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Bic Camera and the new face of Akihabara

A neighborhood known for maid cafes tries to attract female shoppers

Women ponder cosmetics purchases at Bic Camera Akiba, in Tokyo's Akihabara, on June 22.

TOKYO -- Bic Camera, a leading discount consumer electronics retailer, has added a new face to Tokyo's Akihabara -- a neighborhood that used to be known for its array of electronics emporiums but now seems to have multiple personalities. There are maid cafes and other subculture hangouts as well as stores that cater to Chinese and other foreign tourists with big fat wallets.

Now there is a shopping tower designed principally for women.

The new Bic Camera, which opened on Thursday, had to do something different, considering the 'hood is already replete with similar discount electronics chains.

The first floor is loaded with goods for everyday life; souvenir displays face the main street that cuts through "Electric Town," a moniker that is used less often these days. Cosmetics and beauty appliances are on the next floor up. Shoppers looking for personal computers and big appliances need to stay on the escalator at least until the fourth floor.

"We have designed the shop with both foreign tourists and women in mind," President Hiroyuki Miyajima said.

The Nikkei asked a woman who dropped by on opening day what they thought. "I will probably come here more often than Yodobashi Camera," she said.

Numerous electronics retailers -- Yodobashi Camera, Yamada Denki, Edion and others -- have already put down roots in Akihabara. What is more, the Bic Camera entry has less than a quarter of the sales floor space of one of its main rivals, Yodobashi Camera, located on the other side of Akihabara Station.

The building once housed the flagship Akihabara Honkan store of Bic Camera subsidiary Sofmap. It mainly sold PCs and other information devices. Bic Camera decided to convert the premises after PC sales began their descent.

Domestic shipments of PCs for personal use decreased 7.9% in fiscal 2016 to 3.96 million units, according to MM Research Institute. PC sales at big retail shops are unlikely to sharply reverse course now that many people buy their digital devices online.

Before it earned its "Electric Town" nickname, Akihabara was the site of a major vegetable market. After World War II, small shops sprung up selling electric appliances and parts. Now the area seems to be undergoing another transformation.

In April, Kakaku.com -- an online provider of prices and other consumer information -- stopped updating its Akihabara Soken site, devoted to PC parts, because of the decrease in the number of shops handling them.

Many of these merchants have given way to retailers trading in anime, manga and subculture. Akihabara has become a home to otaku, or obsessed fans and a destination for tourists.

More recently, redevelopment projects have brought office towers -- and more women -- to the area, said Kazushi Ono, head of the Akihabara Electrical Town Organization.

An animation-related shop targeting women opened last year. There is also a ladies-only capsule hotel. And nearly 70% of the shoppers at Laox's flagship store in Akihabara are women, a company representative said. Laox operates a chain of duty-free stores.

While male shoppers still outnumber women in Akihabara, "I hope Bic's strategy helps to increase the number of female shoppers," said Tomio Izumi, secretary general of the Akihabara Tourism Promotion Association.

It is too early to say whether Bic Camera's formula of trying to sell big electronics and please female shoppers will succeed. On opening day, one thing was clear: Foreigners accounted for a large portion of the shoppers.

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