Business

Reborn Shibuya Parco hopes to regain iconic status amid tough times for brick-and-mortar stores

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

After a three-year renewal project, Shibuya Parco, an iconic shopping complex in the bustling central Tokyo district, is back in the game.

Having been at the vanguard of fashion and youth culture, especially in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the facility, which reopened Friday, largely contributed to shaping the image of Shibuya as a magnet for young people.

Since then times have changed, thanks to the rise of online shopping that has threatened many brick-and-mortar stores. The lively district, which is undergoing a yearslong massive redevelopment project, has been transforming itself from a youth hub to a magnet for international visitors.

In that sense, the rebirth of Shibuya Parco — which had been closed since August 2016 — is seen as a high-profile opportunity to observe whether iconic facilities of its ilk are still capable of piquing consumers’ interest.

In its heyday, “Shibuya Parco was such an inspiring place,” said Yoko Kawashima, a journalist well-versed in the fashion and apparel retail industries. “It was cool just going there.”

Shibuya Parco first opened in 1973, and is located on Koen-dori street — a gently sloping road that stretches from the Seibu department store crosswalk up to Yoyogi Park. The chic street, now home to popular brands such as Apple and Muji, was little more than an ordinary area prior to Parco’s debut.

Seibu Retailing Group, the then-operator of Parco, decided not only to promote the store, the name of which means “park” in Italian, but also its surrounding area by naming the street Koen-dori (“kōen” means “park” in Japanese). It was an astute strategy.

After its opening a horse-drawn carriage was made available to take shoppers from Koen-dori to nearby Harajuku, with the aim of attracting shoppers and turning Koen-dori into a fashionable spot. The slope also saw the installation of premium phone booths, street lamps and flower beds.

The refurbished Shibuya Parco shopping complex is seen in the Shibuya area of Tokyo on Tuesday. | KAZUAKI NAGATA
The refurbished Shibuya Parco shopping complex is seen in the Shibuya area of Tokyo on Tuesday. | KAZUAKI NAGATA

Conducting such “town development” was critical for attracting people to Koen-dori, as it was not that close to either Shibuya or Harajuku stations, according to a document posted by Parco on its website.

As the firm opened new facilities, such as the Parco Part II and Part III complexes and a live music hall in the 1970s and 1980s, the area became known as a center of fashion and youth culture, targeting young women especially amid Japan’s rapid economic growth.

Its strategy also included nurturing entertainment venues and art culture, by creating a stage theater and art galleries in the Parco complex.

Parco was also a pioneer of the so-called fashion building business model.

Simply put, department stores purchase stock from apparel makers and sell it to make revenue, but operators of fashion buildings are more like a kind of developer — leasing shop space to tenants rather than selling goods directly themselves.

One of Parco’s aims was to concentrate many small stores into one building, to recreate something similar to the traditional Japanese shopping street, according to the book “Saison, Tsutsumi Seiji ga Mita Mirai” (“Saison — The Future that Seiji Tsutsumi Saw”) by Tetsuya Suzuki. The book analyses charismatic business leader Seiji Tsutsumi, who headed the Seibu Retailing Group during the 1970s and 1980s. The group was later renamed Saison Group.

“Parco had an aspect of antithesis against the traditional department store business model. That’s why it was overwhelmingly welcomed by young people who were not satisfied with the kind of shopping experience in department stores,” the book says.

Visitors pass a Super Mario statue installed on the walkway outside Shibuya Parco on Thursday. | KAZUAKI NAGATA
Visitors pass a Super Mario statue installed on the walkway outside Shibuya Parco on Thursday. | KAZUAKI NAGATA

But 20 years into the new century, peoples’ shopping habits are now different.

Many now don’t even bother going out to shop. Instead, they rely on the internet.

At the same time, “fast fashion” operators, such as Fast Retailing Co.’s Uniqlo, have disrupted the industry.

Journalist Kawashima said that in comparison to the 1980s or 1990s, fashion no longer strongly motivates consumers to go to physical stores.

“As online shopping has become so big, the raison d’etre of real stores is being questioned. So, Shibuya Parco needs to offer something really special,” said Kawashima.

In addition, Shibuya’s massive redevelopment program has produced rival shopping complexes such as Shibuya Scramble Square, which opened earlier this month.

Parco President Kozo Makiyama appears confident that Shibuya Parco will remain a “cool” place, not only for young people but for a wide range of visitors including foreign tourists. “We believe Shibuya Parco will generate an atmosphere that will attract consumers, both Japanese and non-Japanese, who want to get a sense of what the coolest and latest trends are in Japan’s urban space,” said Makiyama, during a news conference Tuesday.

Shibuya Parco mentioned themes including “non-age,” “genderless,” “incubation” and “technology” — terms that might sound like little more than a kind of jargon.

Inside the official Nintendo store in Shibuya Parco | KAZUAKI NAGATA
Inside the official Nintendo store in Shibuya Parco | KAZUAKI NAGATA

Yet efforts to differentiate Shibuya Parco, which houses about 190 stores, from other shopping facilities and attract a wider range of shoppers can be seen in each floor’s concept and what each level has to offer.

Department stores or high-rise shopping facilities often strictly divide apparel floors for women and men, but the new Shibuya Parco does not separate the floors that way, saying it does not target a particular gender or age group. Parco also said that about 100 fashion shops were selected based on their uniqueness rather than their popularity, while also featuring space for emerging young designers.

Shibuya Parco has also strengthened its anime- and manga-related store lineup on the sixth floor, most notably with Japan’s first official Nintendo outlet. The store offers more than 1,000 items, and about a half of them can only be purchased there. Nintendo’s video games do not target any particular age group, so opening its first Japan store at this location complements Shibuya’s increasingly diverse range of visitors, a Nintendo spokeswoman said.

This huge touch-screen panel installed at Shibuya Parco enables customers to order online certain items not physically on sale at some stores. | KAZUAKI NAGATA
This huge touch-screen panel installed at Shibuya Parco enables customers to order online certain items not physically on sale at some stores. | KAZUAKI NAGATA

Moreover, the facility aims to incorporate more technology into peoples’ shopping experiences, with massive touch-screen panels, for example, that enable visitors to order items out of stock at certain shops online.

It is also granting a self-moving robot freedom to roam a floor, as part of a test. The robot is equipped with a screen enabling customers to directly connect with a clerk at the information desk using video chat.

Whether those new ideas will yield fruit in such a challenging era remains to be seen, but some consumers who came to the pre-opening day were impressed.

“I thought Parco had made fine choices of shops,” as many of them seem to be different from other shopping complexes, said 28-year-old Maruse Abe. She added that she was particularly interested in stores that sell items produced by young designers.

Another woman, in her 40s, said each floor’s concept was clearly identifiable, especially the sixth floor where the anime- and manga-related stores are concentrated.

“I could quickly get a sense of the floor’s theme,” she added.