Misako Kaneko, a Tokyo office worker, likes to have dinner at home while watching her favorite TV dramas. But as a single woman who works full-time, it’s not easy for her to find time to prepare a healthy meal every night after work.

The solution she found is to buy ready-made meals at department stores on her way home.

She has her pick of freshly prepared Japanese, Chinese and Western dishes, to name a few, which she only has to warm up at home. “I never get tired of department stores because they have such variety, and the products there are constantly changing,” Kaneko said.

Kaneko is one of many shoppers who frequent the food sections of department stores, popularly known as depachika because they are usually located in the basement (chika). While depachika were once primarily targeted at gift-giving customers, the aisles these days are more likely to be filled with people lining up for ready-to-eat purchases such as bread hot from the oven, crisp korokke (croquettes) from a popular franchise and boxed meals from famous ryotei (exclusive Japanese restaurants).

Time efficiency

Department store operators attribute much of their success to time-pressed working women, both single and married.

Women in the latter category (who are often expected to cook for their families) make up the majority of shoppers. Mitsuki Yamakoshi, a researcher at the Food Service Industry Research Center, an affiliate of the Agriculture Ministry, says this reflects the difficulties the growing number of married women in the workforce face balancing their careers with their responsibilities at home.

“More than 70 percent of women in their 40s are working — full-time or part-time,” says Yamakoshi. “It is hard for them to make meals from scratch everyday.”

Ready-made meals allow working women to devote more time and energy to spending time with their families, says Ikuo Nakano, a spokesman for Rockfield Co., a Kobe-based daily-meals maker.

A 1998 survey of 930 women by Nisshin Management and Technical Consulting Co. shows that about half of them bought ready-made meals or frozen food more frequently than before. Although more than 80 percent said they felt guilty when buying frozen foods or ready-made meals, recent improvements in taste and quality, as well as expanded selections, are expected to make their purchase a very common practice.

From the bottom up

The success of depachika is a bright light in the dark times of financial recession. According to a Japan Department Stores Association poll, overall department sales are dwindling, but food sales are growing up to 3 percent a year.

Japan’s take-out food industry has grown remarkably since 1988, when the number of take-out food shops first surpassed that of supermarkets and other stores dealing with raw perishables.

It has become a 5.8 trillion yen market today, accounting for about 20 percent of the nation’s dining-out industry, says Yamakoshi of the Food Service Industry Research Center.

Rockfield, which operates the Western-style delicatessen chain RF1 and croquette chain Kobe Korokke, is among the companies cashing in on the boom. Despite the relatively high prices of its products (100 grams of potato salad costs 240 yen at RF1), total sales have been growing for five consecutive years. Pretax profits for fiscal 1999 were 2.3 billion yen, according to the company.

Gourmet land

To further boost sales, department store operators are dreaming up new ways to attract customers.

While there were forerunners to the depachika shift, Tokyu Toyoko department store, in Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya district, has made a particularly grand investment: Tokyu spent 1.2 billion yen last year remodeling its depachika, which it named Food Show. Shop space for gifts was reduced to make way for delicatessens, take-out meal shops run by famous restaurants and brand-name confectionary makers. Kitchens were installed so that about 30 tenant shops could constantly serve fresh food. To improve the overall look, shops set up small cooking demonstration booths and compact dining corners.

“Customers today want to select from a broad variety. Only providing the necessities is not enough,” said Takehisa Higuchi, chief manager of the food section. “What we are aiming at is creating a more fashionable and entertaining food shopping area, something like a theme park.”

The investment appears to have paid off: Food Show has attracted new customers in their 20s and 30s and raised sales by 50 percent from the previous year.

Isetan department store in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district also unveiled a new food section last year, explicitly targeting women in their mid-20s to mid-30s: The “trans-adult generation,” according to Mutsuko Wakui, a spokeswoman for the department store chain.

Isetan defines trans-adults as fashion-conscious, good spenders and influential consumers. The department store, known as a sophisticated trendsetter, was keen to attract customers shopping on the upper floors down to the basement. To this end, Isetan brought in brand-name Western-style delis and confectionery shops.

“As a result, the basement has become one of the most profitable sections,” Wakui said.

Some department stores have even developed their own brands to attract shoppers seeking rare, hard-to-find food items.

Last spring, Tobu department store in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro started a new shop — D & D (Dessert and Deli) — that sells meals with desserts and various fruit salads.

Despite all the remodeling, a simple and effective way to draw more customers to the food section is to make business hours longer. Tobu and Seibu department stores in Ikebukuro and Tokyu department store in Shibuya have done that by extending their business hours by one hour.

At Tokyu’s Food Show, sales rose by about 7 percent by pushing back the closing time from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. “It’s a pretty big figure,” said Higuchi. “Many people rush to the shop at the last minute to buy ready-made dinner or bread for breakfast.”

Still, some suggest these changes aren’t all about profit.

“If your time is very limited,” says Nakano of daily-meals maker Rockfield, “I believe it’s more important to eat dinner and spend time together with your kids rather than cooking.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.