How Japanese Consumer Habits Have Changed Since the Earthquake

From Fears Over Food Sourcing to Rise in Online Shopping, Citizens Rethink What and How They Buy

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Three months after the triple disasters of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor leak, it is probably not surprising there has been a great deal of rethinking in Japan. Of course there are macro issues of ongoing worries about radiation, power shortages and the potential for another large quake among the thousands of aftershocks. But amid all that , people are reacting with hope and determination that Japan can recover, while also rethinking what and how they buy.

What has changed? Research is showing interest in more sustainable consumption -- not radical shifts, but practical changes in behavior and attitude that say people want products that are showing a little more thought, have a healthier outlook and are more likely to contribute to national and personal recovery. Indeed, our own ongoing "Fukkatsu: Japan Rebuilds" study found that by late May, 77% of people said they were actively seeking out brands they believe are helping recovery of the country and personal stability. That same research has shown people are making sacrifices: 75% use less electricity, 72% conserve water and 68% actively look for greener alternatives to everyday consumption.

This is all part of a bigger attitude. People agree that Japan's citizens (70%) and private sector (63%) will be responsible for recovery, rather than a government that is increasingly seen as not showing leadership. And all that is driven by an overwhelming 93% of people who say they just want a more stable life.

Of course some categories saw business boom simply because people picked up new habits driven by events. Bicycles are all the rage with commuters worried about gasoline shortages and price increases, along with potential train delays due to possible power shortages.

Japan is of course a land of train commuters, and each station has traditionally been a mecca for noodle shops and other quick eateries. But in recent years the train operators have built malls on top of the stations, tapping into a boom in fast fashion. In car-dominated markets like the USA, going "shopping" involves driving to the retailer, but in Japan shopping is usually part of getting to and from the station on the way to work and home. Post-earthquake, we have seen that all shopping trips are shorter and more directed, and these "railway malls" make that so much easier.

That works in tandem with increasing use of mobile phones as shopping aids. Normal behavior now is to "shop" in "brick" and "virtual" stores at the same time and compare prices. That has abetted the growth of "embarrassment shopping," which involves checking out products that might be regarded as socially inappropriate to be seen actually buying in stores such as luxury items and expensive personal care, and then ordering them online, usually through mobile services. In fact, online shopping has seen growth of around 20% since early March.

Many categories are seeing shifts in behavior. Beverage manufacturers have refocused production to meet the huge demand for bottled water, as people in Tokyo and other areas reacted to sometimes overblown stories of radiation levels in tap water supplies. And water-treatment manufacturers like Brita have seen filtration-systems sales rise.

Aeon, Japan's largest retail company, quickly grabbed the trend for cocooning and started to sell "family-pack food," complete meal combinations suitable for two or three people at a sitting. The products have achieved excellent sales and many supermarkets began selling new food combinations for families now spending more time at home.

Next came a natural reaction to the concern about food sourcing. We saw a fairly quick scare over food coming from the Tohiko area worst hit by the triple tragedy as people were fed incessant news of possible radiation spreads. Many remain extremely wary, and food packaging is now expected to contain very precise details of origin. On the other hand, there is also a strong movement to support Tohiko. A very active minority of grocery shoppers are now seeking out food produced there to show support and faith.

Healthier eating seems to be affecting everyone, and retailers such as Aeon and Seiyu Walmart are relaunching "whole foods" themes of organic produce.

Consumers also say they want to "be involved." Our own research indicates that over 60% of people want "to be part of a shared process in product and service development." Probably in large part as a rejection of the power company, TEPCO, for poor handling of nuclear reactors and the subsequent power shortages, Japanese people are now more wary of corporate statements and are digging deeper into what goods and services offer. This is leading to discussion of a change in the meaning of CSR from "corporate" social responsibility to "consumer," and peoples' desire to have companies involve them more.

I'm often asked if things are settling down, and my answer is , "Recovery, yes, but change is just getting started."

Dave McCaughan is regional strategic planning director for McCann Worldgroup Asia Pacific in Tokyo.
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