Archive for the ‘Retail’ Category

O-nii-kei Blazes On

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

For the last six months, Japanese male fashion fans have been waiting in great anticipation for the opening of department store Hankyu‘s new Men’s building in Osaka — aptly named Hankyu Men’s. This annex to the main building would bring together the widest selection of top-class and popular fashion brands every assembled under one roof. Designer brands Comme des Garçons, Lanvin, Dior Homme, and Maison Martin Margiela would be available, as well as luxury powerhouses Gucci, Prada, and Salvatore Ferragamo. More traditional-minded working men could browse Paul Stuart, J. Press, Brooks Brothers, and Ralph Lauren Purple Label. Tom Ford would offer his very first retail space in Japan.

Last weekend, Hankyu Men’s finally opened for business, attracting 180,000 shoppers in three days. According to the Senken Shimbun, Louis Vuitton first-ever men’s only boutique apparently brought in the highest revenues of any tenant (thus proving that LV is not only for women in Japan).

The number two winner, however, was quite a surprise. With almost all the first-tier brands lined up for direct competition, this was quite possibly a battle for the mind and soul of the Japanese fashion market. Even with so many European luxury houses, designer labels, Ivy League standards, and prestigious licenses offered, the brand earning the second-highest sales ended up being Buffalo Bobs — a leader in the relatively new “O-nii-kei” fashion subculture. In three days, this up-and-coming “wild and sexy” casual brand raked in ¥9.9 million.

O-nii-kei — meaning “big brother style” — has crystallized over the last few years as a more market-friendly, classically-masculine version of the “gyaru-o” taste culture. The gyaru-o were the young men who used to hang out with the more extreme “ganguro” members of the gyaru subculture in Shibuya. Now these boys have grown up, abandoned the crazy face paint and garish clothing, and outfitted themselves with aviator glasses, fur-trimmed nylon parkas, buccaneer boots, poofy bronzed hair, and as much silver as could be possible worn on the human body. (Think hosts). The central location for O-nii-kei is Shibuya (more specifically, fifth and sixth floors of Shibuya 109-2), but the look has spread across the archipelago. (For some visual examples of the style, check Patrick Macias’ excellent coverage here, here, and here.)

With the fashion market slowly crumbling and foreign “Japan Cool” hunters looking for the next big thing amongst Japanese youth, you’d think more observers in the Japanese and international media class would be falling all over O-nii-kei. Here is a self-contained fashion movement that has created a real economic market, despite little attention from the apparel manufacturing giants and media support dependent upon independent fashion titles Men’s Egg and Men’s Knuckle.

The darkly-tanned boys of O-nii-kei, however, are not about to make the cover of Men’s Non-no. I think it is fair to say that the “wild & sexy” style is held as anathema by the tastemakers in the fashion industrial complex. O-nii-kei is basically the latest incarnation of the “yankii” subculture that has been the aesthetic canon for working class delinquent youth tastes since the 1970s. Although alternately romanticized and demonized in the culture at large, yankii have always existed as an outcast from the fashion industry and “proper” consumerism. O-nii-kei is in essentially the same position today. The “serious” men’s fashion magazines may take a bit of “street” style into their wardrobe authorizations, but never touch anything approximating O-nii-kei, which they generally consider “unclean.” (Although there have been rumors that struggling Takarajima publication Smart may take up some O-nii-kei touches…)

So here we have a typical problem in the Cool Industries: The actual youth subculture that is “winning” in terms of sales, growth, and momentum is ghettoized because those at the top do not personally approve of the style. In the past, bottom-up groundswells have forced magazines to realign their fashion sense to meet the changes in consumer tastes. But in most cases, those “new styles” — like Shibuya Casual (shibukaji) in the late ’80s and Ura-Harajuku in the mid-’90s — started amongst upper middle-class youth — in other words, magazines’ main consumer base. O-nii-kei, however, is so tied to a (perceived) lower class taste culture that fashion market “leaders” Popeye or Men’s Nonno could not possibly speak its language without destroying their own up-market position and credibility with advertisers (who are in reality their most important target audience). But currying mainstream magazines’ favor may be a moot point. Buffalo Bobs and Vanquish haven’t needed the main fashion press to get where they are, so why start now?

There is a bigger question at stake, however: trend-spotters and cool-hunters have told us for the last decade that mass fashion trends trickle-down from a street-savvy “style elite,” who just happen to be very similar in tastes to the cool-hunters themselves. Now we see that this does not necessarily have to be true. There are lots of taste culture niches moving in parallel motion, and despite less social capital and cultural capital, niches at the bottom will be able to concentrate enough economic power to make the biggest splash in sluggish markets. Like with Akiba-kei, the O-nii-kei are no longer just consumers active in their own “alternative” market: They are the only consumers consuming enough to matter!

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Cucumber Soda and Other Short-Term Flavors

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

At this very moment, the internet is ablaze with curiosity and mockery towards the new Japanese Pepsi flavor for summer Ice Cucumber. Not since Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray has a vegetable-cola concoction captured the imagination of the world. For those assuming that cucumber beverages have a long history in local cuisine, I have to sadly report that this drink sounds equally bizarre to Japanese and non-Japanese alike. But judging from the fact that the soda is almost sold out at our local Sunkus, Pepsi seems to have pulled off a certain level of success with its gasp-inducing product.

The cola giant would not necessarily complain if the Japanese masses suddenly demanded a permanent place for Ice Cucumber in the Pepsi product family, but the birth of this “cucumber-inspired” (not cucumber-flavored) soda has much more to do with short-term tactical retail considerations than attempts at long-term product success.

The high competition for limited shelf space at convenience stores in Japan means that food and beverage manufacturers must produce an ever-changing repertoire of new products to secure retail real estate. In their book Can Japan Compete?, Michael E. Porter, Hirotaka Takeuchi, and Mariko Sakakibara explain:

One of the drivers of…meaningless product proliferation is Japan’s peculiar distribution channels, which expect each company to introduce a fresh lineup of products almost every month to maintain its shelf space allocation (80).

A perfect example of this practice is Nestlé Japan’s KitKat — a product brand that simultaneously sells a rotation of four to five implausible flavors. To win space on the prominent and prestigious “seasonal items” shelf right in front of the cash registers in convenience stores, KitKat produces limited-edition versions like Cherry Blossom in March/April, and currently, Yubari Melon — which fits perfectly into Family Mart’s nationwide “Dosanko” campaign in celebration of Hokkaido. (10 yen from each Yubari Melon Kit Kat purchase goes directly to the famously-bankrupt city of Yubari.) KitKat currently has Orange and Pineapple flavors prominently displayed in the front shelves at 7/11 although I doubt that consumers had been long demanding a citrus or tropical twist on the famed wafer franchise. These products’ short-term sales may not make up for the development costs, but they keep the KitKat brand fresh in shoppers’ mind and prevent rival companies from stealing away precious territory at key retail locations.

Considering this retail environment, Ice Cucumber may be the most elegant solution to these distribution needs in recent memory. By choosing a flavor as improbable as cucumber, consumers will have no choice but to buy a bottle to quench their curiosity. And the total brazenness of creating a cucumber soda has managed to give Pepsi an amazing amount of free worldwide publicity that your standard “Double Cherry Diet” would not. Even amongst guffaws and cackles, the Pepsi name gets out there, and convenience stores will happily dedicate space in the soda rack to Ice Cucumber that may have otherwise gone to a rival soda. Compare the Ice Cucumber launch to the concurrent Coca-Cola Zero campaign, which looks outright staid in its practicality, sophistication, and serious long-term aspirations. Coca-Cola Zero has zero sugar, but also zero cucumber fun.

The next logical step is for manufacturers to create even stranger flavors that cannot possibly be ignored. How could anyone deny a beverage with the flavor of “Raw Umber” or “Universal Suffrage”?

Postscript, The Taste: Ice Cucumber does not taste like a green salad. The mouthwash-colored soda is very sweet with a light aftertaste of honeydew melon. In Japanese, the word for cucumber  黄瓜 (or 胡瓜) contains the character 瓜 — meaning “melon, gourd.” (Suika — watermelon — can be written 水瓜 or “water melon.”) Considering the etymological connection between melons and cucumbers in Japanese, a cucumber taste seems much less wild or ridiculous as previously believed. Bright green “melon soda” is standard in Japan, and Ice Cucumber makes sense as a second cousin.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Intentional Rudeness in Japanese Retail

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

In books like Robert M. March’s Honoring the Customer: Marketing and Selling to the Japanese, Western observers often proclaim the existence of a “Japanese” style of over-polite customer relations. This is seen as a natural outgrowth of Japanese culture and not based on marketing management decisions. March’s idea suggests that the philosophy embodied in the famous expression “the customer is God” (「お客様は神様」) drives sales clerk behavior at an unconscious level. Certainly, this ethic materializes in most retail experiences in Japan: The shopping pageant usually opens with the staff screaming out the welcoming phrase “Irasshaimase!”

While this may be the conventional mode of consumer relationship, the theory above has little explanation for the large numbers of high-end fashion boutiques and brand shops in Japan where intentional rudeness is a well-honed strategy. Walk into the Comme des Garçons boutique in Aoyama, for example, and breathe in the deep, stylish silence of calculated alienation. Not only do the staff sternly hold back on verbal greetings to customers, the managers often flash you a look of utter disbelief — as if your presence caused massive disruption in the spirit underlying the brand ethos. I can partially blame this treatment on my own insufficiencies in living up to the proper sartorial and styling standards, but the frigid atmosphere and Medusa gazes are also curiously directed towards the store’s largest consumer base: fashionable young people.

A Bathing Ape and some of the other Ura-Harajuku street brands famously followed the same rudeness strategy in the 1990s, which worked to add an adequate cachet of elitism to counter any detrimental image effects resultant from the relative low price of the clothing. This was unlike the typical antipathy of American street brand store staff, however: Bape employees were never surly as much as they seemed like worker bees programmed to not appear too helpful.

There is something decidedly uncool about deconstructing this practice of cold silence and service deficit. Viewed within the context of that deep-seeded conviction that “being cool” comes naturally to a privileged few and involves no rational decision-making, assuming that marketing policy sets the tone of staff behavior is outright presumptuous. Greeting the customer with smiles and offers of help implies that (1) the store/brand wants to assist customers and (2) the store/brand is interested in playing that dirty, low-rent game of “selling” things. This attitude is common across the entire global high-end fashion industry, but perhaps its presence is much more striking in Japan where the “average” level of service is so consistently high.

The technique of customer alienation apparently went mainstream in Japan the mid-1980s when the super-elite artistic designer brands were suddenly swamped with “average kids” who threatened to weaken the retail environment’s appeal to the original core of up-scale consumers from the art and fashion worlds. Although few brands could resist the huge increases in revenue by expanding market reach downwards, they had to devise a way to take the sales of unideal consumers with one hand while continuing to maintain brand integrity with the other. As a solution, the staff was instructed to treat the young consumers with total derision.

And it worked. First, the treatment reinforced the fact that the kids were being into something “above them” rather than on their own level. Second, specifically-targeted customers would very clearly receive better treatment, bestowing on these special consumers a sense of importance. As long as the cash-heavy young consumers do not interpret the neglect as arrogance, the strategy makes sense. Moreover, this customer relations style has become so internalized within the high-end sector that being nice has ended up being a strange, contrarian measure. (I can anecdotally state that it sometimes works well to be polite and attentive to customers who expect to be contemptibly ignored.)

As we saw with the consumer demand driving the Tokyo Girls Collection, younger Japanese women do seem to be put off by the elitism at heart in high-end brand’s rudeness. They want comfort and ease, and one of the appeals of the brands located in the Shibuya 109 shopping complex is that the staff generally resemble the shopper. Relations are friendly — not just in terms of politeness, but the shop staff is positioned to act as the best friend or older sister of the customer.

At this point, high-end brands and restaurants would gasp at the idea of abandoning the alienation strategy since it is hardly within the reach of intentional decision-making. But brands on the border — those looking to entice mass Japanese consumers with a high-quality product — may want to reconsider the effects of making average customer feel like he is illegally breaking and entering into the retail space.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

AneCan: Media Leads Production and Consumption

Wednesday, April 18th, 2007

The auspicious launch of AneCan magazine may have appeared at first as the simple spread of CanCam‘s conserva-cute culture up to an older female demographic. But the inauguration did not just concern the birth of a single publication: AneCam worked with apparel makers and department stores in a coordinated effort to create a whole new market segment.

Last year,  CanCam‘s publisher Shogakukan released a special Oneesan-kei CanCam (Older Sister CanCam) issue to test the waters for starting a more “elegant” version of the magazine that would target women in their late 20s. Sales were superb, and decisions were made to push towards a regularly-publishing separate monthly magazine for this audience. The effort culminated in AneCan‘s March debut.

While Shogakukan experimented with an older audience, domestic apparel makers who supply the specific brands featured in CanCam started working towards a new set of brands that would represent  the AneCan style. For example, the following companies created the new brands:

The first issue of AneCan apparently sold almost 90% of its projected 320,000 copies in five days. To correspond with the magazine launch, Isetan department stores held a special exhibition of the main “AneCan” brands for a week period in their seven stores across Japan. In just that short time, the six brands sold ¥35 million. Between other stores and online sales, the brands all reported amazing sales (Arpege had ¥7 million sales in just one week), and many reported that their items specifically featured in AneCan sold out completely. From the perspectives of the publisher, the apparel makers, and the retailers, the AneCan launch was a massive success, and they gave form to a new market segment to which they could continue to sell products.

General lessons to learn from this successful media-manufacturer-retailer coordination:

  1. Japanese magazines often define markets rather than respond to them. In this case, a successful magazine did not “curate” or style its own look out of pre-existing brands but instead coordinated the creation of new brands appropriate for its readership.
  2. Consumers will gravitate towards the purchase of specific items featured in the magazine as these are seen as perfectly “safe.”
  3. Consumers want clarity in branding: i.e., these brands are “AneCan” brands featured in an “AneCan” retail space. Everything from all angles lined up to make the purchase an easy choice.

Sources: 『売れる「姉キャン」系ブランド30代もつかむ』繊研新聞平 成19 4月4日

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.