Japanese retailers turn to 'shetailers'

The floors are new, shiny, and white, and the eating counter has pink-mesh bags beside each stool, for purses or parcels.

The news rack is conspicuously empty of lurid adult comic books and bikini magazines. Missing, too, are those other convenience-store staples: alcohol, cigarettes, and cheap gift boxes of cookies.

Welcome to SCoco, Japan's first convenience store geared solely toward women. The "s" - added to the logo of the Coco chain that runs more than 900 stores in Japan - stands for "she."

It also stands for "slender, smart, and stylish," says the company's division manager. One might throw in "sales," which are so healthy that the company plans to add more such stores.

If the idea sounds frilly to a fault, consider the following: In the past five years, convenience-store sales have surpassed retail sales, with 7-Eleven Japan topping the list.

And with studies showing that it's women who are wearing the pants in this increasingly sluggish economy, retailers could be taking a cue from last year's Mel Gibson hit - trying to figure out "what women want."

Japanese women are staying single longer, earning more, and shopping at conbeni - as the popular stores are known - rather than in supermarkets. Even after they marry, women tend to control the family purse strings, often doling out weekly allowances to their husbands.

"I don't think that there's anything wrong with having a convenience store that satisfies women's needs," says store manager Katsura Sagisaka.

Japan is by most accounts slipping deeper into economic doldrums. Yesterday, the government said the country's jobless rate hit a record-high 5 percent in July, the highest unemployment figure since 1953. A day earlier, electronics maker Toshiba announced it would cut 17,000 jobs, following similar announcements by Fujitsu, NEC, and Hitachi. And, in a report due on Friday, the government's cabinet office is expected to warn that the economy is "deteriorating further," according to the Mainichi Daily News.

Whether part of Japan Inc.'s push to suck up whatever spending juice is left - or perhaps despite the impending recession - products aimed at women and teenage girls seem to be one of the country's few growth sectors.

"Since so many single women have so much purchasing power, now the question is: How to get them to spend it," says Kazuhiko Kuwabara, senior manager of consumer intelligence at Dentsu Inc., Japan's largest advertising agency.

SCoco's bento, or take-out lunches, are one example of such gender marketing. They are smaller than usual - apportioned to the average Japanese woman's appetite - and designed for the calorie-conscious. "Women like to choose from a variety of low-calorie, low-priced things," says Ms. Sagisaka, who organized a planning team to determine what the new store would offer. "No men's opinions were reflected in that," she adds. "If men's opinions were reflected, we might have had those magazines," she says, referring to the X-rated glossies commonly left in full view.

The trend toward marketing goods to women reaches far beyond convenience stores. Companies are increasingly pitching big-ticket items - such as cars, computers, and apartments, even pink credit cards - to women. "Until a few years back, the women did not borrow money with credit cards. Men did, because women tended to be dependent," says Mr. Kuwabara. "However, now women use them, too. Therefore, the credit companies may have been looking for ways to catch those women."

One of the hot new models offered by DoCoMo, Japan's largest cellphone provider, is a glittering pink phone in the latest retro-bubbly shape.

Marketing experts, however, say it may take more than that to pry open purses.

"In the '80s, the thinking was, men like white and blue cars, so maybe women want pastel cars, and that makes women kind of embarrassed. It's a little out of date," says Fumie Tanaka, group-strategy director for Beacon Communications in Tokyo. "Women want to get more information before purchasing everything. Women are meticulous consumers."

Moreover, she says, the way goods are marketed to women has changed. In a recent survey she codirected, 74 percent of respondents said that being subservient to men "looks bad."

The studies found that a woman smiling in a picture is assumed to be trying to please the opposite sex. "Men like smiling women. But women don't like smiling women. If you smile in an ad, it's a sign of subservience," says Ms. Tanaka.

And women are responsible for between 70 and 80 percent of the nation's consumer spending, estimate experts at two of Japan's largest marketing firms, and keep snatching up luxury items. Tokyo's first Hermes store opened this summer. Last year, sales at Louis Vuitton Japan topped 100 billion yen ($829 million), a 16 percent increase from 1999.

To explain why, experts point to the changing demographics. More women are marrying later - contributing to one of the lowest birthrates in the world - and often live with Mom and Dad until they meet Mr. Right. That can leave entire salaries for disposable income.

Other young women are striking out on their own - but still spending. Since Japan's bubble economy burst more than a decade ago, real estate prices have fallen in excess of 30 percent, making apartments more affordable.

"There has been a very strong drive to come up with apartments that are small, attractive, and easy for a single woman to live in," says Mariko Fujiwara, research director of the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, one of Japan's largest market-research firms.

Still another demographic is women whose children are grown. "Women in their late 40s and 50s are beginning to spend money," says Kuwabara at Dentsu. "The baby-boomer generation doesn't hesitate to use the money for themselves, whereas the generations before would leave the money for their children."

In a country where convenience stores are one of the few sectors with healthy sales, SCoco is just one of the latest efforts at "differentiating their stores from the others and trying to cultivate that little corner of the market."

Just don't smile about it.

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