31 Oct 2016
Silver Market and Traditional Products Hold Sway at Tokyo Gift Show
With older Japanese consumers now having far greater levels of disposable income than many of their younger counterparts, this year's Tokyo International Gift Show was notably skewed towards the needs of the mature market.
One of the key things to be learnt from this year's Tokyo International Gift Show (TIGS) was the very real differences that currently characterise Japan's various age groups. These generational differences have an impact not just on style and fashion preferences, but also in terms of chosen distribution and retail networks.
A second factor in play – and one with, perhaps, only slightly less significance – was the continuing demand for more traditional items. Largely produced in some of Japan's more distinct regions, many of these established items are now being repurposed to meet contemporary needs.
The growing influence of Japan's ageing population, though, means that servicing the "silver market" needs to be factored into every business plan. Tellingly, it is this demographic alone that ensures that the TIGS' Health and Beauty Zone is one of the event's most high-traffic sections.
Attracting particular attention in the zone this year was the Freely Touch, a surprisingly powerful flexible massaging rod. Retailing for around US$200, it can be bent around whichever part of the body needs attention, ensuring the delivery of a highly-targetted and invigorating massage.
Matoba, the Greater Tokyo-based company behind the product, is best known as a motor manufacturer, although it has previously produced a number of massage chairs. According to Takaoki Hirosawa, the President of the company, many of these had proved too bulky for the average Japanese home.
Explaining the thinking behind its new product, Hirosawa said: "One of the Freely Touch's key selling points is that it can be easily stored away. One of our reasons for producing it is that we believe it has a lot of potential in the silver market. We are attending this event partly to bring the Freely Touch to the attention of online vendors, an increasingly popular purchase channel for the elderly."
The strength of the silver market was further highlighted by Yoshio, a Japanese manufacture of safety products, most notably reflective key chains and strips used on bags and clothing. Highlighting the way its market has changed, Hiroyuki Itoh, a member of Yoshio's senior management team, said: "We used to sell primarily into the kids' sector, but that's now outweighed by the senior market and that will only grow further."
Away from the extreme end of the age spectrum, Japan's mature, middle-aged and young elderly markets are seen as robust and affluent, although the younger demographics tend to be more budget-conscious. These very real differences were underlined by the varied fortunes experienced by a number of clothing and jewellery brands exhibiting at this year's event.
Across both categories, it is the older consumers who are willing to spend higher sums and pursue more individualistic tastes, especially when it comes to items they believe will make them look good. By contrast, younger purchasers now favour the more homogenised styles rolled out by many of the larger fast-fashion retailers, such as H&M and Zara. A popular domestic alternative is Uniqlo, the Tokyo-based casual-wear company that has come very much to the fore in the past 10 years.
Higher-end fashions – at least those aimed at the more mature demographic – sell through department stores and smaller boutiques, tending to have a more diversified retail network than the fast-fashion retailers. In light of this, attending such events as the TIGS expo is more important for designers, producers and distributors in the mature sector, skewing the styles on show towards an older demographic.
The type of garments that particularly appeal to this demographic typically feature expensive materials and styles that complement the characteristics of older women. A number of these elements were widely in evidence at this year's event, including the frequent use of darker tones, often greens or purples, as well as the adoption of dense and elaborate patterns, usually of an abstract or semi-abstract design. For similar reasons, many garments also favoured a loose-fitting cut with a layering effect.
One Chinese fashion designer, currently based in Japan and who preferred not to not to be named, was clearly following this principle. This year, she had on offer a range of silk-style garments, all retailing for between $500 and $700. A number of her designs used parallel lines in a similar way to the pleated look popularised by Issey Miyake, the renowned Japanese designer, back in the 1980s.
Explaining her approach, the designer said: "Parallel vertical lines are always popular as they have such a slimming effect, while parallel diagonal lines give more of an energised look. I have been coming to TIGS for 10 years now as it is a good route in to doing business with the department stores, still the preferred choice for Japan's older and more affluent shoppers."
Similar distinct generational preferences were also apparent in the jewellery sector, with different styles clearly designed to appeal to different age groups. Designer Rie Sakamoto, who creates jewellery that is larger, chunkier and more ornate than the norm, believes that her items are particularly popular with older ladies. Clearly at least half-joking, she said: "As it is large and has a real visual impact, it stops people looking at their faces."
While Sakamoto's pieces sell for between $150 to $500, the jewellery brands imported by Midorika – a distribution company and an online retailer – retail at about the $50 mark. This is in line with the budgets of the company's target consumers – cost-conscious individuals in their 20s and 30s.
Naomi Ozawa, Midorika's Representative at the TIGS event, said: We tend to take our inspiration from London, in particular from the kind of items worn by Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. Her austerity-sensitive fashion sense appeals to younger women, many of whom are keen to keep costs low while remaining discretely fashionable.
"Kate is very popular here, far more so than our own royal family, who are seen as being very unfashionable. While the Duchess is clearly a style leader, she doesn't wear expensive high-end brands and that matches our positioning."
This year, the company was promoting items by Azuni and Orelia, two British jewellery brands. Typically, the works of both companies are smaller, low-key pieces, complete with thin chains and delicate motifs.
Traditionally, older Japanese women have bought their own jewellery, usually with financial support from their husbands. This has allowed them to indulge their own preferences, often resulting in the purchase of the kind of expensive, daring and more individualistic pieces that their partners would have been unlikely to buy for them.
By contrast, younger consumers tend to buy jewellery as a gift for one another and are more cautious as a consequence. A young woman buying jewellery for a friend, rather than herself, inevitably tends to err on the side of the less adventurous. As a consequence, many jewellery items designed for the younger market tend be unimaginative or derivative.
According to Ozawa, there have also been a number of other significant changes in the Japanese jewellery market. She said: "In the past, jewellery was primarily given to girls by their boyfriends. Now, though, it's more common for girls to buy jewellery for each other as presents. This has seen the average spend falling. When girls buy for other girls, they spend a maximum of $100. In the case of a boy buying for his girlfriend, he could easily spend as much as $300."
As a luxury item, jewellery is usually seen as a good indicator of the overall health of any retail economy. At present, though, several exhibitors said the overall picture remained unclear, with a number of contradictory indications all occurring simultaneously.
Less obscured was the continued importance of a number of traditional products in the Japanese market, with many of them clearly culturally embedded in the national psyche. In line with this, those new products that channel older traditions often find willing purchasers.
A prime example of this came in the shape of Patatto, a new range of small, foldable furniture created by Ikex, a Nagoya-based plastic-mould company. While the range's design clearly references Japan's origami culture, according to Chihiro Ouzumi, the company's Sales Promotion Manager, it was also inspired by a more contemporary need.
He said: "We introduced them in response to the problems some elderly people have when sitting in the traditional Japanese style for extended periods of time. While, it is an entirely original range, it was inspired by the traditional Japanese mini-furniture used to increase the comfort of older people obliged to sit for hours on end while attending funerals."
The complete set, which includes a range of tables and chairs, is designed to be used outdoors at picnics, in gardens or at any house party where there is not enough conventional furniture available. After use, it can be folded flat, neatly combining tradition, modern convenience and space-spacing all within one product.
The Tokyo International Gift Show 2016 took place at the Tokyo's Big Sight from 7-9 September. The event attracted 189,023 visitors.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo