Now that Japan’s government is urging consumers and businesses to step up efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak, shoppers may finally have no excuse but to embrace e-commerce and wean themselves from brick-and-mortar stores.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and six other areas earlier this week. In response, Uniqlo clothing owner Fast Retailing Co., department store operator Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd. and other retailers are temporarily closing shops or cutting hours, while grocers and other essential services will remain open.
Online shopping got a boost in the U.S., China and the rest of the world as more people turned to the web to buy essentials and shop for clothes, gadgets and other discretionary items. In Japan, it’s been a different story — the archipelago has so far avoided the severe shutdowns that have crippled other nations, and e-commerce penetration has long been among the lowest of developed markets. Only 7% of transactions were online in 2018, according to government statistics.
“There could be first-time users during this time who see the merits of e-commerce,” said Takeshi Mori, a researcher at Nomura Research Institute. “After the coronavirus outbreak calms down, more people will be online in Japan.”
That would be welcome news for the Japanese government, which has been promoting cashless payments and pushing businesses to embrace new retailing technology. More demand for web shopping could also nudge traditional retailers to invest in digital infrastructure to attract customers. Japan’s web shopping rate lags well behind the U.S. and even more so compared with China, where a fifth of retailing is now online.