Black Friday sales make inroads in Japan, but not all retailers are buying in

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The past few years have seen Black Friday sales increasingly make inroads in Japan, buoyed by supermarket chains and e-commerce giants seeking to capitalize on the retail bonanza.

Friday’s event falls on the day after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday and is typically considered the biggest retail sales day in America and the beginning of the Christmas shopping period.

In Japan, public recognition of Black Friday has soared in recent years, with major franchises rolling out discount campaigns.

Participating retailers include general merchandise giants Aeon Co. and Ito-Yokado Co. This year, the former is holding sales at about 500 supermarkets nationwide, while the latter nearly doubled the period of a similar campaign to 14 days, implementing it at about 130 outlets across the nation. Other regular participants include the Japan arm of U.S.-based Toys R Us and electronics retailer Nojima Co.

What originally started in Japan as something of an experimental project — spearheaded by companies like Toys R Us Japan and Aeon from 2014 to 2016 — has since morphed into an annual phenomena now spilling over to prominent shopping site operators.

This year, Amazon Japan, for example, set up a special landing page on its site offering discounts on hundreds of thousands of products, from clothes and food to home appliances. Rakuten Ichiba, an online shopping site operated by Rakuten Inc., has rewarded customers who shopped on its site with extra points, too.

Tokyu Hands was among the many stores offering discounts on Friday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Tokyu Hands was among the many stores offering discounts on Friday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Annual surveys jointly conducted by printing company Toppan Inc. and digital media firm One Compath have shown the percentage of respondents who are aware of Black Friday has been on the rise in Japan, standing at over 75% this year — a spike from about 30% in 2017. More than half of the respondents said they intend to shop within a budget range of ¥5,000 to ¥30,000 this year.

But despite the high recognition, this year’s poll found that just 15.5% are planning to utilize the sales period to go on a shopping spree.

Their relatively reserved attitude, the survey showed, stemmed in part from the limited number of companies and stores taking advantage of the push, with over 30% of the respondents expressing a desire that more retailers participate in Black Friday.

Yutaro Suzuki, an economist at Daiwa Institute of Research, said that while consumers in Japan are now more aware of Black Friday-related events, the shopping season is not translating into enough of a windfall to boost companies’ sales and incentivize a larger movement.

A sign near the entrance of a shoe store in Shinjuku on Friday advertises Black Friday discounts. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
A sign near the entrance of a shoe store in Shinjuku on Friday advertises Black Friday discounts. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

The culture is popular among major retailers that have both the wherewithal and manpower to launch full-fledged sales campaigns. But many smaller stores are now more hard-pressed than ever to orchestrate such events as they reel from a pandemic-driven staff shortage, Suzuki said.

There is also a more basic aspect to the U.S.-oriented shopping stampede that may leave some Japanese retailers unconvinced. With many Japanese companies paying out their winter bonuses in December, Black Friday, Suzuki said, tends to appeal less to consumers in Japan than subsequent sales periods, such as those linked to the year-end and New Year’s holidays.

“In November, bonuses are in many cases not paid out yet, meaning people’s willingness to spend isn’t too high,” the economist said. “Black Friday is still a developing culture in Japan.”

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