Japanese consumers changing rapidly

18 March 2010

TOKYO: Shoppers in Japan are undergoing a profound transformation in terms of their preferences and purchase behaviour, a study by McKinsey has stated.

Traditionally, consumers in the country have been both "distinctive and reassuringly predictable", particularly with regard to their attachments to brands, premium goods and high-end stores, the company said.

However, having conducted in-depth interviews with leading executives and directly surveyed hundreds of members of the public, the consultancy argued a "new normal" may be emerging.

In the first instance, many people in the world's second-largest retail market are cutting costs and shopping around rather than paying extra for convenience, as was the case previously.

As a consequence, more department stores have begun renting floor-space to "fast fashion" chains like Uniqlo and Forever21, while cosmetics firms are launching increasing numbers of low-cost offerings.

Similarly, while the penetration of own-label grocery brands currently stands at around 4%, Seven & I, the convenience store giant, expects sales of its in-house range to rise by 60% over the current financial year.

Equally, a reduction in road tolls has encouraged more customers to travel to outlets based outside cities, favouring companies like Costco and Ikea.

Internet shopping has also experienced a surge in interest, and McKinsey predicted online revenues for physical goods will grow to $50 billion (€36.3bn; £32.6bn) by 2015, possibly reaching $60bn under an "aggressive" scenario.

"In a consensus-driven society where individual choice and expression have historically been frowned upon, the ability to browse products, compare prices, and make purchases relatively anonymously is creating new attitudes and empowering consumers," it said.

Elsewhere, a poll of 3,000 adults found that 46% were now more likely to choose activities at home over going out, with surfing the web, watching TV and reading newspaper among the popular past-times.

"I've seen people staying in more. They're not going out, because of the economic crisis," Ernest Higa, chief executive of Higa Industries, which runs Domino's local operations, added.

The pizza firm introduced an online delivery platform in Japan in 2004, with the initial long-term target of generating 5% of takeout orders through this channel, but this figure has climbed to 35% at present.

Another issue taking on greater importance is the environment, with 84% of respondents to McKinsey's survey saying they would prefer to buy consumer goods that boasted "green" credentials.

One brand tapping in to this trend is Coca-Cola's I LOHAS water, which is bottled locally in eco-friendly packaging, and has become the top-selling single-serve bottled water less than 12 months after launch.

However, some caution remains in this area, as only 16% of the panel agreed they would be willing to pay more for these kinds of products.

"After decades of behaving differently, Japanese consumers suddenly look a lot like their counterparts in Europe and the United States," McKinsey said.

"This fundamental shift in the attitudes and behavior of Japanese consumers seems likely to persist, irrespective of any economic recovery."

"That's because the change stems not just from the recent downturn but also from deep-seated factors ranging from the digital revolution to the emergence of a less materialistic younger generation."

Data sourced from McKinsey; additional content by Warc staff