In this final edition of the Japan Department Stores journey, some conclusions.

My observations are based specifically on the retailers’ initiatives in leveraging online content experiences to get inbound tourists engaged in their brand and ultimately get them in stores leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games. A position all three major players announced last year (read more here).


Alas, I must reveal that while I have unearthed some great content it has been rife with disconnected and siloed sources throughout. A nice Japanese phrase I’d use to describe this is ‘mechakucha’ meaning ‘messy’.

Sourcing and collating content became tedious, and considering the importance laid on luring inbound tourism, there was surprisingly little available in English (or any other language apart from Japanese).

However, there are a few English language online newsletters scattered around with a plethora of information on history, culture, events and trivia — some great content. Unfortunately though, these are often buried somewhere no discerning human being nor search engine robot will easily find them.

Generally, the retailers have a specific Facebook page and Instagram profile for each and every regional, city, flagship and local store. Not an uncommon strategy, Selfridges and others do the same. But again, no cohesive efforts towards inbound tourism that we could find. Social media is ideal for brand storytelling and now with 2.8 billion users worldwide, the potential is enormous.

However, I was surprised to find retailers using influencer marketing such as this by a popular Australian Youtuber promoting a Japanese crafts feature.

Top 5 Roundup

Far beyond our expectations though were the stories behind the stores — and there are many. Here’s my top 5:

1. During the second world war the twin lion statues outside the flagship Mitsukoshi store were acquired by the Japanese military to be melted down for weapons manufacturing, but somehow they were spared.

2. In 1924, the Matsuzakaya store in Ginza became a first to allow street shoes to be worn indoors which was unheard of at that time.

3. Many of the oldest department stores worldwide share humble beginnings as cloth merchants, street sellers and tailors. Japan’s stores began with Kimono, the garment once also symbolized class rebellion.

4. It was a stall inside Isetan department store in 1958 that’s often credited with Japan’s
first attempt to market Valentine’s Day - but with a twist. It’s women who give chocolate
to men...

5. In 1927, Mitsukoshi Theater staged Japan’s very first fashion show. No fashion shows
at that time meant no models. Instead they enlisted famous actresses, and kimono designs were showcased through traditional Japanese dance performances.

The Best of Japan Under One Roof
Finally, as part of this project, we produced a video to illustrate our vision of Japan’s department stores once again becoming retail destinations (see the social media version here).




The Stories Behind the Stores Part 3: Merging Online & Offline Experiences

The Stories Behind the Stores Part 3: Merging Online & Offline Experiences

This third edition of my journey into Japan department stores looks at the retailers’ efforts in connecting with audiences through blended online and offline experiences.

Last year, all three of Japan’s struggling major department retailers announced strategies with strong focus towards the inbound tourism market.  The approach, in part, would leverage content, rather than merely sales and promotions to build awareness and engagement, and ultimately get people back in stores. Here are some recent intriguing examples… 

A Creepy Twist on Spring - Mitsukoshi ‘Japan Senses’

In spring in Japan, all themes point to cherry blossom. As bright and blissful the theme, it’s replicated year after year with little variation, and so the blossoms are getting somewhat tired.

However, the winner this time around is Mitsukoshi's Japan Senses, which avoids being too predictable by adding a slightly creepy twist. 

Inspired by the Japanese performance art Noh, they use the traditional masks and music to create a spectacular, high quality video featuring kimono-wearing ladies eerily making their way through storms of blossom petals. 

The experience is integrated offline with beautiful display windows in store continuing the video narrative seamlessly.

Beats, Sweat and Yoga - Isetan & Lululemon

Its title may sound a little unsettling, however ‘Sweat Sense Japan’ is a collaborative series of events from Lululemon, the yoga apparel brand, and Isetan that want customers to experience what both brands represent.

Events include live performances with traditional Japanese drum troops where attendees can ‘feel the beats through their body as they stretch’.

Brands like Lululemon appeal not just their clothing, looking good or even yoga, it’s a lifestyle statement. Brand values that gain alignment and loyalty amongst their followers, and which Isetan appears keen to emulate.

Parco Courts Youth and Viral Trends

Parco isn’t a usual suspect in the line-up.  I chose Parco to demonstrate a department store that leverages social media content to court younger, trendier audiences (though not inbound tourism). 

Parco advantages popular social platforms like LINE and Instagram, and live events also play a big part on YouTube (such as a series of rap battles on the store’s roof). 

This month, Parco co-sponsors a premier event for the release of Dancer’, a documentary portraying the life of troubled ballet prodigy Sergei Polunin, who shot to fame online. The event also boasts a live performance by Polunin himself. 

Visitors at events use “#parcoart” to live-feed tweets to the Parco Art website.

All the above examples use online content to create buzz, followed by a main offline event or experience which is then uploaded online.  

And while some were slow to embrace the trend, increasingly Japan’s department stores are using the approach in a similar way to seasoned icons overseas such as Selfridges, Barneys and John Lewis. 

In the 4th and final post in this series, I’ll draw on some conclusions and learnings from the Japan Department Stores Project so far.  Also some behind the scenes action of our development of content stories and themes.

We’ve started a Facebook page dedicated to these stories and more. Please visit us!



Japan Senses:

Japan Senses Special Move embed code: Dancer:
Rap Battle: FaceBook:

Image Credits: Isetan Mitsukoshi, Lululemon, Parco, Uplink Image Curation and Versioning: AN-YAL

Meta description
Japan’s department stores are using online and offline experiences as an engagement strategy. These recent examples show just how blended retail content can be. 

The Stories Behind the Stores Part 2: - Trend-Setters 

The second part in this series reveals Japan’s department store’s remarkable knack for trend-setting.

White Day

White Day.png

Did you know that Japan has a Valentine’s Day part two, called ‘White Day?

It was a stall inside Isetan department store in 1958 that’s often credited with Japan’s first attempt to market Valentine’s Day - but with a twist. It’s women who give chocolate to men.

White Day on March 14th, gives men a chance to give back to the ladies. Invented in 1980 by the National Confectionery Industry Association of Japan, it kicked off with a campaign to ‘Return the Love on White Day’. And as with Valentine’s Day, department stores lead the way in getting the word out.

The buildup to the first ever White Day involved uniformed ‘Candy Girls’ handing out samples in Mitsukoshi Ginza, Tokyu Shibuya and Isetan Shinjuku. And on the day, Mitsukoshi Ginza’s basement was crammed with pop-up stalls from 13 different confectioners.

Nowadays, ladies are also often reciprocated with lavish gifts like jewellery. But with the continued prestige of confectionary gifting, department store basements are still the best places to spot men scrambling for last minute gifts.

The Mitsukoshi Runway

Now, a powerful runway strut. Then, a traditional Japanese dance against a backdrop of marble and gold.

In 1927, Japan’s very first fashion show was staged in Mitsukoshi department store, in Mitsukoshi Hall (now known as Mitsukoshi Theater). 

Since there were no fashion shows at that time, there was also no such thing as fashion models. But that didn’t hold them back; instead they enlisted famous actresses of the time such as Yaeko Mizutani (pictured).

Foregoing the burgeoning trend for Western clothing, new kimono designs were showcased through traditional Japanese dance performances.

Mitsukoshi Theater remains largely unchanged with hand-stained glass and gold decorations adorning its walls and arches, while lavish floral motifs accentuate the balcony seating.

Department stores continue to be at the forefront of high-end fashion in Tokyo. In recent years three department stores in Ginza; Matsuya, Mitsukoshi and Printemps, collaborated to hold Ginza Fashion Week.

The Delivery Automobile

Early twentieth century, department stores were battling to display prestige.

Mitsukoshi won over many by being Japan’s first to use a delivery automobile to transport their wares in 1905. At a time when automobiles of any kind were still incredibly rare, imagine the excitement of getting your shopping delivered in this ultra-modern fashion!

Mitsukoshi’s willingness and flexibility to court new technologies and innovations made them the talk of Tokyo.

Mitsukoshi is one of the oldest department stores in Japan. After starting as a one-man kimono fabric business, the company grew incorporating more products to their repertoire as they went. They became the first incorporated public company known as a department store in 1904.

Part 3 of this series fast-forwards to today and shows how Japan’s store are attempting to engage customers with though online and offline experiences.

We’ve just started a Facebook page dedicated to these stories and more. Please visit and LIKE us!

Image Credits:

Keiichiro Yuri collection

Isetan Mitsukoshi

Wikipedia/Yaeko Mizutani

The Stories Behind the Stores Part 1: Rebellion and Innovation

You may know from my first blog for AMC, that last year I began research into the strategies of Japan’s major department stores, and others worldwide, in tackling their apparent demise brought about by recent changes in lifestyles and consumer behaviour. And in particular, how they could leverage online content experiences to get people engaged in their brand and ultimately get them back in stores. 

A Lost Cause?

“Japan department store sales hit 36-year low in 2016”.

Department stores cannot compete with online shopping "because they are bland and predictable”.

Gone are the days when families “would go and spend a day buying what they need or want”.

What started as a regular marketing project for me has now become something of an obsession and personal cause for Japan’s stores to once again become a ‘retail destination’. 

So, through a series of forthcoming blogs, I’d like to share some insightful stories that my research has uncovered.

Department Stores Began With Kimono

Many of the word’s oldest and most prestigious department stores share humble beginnings as fabric shops and merchants. In Japan they began with Kimono, which once also symbolised class rebellion and fashion innovation.

Forbidden Colours

The Edo period was a stable time in Japan’s history, allowing the merchant class to thrive. And many flaunted their wealth with kimonos in peacock-like personal display.

This over-dressing became a threat to the ruling classes, and they outlawed lavish clothing for the underclasses in order to protect the strict hierarchy. So the merchants developed their own fashions, characterised by subtle colours and detailing.

But the lure of bright colours could not be resisted; lining and underclothes, not restricted by the laws became red. The forbidden colour spilled out tantalizingly when women’s long sleeves fell back.

Popularity in the West

In the late 19th century, spurred by a fad for all things Japanese, kimono styles were popularised in the West by bourgeois ladies who wore casual variations as ‘housecoats’ - without the restraining obi belt.


Then Parisian couturiers Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet began experimenting with the kimono in the 1920s. And it was around the same time back in Japan that Western trends began to accentuate the traditional kimono outfit.

The Jazz Age

The early 20th century was a hedonistic time. Kimono were draped lavishly in extravagant displays alongside Western imports.

This poster of a lady in a kimono with an imported parasol and handbag was used to advertise the opening of Mitsukoshi department store in Shinjuku in 1925. The lady flaunts a bobbed hairstyle and the child by her side is dressed fully in Western clothing.

Rather than being sidelined by the new foreign styles, the kimono co-existed for a highly fashionable effect.

Part 2 of this department stores series continues with tales of classic and modern innovations.

We’ve just started a Facebook page dedicated to these stories and more. Please visit andLIKE us!

Image credits:

Lady in Kimono, 1925: Hisui/Mitsukosh

Classic kimono collection / Western lady in housecoat: J. Front Retailing Archives Foundation Inc./Nagoya City Museum


First blog for AMC:

36-year low:,783385.html#.WLdi9hhh0lI

Bland and predictable:

Gone are the days:


Popularized in the West:,796489.html#.WMEaexhh0lJ

AN-YAL Faxebook page:


SEO Basics for (Absolute) Beginners

SEO best practices can make a great difference particularly to businesses that rely on being found through search engines. Problem is, understanding even the basics is tough, especially for non-techies such as myself. So to keep things simple, let me tell you a story about Clarissa and the tools she used to get started...

Clarissa runs a very niche business, combining her two great passions: knitting and Doctor Who.

Every Christmas and birthday she graces friends and family with hand-knitted goods.

They often told her she should try to make some money out of her skill, but she never acted on their kind words.Until now.

Clarissa’s online business is up and running. She advertises on forums and she networks at events. After a slow start, her business is becoming a nice little side earner for her.

SEO Troubles

But one day, bored at her day job, she types ‘Doctor Who knitted goods’ into Google search. To her dismay, her site doesn’t show up on the first page or even the second.

It is relegated to third page behind tons of websites dedicated to the scarf Tom Baker (an actor from the TV show) wore.

They’re not even relevant! Her page deserves to be ahead of them. ‘That’s not fair!’ she says aloud, attracting concerned looks from her co-workers. She rushes home at the end of the day. Sitting at her desk, she starts pumping query after query into Google. She can think of plenty of words that she should be ranking for but she’s not on the first page for any. Why?

Perhaps her adversary, Google, holds the answer. ‘Why isn’t my site on the first page?’ she types. It seems when she made her site she neglected something called ‘SEO’.

Google’s Robots

Search Engine Optimisation is a way of designing and maintaining your website that lets search engine robots understand what your website is about, and help them decide if your site is authoritative and popular. 

Clarissa stumbles upon a comprehensive beginner’s guide to SEO which helps her form a plan. She does some research to find out which keywords she should try to rank for and how difficult it will be to defeat her competitors on the first page. She’s pleased to find out that there’s countless tools that help her to do this and many of them are free

She puts her chosen keywords in all the right places, using an On-Page SEO checklist. Now, when ‘crawling’ through her site, the robots can understand this is a website dedicated to Doctor Who themed knitted goods.

Proving You’re Worth it

The first bout of her battle with the bots is over. Now Clarissa must convince them her site is authoritative. 

She found out this can be achieved through the weirdly named ‘link juice’. If other websites link to her, the robots know that her site is considered worthwhile by others. This gives her some link juice.

She asks all her other small business friends to give her a link. But she knows this won’t be enough. The robots consider links from authoritative sites as much more worthwhile, so she decides to try to get a link from, the premier site for Doctor Who fans.

She contacts them to see if they’ll publish an article she’s written about her passion for knitting. ‘Sure!’ they say, ‘this is some nice, original content our readers will have an interest in!’

Seeing the benefits of SEO takes some time, as does link-building. But Clarissa’s good SEO practices lead to more links and soon she’s seen as an authority on Doctor Who themed knitted goods. Good for you, Clarissa!

‘But there’s still another site above me!’ Clarissa wails. Well Clarissa, that’s a paid advertisement. They gave money to Google to beat all the organic search rankings.

‘That’s cheating!’ That’s life Clarissa. Money can get you anywhere. But remember, they’ll have to keep paying forever to stay there. If you have your SEO game together, you can relax. Until Google changes their algorithms again…

 Doctor Who
Beginner’s Guide to SEO
Many of them are free
On-Page SEO Checklist


Why I Do, What I Do - The Beauty in all Things

There is a common understanding that marketers are there to persuade people to buy something by creating messages with clever undertones to evoke some kind of need.

I am a marketer so I can’t be completely unbiassed. But how about looking at it in a different way?

The reason that I love my work is because it gives me the opportunity to explore what people crave.  To find the beauty in all things, though simple and normal, and bring that beauty back to them by carving it into an experience that they can ‘get into’. 

This could be through words, visuals, human exchanges, almost anything and any combination or variation. You can call this ‘content’ because the experience is hoped to lead to a conversion; that is, the audience will react in a particular way that is profitable to a brand.

The Craft

One important attribution of content is ‘choice’. Particularly social media content. It’s your choice. You choose the platforms and channels, you decide what to like and what to share, and nobody is forcing you to buy anything (if they are, it’s not content). The reason that you engage is because it’s meaningful to you.

So what does this all mean? To me, it means adventure. Constant listening and constant learning about people, their loves and their lives.  And then with these insights, I ‘craft’. 

I’d never thought of what I do as a craft, until a very brief but inspired conversation over lunch with AMC’s Mark Singer. Until that point, I’d used the term ‘create’ — content creation.  Mark said, “What you do is craft”; painstakingly augmenting an experience to resonate with the audience, but only until you yourself are happy with it. 

And that’s very true, otherwise I don’t see the point in doing it.

The ‘Why?’ 

Recently, I was asked to produce a content strategy for a hotel concierge app developer (not particularly exciting). I asked rudimentary questions about product features, business goals, objectives, budget, etc. But I also asked this: “Who do you admire for thought leadership?” Why? Because my craft also involves speaking in another person’s voice and telling their story, not simply their functionality.


And, his answer served me greatly in another way. I made a discovery that resonates with me: a classic TED Talk by Simon Sinek (with over 30 million views), ‘How great leaders inspire action’. Sinek shows how great influencers appeal to the emotion and values of their audience by expressing “why” they are doing what they are doing.

Ask yourself, ‘why?'


Simon Sinek

Retailer Icons - The Building of a Brand

In the fairytale kingdom of marketing, icons and mascots can help retailers proclaim all over the land, ‘my brand is better than your brand’!

Once upon a time in 1970’s New York, mysterious brown paper bags began appearing in the hands of shoppers. These bags were quite unremarkable in every way. The store name was left off, and in simple dark brown letters it read ‘big brown bag’. Only those in the know ‘got it’, making everyone else want to be in the know.

So unexceptional were the bags that they became chic and were proudly flaunted. But soon the truth was out. This iconic paper bag became unequivocally associated with Bloomingdales.

These nameless, simple bags are still being used today, and in a nod to the enduring symbol, rather than a ‘cart’ or ‘basket’, Bloomingdales’ online store invites you to put your coveted items in a virtual ‘brown bag’.

The Guardian Lions

Who dares enter Mitsukoshi’s flagship store in Tokyo, under the watchful gaze of two imposing lions? Inspired by the lions surrounding Nelson’s column in London, the mascots arrived in 1914 at a time when Japanese retailers were engaging in dizzying bouts of architectural one-upmanship.

Due to an acute shortage of metals during the second world war, the military apparently acquired the lions to be melted down for weapons manufacturing. But they were spared and continue to grace the store entrance today.

The Mitsukoshi Lions bear an uncanny resemblance to Stephen and Stitt, the twin guardians of many of HSBC (Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation) offices around the world. They became distinctive icons in their own right in Hong Kong and Shanghai, with a pair also in London. Debuting in the mid-1930’s, the Hong Kong lions became objects of reverence and focal point of the bank's great Feng Shui. Today young couples still bring their toddlers to stroke the paws and noses of the statues, hoping for good luck and prosperity.

If you go down to Harrods today…

You may believe Winnie the Pooh comes from Hundred Acre Wood, but actually he was born a long, long time ago in Harrods.

The inspiration for A.A. Milne’s beloved creation was purchased by his wife from the London department store in 1921. Since then, much like Christopher Robin and pals, Harrods and teddy bears have been inseparable.

Policemen bears, Beefeater bears, any bears you can think of can be found at Harrods. The culmination of Harrods’ extreme bear love comes to a head every Christmas with the unveiling of the annual limited edition festive bear. These have ranged from the loveable fluff-ball called ‘Snow Bear’ in 1986 to 2016’s bear, ‘Hugh’, who had a starring role in a Christmas commercial, saving Harrods ‘the palace’ from a wintry spell that threatened to ruin Christmas.

Mascots and motifs like teddy bears and cool paper bags can often represent brands better than any human spokesperson. They reel us in with a compelling backstory, something memorable that’s likely to stick in our minds.

And so, they all shopped happily ever after…

Japan Department Stores, Inbound Tourism & Non-communication

Japan’s Major Department Stores are Taking a Bashing.

Last year, two of Japan’s major department stores announced comprehensive strategies to get customers back through their glamorous double doors. 

Most interesting to me is ‘catering to growth markets’, namely inbound tourism. 

An essential element of the Japanese government’s growth initiative is to ‘bring 40 million visitors to Japan in 2020’ just in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games. And this is going well, with over 20 million visitors just last year.

So with such encouraging stats, why are these stores taking such a major bashing with over a decade of slow trade, declining sales and closures nationwide and overseas?

Anything you can do, I can do, cheaper.

There are many well documented reasons: the convenience and competitive value of online shopping like Amazon and Bic Camera, retailers with cheaper products or ‘value brands’ such as Ikea and Nitori, as well as the outlet shopping malls. There’s also Japan-specific societal issues relating to economic stagnation, rapidly declining birthrates and an aging population.  

However, put (very) simply, everyday people have less money or are less inclined to visit a department store.

In my recent research into business strategies of the top department stores in Japan, I found fierce acknowledgement of the above and even fiercer initiatives to get customers in. But despite Japan inbound tourism being a major weapon in their arsenal, the following bullet was missing without ever being fired at that particular target:

• Brand engagement through online communication

Certainly, efforts are in place to build awareness of the major brands as ‘brands’ by positioning Japanese crafts and culture products such as Takashimaya Nippon Monogatari, introducing member loyalty credit cards, duty free shopping services, and renovation plans for flagship stores.

However, very little in the way of targeted (online) communication and conversation. 

By this I mean drawing the audience in with engaging information, stories and interactive experience with the goal of creating brand fanatics or advocates.  

But you don't have to take my word for it.  Two little words of wisdom: John Lewis.

UK retailer, John Lewis, has driven a 35% increase in year-round sales through a series of Christmas commercials backed-up with deep engagement with its audience. The characters and narratives of the now popularized ‘John Lewis Christmas Adverts’ are seamlessly expanded across various media, merchandising and experiences accompanied by committed conversation and communication with audiences online.

Last year, Macy’s of New York leveraged its iconic ‘Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade with online interactive maps and 360 degree imagery, Twitter video streaming, multiple video releases on Youtube, and conversations over multiple digital channels & platforms.

Something Worth Talking About.

So what of our beloved department stores, how are they engaging with inbound tourists in the run up to the almighty Tokyo Olympic Games?  I put my micro-team (of three including myself) to researching. After just two weeks, their stoicism was no longer ignorable and neither did they appreciate our department store field trips.

We found little (and I’m being kind) that would make me want to jump straight from Narita Airport into a taxi, skip the hotel breakfast and dash down to the historic Mitsukoshi Department Store to observe the daily ceremonial opening of the doors at 10:30am. Oh, and the darling little old Japanese ladies dressed in Kimono lined-up waiting to enter. 

Which is a shame, because what we did find is enough history, cultural beauty, iconic imagery, classic and modern architecture and more to create meaningful and immersive stories to expand on and converse with both domestic and international audiences.

Now, I know the marketing planners do have themes and initiatives in place, as mentioned earlier. However, what I couldn't find was any committed communication strategy for this specific target.

Go ahead, make my day.

What the Japan’s retailers can learn from John Lewis and the like is an understanding of what the audience wants and how to deliver this in a way that is tangible and appealing.  Easier said than done, perhaps?

I took my research and my enthusiasm on the topic to a Japanese friend who is an accountant for a well-known European cookware company. I explained. She understood. And she replied looking me directly in the eyes, “onegaishimasu” which in English means something like ‘If you would be so kind’. 

What I understood from this was “Chioma, this is important, we are all suffering. 22 of our 30 outlets are inside these department stores, and we may have to considerer exiting and opening up more stand-alone stores, which we really don’t want to do…”

Dear Mr Department Store, if you are having trouble reaching the receiver, please try again or contact someone who can help you.