The neologism “wakeari” has entered the Japanese vocabulary in a big way, and for a specific purpose. It means “there’s a reason,” and has come to be used in retail for items that, for some reason, cannot be sold at normal prices. In terms of food it might refer to slightly damaged canned goods, or perishables that are coming close to their expiration dates (or even past their expiration dates), or vegetables that are not regulation size or shape. The word has become so popular among consumers that there are actually websites and special retailers who only sell wakeari items, with the implication that maybe they are damaged or irregular on purpose. And if you think carefully about it, anything can be used as a “reason,” including the notion that something was probably overpriced in the first place. (That’s why you occasionally see wakeari condominiums.)
Keeping this last thought in mind, department stores, which are quickly going the way of the dinosaurs, have finally succumbed to the wakeari craze. From June 16 to 22, Matsuzakaya in Ueno is having a wakeari sale, mostly of food items. Though department stores do have occasional sales, they tend to be limited fashion items that have to be sold before the next season starts, which means sale items are synonymous with unpopular items. In principle, the bargain sale as a marketing tool runs counter to the image of a Japanese department store. Department stores tend to sell higher-end merchandise at prices suggested by the manufacturer, and the more bargain sales you have the more your base customers will come to expect them, and thus they wait for them.
Matsuzakaya’s wakeari sale is being closely watched by other department stores because of the scale: Some 400,000 items comprising 1,000 different product types, from expensive canned crab, to canned exotic juices and expensive rice crackers. There are some T-shirts, kitchenware and jewelry, but overwhelmingly the items on sale are food, and they are not really leftover items that have to go. They are mostly merchandise that Matsuzakaya has purchased expressly for this sale. According to the Asahi Shimbun, there are even some items that were returned to wholesalers because they weren’t sold and Matsuzakaya bought them back just for this sale, presumably at lower prices. The savings range from 30 to 70 percent off the suggested retail prices. Some of the items are slightly damaged and some are approaching their sell-by dates, but the main “reason” all this stuff is on sale is to get people into the store. If the sale is a success they will do it again, and every other department store will probably follow suit.
So far, it seems to be a success. We visited the 6th floor of the Ueno Matsuzakaya store, where the sale is being carried out, and a line of people snaked all the way to the other end of the floor. They were only letting in about two dozen people at a time.