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- 24 Jan 2009
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The Future of Luxury in Japan

In asking the question, ‘What is luxury?’ there is no better place to turn than Japan. Despite fifteen years of economic uncertainty, the Pacific island-nation remains, for the time being, the world’s single largest market for high-end luxury goods. 

A few years ago, JETRO estimated the total share of global luxury goods sold to Japanese consumers to be somewhere around 35 to 45 percent. Indeed, a walk around Tokyo reveals a ceaseless parade of high-end handbags from Europe’s most prestigious fashion houses. There are multiple boutiques of almost all the major luxury brands within Japan’s numerous department stores, in addition to enormous standalone shops in Omotesando and Ginza, the upscale Tokyo shopping neighbourhoods, not to mention in Osaka and other Japanese cities.

Oddly, the ubiquity of products on the streets has never diminished the halo of luxury goods for most Japanese. Consumers might no longer afford head-to-toe designer apparel as they did in the ‘80s, but they still have a remarkable passion for handbags and accessories. When in September 2002, the then world’s largest Louis Vuitton store opened in Omotesando (that title is now held by the Champs Elysées store in Paris), thousands of Japanese customers waited patiently outside for a chance to shop for the brand’s famous leather goods, which they could in theory have bought at any of the half-dozen other Louis Vuitton locations around Tokyo.  

In recent years, however, the Japanese market’s enthusiasm for luxury has started to wane. The major companies — Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Chanel, and Christian Dior — managed to secure dramatic growth during the mid-1990s, at a time when total import sales were falling. However, 2008 was one of the first years of outright declines in sales. Most brands suffered serious losses in the Spring, and the current economic crisis has only served to amplify consumers’ reluctance to spend. Some brands are projected to see 15 to 30 percent drops in their Japanese revenue base for fiscal 2008, which may also explain Louis Vuitton’s recent decision to put on hold its plans for the latest Louis Vuitton emporium in Tokyo — one which would have wrested the title of largest store back from Paris. 

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The Dior Omotesando and Gyre Buildings in Tokyo (photo by Naoya Fuji)

A History of Western Luxury in Japan

Before we can speculate on the future of this critical luxury market, we first must answer the most enduring mystery about luxury in Japan: why have the Japanese so intensely embraced European luxury brands over the last fifty years? 

There have been many ridiculous ‘culturalist’ theories offered, sometimes espoused by the Japanese themselves. For example, one often hears comments like, ‘the Japanese are innately predisposed to respect high-quality.’

82_junmorimoto_medium Jun Morimoto, a president of Richemont F&A Japan, explains why this is not the true motivator. “In the past, there was a belief that ‘foreign product’ equalled high quality,” he says. “People thought, imports must automatically be amazing. So everyone thought they could use luxury products in their everyday lives. If the Japanese buy nice things, they expect to use them for a long time. I think Louis Vuitton happened to perfectly fit this Japanese concept of ‘luxury goods last a long time.’ You can use a LV bag forever and it holds up in the rain better than other leather bags.”

In other words, Japanese consumers bought luxury goods out of the somewhat rational and functional consideration that these products provided more durability for the money compared to domestic goods. 

The other secret to understanding luxury brand success in Japan is that its luxury market is fundamentally different to all others in its consumer make-up. Luxury goods have always been primarily middle-class goods in Japan. And with a relatively large and income-equal society, this meant an incredible number of mass consumers as customers. 

Morimoto from Richemont explains: “Luxury in Japan has never been part of a ‘lifestyle’ in the majority of cases. For the last several decades, it has been middle-class consumers owning luxury handbags. There is totally no concept that, ‘high-class people own these goods, so I am not allowed to own them. Everyone has them – ‘The woman next door has luxury brands, so I must own them too.’”

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Japan never possessed a substantial aristocratic class that consumed luxury goods as part of a moneyed lifestyle. Rather, luxury items entered Japan in the ’70s as consumer goods available to all. Thanks to magazines and reinforcement from advertising campaigns, the Japanese began to associate the acquisition of these products as the ultimate sign of economic success. And, as Japan amassed great wealth in the 1980s, luxury handbags and designer apparel became widespread. Even when the Japanese bubble economy crashed in the early 1990s, the country’s love affair with luxury continued. Import fashion sales did not peak until 1996 and revenues of the biggest brands continued to increase until recently. 

In general, luxury goods in Japan became a way to live up to the middle-class standard rather than a way for the upper class to conspicuously stand above the middle-class. As luxury goods permeated the average lifestyle, bags and accessories became the de facto gift option for men giving to women and parents giving to their children. Once these gifts became a part of normal consumption, most consumers scrimped and saved to acquire them, rather than acknowledging their economic impracticality and ceasing to buy them. 

In the last decade, however, the average Japanese consumer has had to scale back consumption. In the 1990s, women could no longer afford to dress from top to bottom in Chanel like they did in the 1980s, so they settled for a Chanel or Vuitton handbag to accompany a wardrobe of inexpensive domestic brands. Indeed, according to Yano Research, the share of handbags within total import fashion sales went from 26.1 percent in 1994 to 43.1 percent in 2004. 

In this process, consumers again demanded luxury brands as a functional, rational bargain: a Louis Vuitton or Gucci handbag may have been expensive but could be worn everyday and used for multiple years. These two brands in particular met this need. So, while luxury brands may not define themselves as functional or economically sensible purchases, this association was a key driver for the brands’ success in Japan. 

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Ginza district (photo by James Justin)

New Challenges 

The recent economic downturn has caused an even greater shock to the fundamental structure of the Japanese luxury market and sales are down across the board. But the current financial crisis alone cannot fully explain the slowdown in luxury sales.  We should therefore consider the following factors to predict the market’s future course: 

1. Economic pessimism. For years now, Japanese consumers have been suffering stagnant incomes, and as a result, have lost faith that the economy will improve in the future. This became especially acute when the economic recovery of 2003-2007 saw most young people hired as temporary workers at reduced incomes. Companies were hoarding cash instead of sharing profits with employees. 

Needless to say, this pessimism is driving many Japanese to take up a life of thrift and to reconsider big purchases. This has only been exacerbated by the current global economic malaise.

2. No sacrificing for luxury, instead saving for the future. The Japanese youth of the 1980s had the cash readily at hand to spend on high-end designer brands. In the 1990s, the cash dried up, but most were still willing to pay for luxury in monthly credit card instalments, while sacrificing immediate lifestyle quality. The youth of today, however, have little familiarity with the older standards of luxury possession. They no longer understand the rationale for saving up to buy luxury goods and are instead putting away money for the future. 

In a recent MEKAS focus group, a 22 year-old woman — who would just five years ago have been a prime candidate for buying luxury goods— said, “There are brands that I want to buy, but I don’t think I would ever save up money to buy them.” Only a few years ago, this attitude would have been relatively rare. 

3.Changing tastes. Positive feelings towards luxury brands are also sliding. The annual TBS General Consumer Preference Survey for 2008 showed urban young women in their 20s — who traditionally ranked Louis Vuitton and Gucci at the very top of their favourite brand list — preferring mass brands like Uniqlo, Muji, and The Gap.
 
In a similar vein, the most popular bag for 2008 in Japan was a canvas eco bag from Japanese brand Cher, which sold for about $15. Local low-end ‘luxury’ brand Samantha Thavasa has made the $100 handbag a legitimate option for many girls, thanks to high-powered advertisements featuring Paris Hilton, Beyonce, and Penelope Cruz. The ‘standard’ falls more and more each year, making foreign luxury brands less and less of a priority for young people.  

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Paris Hilton promoting Samantha Thavasa handbags in Tokyo

4. Development of class society. Japan used to pride itself on a broad middle-class society with low income inequality. But in recent years, the Japanese socioeconomic structure has come to resemble those of the U.S. and the U.K., rather than egalitarian societies like Scandinavia or Western Europe. This means that the mass middle-class — the old base for Japanese luxury brand sales — is disappearing. 

Social class is bifurcating into a smaller upper class made up of Old Rich (moneyed families who live on inherited wealth and property, and who own big companies) and New Rich (individuals who have recently come into money from financial or IT-related jobs.) This group does spend on luxury, but does not earn enough to make up for the collapse of middle-class spending. Luxury brands in Japan have recently created super-exclusive products for the rich and more accessible goods for everyone else; but so far, this strategy has proved itself a less-than-perfect solution. 

5. Flood of luxury goods means non-exclusive. On top of widespread luxury brand ownership amongst all age groups, many young women saw their friends go through a ‘luxury boom’ during high school. By the time these women were of a working age, they had hit a certain level of luxury exhaustion. Nothing feels exclusive about luxury brand wallets at this stage; instead the selling point is that a gift-giver or consumer has a low risk of social impropriety when buying the top brands. 

More discerning consumers cannot attain adequate distinction from the masses by buying big box brands. They seem to be looking more towards local high-quality goods at lower prices. However, this class of consumers has not channelled its consumption into a single obvious new direction that Western luxury companies can exploit. 

Conclusion and the Future 

To most Japanese, luxury has been a powerful combination of adoration of the West, a symbol of the middle-class lifestyle standard, and functional high product quality. The middle-class goods paradigm, however, is crumbling. Luxury brands now have two options: patch up the original model by convincing middle-class consumers that they still need luxury goods despite tougher economic conditions, or shift completely to an ‘upper-class consumer’ strategy. 

The latter strategy of going up-market sounds obvious, but is not that easy in Japan. For many sophisticated upper middle-class consumers in Japan, the commonness of luxury handbags (and especially, the association of those goods with working-class women in the ‘hostess’ industry) has turned them in more personal directions — ones which are difficult for companies to target. 

Deeper branding and a return to emphasising a brand story could win them back, but until now, no one has developed a way to properly market to wealthy Japanese.

79_helgefluch_mediumHelge Fluch, a PhD candidate in Business Administration at LMU Munich’s Japan Centre and an expert on the Japanese New Rich, explains the difficulty: “Although the New Rich are good spenders, they are few in numbers. The New Rich are less out for status and more about lifestyle. They use items to transport messages that are chains of associations, known to other people, but also to just make themselves feel good,” he says. “There is no clear social code or adherence to certain brands. The New Rich go for ‘new luxury’ — one which is more personal, lifestyle-oriented. This can sometimes be extravagant and out of the norm and can be rooted in experiences and services instead of pure conspicuous consumption. There is a greater tolerance for untraditional lifestyle paths among the New Rich.”
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As for the Old Rich, they are also not easy to target. 
“The Old Rich try to preserve their assets for the next generation, due to high inheritance taxes,” asserts Fluch. “They do not consume as extensively and as flamboyantly as the New Rich. If the Old Rich consume, they try to consume to invest, meaning art objects, cars, furniture.”

More recently in the broader consumer market, a few luxury brands like Goyard and Bottega Veneta managed to make their way into the cultural zeitgeist, but in hindsight, they were ultimately seasonal fads rather than permanent players. Bottega Veneta has been one of the few success stories of new luxury brands, with the trademark woven leather bags seen all over Tokyo in 2007. 

Suddenly, however, the bags disappeared in 2008. Once the media’s eye moved onto something else, consumers lost confidence in being able to use the goods in public. The idea of propriety — doing the right thing and wearing the right products — is still of fundamental importance to Japanese consumers. Because of this, smaller luxury brands may have trouble winning over a mass audience and one of their biggest tasks is to convince consumers that their product is socially safe to use in the long-run. The Japanese media certainly don’t make this any easier, demanding direct payment for editorial in their influential pages and being extremely fad-driven, moving quickly from one trend to the next.

Around the world, many look to bespoke as a new source of luxury. And while bespoke is certainly on the rise in Japan, the wide availability of low-cost ‘mass bespoke’ (mostly made-to-measure shirts, suits, and now shoes) has devalued the offering. The high-end market doubtless enjoys the Japanese outlets of Savile Row tailors, for example, but bespoke has essentially transcended the luxury label by becoming ubiquitous and inexpensive. 

Luxury conglomerates will continue to make money in Japan, but will most likely be less excited about the market. Management strategies now focus purely on quarterly earnings, and the precedent sales levels were so inflated in Japan that they will always feel like somewhat of a let down when set against those in rising nations like China and India. 

In the end, however, there is no other place where one can witness so many regular consumers who buy luxury brands as a matter of routine, actively browsing luxury stores in their local neighbourhoods. Sales may decrease, but the demand for luxury goods has been almost permanently etched into the Japanese social structure. The question now is how luxury companies will shift their strategies to meet a rapidly changing consumer market.

W. David Marx, Tokyo Correspondent

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JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization)
www.jetro.go.jp

MEKAS
www.mekas.jp

Samantha Thavasa
www.samantha.co.jp
www.samanthathavasausa.com

Japan Access
www.hnwijapanaccess.com