During the bubble economy of the 1980s, the Japanese gained an international reputation as voracious shoppers, hypnotised by brands, fastidious to the nth degree about quality, and oblivious to price. The tightening of purse strings and hesitation to spend resulting from the economic downturn (fukeiki) of the next two decades led to the emergence of a new retail phenomenon in Japan: discounting.
This trend was also helped along by external pressure, especially from the United States, for a greater opening up of the retail sector, with icons of American grand-scale retailing, such as Toys R Us, becoming a common feature in and on the fringes of many urban areas. The quest for quality and love of brands continues unabated, but price is now an important factor in every purchase, catered to more and more by big and small retailers, catalogue shopping, trade fair style shopping events and, increasingly, the Internet.
In the past bargaining was rarely employed as a shopping tactic. Now, particularly with electrical appliances, the price displayed may be treated in the first instance as a guide. Each of the four main selling seasons is finished off with a sale period, during which genuine reductions are offered in all seasonal retail sectors, especially clothing.
The commencement date of these periods has gradually crept back in time as retailers try everything to lure shoppers. Continued technological advancement has also contributed to price reductions. In the past, within one city from store to store there was virtually no price variation on a given item, but this is no longer the case, so shopping around can bring worthwhile results.
In a sense there are two sides to shopping in Japan: on one, the latest in photographic, electronic and musical goods; the other, traditional arts and crafts. With the former, large cities in Japan can be excellent places to shop for new and used cameras and related equipment. Electrical goods are also now competitively priced, as can be seen especially in well-known areas such as Tokyo’s Akihabara district, but problems can arise due to the electrical current used in Japan, and differences between Japanese and other countries’ models of electrical goods.
For visitors who want to take home something uniquely Japanese, a choice can be made from Japanese dolls (ningyo), umbrellas (kasa), lacquer ware (shikki), Japanese paper (washi), the carp flags flown around the time of Boys’ Day (koinobori), wood block prints (ukiyo-e), traditional style bathrobes (yukata), an item of pottery, and jewellery such as pearls. Other kinds of accessories and clothing, depending on size availability, can also be considered, with large variation in design and availability occurring from region to region. Most tourist-oriented locations, such as temples and shrines, earn hefty incomes from selling trinkets that have religious significance in Japan, but can also make good souvenirs for overseas visitors.
A visit to the local shopping area and supermarket is a good way of experiencing an important aspect of everyday life in Japan, with the food on sale at open-fronted shops in shopping arcades clearly showing the stark differences between common items of the Japanese diet, such as pickled vegetables and ocean grown delicacies, and staples of Western food. Whilst all fresh food in supermarkets, such as vegetables, fish, meat and poultry is usually wrapped, fruit and vegetable shops offer much of their produce unwrapped, placed in small plastic bowls, each bowl containing a number of pieces of fruit or vegetables, offered for purchase as a set.
Through the 1980s and in to the early 90s food and consumer goods prices in Japan gained a well-deserved reputation for being excessive compared to all other countries. For locally grown produce, since Japan’s economic rise from the 1960s, land values have been an important factor in determining prices. The major component in these prices was effectively payment of rent to farmers for the use of their land to grow the item. While unseasonal weather from time to time causes upward price movements, with the decline in land values has come a decline in prices of locally grown produce. Increased food imports have also helped to lower and stabilise prices. These deflationary pressures, along with the relentless march of technology, have also lowered prices of manufactured goods.
In short, from the early 1990s product pricing has changed significantly. Previously, consumers usually equated quality with price, and as they always wanted the best quality, price often was of secondary consideration. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers were all in on the act of taking advantage of this tendency, with additional links in the chain of distribution of some products being unnecessarily added to enable someone else to take a margin. Some electronic products became excessively complex, offering options and features of little use and which many consumers, and even some company service personnel, were unable to fathom and use.
By the end of the decade, not only had this price revolution brought sustained lower prices, it had also brought forth a new consumer mindset and new purchasing habits. Consumers still seek and expect quality, but they are much more price-conscious, especially for everyday shopping. However when purchasing something for a special purpose, such as a gift, price is still of minor importance, so the $100 plus musk melon can still be found, as well as $1,000 European silk shirts. In the case of the melon, everyone would be aware of its brand and know it has been raised like a child, then carefully packaged to serve its purpose of being given as a gift, creating a favourable impression in the recipient. Not very dissimilar melons at less than a tenth the price can be obtained, in season, at any supermarket, the obvious choice for normal home consumption.
The moral of the story is that personal consumption at sensible prices is entirely possible, for food, clothing (the rise of Uniqlo is a prime example – good quality, reasonably priced and fashionable), electrical goods and dining out.