Japanese millennials’ lifestyles are in flux. Caught somewhere between the expectations of their parents and their own desires to create meaningful experiences, they are seeking new spaces and moments to better define themselves. Twitter updates and Facebook selfies partially mask the underlying uncertainty faced by Japanese youth—the hopes and desires of a generation of young people attempting to define themselves as peer influencers and explorers rather than according to their parents’ model of success.
An increasing number of Japanese youth opt for the joys of self-exploration and growth found within themselves and their own groups, rather than looking to the corporation for stability and satisfaction. Without a future defined by a paternalistic corporation, dictating the course of life events and career advancement, today’s youth are more concerned with the connections forged in the moment with peers and loved ones, and with having a story of their own to tell.
Enter the world of retail.
Millennials are in search of experiences. Companies must reimagine how to better match the desires of millennials, simultaneously balancing both social and sales functions in the same space. Retail spaces that lend themselves to an experience, presenting people with a space to create their own stories, will capture the business of today’s youth. In fact, there are already spaces emerging that serve this purpose: open, free flowing, and non-traditional, they are striving to become "lifestyle brands," setting themselves apart from their competitors in an environment that has resisted change despite drastic societal shifts and a long-stagnant economy.
This is not to say that previous generations did not have meaningful lifestyles. In fact their stories revolve around some of the same institutions as those of today’s youth—cafes, bars, offices, and public spaces are a constant in Japanese society. What is interesting, though, is the function of these spaces, and how some of the more forward thinking brands are capitalising on millennials’ desire to be in control of their own life stories.
In a step away from the days of crowding together in smoky rooms around a bottle of booze after working countless hours of overtime, the emerging after work ideal is self exploration and self development, creating richness in one’s own life. Evidence for this can be seen on sites like meetup.com: myriad groups for cooking, dancing, hiking, and programming take place in cafes and open spaces across cities, encouraging young people to find out more about who they are, and to share it with like-minded peers.
How, then, does a conventionally static institution, like brick and mortar retail, tap into the growing desires for space, freedom of expression, and self-growth?
Daikanyama T-Site (Daikanyama, Tokyo), designed by Klein-Dytham architecture and opened in 2013, is like a small village. A restaurant, lounge, dog-grooming salon, Starbucks cafe, and terrace area all meld together with the two storied three building Tsutaya bookstore to become one of the most talked about social retail hybrids in western Tokyo. The open layout, with sections of the space divided by manicured walkways and small gardens for people of all ages and social segments to enjoy, stands out amidst the dense urban sprawl that is Tokyo.
For young Tokyoites, it feels refreshing and inviting to have a space like this that does not demand that you buy anything, but is there to provide as needed. The open walkways and spaces throughout give people from Japan’s biggest city a chance to catch a breath away from the office without having to pay a seating charge or buy a drink. In a country where space comes at a premium and seating is not often without commitment, this feels special.
|This article is part of the Cultural Radar series|
Another example of a lifestyle brand dialed into the needs of young consumers is the ubiquitous Starbucks. Known as a third space—a place to go between the home and work—Starbucks provides Japanese youth with a wifi-enabled escape from the smoke ridden and dimly lit cafes of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The coffee serves its purpose, but the real draw is the space itself. Young consumers can roll in, laptop in tow, and be guaranteed a few hours of internet or reading in a nice environment, free to create whatever type of experience they desire in the few spare hours carved out of their busy schedule. The cafe transcends its most basic function of selling coffee and a seat to drink it in, becoming a lifestyle space.
What defines lifestyle brands in the context of retail experiences is not just space design. Rather, the brand experience must be woven into the greater overall story that is the consumer’s life. The lifestyle brand actively responds to and connects with people, positioning it as both a positive reinforcer of lifestyle choices, but also as a means by which those choices can be expressed.
In past decades, the Japanese individual was beholden to a system of being company employees first and individuals later. Today, the emergence of retail third spaces and lifestyle brands embodies the efforts of Japanese youth to define themselves more freely, even if it sometimes feels like an uphill battle to break free of tradition and expectations. From the young 20-something learning to code in her free time at Starbucks, to the entrepreneurial college grad making business deals in jeans and sneakers, one can sense Japan’s shift away from Showa-era ideals and an embrace of the value of self-written narratives.
As millennials’ sense of self determination and exploration continues to grow, brands, too, will find their positioning in need of re-evaluation. A brand’s growth and success will be measured less by square footage in the retail scene, and more by how many individuals’ stories it penetrates and positively enables.
Colten Nahrebeski is research executive at Flamingo Tokyo