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Key Tokyo takeaways for retailers

With only one week left of the Olympics in Tokyo, it’s the perfect time to look at the trend-setting city’s retail market and see what we can learn. After all, Japan is the birthplace of many innovations we now take for granted, from laptops and robots to emojis and karaoke, and the Japanese retail market is set to be the biggest in the world – retail sales in Tokyo alone hit $1.3 trillion in 2019.

As a hub of innovation, Japan’s capital can teach us about the future of retail in the rest of the world. So, what winning ideas can retailers take home from Tokyo?

Tactical tech

Unsurprisingly, Japanese brands Uniqlo and Shiseido have fitted their flagship stores with cutting edge technology.

Uniqlo’s flagship in the Harajuku district has been designed to appeal to Gen Z, with a giant wall of 200 touchscreens that allow customers to scroll through digital content and use an app called Stylehint, co-created by Uniqlo. Users upload photos of their own outfits to the app, and Stylehint comes up with similar looks created with items from Uniqlo – the touchscreen then directs customers to find the items in store, or they can buy them instantly by scanning the QR code.

In Tokyo’s Ginza district, Shiseido’s global flagship has been designed to limit touching – a necessity as it opened during the pandemic in June 2020 but also a challenge, given the store sells beauty products.

Customers are given a smart bracelet as they enter the Shiseido store, then they simply scan as they go, swiping the bracelet at checkout to pay and collect their products. There is also a Digiskin Tester, which finds customers’ perfect foundation colour match just by taking a photo. If that’s still too close for comfort, customers can virtually walk around the store on the Shiseido website.

The key takeaway from two of Japan’s biggest brands? Tech has to be reactive and catered towards your customers, not just because it’s the newest tech, or because it’s what everyone else is doing.

Inclusive thinking

Innovation isn’t just about technology. Brands in Tokyo are also pioneering when it comes to new ways of serving customers. Last month, tech company Ory Laboratories opened its first flagship in the capital city, with a café staffed remotely by disabled workers. Using eye or hand movements, bed-ridden workers operate robots that move throughout the café, serving customers. It’s an incredible mix of social enterprise and technology.

As well as people with disabilities, workers include parents whose busy lifestyles are more suited to remote work, and senior citizens with less mobility. Japan is leading the way when it comes to being accessible to older generations, a necessity given that Japan has the largest population of people over 65.

There are even high streets developed especially for elderly communities. The Jizo Shopping District in Tokyo is filled with shops and services for senior citizens, from the nail salon that offers 100% discount for customers aged 100 and large-type prices for those who are visually impaired, to the lack of steps to climb and large quantity of benches, arranged in circles to encourage chatting. Learn more about the Jizo Shopping District here.

More than stores

High-end stores in Tokyo often incorporate art to create engaging spaces. The Muji flagship in the Ginza district houses two gallery spaces plus a library of design-related books for customers to read. This month’s exhibition, on late designer Samiro Yunoki, continues in the brand’s very own hotel, Muji Hotel, with some of the rooms transformed into exhibition spaces.

Muji Hotel, Ginza

Last summer, Uniqlo’s Harajuku flagship opened with a three-metres-tall statue of Billie Eilish to promote its new collaboration, and the ground floor is host to t-shirts designed by artists. This week, Uniqlo is dropping a collection designed by Kaws to coincide with the American artist’s exhibition in Tokyo. It feels timely and authentic, as if Uniqlo has its finger in the pulse of the Tokyo art scene.

International brands are also tapping into Tokyo’s appetite for art. For the launch of its latest store in the city, Bottega Veneta commissioned Tokyo-based artist Takuya Hagihara to design the store windows, and Japanese composer and percussionist Midori Takada performed in store.

The key takeaway

With retail sales on the rise and consumers that expect innovation, it’s no wonder so many international brands are choosing Japan’s capital city as the place to launch new-concept flagships. Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton Menswear and Lululemon have all chosen Tokyo as the location of their first ever flagships; Tokyo is also where Ikea debuted its downtown store concept, Lush launched its digital concept store and Gap opened its first ever café.

While it’s great to see what international brands are doing in Tokyo, we’re most intrigued to see what homegrown brands are up to. As our examples above show, Japanese retailers are innovative in more ways than one. Innovation can mean the latest tech, or serving a particular demographic, or creating an inspiring space. As the Olympics draw to a close, we’ll continue to look to Tokyo for inspiration.


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