Selling British classics with Japanese service

RETAILERS in central London are facing competition from the Japanese for the custom of Japanese tourists. Sogo, a department store group with 28 stores in Japan, opened its first British store yesterday on Piccadilly Circus.

The store has a three-coach parking bay, where tour groups are deposited and ushered into the lower ground floor through a private rear entrance.

Japanese shop assistants bow as the tourists surge into the store to buy a share of British heritage: Liberty ties, Pringle argyll sweaters, University of Oxford sweatshirts, Wimbledon wallets.

To be Japanese and to be shopping in London this summer is to be in very heaven. Retailers are bending over backwards to meet every need of high-spending Japanese customers.

Harrods runs a Japanese information desk, Simpson's of Piccadilly operates a sushi bar and most central London stores employ at least one Japanese-speaking assistant.

The Japanese spend an average of pounds 63 a day in Britain, compared with pounds 52 spent by Americans. More than 500,000 are expected to visit Britain this year.

A spokesman for Sogo said the store expected 50 to 60 per cent of sales to be to Japanese customers.

Masayo Hioki, a shy 24-year- old from Osaka, was among the customers yesterday. 'This shop is very nice. It has everything in one place.' The Japanese also appreciate high standards of service from staff, including a virtuoso ability to fold and wrap clothes neatly.

The Japanese retailers' move into central London began in the Seventies with the opening of Igirisu Ya ('the English Shop') in Hanover Square. In the late Eighties, Isetan and Takashimaya opened stores in Bond Street, and Mitsukoshi in Regent Street.

The Japanese have also acquired long-established British clothing and luxury goods companies, including Aquascutum, bought by Renown for pounds 74m in 1990, and Daks-Simpson, snapped up by Sankyo Seiko last year for pounds 65m.

Megumi Wetherall, executive, Far East division, Daks-Simpson, said Japanese customers at Simpson's of Piccadilly accounted for 55 per cent of sales during the summer months. 'They love anything traditionally British, particularly Daks leather goods and accessories.'

(Photograph omitted)