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Sunday, March 26, 2006
Japan Fashion Week Fall/Winter 06-07
Virtual retailers forge fortunes with fashion
By MARTIN WEBB
There's a revolution going on in the Japanese fashion world -- but it is nowhere near the catwalks. The revolution is happening on the web.
One week before high-end designers were set to hold their runway presentations for industry insiders at Japan Fashion Week in Tokyo, more than 18,000 fashion-conscious young females packed out the city's Yoyogi National Stadium for an event titled the Tokyo Girls Collection.
Having paid 2,500-4,500 yen yen for their advance tickets, the audience excitedly watched celebrity models parade the latest looks for spring in a marathon six-hour catwalk extravaganza. Then, if the spirit so moved them, they could inspect the clothes more closely and buy them -- not there, or from a regular shop, but through their keitai (cellular phones).
Girlswalker.com, the site behind the event, retails clothing of the kind found in Shibuya's teen style Mecca 109, as well as offering fortunetelling and celebrity gossip for users' amusement. With more than 9 million subscribers and sales projected to hit 10 billion yen this year, the site is making big waves in the rag trade. Capitalizing on this runaway success, the firm behind it recently launched Fashionwalker.com, an Internet shopping venture, in partnership with Yahoo! Japan.
Although Japan leads the world in terms of cellphone shopping, thanks to its advanced mobile technology, it has been relatively slow to catch on to buying over the Internet. But true to form, it is catching up fast.
In the past couple of years, a growing number of companies have begun to find a market for selling apparel online. But rather than trying to replicate the success of overseas luxury online retailers like Net-a-Porter.com -- much of whose merchandise sells for over $1,000 -- Japanese sites are offering more casual, affordable clothes to younger customers. The strategy seems to be working, since market leader Zozo.jp recorded sales of a whopping $34 million last year.
Shopping as 'entertainment'
Yusaku Maezawa, Zozo.jp's founder and CEO, says that e-commerce offers an attractive shopping experience that he brands as "entertainment."
"We've found a great way to connect with our customers, a really good channel of communication," he says over the phone from his office in Chiba, on the eastern margins of Tokyo.
Maezawa has styled his site as a shopping street in cyberspace, dividing it up into shops with individual identities and different types of merchandise. Some of the stores in this virtual town, like United Arrows, Beams and Hysteric Glamour, already have brick-and-mortar manifestations, but are willing partners too in this rapidly growing enterprise.
"The fashion business isn't doing so well at the moment," says the 30-year-old mogul. "But we see ourselves as being a helping hand, rather than a threat, to traditional retail businesses."
Still, Maezawa, who proudly cites March sales of 700 million yen, says he is planning to open a "real" store in the near future -- at which point he may well emerge as a rival to his current partners.
While Girlswalker.com provides celebrity gossip content, and Zozo.jp has a partnership with the TBS channel on a late-night shopping TV show, other sites are also developing wide-ranging multimedia tie-ups that make many existing portals look sedentary in comparison.
Realstyle.jp creates fashion programs for online TV channel GyaO, while bb-f.jp uses Internet-only movies, music videos and other online content produced in conjunction with its sister company Broadband Tower for product placement and advertising.
"Fashion and the Internet make a good combination," bb-f.jp President Jun Tamura explained during a telephone interview earlier this week. "There are lots of tie-ups between fashion brands and magazines, but the Internet also offers a whole host of possibilities for developing and promoting brands, and the industry is going to be making much more use of it in the future."
Chika Tsuzuki, an editor specializing in online retail at apparel industry trade paper WWD, also identifies the fusion of magazine-style content and online shopping as the most important direction for the industry. "Fashion businesses have been doing tie-ups with magazines for years, and Net entrepreneurs have been seeking to replicate that formula online. In the business it's being referred to as e-c media, short for e-commerce media."
Suzuki does not think that the success of online retailing threatens the prosperity of the traditional retail sector. "If it was a threat, stores like Beams wouldn't be collaborating with a site like Zozo.jp," she says. "It seems as though these sites are attracting custom from people, especially busy working women, who don't go to brick-and-mortar stores."
Drop in the ocean
Suzuki also points out that while their rapid growth is attracting attention, online retailers are still comparative small fry. "Even a market leader like Zozo.jp is only clocking up sales of around 30 billion yen per year, and that's a drop in the ocean when you look at the apparel industry as a whole [valued at some 14 trillion yen]."
There is no reason to start sounding the death knell for traditional retailing just yet, but as more firms find clever ways to turn online shopping into a form of entertainment the day when we purchase our wardrobes in cyberspace, without the aid of fitting rooms or sales assistants, may not be so far away.
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