Waikiki retailers are heralding the return of Japan's "office ladies," high-spending, trendy shoppers. Kazuyo Komeda, of Japan tries on a riding jacket at clothing retailer Hermes in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center.

Leading ladies

When it comes to setting trends,
Japan's "office ladies" lead the way

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

All along Waikiki are signs that the high-spending Japanese "office ladies" -- young urban professionals with expensive taste and money to burn -- are traveling to Hawaii again.

During the mid-1990s, when the Japanese tourism boom to Hawaii was taking off, the state's largest industry went to great lengths to cater to those 18- to 38-year-old female travelers whose primary travel goal was to shop.

Then the bubble burst. Japanese visitor arrivals to Hawaii, which peaked at 2.2 million in the mid-90s, fell to 1.3 million last year in response to a weakened Japanese economy and geopolitical troubles. At the same time, the percentage of women in their 20s in Japan was also declining.

"After 9/11 all the signs in Waikiki were in Japanese, but there weren't any travelers from Japan in the streets," said Anne Murata, marketing director of The Festival Cos., which manages The Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, one of Waikiki's largest retailer centers. "Businesses had to start pulling down their signs and spreading out their marketing efforts."

But there's resurgence in the Japan market again, Murata said.

The Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center is increasing the use of Japanese on its signs, an indication of the resurgence of the visitor market.

"They're back, they're shopping, and we like that," Murata said. "I'm adding Japanese signage to everything."

Hawaii tops the list of choice destinations for Japan's traveling public and the number of office ladies who are interested in the market has increased, according to a recent survey by Dentsu Research published in Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.

The percentage of Japanese who are interested in traveling to Hawaii has increased 5 percentage points from last year, to 31 percent, the survey said. The percentage of young female Japanese who wish to visit Hawaii primarily for shopping has also jumped, to 36 percent from 20 percent, the survey said.

"There's latent demand among the office ladies for Hawaii travel, and the desire runs fairly deep. The results of this survey suggest that Hawaii and Korea can expect to be the main destination for office ladies in the autumn," said Taka Kono, author of the Japan Report, which tracks this Asian market.

If the office ladies return as expected, then Hawaii can realize a full recovery, Kono said.

According to Travel Journal International, the young women's outbound travel market from Japan is making a comeback among women in their 20s, posting a 53 percent year-over year increase in April, said Dave Erdman, president and chief executive officer of PacRim Marketing Group Inc., an international marketing firm that works in the Pacific Rim.

"As the economy strengthens we should see an increase in the overall Japanese visitor market, as well as the office lady or opinion leader market, as long as air capacity increases," Erdman said.

In Hawaii, the women often travel in packs to shop and many of them are again traveling with young men for weddings or honeymoons, said Sharon Weiner, group vice president at DFS Hawaii, which caters to duty-free shoppers.

Retailers are also noticing a new trend that pairs young Japanese female travelers with their mothers, Kono said.

"The mother-daughter market is particularly attractive because of its spending potential," he said.

The Japanese market Hawaii most wants to get back is the 18 to early 20s female visitor market because these women are the trend leaders, Erdman said.

"They have the most disposable income and their purchase behavior helps to influence other segments," he said. "The Japanese are the highest per-day visitor spenders in Hawaii and their spending is increasing."

The promise of these travel trends has prompted expansion among Oahu high-end retailers, long beloved by Japanese shoppers. The retail activity will cast media attention on Hawaii, which creates another reason for the office ladies to return, Erdman said.

Hermes, which held a grand opening on Thursday, switched locations and doubled the size of its store at the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center. Cartier has expanded and renovated its store and Bulgari and Ferragamo are starting renovations soon.

Global brands have expanded in Japan, and many boutiques have taken prime real estate.

If Hawaii wants to compete for Japanese shoppers, it will need to offer them choices on par with what has been created in Japan over the past few years, Erdman said.

Hawaii's marketplace is still attractive to Japanese shoppers because merchandise can typically be obtained for 20 percent to 30 percent below costs in their country, Weiner said.

Since 2001, the number of Japanese shoppers making purchases at Hermes has risen steadily, said Robert B. Chavez, president and chief executive officer of Hermes of Paris Inc.

The store's Waikiki location has been so successful, despite Japan's sometimes unstable travel market, that the store is No. 2 in sales in the United States, behind New York, Chavez said.

"The office lady is definitely coming back and the mother-daughter phenomenon has been wonderful for business," Chavez said. "Everything that we've read about the renewed strength in the Asian economies and the tremendous interest in travel to Hawaii, we have felt in our business here."

DFS Hawaii, which operates two duty-free shops at Honolulu Airport and a duty-free and retail business in Waikiki, has also announced plans to expand, Weiner said.

In December, DFS Hawaii will open a new 10,000-square-foot store in the middle of the airport for duty-free shoppers, Weiner said.

"We were supposed to be open much earlier than this, but we got stalled by 9/11. Also, the checkpoint configuration changed," Weiner said.

The company will model its 5,000-square-foot main airport store and open it as a retail center, which will be open to shoppers who don't hold boarding passes. The store is expected to close in December and reopen in mid-2005.

Business at DFS is still substantially down, about 25 percent, from pre-9/11 levels, but for the first time in a long while, Weiner said she is heartened by improvements. The company relies on Japanese shoppers for the majority of its business.

Other retailers, which don't rely quite so heavily on the Japan market, are flush with sales, Murata said, adding that nearly all stores at the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center have double-digit sales growth.

"Everyone feels extremely optimistic," Murata said. "The market is on the upswing, but we are aware that it could change in a moment."



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