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