Staff writers

Japanese retailers are gearing up for their holiday season offensive in hopes that the festive mood will encourage reluctant consumers to spend their way out of the country’s prolonged recession.

Most optimistic are computer retailers, who expect already brisk sales of personal computers to continue to gather speed.

“We expect that a big chunk (of yearend sales) will come from computers,” said Iwao Yamashita, a spokesman for Laox Co., a major discount electronics retailer. “Manufacturers are lining up computers that enable users to connect to the Internet with one tap of the finger or make their own Web sites quickly.”

The personal computer industry is enjoying favorable sales as inexpensive models are luring more people onto the Internet. Shipments of computers in the first half of fiscal 1999 grew to 4.39 million units, up 34 percent from the same period last year, according to the Japan Electronic Industry Development Association.

Shoppers are becoming more Internet-savvy, Yamashita said, and now they’re starting to specify which Internet-related services they use, such as online stock trading. Ordinary applications such as databases are no longer appealing to many users, he said.

In Tokyo’s Akihabara district, home to many electronics discounters and computer shops, retailers are predicting that digital versatile disc players will be a leading item among holiday shoppers.

“Sales of DVD players are going well this year as various types of players and media have been lined up,” said Yoshiyuki Toyota, who works at one of Laox’s Akihabara stores.

Although existing DVDs can only be used for playback, Toyota said DVD recorders will be introduced in early December by Pioneer Corp..

“Amid the economic slump, some consumers spend a lot of money on quality goods for their own pleasure. So there will be a chance for us to increase our sales if we can offer such items at reasonable prices,” Toyota said.

To meet the needs of an increasing number of people downloading music from the Internet, Sony Corp. will introduce the Memory Stick Walkman on Dec. 21, just in time for Christmas. Sony’s Memory Stick allows users to store music downloaded from the Internet for digital playback on the Walkman. The unit will be priced at 45,000 yen, including a 64-megabyte memory stick.

Many other smaller electronics firms have introduced similar devices, but none of them incorporate Sony’s compact storage stick.

Department stores, which have been especially hard-hit by slow consumer demand, are also hoping for a boost from holiday shopping. But it appears consumers will continue to hold back, according to the Japan Department Stores Association.

“When consumers are concerned about their employment and are likely to have a smaller bonus in December, department stores should not expect sales growth next month,” a spokesman for the association said.

Department stores in the Tokyo area have set up displays of seasonal items, including Christmas trees and ornaments, while selling special merchandise to draw shoppers’ attention.

The Shinjuku branch of Takashimaya department store is selling special plates designed by celebrities, including Hong Kong movie star Jackie Chan and American actress Sharon Stone, while Isetan’s Shinjuku store is offering dinners and desserts for Christmas Day based on recipes by famous chefs.

The Ginza branch of Mitsukoshi department store is featuring teddy bears made by British craftsmen.

Toy makers and sellers may be in a better position this holiday season because parents are unlikely to reduce the amount of money they spend on their children’s Christmas presents or the amount of “otoshidama” money given as a gift to children during the New Year holidays.

One trend in toys this year has been the popularity of electronic pets such as Furbys, which were put on the market in May.

Bandai Co.’s Primo Puel, a babylike stuffed doll with electronic sensors, and Santa Claus and snowman stuffed dolls made by Toys ‘R’ Us Japan Ltd. may also be Christmas hits.

The stuffed dolls are designed to speak and sing in Japanese or English when children hold and touch them.

Stuffed dolls of popular cartoon characters — including Hello Kitty and those in the “Pokemon” series — that function as mobile phone holders are also selling well, said Naoto Fukuda, who is in charge of miscellaneous goods at Tokyu Hands’ Shinjuku store.

The doll vibrates when the mobile phone it holds receives a call. “As people welcome a new millennium, we hope a festive mood will encourage consumers to buy party goods and gifts,” Fukuda said.

Similarly, the country’s video game industry is counting on the Christmas season to jump start sales.

As often happens, the video game market has been inactive awaiting the release of a much publicized game machine, said Taiji Ogata, a spokesman for the Computer Entertainment Software Association.

Sony Computer Entertainment Inc., a leading video game hardware maker, will introduce PlayStation2, the second edition of its big-selling video game machine, in March.

Yet, taking advantage of the ongoing “Pokemon” fever here and abroad, Nintendo Co. expects to ship 5 million units of “Pokemon” gold and silver games, the second version of the game series, to the domestic market by the end of the year.

The new game, which runs on Nintendo’s Gameboy hand-held player, is priced at 3,800 yen. The previous version has sold 12 million units domestically since being introduced in February 1996.

Sony will launch GRAN TURISMO 2, the second version of its hit racing game, on Dec. 11 for 6,800 yen. The new version will run on both the original PlayStation and PlayStation2.

The earlier version hit the domestic market in December 1997 and sold 8 million units in Japan and abroad. The firm plans to introduce the latest version in Europe and the United States by the end of March.

Meanwhile, beverage makers hope to cash in on the celebratory mood for the new millennium and get a piece of what is touted as an 8 trillion yen market for millennium goods and services.

Suntory Corp. has received orders for 300,000 cases of millennium beer, which is specially brewed to contain more bubbles than ordinary beer, beyond its original expectation of 200,000 cases.

The company has launched more than 25 types of wine so far this year bearing the name “millennium.”

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