Ultra-Discount Stores Proliferate in Japan

Japan's 15-year economic downturn has produced ultra-discount shops, selling a wide-variety of no-brand goods. They're proliferating in a country considered one of the most expensive places on earth.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Americans know all about those low-price retail superstores where the business philosophy is buy them cheap and stack them high. Now these ultra-discount stores have begun proliferating in a country more famous for being one of the most expensive places on earth: Japan.

As NPR's Louisa Lim found out on a recent trip to Tokyo, these bargain stores serve as an economic and social barometer.

LOUISA LIM: This neighborhood shop in the heart of Tokyo is known as the one coin shop, because every single item in the whole store costs the same price, a hundred yen apiece. That's about 85 cents. And for that one coin, you can buy the most staggering array of items.

Mr. TAKASHI ARAI (Japanese Discount Store Manager): (Through translator) We don't have shoes, but we have flip-flops. We have hats. We have T-shirts. We have trousers. So yes, you can dress yourself from head to toe in our clothes.

LIM: Takashi Arai is the aptly named Can Do Company, which runs almost 800 bargain shops. Money is now pouring into the cash registers. A hundred-yen shops account for around $8.5 billion of business a year. Japanese shoppers might once have been more famous for their fanatical brand loyalty, splurging huge amounts on designer clothing.

But now it's the lowest end of the market, the no-brand goods that are capturing shoppers' imagination. These ultra-discount stores were born out of Japan's 15 years of stagnation and deflation - an economic squeeze that meant people no longer have money to spend.

(Soundbite of Japanese TV ad)

Unidentified Woman: (Japanese spoken)

LIM: Now a days, the economy is improving and competition is increasing. This advert tells shoppers to request whatever they can't find on the shelf. It's part of a drive to expand their customer base. The Can Do Company's also eyeing new markets, with plans to open stores in Shanghai, where thrifty shoppers abound.

At home, however, retailers are targeting a rapidly growing set of shoppers: those over 65, who now make up more than 20 percent of Japan's population. Takashi Arai again.

Mr. TAKASHI: (Through translator) We do think about our elderly customers. We started selling spectacles. And in that section, the numbers are big so that they're easy to read. We also sell single servings of food - for example, rice in portions designed for one person.

Mr. KURA GANE (Japanese Discount Store Shopper): (Japanese Spoken)

LIM: It's so simple, Kura Gane says, clutching a 1,000 yen note in his hand. I come here because I don't need to work out how much to spend. An elderly man living alone, his dinner is in his shopping basket: instant noodles, bean curd, a package of seaweed and peanuts and a small, chocolate dessert.

(Soundbite of a child crying)

LIM: But shoppers of all ages populate the aisles.

Ms. SATO(ph): (Japanese spoken)

LIM: Ms. Sato checks through her basket, washing-up brushes, juice, apple, teabags and a soapbox. She's single and no longer in the first flush of youth, though still living with her parents. Money is short because she's not working. Like an increasing number of young Japanese, who've been dubbed parasite singles.

Ms. SATO: (Japanese spoken)

LIM: I always come here first to see if they have what I'm looking for, she says. I only go elsewhere if it's not here. She's not the only bargain hunter. Japan's own economic downturn has left many badly off, with the gap between rich and poor growing wider. And if melons that cost a hundred dollars were the symbol of the roaring Japan of the '80s, the hundred-yen shop represents the economic trials of the last 15 years.

Louisa Lim, NPR News.

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