Busy little buyers

It’s a typical Sunday afternoon at Tokyo’s Girl Is Girl store. Customers crowd into the mecca of Japanese teen fashion, combing through mountains of brightly colored T shirts, stylish designer jeans and hip fashion accessories. Holding up a revealing lemon yellow shirt with hearts and stars, Chihiro says longingly, “This is so cute,” as two friends nod in agreement. Reluctantly, she puts down the shirt and heads to the stationery aisle to shop for pencils. “This is all I can buy,” she says. “The next time I’ll come with Mom.” Chihiro is, after all, only 11 years old.

Chihiro and her friends are no ordinary shoppers; they are about the only dynamic consumers left in the sluggish Japanese economy. Marketers call them “bubble juniors”: the 9- to 14-year-old daughters of Japanese women who spent lavishly as carefree twentysomethings during Japan’s “bubble” years of the 1980s. “They are the potential trendsetters, like college girls in the 1980s and high-school girls in the 1990s,” says Hiroyuki Chiba, brand manager of Penty’s, a popular junior brand known for its provocative look. “There’s an enormous expectation.”

With good reason. Since Japan entered its recession, the retail-clothing industry has been in a tailspin. Apparel sales at Japan’s department stores has shrunk almost 10 percent in the last five years. All the traditional market sectors – men’s, women’s and children’s – have suffered. Only recently did Japanese clothing lines awaken to the purchasing power of the bubble juniors.

The girls are a unique – and profitable – niche. They don’t want to wear what’s in the kids’ section. Rather, they mix mature styles, like revealing sleeveless shirts, with bright colors and childlike frills. “We must find the right balance in our design,” says Chiba of Penty’s. And that was nonexistent only a few years ago. Tokyu Merchandising Development Co., which runs several fashion shopping centers, renovated an entire floor of Tokyo’s 109-2, one of the company’s premier locations, to serve the junior girls last March. Sales have since jumped 30 percent. The leading bubble-junior apparel maker, Narumiya International, reported a profit of $6.2 million last year, up from $2.8 million in 1999. Utata Iwata, senior analyst at the Tokyo research firm Yano Intelligence, expects this market to grow 6 percent by 2005. The market expansion is all the more impressive given that the target age group is shrinking: there are 1.35 million 14-year-olds and only 1.2 million 9-year-olds. While it may not be an endless supply of consumer energy, this bright spot in the national economy is enough to excite everybody from clothing designers and magazine publishers to cosmetics companies and cell-phone carriers.

Total financial dependence on their parents would seem to be a serious strike against these junior shoppers. But it’s not a problem, say analysts. Yoko Kawashima, an expert with Tokyo’s marketing firm Itochu Fashion System, says that their fashion-savvy moms are the strongest of allies. Bubble moms, unlike those of earlier generations, are comfortable spending a fortune on outfits that might be worn for only one season. “A girl often has a fashionable mom, two sets of doting grandparents and sometimes an unmarried aunt with a sizable disposable income,” says Kawashima. With the country’s birthrate dropping (currently 1.33 kids per woman), there is simply more money to spend on young ones.

Still, the greatest potential for Japanese girl power is also its next big challenge.

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Busy little buyers