Joyful Honda and the rise of the car-centric ‘home center’
People living in Tokyo, especially those who don’t own cars, can often be oblivious to the priorities of people living outside of Tokyo. So-called home centers have become a central facet of suburban people’s lives, and while you can find a few within the borders of the capital, the metro ones are by necessity much smaller. The whole point of a home center, which contains jumbo-sized retail sections dedicated to everything necessary for everyday living, from food to furniture to tools, is that you drive your car to it. A huge parking lot is part of the bargain, literally and figuratively.
One of the most successful home centers is Joyful Honda, which has no relation to Honda Motors, though it is conspicuously friendly to car culture. The company operates 15 outlets, the biggest of which is located in Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture, which is also the corporate headquarters. The Joyful Honda retail property in Hitachi covers, in the prosaic parlance of Japanese developers, the equivalent of 4.8 Tokyo Domes. Most of this real estate is taken up by parking lots, which can hold up to 6,800 vehicles. In land-scarce Japan, this is a huge investment and points to a sea change in the Japanese retail mindset. Traditionally, retail centers were built around train stations, even in suburban and rural areas. However, outside of large urban centers, retail complexes have become isolated, self-contained, destinations for motorists. Shoppers have to have parking; more importantly, free parking. At Joyful Honda, you don’t even have to have your parking validated the way you would at a store in Tokyo. The prices rival those you will find at the cheapest discount retailers, which means the cost of the parking fields they control (Inzai, Chiba Prefecture: 5,000 cars; Ota, Gunma Prefecture: 5,700 cars; Mizuo-cho, Tama: 3,200 cars) are somehow absorbed.
Not coincidentally, Joyful Honda outlets always end up at the top of lists of the cheapest places to buy gasoline in Japan. On June 20, the Oil Information Center reported that the average price of a liter of regular gasoline throughout Japan was ¥147.8. That same day, the price of a liter of regular gas at Joyful Honda in Inzai was ¥135. Premium was ¥145. About the only place you can find cheaper gasoline in the Kanto area is along the Nikko-kaido commercial corridor that runs from Adachi Ward in Tokyo through Saitama to Tochigi, where you might be able to find gas for as low as ¥133 a liter.
The point is, you have to have a car to really take advantage of a home center, since the idea is to buy a lot of stuff during one trip. In this regard, home centers are similar to the American “big box stores,” like Wal-Mart and Sam’s, on which they’re modeled, but there’s one major Japanese difference. Joyful Honda is meant to be a place where the whole family can spend an afternoon. Big box stores are thoroughly utilitarian: Products piled high in bulk on pallets that reach to the ceilings of one-story warehouse-like structures. Home centers are a cross between that and a department store. They have everything you need for home improvement but also food courts, athletic clubs, liquor stores and supermarkets that sell prepared foods. (The one thing they don’t have much of is home electronics, a retail field that’s already too competitive.) And when Joyful Honda says “bring the family,” they mean the whole family: There are even cage-lockers and special “carts” so that your dog can accompany you into the store.
Eventually, of course, even city slickers become curious, or, at least, those with cars. When we mentioned to some friends in Tokyo that we were going to Inzai, they said they often went to the Joyful Honda in Inzai just to buy gasoline. We were shocked: Drive 40 km just to tank up? Our friends said, “Well, while we’re there we do some shopping for things we need.” That seems to be the strategy in a nutshell.