Observation | Monocle

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Japan’s retailers and property developers love nothing more than putting up hoardings, commissioning a good graphic treatment and then slapping up the word “renewal” across windows, façades and entire buildings. Where other markets might go with “closed for renovations”, Japan has turned the concept of the retail rebirth into a unique form of strategic rethink-meets-shopfloor facelift.

Not to be confused with a mere update of fittings and fixtures, shop renewals Tokyo-style take a variety of factors into consideration, including customer profiles, emerging brands, trends in architecture and shifts in lifestyle. At leading fashion retailers the reopening can often be led by a single buyer and his or her vision of the market is brought to life across hundreds of square feet. You might have a rustic shop space that has thus far devoted itself to French nautical workwear, Portuguese satchels, Greek espadrilles and woven Thai sunhats (it still amazes me how narrow and specific Japanese retail can be). It can then shut down for a month and re-emerge as a gleaming white cube focusing solely on angular sportswear in various shades of navy, Swedish clogs in metallic finishes, chunky jewellery made in the suburbs of Seattle and a wall of fragrances from a Portland-based apothecary that you’ve never heard of.

When I passed through Tokyo in late February, half of Omotesando Hills (formerly home to monocle’s first Asia bureau) was plastered with various graphics explaining the grand renewal that was underway, what the new retail line-up was and the relaunch date for the Tadao Ando-designed space. While some updates are necessary to address falling sales or confront fresh competition that might have opened around the corner, they can also be a pre-emptive measure to head off sagging sales and generate fresh excitement for a retailer.

Perhaps most importantly, this type of experimentation means that there’s constant innovation happening on the floors of Japanese retailers large and small. One of the most interesting results of this culture is the shrinking of the Japanese department store – not in revenue terms but in square feet and offer. In the heart of the Marunouchi financial district, Isetan has taken the best elements from its men’s department store in Shinjuku and repackaged its assorted ranges of loafers, unlined blazers and underwear. Busy bankers who only have 30 minutes at lunch – or even less before they catch the train home – are greeted by a handsome shop that is a completely fresh approach to reaching hard-to-please, high-spending male customers.

If Isetan doesn’t catch its customers in Marunouchi then it’s got them covered at the domestic gates at Tokyo Haneda. When I spotted the men’s shop in the JAL terminal I was about to give it a miss, as I assumed it would be full of the usual fare found at most other airports around the world. I should have known better. Rather than a tired collection of thinly merchandised luxury brands, this branch of Isetan had thermal loungewear for those heading for a cosy weekend in Hokkaido, jersey blazers from Barena and shirts from Salvatore Piccolo – to top up the wardrobe for a round of sub-tropical meetings in Kagoshima – and all kinds of resort items for poolside pursuits in Okinawa.

So interesting is the Isetan story that you might have noticed we have devoted our entire Expo to the store’s ongoing transformation. Any premium retailer that’s not paying attention to the company’s tireless focus on service and detail should book a trip to Tokyo soonest.

On the topic of inspiration, we’re finalising the line-up for our Quality of Life Conference in Vienna in mid-April. By the time this issue hits newsstands in most corners of the world you might still make the cut-off for tickets and a weekend of good discussions in great company. So far we have an 80 per cent return rate from 2015 so it would be good to mix things up if you didn’t attend.

This year we’re placing an emphasis on the health of buildings and cities and also adding a bit more focus on the world of retail, including a special first-come, first-serve session with one of Europe’s leading thinkers on how to create everything from better supermarkets to department stores. I’m hoping that all attendees leave Vienna feeling not only positive about bricks-and-mortar retail but also inspired to help their cities fashion better environments for independent and big-brand retailers to thrive. As many conferences tend to concentrate their gaze on a single topic, we’re aiming to broaden the discussion to address all the players that have a hand in making communities not just function but evolve into benchmarks for others to follow.

We look forward to seeing you in the Austrian capital from 15 April – and if we don’t see you there you can always tune in to Monocle 24 on the day. All special requests are welcome at tb@monocle.com or via my ever-attentive colleagues Mat and Hannah at mfa@monocle.com and hg@monocle.com respectively. Thank you for your support.

For more from our editor in chief, read his column in the ‘FT Weekend’.

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