Anyone walking down Omotesando – the busy street that is home to Monocle’s Tokyo office – might be wondering what is going on this week. At different points along Omotesando’s unusually wide tree-lined pavements, people are standing in orderly queues. No, there aren’t sudden food shortages in Tokyo or visiting celebrities to ogle. The three big queues are for a new Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop, a café called Eggs ‘n Things whose only other branches are in Hawaii and another for Tokyu Plaza, a brand new shopping centre that opened yesterday.
When Ben & Jerry’s opened at the weekend, they pulled out all the stops including hiring a team of black Labradors dressed as cows and giving out cups of free ice cream. They needn’t have bothered. Someone should have told them that if it’s new, the crowds will come. And if it’s good, they’ll keep on coming.
The ability to queue for hours is a little-known side of the Japanese consumer. People are content to stand in line for everything from the giant new Uniqlo in Ginza – which had queues stretching along the street for days – to obscure pork cutlet restaurants where the tonkatsu is judged to be particularly tender. It’s not just the big fashion labels that attract hordes of people either. When the new season’s collection arrives at the small but perfectly formed menswear shop Soph a queue of well-dressed people will be at the ready lining the street before opening hours. New trainers at Nike and limited edition t-shirts at Bathing Ape all have their audience. No wonder retailers do all they can to crack the Japanese market. Its shoppers are the most discerning but also the most dedicated in the world.
The trick for retailers is in keeping the queues. H&M and Forever 21 had queues for weeks after they opened in Harajuku. Now the frenzy has died down. When the Monocle shop opened in Tokyo, our neighbour, a small doughnut stall, had a queue every day for months, even during the ferocious heat of summer. These days, there is rarely a wait. It’s a lucky few who can sustain the customers’ enthusiasm. Some do though. Eggs ‘n Things has been open since 2010 and there is still a long queue of people every day waiting patiently for their Hawaiian pancakes. Jangara ramen, a noisy Kyushu noodle bar always has a crowd outside and the queue to get into the official fan shop for Johnny’s – the management team behind some of Japan’s most popular boy bands – has been a feature of daily life in Harajuku for years. Every day, girls patiently wait for their ticket to get into this mecca for boy-band merchandise.
It’s not just the young and impressionable who stand in line either. Drive through Marunouchi, a smart business district, and you might notice a patient queue of sane-looking grown-ups snaking out of an office and shop complex and onto the street. Closer investigation reveals that these people are queuing for butter from Normandy. The spectacular success of Echire has encouraged Japanese buyers to scour northern France for the next big dairy product. And given the prices they can charge here, who can blame them.
Many brands have come acropper in Tokyo and the retail landscape in japan is littered with failures – brands who thought that anything would sell here. It won’t but if your product does capture the market’s attention, it can be an exhilarating ride.
There’s always something new to tempt Japanese consumers. Tokyo’s newest landmark the 634m Sky Tree is due to open on 22 May. We got a sneak preview of the staggeringly tall broadcasting tower this week and we can safely predict that the Sky Tree – and the surrounding shopping complex will be mobbed. Don’t expect to visit soon though. The half a million group tickets that were on offer until September are already sold out and the rest of the tickets for the first 50 days are being handed out in a draw. After then it will be a matter of joining a very long queue.