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Department store operators in Japan are speeding up their efforts to take their sales operations and other services digital, with the coronavirus pandemic dealing an additional blow to a sector already suffering in a shrinking market.

Compared with peak levels, sales at department stores have fallen by half. A number of department stores have closed in recent years, with young people becoming less interested in the outlets and online shopping gaining wide popularity.

As there are no prospects for an early recovery in demand from foreign tourists amid the lingering pandemic, department store operators have strengthened online shopping services, using their staff’s skills in interacting with customers.

Last summer, Sogo & Seibu Co., a subsidiary of Seven & I Holdings Co., started seeing key clients via the Zoom videoconference system, generating sales of over ¥32 million. Sales of jewelry have been solid, according to the company.

Customers purchase expensive items even without actually seeing them because they “have trust in department stores,” a public relations official of Sogo & Seibu said.

In March, Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd.’s flagship Isetan outlet in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district launched a virtual reality service through a smartphone app that allows customers to use an avatar to look around shops at the outlet and purchase products online.

Cookies and other baked sweets sold in the food section of the department store basement became available for online sales from Wednesday. The company aims to expand the product lineup in stages.

The digital push has also spread to the countryside.

An outlet in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture, of Tenmaya Co. started online customer services in February. The department store operator, which does business mainly in the Chugoku region, plans to introduce online services at its main outlet in the city of Okayama and other outlets.

Locally made pottery and luxury clothing for women are selling well, according to the company.

“We expect such demand to continue even after the coronavirus crisis ends,” a Tenmaya public relations official said.

According to the Japan Department Stores Association, department store sales totaled about ¥4.22 trillion in 2020, down by half from their peak in 1991.

“Department stores failed to respond to changes in consumers even before the coronavirus epidemic,” said Taro Sawada, president of Daimaru Matsuzakaya Department Stores Co., a unit of J. Front Retailing Co.

Sawada expressed the company’s determination to keep pace with the changing times by promoting digital sales routes.

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