JAPANESE CONSUMERS `BUY AMERICAN' - BY MAIL

* Marketing consultant Michiko Mizutani, who should know a good deal when she sees it, has decided L.L. Bean is one of the best. That's where she got her plaid shirt, gum shoes, and monogrammed canvas tote bag. Ms. Mizutani is among a growing number of Japanese who use mail-order catalogs to help stretch their yen through the worst economic slump since World War II.

Glassware, computers, kitchen appliances, clothing, furniture: Foreign mail-order companies offer almost everything at a cost that, even with shipping charges, is often half the price in Japanese stores.

``Reasonably priced but sophisticated furniture is just not available in Japan,'' says Mutsumi Hanashima, a corporate consultant who plans to order from IKEA, a Swedish company. ``I'd rather spend money on something I can really appreciate.''

Catalog sales make only a tiny dent in Japan's worldwide trade surplus of more than $130 billion a year, but mail-order companies say they are increasing rapidly. With the Japanese currency strong on foreign-exchange markets, yen go a lot further abroad than at home, where a convoluted retail system swarming with middlemen drives prices up.

Joichi Ito, president of the Japanese subsidiary of MacZone, a US distributor of Macintosh-compatible software, says his company uses mail order to skirt the cumbersome retail network.

L.L. Bean, among the first foreign companies to tap Japan's mail-order market, says its catalog sales last year rose to $450 million from $130 million in 1992. The company, based in Freeport, Maine, has opened two retail stores in Tokyo to help popularize its products. Sportswear from Eddie Bauer and Patagonia are also in vogue here.

Some Japanese still have difficulty ordering in a foreign language and dealing with overseas deliveries, but catalogs and order forms in Japanese, along with magazine articles explaining how to do it, have eased the task.

Mizutani, who shows off her Bean wear at the office on casual-dress Fridays, even converted her parents.

``My mother first thought it was a store specializing in extra-large sizes because of the name L.L.,'' Mizutani said. ``But she's a big fan now.''

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