Secondhand market grows

Japan's love affair with brand-new products cools off amid recession


When Chie Matsumoto buys anything — from a DVD player to golf goods to a telephone — she now chooses secondhand goods because brand-new items aren’t necessarily what she needs.

“If the specs are enough, I’d rather buy used goods because their prices are lower,” the 39-year-old office worker said.

She first checks out the prices of used products on auction Web sites, then decides how to buy what’s she after — either through an auction, an online shop or at a real store — by evaluating the various prices.

“I didn’t fully trust used goods in the past, but now I would buy whatever secondhand. In many cases, they look clean, as if they had never been used,” she said, adding that a flat-screen television set is an exception due to its fast development.

The secondhand market is growing rapidly, particularly for those who still want to enjoy their shopping despite the lingering economic downturn. Specialists say consumers’ minds are apparently changing in Japan, where people were widely believed to be far more obsessed with new products over used goods than in other developed countries.

For example, Bookoff Corp., the nation’s largest secondhand bookstore chain that also deals in other types of used goods, said its sales for the three quarters since April 2009 jumped 22.2 percent to ¥52.5 billion from a year earlier.

Rakuten Inc., which operates the largest online shopping mall in the country, said its sales of secondhand goods doubled in the past year.

It used to be that secondhand goods were mainly the province of a rather limited number of people, such as antique lovers or fashionably dressed youths looking for clothes in a specific style. But the situation is gradually changing, said Miho Ohara, a senior researcher at advertising agency Hakuhodo Inc.’s Institute of Life and Living division.

“Used goods such as motorbikes and cameras have been popular for those who are keen on collections. But that is a special world,” she said.

“Now, people are fond of more daily goods such as clothes, furniture and dishes.”

To take advantage of the growing market — and to cultivate it even more — big-name retailers have been gearing up to launch secondhand stores.

On April 17, Bookoff opened its first complex to sell used books and apparel on a single, expansive floor in Akishima, western Tokyo.

Next to 910 sq. meters crammed with used books, DVDs and video games — the company’s mainstream lineup — stretches another 628 sq. meters of sales space with lines of yellow, purple and sky-blue T-shirts, brand-name polo shirts, jeans, caps and sunglasses.

“We are aiming to be the fast fashion retailer of used clothes by selling reasonable but stylish clothes,” said Nobuhiko Hanzawa, coexecutive general manager of Bookoff’s sales division.

On the store’s first day 2,772 customers streamed in, among them about 200 people who had lined up before the doors opened, the company said.

Akiko Sato, a 47-year-old local resident, called shopping at the store “treasure hunting.”

“It’s like seeking treasure,” Sato said, showing five items she was trying to buy for her children and herself. She pointed at a white tunic dress carrying a ¥300 price tag but appeared as though it had originally cost several thousand.

“Secondhand clothes used to strike an image that they were frayed and worn out. But now, some look like they are brand new,” she said.

The company plans to open four bigger secondhand complexes by the end of this business year next March.

Rakuten started an online marketplace for secondhand products in March 2009.

From Rakuten’s main site, users can jump to its secondhand marketplace, where there are some 4,500 online shops handling used goods. Rakuten decided to open the marketplace because the number of people entering the word “secondhand” in its search function doubled in March last year from a year earlier. The first increase was noted in late 2008, according to Rakuten.

The number of items on sale quadrupled to 1.8 million this March from 450,000 at the launch of the marketplace a year earlier.

Rakuten started out with personal computers and five other items: cameras, musical instruments, home appliances, games and books. The range has now widened to 27 and includes clothes, golf equipment, furniture and accessories.

For the year ending in March, total sales through Rakuten’s secondhand market doubled, and sales of certain items grew even more. For instance, apparel grew 2.8 times, brand-name bags jumped 3.1 times and books were up four to five times, said Masanori Yako, who leads the secondhand sales promotion team.

“Rakuten is showing that it is embarking on secondhand goods seriously,” Yako said. “People can feel more secure when they buy used goods from online shops rather than at Web auctions because they have after-sales services.”

Ohara of Hakuhodo said stronger demand in secondhand goods was noted following the worldwide financial meltdown in late 2008.

The subsequent recession reduced incomes and prompted more people to turn to low-priced secondhand goods, she said.

“I think another factor is that people, having become more ecologically conscious, are trying not to be so wasteful by throwing away so many things,” Ohara added. “And the economic downturn has just accelerated the trend.”