and now convenience store, Hiroshi Fujiwara has explored the banal physical space of ‘street’. His latest retail venture could be a stab at the convenience of throwaway fashion and, likely, culture. But is it persuasive enough for us to open our wallets?

 

Conveni Dec 2019 P1

It is tempting to call The Conveni store an excess of cleverness. Its creator, the high priest of Tokyo’s streetwear/design/retail scene, Hiroshi Fujiwara, has put together a shop that’s homage to Japan’s omnipresent konbini (コンビニ), short for convenience store, of which more than 500,000 is reportedly spread across the archipelago. On paper and via media raves, it sounds good, even compelling (although we thought, at first, it sounds more like a play on ‘convent’). But an intentional visit may hit the regret nerve.

A follow-up of the successful and charming pop-up The Park.Ing Ginza, The Conveni feels more like a quick take-up of an available space than a strategic move that results in a enlightened retail post. While The Park.ing Ginza was a much larger space (it did occupy a carpark!) and was truly a spirited jumble of intriguing products, The Conveni is a strikingly smaller enclosure, with variety-lite merchandise that seems to share the same provenance and quality as Wego.

Comveni 2019 P3

As with The Park.ing Ginza, The Conveni is, similarly, sited in the basement of the old, Yoshinobu Ashihara-designed Sony Building at the Sukiyabashi intersection on Harumi-dori. However, it has a new entrance which is at the rear of the change-is-the-only-constant park space which has taken over the vacated spot, interestingly still linked to the electronics brand: Ginza Sony Park. The Conveni is the only retail store in the small underground shopping centre apart from the Kiosk, a stand that offers books, gift items, and Sony-branded merchandise.

Opened this past August, Mr Fujiwara’s latest venture is unmissable as it is konbini-bright in a concrete enclosure that is less enthusiastically lit. From the outside, you do get a sense of its convenience store inspiration, but, unlike the real deal, The Conveni is not bursting with products, nor does it seem inclined to sell as many, or as wide-rangingly. Visually, it takes the konbini idea too literally (non-working fridges to house T-shirts!), and aches to be cool. We aren’t sure what to make of it: the shop feels to us like one of those print shops in Sunshine Plaza—functional, with service that can be indifferent.

Comveni Dec 2019 P2

Inside, it is difficult to find The Conveni compelling. Conceptually, it is interesting. But when the merchandise pale in comparison to what is available in an actual convenience store, such as 7-Eleven (known locally as Seven, where you can find decent, basic garments), then The Conveni’s existence is either a lame expression of irony (now not quite au courant) or a spiritless dip into the concert-merch approach to retail. At best, it is a konbini for souvenirs of your trip to Tokyo, or, specifically, Ginza. And even that, you’re probably better off at Lawson.

Mr Fujiwara, instrumental in Harajuku’s fledgling fashion scene in the ’80s, is very much revered in the west for popularising hip-hop music in Tokyo and for creating what would be a much more ‘elevated’ take on streetwear. His Fragment Design is the go-to multi-disciplinary outfit for collabs if you want to crack the Japanese market or let the design world at large sit up and notice you. The Conveni, without the hype that bolsters the success of Supreme, regrettably, will get only die-hard fans falling over themselves to rush to the store.

The Conveni Store is at 〒104-0061 Tokyo, Chuo City, Ginza, 5 Chome−3−1. Photos: Jiro Shiratori