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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Japanese businesses devise new ways to sell to seniors

Yuko Fukushima

Jan. 30, 2018

Japan has the highest rate of people over 65 in the world. That's more than a quarter of the population. It's seen as a major problem in the country, but retailers are looking to tap into this expanding market.

Higashimurayama is a typical Tokyo suburb. Many of its apartment buildings were built during the postwar era of high economic growth for people who worked in the center of the city. Shops did brisk business. But many are now closing as the population ages. That's making life difficult for seniors who can't walk long distances to go shopping. "It's not easy for me to go far," "It takes half an hour to reach a store. That means I can take a stroll, but it's tough," they say.

A leading convenience store chain and a public-housing operator see this as a business opportunity. Seven-Eleven Japan and the Urban Renaissance Agency have teamed up to open convenience stores that meet the needs of seniors who live in apartments. Their newest service is door-to-door delivery. The service is free if your order costs about US$4.5 or more.

One of the customers is an 84-year-old woman who lives alone. Carrying heavy bags and going up and down the stairs is hard for her. She uses the new service about twice a week. "The delivery service is so helpful. I really can't live without the store," she says.

Seven-Eleven Japan plans to open 100 senior-friendly convenience stores nationwide. "I want our store to be convenient and friendly. It should be a place that people in the neighborhood can depend on," says a store manager.

A shopping mall in the Tokyo suburb of Kasai is using a different strategy to attract seniors. AEON is one of Japan's biggest retail chains. It converted the 4th floor of the mall into a bookstore to cater to seniors. Twice each morning, about 100 people come here to do exercises under the guidance of a radio program.

Many local seniors like to work out and socialize. "I visit almost every day. I can find most of the things I need right here," says an elderly man. "After exercising, I can enjoy a cup of tea and chat with people. Then I go home," says a woman. The number of people who shop at the mall has risen by 10% in the past year, due to the senior-friendly events held in the mall.

"Customers who have made new friends here visit our outlet more often... some are even here every day. We're definitely attracting more shoppers," says an executive officer at Aeon, Kahori Miyake. AEON is planning to launch at least 100 big outlets aimed at catering to seniors' needs by 2025.

Eiji Watase manages a research firm that specializes in the senior market. He says it poses a key challenge for retailers. "As society ages, the size of marketing areas will shrink. That's because senior citizens tend to stay close to home. As it becomes more difficult for them to go shopping, retailers will have to set up one-stop shops that offer customers everything they need in their daily lives," he says.

Japan's aging society and shrinking population mean retailers have to rethink how they do business. It's a big challenge, but also a big opportunity.