What high-end Chinese shoppers buy in Tokyo: Japanese cosmetics and beauty products, niche brands, luxury items – and lots of them

No longer simply binge buyers, Chinese shoppers in Tokyo have become more deliberate and savvy about their shopping, favouring unique Japanese brands and quality international luxury items – and always looking for a bargain

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2018, 7:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2018, 9:18am

As the number of international tourists visiting Japan continues to rise, the country’s retail industry has been given a boost by overseas shoppers, particularly those from China. To better cater to this group of powerful consumers, many stores and shopping centres in Japan, especially those in Tokyo, have begun hiring Chinese- and English-speaking staff.

While there was previously a stereotype of Chinese shoppers in Japan binge buying piles of seemingly random products, retail staff say that today’s consumers have become more careful and deliberate about their shopping.

Six new shopping districts in Tokyo just waiting to be discovered

Shiei Kimura, originally from Hong Kong, has been in Japan for 28 years, the past 12 of which she has spent working for the flagship Isetan store in Shinjuku, Tokyo. First providing service to international customers at the store’s tax free counter, she now works in VIP customer service, helping the high-spending foreign customers who have become more common in recent years. Each day she is sent to different sections of the store to provide Chinese or English interpretation and other services to these customers.

“Some time ago in Tokyo there were more English-speaking customers than Chinese-speaking customers,” Kimura says. “Some were from Europe, the US and Southeast Asia, places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. And when they come here, they always look for souvenirs to take back to their home countries. But now we see thousands of Chinese customers, and they are coming in groups, always in big numbers. And they are searching everywhere – we can see them in every floor of the store.”

Kimura says that the product categories that most seem to interest Chinese customers are cosmetics, watches, Japanese and international luxury products. This is consistent with department store sales data from recent years.

“The Chinese now are really big spenders and they really love international brands. They also like Japanese brands,” Kimura says. “Customers come here looking for some brands that are not known well overseas yet, but they like to try them because Chinese bodies are like Japanese bodies, and the sizes and tastes are quite close. And Chinese customers always admire the Japanese sense of beauty – simple but with details, and the details always attract them.”

While some Chinese customers may prefer to buy from established Japanese brands such as Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, Adore, Tomorrowland and Hyke, they do not eschew international brands. Major luxury watch and jewellery brands, including Rolex, Mikimoto, Tasaki, Bulgari, Tiffany, Patek Philippe, Chaumet and Graff, are also popular.

Kimura says that even though these brands may be available in their home country, Chinese customers prefer to buy them in Japan because they can choose from a greater selection, and that when buying them tax-free and using Isetan’s discount card for VIP customers, they may even be cheaper than in China.

A staff member working at the information desk of Ginza Six, a luxury shopping complex in Tokyo, echoes these sentiments, saying that their tax-free counter is nearly always busy. But just because they are spending greatly and often buying a large number of items, this does not mean that Chinese customers are simply binge shopping. The same Ginza Six employee says she often has Chinese customers inquiring about where they can buy very specific items or brands.

Even at department stores, one of the bestselling categories among Chinese shoppers at the moment is cosmetics. Keika Bun, who has been a beauty consultant at Shiseido’s flagship store in Ginza for five years, says that Chinese consumers are becoming more savvy.

“Many Chinese customers research Japan before coming here. They ask friends who have been here, and they check social media and blogs, so many of them already know about Shiseido products and the store before they arrive,” Bun says.

The Chinese now know more about Japanese cosmetics and they are getting more information and knowledge about how to use cosmetics
Shiei Kimura

Product lines that sell well among Chinese customers to Shiseido include The Ginza (available exclusively in Japan and only at select shops, mainly in airports), Cle de Peau Beauté and Anessa, a popular sun-protection line. Bun says that while many of the same products are available in China, customers have greater peace of mind when buying them in Japan.

“I think people feel safer buying things in Japan,” she says. “They know that the products will be trustworthy and high quality.”

At Isetan, some of more popular cosmetics brands among Chinese shoppers include Refa, MDNA Skin, Cle de Peau Beauté, Pola, Albion, SK-II and Suqqu.

“The Chinese now know more about Japanese cosmetics and they are getting more information and knowledge about how to use cosmetics,” Kimura says. “They know both skincare, and cosmetic lines, well.”

Kimura adds that when it comes to cosmetics, the Chinese are often repeat customers. Upon buying something and deciding they like it, they will often come back for several more during their next trip. They also commonly buy multiples of the same product so that they can give some away as gifts to friends or family. Bun says once Chinese customers find that they like a particular skincare line, they will often purchase every product in that line.

But shopping in Japan is not only about the products; it is also about the experience. Japanese customer service is world renowned, and often the atmosphere in stores helps to attract customers as well. Shiseido recently renovated its Ginza store, giving it a more luxurious, high-design look. And both Kimura and the Ginza Six employee say that customers see the stores as destinations, appreciating and often taking photos of various interior design elements.

In Vancouver, Asian taste for luxury fashion meets local hipster look

It seems Chinese shoppers are not that dissimilar from Japanese or European shoppers. They appreciate quality and often look for things that are unique to Japan or that sell for less than in their home country. In the end, the biggest difference would appear to be in quantity.

“Simply speaking, they buy a lot,” Kimura says. “Not only one or two [items], but more than five.”