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Retail therapy: Can Japan enjoy shopping again?

On Tokyo's streets bright colors didn't go away after the earthquake and tsunami in March

Story highlights

  • Sales of wedding rings went up in Japan after the tsunami in March
  • Vogue Japan Editor says people looking for more meaning from purchases
  • Trend analyst suggests disaster only reinforced consumer trends
  • Sales of perfume also went up post-earthquake as they are an inconspicuous purchase
The world of fashion responded to Japan's March earthquake, like many other industries, with the desire to help its victims.
Japanese clothing companies and fashion magazines mobilized charity campaigns and donated clothes to people in the stricken area.
Lady Gaga even designed a special bracelet that raised over $250,000 for the relief effort.
Personal shopping habits and even styles in Japan were also affected by the tragedy, but not necessarily in a negative way.
"It is not our impression that people refrained from buying or wearing colorful clothing (after the earthquake in March)," said Mitsuko Watanabe, editor of Vogue Japan.
"On the contrary, some deliberately chose bright colors to retain a positive attitude and give themselves and others a lift," she added.
In cities far from where the tsunami hit, the immediate period after saw fashion stores close their doors to shoppers, adverts pulled from public places and sales of luxury brands drop.
However, by May sales for many luxury goods had risen above pre-disaster levels, according to Watanabe, especially for items that transcended fashion, namely engagement and wedding rings.
"In times of crisis, people gain a fresh appreciation of what is really important in their lives.
"These trends are a good indication of how people are seeking peace of mind, stability, and steadiness under the unsettling and uncertain circumstances," she said.
For those who didn't get the urge to marry, simple retail therapy was another response to the disaster.
According to a survey by Asian trend and innovation agency Five by Fifty, 58% of consumers in the big city areas of Osaka and Tokyo continued shopping for clothes and fashion as normal after the earthquake.
Of the 40% of people surveyed who admitted to reining in their clothes shopping, the main reason was personal finance rather than self-restraint or a sense of solidarity with the victims in the Tohoku region.
"People did pull back somewhat immediately after (the disaster), but shopping didn't stop and they were buying items that were less obvious, like fragrances," said Nicole Fall, director of trends for Five by Fifty.
"The perfume market for Japan is traditionally small compared to Europe, but it spiked after the earthquake. It was something that could be enjoyed without being conspicuous or risk of being seen to come out of store carrying lots of shopping bags."
Japan's annual summer program of "setsuden" (energy-saving) was given extra significance this year with the nuclear crisis at Fukushima and reduced power supply. It also meant some fashion brands recast their marketing strategies.
Fast fashion label Uniqlo brought out its "Heattech" line of insulating clothing at the end of July to tap into people's desire to cut back on heating bills and use less energy.
Now, six months since the earthquake, big-city consumer habits are back to normal and representative of a larger trend, suggests Fall.
"People haven't deliberately made a stand (through their shopping habits). If anything the earthquake has just amplified the feelings before it, which were generally representative of post-consumerism. Young people often feel they can't afford things and people look for more from a purchase, as well as being savvy enough to look online."
Watanabe echoes the sentiment that Japanese consumers are more selective in their fashion purchases.
"If there was any change of this nature, it seems to lie ... in a stronger inclination to select articles they will continue to be fond of long into the future," she said.
Watanabe also hopes that this year's "Fashion's Night Out" -- an evening of shopping and events on November 5 -- will give Japan's fashion industry a boost and reinforce the way the fashion can give back to the community. Vogue's editor in chief Anna Wintour and other regional editors of Vogue will attend as a show of solidarity.
"Fashion should make a more important contribution for social and economic good in what is a critical situation," said Watanabe.