Japan’s cautious luxury resurgence

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April in Japan brings sakura blossoms, changeable spring weather, and a new fiscal year. In 2014, it also brought a consumption-tax hike – the nation’s first in nearly two decades. The shift from a five to eight percent sales tax was widely expected to drive last-minute binge buying, and also cause a dip in spending over the months that followed. In Japan’s luxury category, the binge certainly took place. But the overall strength of the rebound in luxury following Japan’s triple disasters of March 11, 2011 has been striking, and has more than cushioned the hit to post-hike luxury revenues. For most luxury CEOs in Japan, the luxury market is not merely back – it is among the world’s healthiest.

The dangers of a sharper dip in spending still loom. After all, the last time the government raised the consumption tax (from three to five percent in 1997) it dealt a crippling blow to Japan’s economy, which had been clawing its way back to recovery. The 1997 tax tipped consumer confidence and spending into free fall, recessionary woes returned with a vengeance – dealing a body blow to luxury sales in the process – and many associated with the tax hike, including then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, soon left office.

Could 2014 be déjà vu all over again? The Abe administration, which has designs on a second tax increase from 8 to 10 percent in 2015, is taking no chances: only with annualized GDP growth of three percent or better in the third quarter of 2014 will they give the all clear signal and move to implement the sequel tax hike.

Some economists have, not surprisingly, predicted the grim scenario of a slide in GDP growth mirroring that of 1997. Others, such as Nicholas Smith of Credit Lyonnais Securities Asia, call such projections “cut and paste” thinking that fails to acknowledge some key differences between then and now. The 1997 post-hike downturn, for instance, was exacerbated in no small part by the Asian financial crisis, which hit that same year. And consumer confidence in 2014 has, by some early measures, remained steadfast; according to a “Lifestyle Index Report” produced by the research arm of Japan’s second-largest ad agency, Hakuhodo, consumer willingness to spend is already edging its way back to pre-hike levels following an initial dip in April, thanks in part to summer bonuses and seasonal consumption.

The more optimistic and upbeat tone mirrors our findings in McKinsey’s 2014 Japan Luxury Consumer Survey. While industry analysts and Japanese CEOs will be among the first to tell you it is too early to rest easy about the future, for luxury brands in Japan the signs are largely positive. Over 50 percent of luxury brand executives surveyed by McKinsey, for instance, described the effect of the tax increase on April and May sales either as being “negative but not as much as expected,” having “no negative effect,” or being “actually positive.” These executives also uniformly agreed that the April tax increase was the primary driver for a jump in pre-April sales, with 75 percent of respondents saying that the tax hike had “significant positive impact.” Overall, consumer behavior in the first half of 2014 has spurred brand leaders’ confidence in the future, with 90 percent of luxury executives declaring the 2014 sales outlook to be somewhat or significantly better than 2013.

There is little question that a pre-hike buying frenzy took place, with spend in 2014 well up from 2013 levels over the same period. More significantly though, sentiments are up: consumers are more excited about purchasing luxury goods than they have been in recent years. For the first time since the disastrous earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident of 2011, we have seen a decline in the percentage of respondents who feel that showing off luxury goods is “in poor taste.” And though our survey found that consumers of all ages are buying luxury goods less often than in the past and have maintained a strong value focus, the trend of trading up to higher end, as well as to value, brands has largely remained stable.

For the second year running, our Japan Luxury Consumer Survey specifically asked respondents which brands they were buying. Not surprisingly, the top brands in each category reveal a mix of traditional luxury names together with a rising contingent of what US and European industry experts call “casual luxury” – brands which fit into the luxury category, but with slightly lower value-based price points. Other noteworthy findings from McKinsey’s 2014 Japan Luxury Consumer Survey follow.

Generation gaps widening

While there are clear similarities in shopping behavior across age groups, the differences are stark. In terms of similarities, we observe that all age groups still peer into storefront windows before checking their smartphone, PC, or a magazine. All age groups, as noted above, have cut back on their buying frequency and display greater value orientation than they have in the years before 2011. At the same time, average annual spend is up and there is a greater willingness to pay full price for luxury items across age groups, with a similarly uniform drop in the ratio of those who feel that “owning luxury goods is not as special as it used to be.”

A closer look at each age cohort, however, reveals a distinct consumer “personality” and even role in the overall luxury market. Those in their 50s and up, for example, represent the bubble generation. Trained to consume and excited to try new products such as smartphones and electric vehicles, this segment loves classic luxury brands and is also generally well off. To a large extent, the 50s+ set still drives consumption trends in Japan.

Those in their 20s – the sons and daughters of the bubble generation – are of particular interest to luxury brands as they have no direct experience with the economic downturn, having come to adulthood just as the economy has recovered. As such, they are seeing more full-time employment opportunities and stable incomes, have a more global perspective, and are more optimistic. At the same time, they are also a more practical generation than their elders, with a stronger value orientation, and are less likely to purchase luxury brands purely for the label.

In sharp contrast to this youngest of generations surveyed, those in their 30s and 40s are much more conservative, risk averse, and Japan-centric in their mindsets. Some executives we surveyed called this a “lost generation” for luxury, as they tend to have been traumatized by the economic downturn, are often in contract work situations, and on the whole have fewer assets than other segments. 

Overall, consumer confidence and shopping behaviors have taken a positive tack. To that extent, high-end brands have good reason to feel upbeat about the Japanese luxury consumer, regardless of age. But there, resemblances between the 20 year-old, 35 year-old, and 50 year-old luxury consumer come to an abrupt halt. Brands taking a one-size-fits-all approach to luxury consumers risk alienating large swaths of their target customer base. Understanding not only a given segment’s behaviors and preferred channels, but also its attitudes and values – that is to say, understanding the heart as well as the mind – is imperative for success.

Department stores: not down, definitely not out

As mentioned in last year’s report, department stores are back as a destination, with sales for luxury items up for the first time in 16 years – hardly the expiring dinosaur many experts had forecast. Luxury buyer preferences, in terms of channel, have remained stable. Across categories, consumers turned to department stores for high-end purchases far more often than to any other channel, including brand shops, outlets, and duty free. In the watch/jewelry category alone, over 80 percent of shoppers visited department stores. In leather goods, department stores were a destination for nearly 70 percent of respondents, or 12 percent more than in 2013. In line with these findings, industry data reveals that total year-on-year department store sales are up for the first time in 16 years.

For luxury brands, a bit of backtracking may be in order. Just a year ago, over 60 percent of luxury brand executives saw the future of the department store as bleak, against just 3 percent who thought channel prospects were good. This year, those numbers are 40 percent and 15 percent, with a majority regarding the future of the department store as good or neutral. Should brands be looking to department stores for growth? As you might expect, the answer depends largely on brand positioning and target segment. One thing is for certain: given their standing as a top shopping destination across categories, department stores will be a necessary, perhaps even a core, element of most multi-channel strategies in the years to come.