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Amazon bursts onto Japan's emerging Black Friday scene

Retailers look to spur consumption out of post-tax-hike doldrums

A worker at shoe store ABC-Mart holds a sign promoting a Black Friday sale. (Photo by Shumpei Sakai)

TOKYO -- Japanese retailers are gearing up for Black Friday sales this week, including an initial foray by Amazon Japan, hoping the event will give consumer spending a much-needed shot in the arm after last month's consumption tax increase.

Amazon is running with the "black" theme for some of the most prominent deals in its debut sale from Friday to Sunday, with discounts on wagyu beef from Japanese Black cattle, "black goods" such as 4K televisions from LG Electronics, and Black & Decker tools. The sale will cover tens of thousands of items.

The annual shopping extravaganza known as Black Friday, which takes place on Nov. 29 in the U.S., the day after Thanksgiving, is still new to Japan, though it has gained traction quickly. The Japanese version is familiar to 75.1% of domestic consumers, according to a survey this year by Toppan Printing -- up 2.5-fold from 2017. The share of those surveyed saying they plan to go shopping during the sale period jumped 10.8 percentage points from last year to 56.2%.

Amazon.com, already a big Black Friday player elsewhere, seeks to use the event to penetrate further into Japan. The company has a substantial presence in the 16 trillion yen ($147 billion) e-commerce market here, with Japanese sales up 16% last year to $13.8 billion, but it still constitutes only a fraction of the country's 145 trillion yen retail market.

Aeon -- Japan's biggest retailer and one of the first in the country to jump on the Black Friday concept three years ago -- is stepping up its game. Aeon Retail will boost the number of items with 50% discounts by half from last year during its sale, which runs through Tuesday. Its revenue during the sale period jumped more than 15% last year from 2017.

Retailers are counting on Black Friday to lure shoppers back amid a chill in consumer spending. The Japanese government's consumer confidence index came in at 36.2 last month, down 6.7 points on the year.

Shimamura specifically cited the impact of the consumption tax increase in its decision to double the length of its Black Friday sale as well as the number of discounted products. The apparel retailer's sales sank nearly 10% on the year last month.

Home improvement center chain Cainz, expecting a hit from the tax hike, is expanding its Black Friday sales to 98 stores, 22 more than last year.

The event "will keep becoming more established as a part of the year-end shopping season," predicted Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, who put the market for Black Friday shopping in Japan last year at about 250 billion yen.

Yet many retailers are keeping their distance. Black Friday comes just before another surge in shopping in December, when workers spend their year-end bonuses, and some worry that too many openings for retailers to engage in price wars would risk driving a race to the bottom.

"Trying to force a boost to consumer spending may lead to excessive inventories [building up], strengthening deflationary pressures," said Hiroshi Miyazaki, senior economist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities.

Whether the Black Friday trend will last, given the cultural differences between Japan and the U.S. when it comes to shopping, remains an open question. Past government- and industry-led efforts to spur consumer spending, such as Premium Fridays, failed to really take off.

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