Japan discovers the outlet mall can be cool

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The Independent Online

Dramatic changes in the spending habits of increasingly cost-conscious Japanese consumers have been a major windfall for operators of outlet malls here.

Japan's first outlet mall only opened in 1993 and they were initially looked down on by people who had money to burn and wanted to flaunt their wealth. There was even the erroneous perception that the shops in these malls only stocked damaged goods or discontinued line.

After the dramatic economic downturn of that decade, followed by the even more disastrous "Lehman shock," the Japanese are being a lot more careful with their cash and making the mall a day out for all the family.

And aware of how much the Japanese love theme parks, most operators have been quick to give their malls themes. La Fete Tama Minami Osawa, for example, is a recreation of a town in Provence in west Tokyo, the Yokohama Bayside Marine Shops and Restaurants is based on a 19th century east coast port in the United States and Venus Fort Odaiba is a vast indoor mall based on Venice - including a sky that changes from day to starlit night.

Venus Fort, built on a vast stretch of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, recently underwent a major facelift and the public has responded by returning in their droves.

The big attractions are the discounted prices - sometimes as much as 70 percent off the prices that the same products would command if they were in the windows of the same shops in the swish Ginza district of the city - but also some concepts that were completely new to Japanese shoppers when the first malls opened here, such as food courts and ample parking facilities.

"I like coming here with my friends because the shops are cheaper than in Yokohama and there are a lot of other things to do here," said dedicated 20-something shopper Emi Izawa at the Yokohama Bayside Marina on Saturday. "We can sit in a cafe and compare purchases, there are often street entertainers and it's nice to sit out now that it's warm and watch the sun set over the marina as well."

Izawa was clutching bags bearing the logos of several famous brands - from Nike through Lego, Triumph and United Arrows - and said she was "catching her breath" before visiting some more of the 77 outlets at the mall.

So popular are shopping malls proving at home that Japanese operators are taking the concept overseas, with Mitsui Fudosan announcing recently that it will open an outlet mall in the eastern Chinese provice of Zhejiang in the spring of next year.

The mall, on the outskirts of the city of Ningbo, will have a floor space of nearly 17,000 square meters and house around 100 shops.