Seniors reconnecting to retail

February 8th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

A new term being tossed around by the media is kaimono nanmin (shopping refugees). It refers to people who have been cut off from the retail sector. Usually, it describes older people on fixed incomes living in remote areas, which over the past decade or so have become even more remote with the shuttering of traditional local retail districts (shotengai).

Shop til you drop: Shotengai in Sugamo

These shopping arcades used to be the only retail options one had in the countryside. The increased promotion of automobile use, which in turn prompted liberalization of laws related to distribution, gave rise to American-style shopping malls and the introduction of large international discount retailers into Japanese suburbs. Many family-owned businesses couldn’t compete, and those who did were eventually forced out of business by the recession or the fact that no one in the family wanted to take over the shop when the time came. In any case, the situation has left many older people who don’t have driver’s licenses, much less cars, without access to stores. According to Nihon TV, there are an estimated 6 million shopping refugees in Japan.

So far, most of the countermeasures for this problem have been formulated by retailers themselves, or retailers in association with local governments. Coop has a special delivery service for less mobile older folks, but as with many such services there’s a one-week gap between the time the order is made and when it’s delivered.

The most creative solution may be the one from 7&i Holdings, which runs the 7-11 convenience store chain and Ito Yokado supermarkets. On Feb. 4, 7-11 started a new test service in association with NTT and the UR public housing corporation. Five hundred households in Tokyo’s Meguro and Chuo Wards have been supplied with touch-screen tablet computers that they use to order food and sundries directly from 7-11, which are then delivered directly to their homes in a matter of hours. Currently, 7-11 offers delivery services on orders made via telephone or PC, but many elderly persons still don’t know how to use computers, and the tablets are considered simpler to use. All the user has to do is touch the image on the screen. Minimum orders are ¥1,000 with a ¥200 delivery charge per order. The test period will last six months.

Another convenience store chain, Lawson, last year started a service called Ido Kombini, a franchise mobile convenience store that sells wares in remote areas. And a taxi company in Matsuyama now offers Kaimono Daiko (shopping proxy), a service that allows seniors to call taxi drivers directly and have them pick up items at local stores and deliver them to their door. As with conventional taxi services charges are based on the meter: ¥500 for every 15 minutes from the time the driver enters the store to the time he delivers your stuff.

As helpful as all these services are they leave out one important aspect: the act of shopping itself. This is something that a group of licensed caregivers in a rural stretch of Ibaraki Prefecture has tried to provide to their elderly charges. Three times a month, these caregivers, in cooperation with a public foundation (minkan dantai) and the local government, provides a minibus so that elderly residents can “tour” retail outlets in the nearest towns. In a recent report on the service broadcast during Nihon TV’s evening news show, a representative explained that while the bus tour is designed to help these elderly people purchase their daily necessities, a more important purpose is to get them out of their homes. Without the excuse of shopping, few of them have any reason to set foot outside their doors and thus are in danger of becoming genuine shut-ins, who are prone to depression and illness. It also gives them a chance to socialize with other people their age. In fact, many get dressed up for the tours, as if it were a social event.

The caregivers pick the participants up in their own cars and drive to a designated point where they catch the bus, which is provided free by the local government. They then go from one store to another, and break for lunch along the way. What’s notable about the tour, and significant to the retailers who participate, is that these women (all the tour members are women; men, the NPO says, are invited but seem reluctant to join) invariably spend more than they expect to spend. Though they are on fixed incomes, they have little if no opportunity to buy things for themselves and therefore have more disposable cash then they might initially let on.

In the NTV segment, one 76-year-old woman is seen browsing through a clothing store enthusiastically and then bargaining with the salesperson. She ends up spending ¥10,000 more than she originally planned, and while she says she doesn’t really need the clothes she bought (they look exactly like the clothes she’s wearing) she said she “couldn’t resist.” After the group visits a bakery, the place is almost cleaned out.

Build a store, and old people will come — as long as there’s a way to get there.

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