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Bargain-hunting Chinese make Japanese retail king Bic Camera a billionaire

by Yoojung Lee and Chris Cooper

Bloomberg

Japanese retail tycoon Ryuji Arai can thank a growing flock of Chinese spenders for his swelling fortune.

Bic Camera Inc., the Tokyo-based consumer electronics retailer that sells everything from cosmetics to liquor at discounted prices, has become a sought-after destination for tourists shopping in Japan. Profit has jumped to record numbers, sending its shares up by more than 50 percent over the past year.

The surge has given 71-year-old Arai a $1.8 billion fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Arai, who founded the retailer four decades ago and steered the company to its initial public offering in 2006, is now chairman at the company. He owns a 43 percent stake in the shares through a set of trusts and his asset management company La Holdings.

Bic Camera has won tourists over with bargain prices offered in its stores along with duty-free desks, and by giving overseas shoppers the option to make online reservations for products they wish to purchase. The company is also trying to woo Chinese shoppers by accepting payment methods such as Alipay, Wechat and even Bitcoin — which is helping boost sales, said Bloomberg Intelligence Consumer Analyst Thomas Jastrzab.

“Bic Camera’s early adoption of new payment options could give it an edge over more cautious rivals,” said Jastrzab.

Not much is known about the reclusive businessman. Bic Camera declined to make him available for comment for this story. He started his first company in his early 20s and later spun out the camera sales division into its own company, according to media reports. He then went on to form Bic Camera in his early 30s with the opening of a store in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro shopping district.

Arai is an anti-nuclear advocate, and Bic Camera displayed huge banners in 1995 to protest France’s plan at the time to resume nuclear tests in the South Pacific, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported at the time.

In 2009, Arai stepped down as chairman of Bic Camera after the company became embroiled in a scandal over false earnings reports. After the shares lost almost half their value in January that year, they rallied when the company was allowed to retain its listing on the Tokyo Stock Exchange and it restated earnings for the fiscal years 2006 to 2008. The company was fined $1.3 million. He retook the role of chairman, without any directors role, several years later. Since then, Bic Camera shares have climbed eightfold.

After relinquishing the chairman role, Arai remained the largest shareholder of Bic Camera.

Bic Camera has teamed up with Haneda airport’s terminal operator, Japan Airport Terminal Co., to launch stores in airports as well as Tokyo’s Odaiba shopping and entertainment district, according to Masanari Matsumoto, a spokesman for the company. Those stores are stocked with goods popular with inbound tourists to let them quickly find what they want, Matsumoto said. Inbound tourists who shop at the electronics retailer have more than tripled in three years, according to the company.

In recent years, the company has also ramped up sales through its own website and stores on e-commerce sites such as Rakuten and Amazon.com. Online sales accounted for about 10 percent of overall revenue in the six-month period ended Feb. 28, according to company filings.

The company’s net income climbed fivefold to a record ¥13.5 billion ($122.6 million) in the financial year ended Aug. 31, according to figures from the company. Bic Camera predicts profit will increase to ¥16.4 billion this fiscal year.

That strategy has helped Bic Camera become Japan’s third-biggest electronics and appliance retailer while offsetting the impact of a declining population at home. Bic Camera will benefit more than other big-box electronics retailers such as competitors Yamada Denki Co. and Edion Corp. from the recovery in demand for digital electronics, according to a Nomura Holdings Inc. research note last month.

Online sales, with an increase in the weighting of sales on the company’s own website, will drive growth over the longer term, according to Nomura. While customers using Bitcoin have yet to account for a significant portion of sales, the option could help attract more foreign customers, especially during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“Quickly adding additional payment options is a good way to achieve differentiation,” said Jastrzab. “It also helps to boost brand equity by creating a buzz with potential customers.”