Any Size, Any Color: Japan's Suit Wars

One in an Occasional Look at Japan's Economy

Text and Photography by Brett Bull

The red stocking hat hit my office floor first. Then I kicked off the black boots. I turned to the window and peeled off the red and white-fringed coat, one arm at a time. Next the red pants. The pipe was quickly replaced with cigarette. I sat down in my chair, red socks, undershirt, underwear, and false white beard still in place. Heater on. Morning rain falling outside. I closed my eyes.

Moments later a chill swept through the room.

"You seemed to have had senior secretary Sachiko on your lap for quite some time last night," junior reporter Junko said.

Last night was the newsroom Christmas party.

I slowly opened my eyes. She was standing in her usual spot in my doorway. I reached for my lighter.

"Well, my dear, she had more wants than usual this year," I said, lighting my cigarette. "I, of course, then had to take great care to ensure that all her goods were in order." I laughed and flashed Junko a grin.

"Well Santa," she said, "maybe its time you get yourself a nice business suit to keep in your office for days such as these when you've been overly taxed the night before and don't have time to change clothes?"

I smirked and took two puffs.

She added, "You know, at Daiei you can now get a full suit for 9,000 yen. It is a part of the cheap suit price war raging all across Japan..."

"Now you listen here and you listen good!" I moved to the front edge of my chair and pointed at her with an extended left hand, causing last night's eggnog to slosh to the front of my cranium. I paused, blinked four times, grunted, rubbed the left side of my face with my palm, and continued: "Do you actually think a man of my advanced rearing buys a suit off the rack?"

I returned to my former position, ashed my cigarette, and then put my feet on my desk. She stared at my red socks.

On the second floor of Daiei's Nishi-Kasai outlet in Tokyo, a female customer grabs the sleeve of one of the "Prepino" business suits on the display rack in the men's section. She runs her hand over the fabric (90% wool and 10% polyester) and turns to her male companion, declaring with surprise, "It is very soft!"

She is surprised because the full pant and jacket set is priced at a mere 9,000 yen. This typically would be seen as an immediate negative in a country where high quality is often solely associated with a high price and brand name recognition.

But purchasing ideals are changing for some select sectors of the Japanese populace. This includes the wage-strapped salaryman and recent college graduates looking for first jobs in an economy racked by recession and high unemployment.

The suits are part of a Daiei sales campaign that began in March at a handful of select stores. The program was expanded in October to include all 250 outlets. Daiei plans on selling 300,000 of these "Extra Comfortable" models during this year.

Daiei is primarily a general goods store that sells household wares, food, and clothing. The suits are coming from factories in North Korea and China where labor is cheap and profit potential on the retail side is high. The move is hoped to boost overall clothing sales and assist in improving the chain's massive 2.3 trillion yen debt situation. Previously, the lowest price they had offered for a suit was 10,000 yen.

Toshio Tomii, 34, manager of the men's clothing section, says that business "has been very good" since the beginning of his store's sale in October. He says that overall most of his customers are impressed with the quality and wide selection of styles offered in brown, black, and blue. There are obvious hurdles though, he warns.

"Some customers are a bit skeptical initially," he says of customers questioning the quality of the clothing. He assures though that "the quality is very good even though the price is low." Many agree. Some entering the store walk out with "two or three suits."

While he admits that the price is indeed the draw, Toshio says that many customers are also impressed by the large number of styles available. Not only are the straight-laced needs of the salaryman met, but others can feel comfortable in these suits as well.

The razor thin collars and slippery textures of some models would surely fit nicely with a porkpie hat, slim leather tie, white socks, and rhythm section. Additionally, the vertical white stripes running down some black jacket and pants combos would definitely mix well with a punch perm, Lincoln Continental, and missing pinkie tip.

However, Daiei's main domestic competitors, Ito Yokado and Aeon, are waging similar price assaults, though admittedly with smaller arsenals.

From September 24th to October 14th, Aeon held a special suit campaign where they sold 85,000 business suits for 10,000 yen each. Ito Yokado's response was a short 8,200 yen 4-day sale in October, sort of a quick reconnaissance mission to test the waters. The result?

"We sold everything," says a female sales employee in the men's section of their Kiba outlet. The price was in honor of Ito Yokado's 82 years in business. Since the end of the sale, they have been implementing a rotation strategy whereby different items, perhaps coats or jackets, are on sale during any given week. The sales employee speculates that next year there will be a similar suit sale, though with a price of 8,300 yen.

Toshio doesn't seem flustered by the competition. But he does see a full-scale war on the horizon with only price drops as possible outcomes due to the fact that cheaper products are the only logical symptom of any economy whose future prospects are filled with early retirements, salary cuts, and high unemployment.

While competition of this sort may take away from Daiei's sales in the long run, overall he sees this as a positive for the Japanese consumer as it is a sign that competition is slowly creeping into Japan's traditionally closed retail markets.

The only change in price direction of his suits he sees as coming from an improvement Japan's economy. This he says is the job of Prime Minister Koizumi and his structural reforms.

"I hope the economy will improve," he says. "But it all depends on Koizumi."

Ah well, should Koizumi fail, Toshio is ready to sell him a suit for his first job interviews.

I tugged at my white beard.

"So what does Mr. Armani think now?" Junko wondered.

"That's all well and good but I'll be fine for today." I stubbed out my smoke.

She put both palms on my desk, leaned over, and screamed: "But, you can't go dressed like that when we do street interviews for the Princess baby story later today!"

Note: Nobuko Chuma contributed to this report.

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