Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Denim deflation

October 2, 2009

James Dean smouldered in his, the Marlboro men looked rugged in theirs, and now me and hordes of other Japanese people can feel frugal in ours. Jeans — practical, durable and with just a hint of  rebelliousness — are at the centre of a price war in Japan, as struggling retailers look to lure cash-strapped customers back through their doors.

With the country slipping deeper into deflation and its jobless rate rising, shops have for some time been marking down almost everything from bags of cereal,  to laundry detergent and bicycles.

But curiously it is jeans that have emerged as a symbol of this deflationary race as major retailers roll out dirt-cheap denim in bids to undercut each other.

RETAIL JAPAN FASTRETAILINGFast Retailing, which operates the Uniqlo casual fashion chain, started the phenomenon in March when it said it it would start flogging jeans for 990 yen (about $11) a pair at its g.u. stores.

Back then, this was widely seen as an astoundingly cheap offer — the price was around a quarter of  some jeans sold at Uniqlo, a chain known for its competitive pricing. The 990-yen jeans drove up sales at g.u., which had suffered from little consumer recognition until that point.

And the move sparked a round of tit-for-tat discounting, that this week continued with supermarket operator Seiyu, a Japanese unit of Wal-Mart, starting to sell jeans for 850 yen. “We would like to keep our price leadership,” a Seiyu spokeswoman said.

The trend could also indicate that deflation in Japan is worse than government statistics show as this kind of price competition is not fully reflected in official figures.

Where will it stop? Who knows, but I reckon denim prices can be stretched a bit further yet.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Eriko Sugita

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