‘Antenna Shops’ in Japan Buffeted by Pandemic, Online Shopping

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Pamphlets promoting Hyogo Prefecture are seen in front of a cash register in Maneki Meister Kobo Yachiyo Ginza, a sushi roll shop in Ginza, Tokyo.

Specialty stores that promote regional areas are increasingly shuttering due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, high rents and the popularity of online shopping.

Many such outlets — known as “antenna shops” in Japanese — are based in the Tokyo metropolitan area. They are usually operated by regions across the nation to disseminate information on their respective specialties and tourist spots. Now, however, these stores are suffering from a decline in foot traffic, forcing regions to review their promotional strategies.

Dramatic decline

Gunma Prefecture opened its Gunmachan-chi antenna shop in Toyko’s Ginza district in 2008. At its fiscal 2013 peak, the store attracted some 580,000 visitors. But by fiscal 2021, visitor numbers had plummeted to about 140,000, leading to a decline in the shop’s sales and its eventual closing in December last year. To compound the shop’s difficulties, its annual rent in the high-end shopping district totaled around ¥70 million.

“The antenna store concept may have reached a turning point,” said Gunma Gov. Ichita Yamamoto. “We’ll use every possible means, including online strategies and social media, to convey the charms of our prefecture.”

Sales at the Okano Machi Biei outlet in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district also plummeted amid the pandemic, making it difficult for the Hokkaido town of Biei to continue operating the store — it closed in January of last year.

According to the Japan Center for Regional Development, antenna stores first appeared in the mid-1990s. Many are located in central Tokyo, selling goods, promoting tourism and giving advice to those who wish to move to the area in question. The number of independently operated antenna shops in Tokyo decreased from 62 in 2020-2021 to 59 in 2022.

The number of such stores logging sales of ¥100 million or more increased from 29 in 2020 to 30 in 2022, but this figure is still below that of the pre-pandemic era.

“It’s difficult for a region to survive on product sales alone, unless it has a strong brand,” said Takato Takemura, the center’s deputy councilor. “Stores need to allow customers to get a taste of the region first-hand, such as by interacting with locals from the area.”

Strategy review

Some stores are altering their business approach. On Jan. 12, a Hyogo-based food company and sushi roll maker opened a store in Ginza to sell sushi rolls that are popular in Hyogo.

Pamphlets promoting the prefecture’s tourism are placed next to the store’s cash register, and a promotional video is displayed on a screen. The store is set to be certified as a Hyogo “public-private partnership antenna shop.”

Following the closure of its antenna shop outlet in Yurakucho last March, the prefecture reviewed its promotional strategies to be carried out in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Upon the review’s completion, Hyogo concluded agreements with a number of private stores to sell Hyogo products and promote the prefecture within their shops. In return, the cooperative outlets are introduced on the Hyogo prefectural website.

“The number of stores [promoting the prefecture] will increase and we won’t have to incur the costs associated with directly managing a shop,” said Hyogo Gov. Motohiko Saito.

Niigata Prefecture plans to close its N’Espace antenna shop in Tokyo’s Omotesando district by the end of this year due to the aging of the building. The prefectural government held a meeting of experts to discuss whether to maintain a promotion center in the Tokyo metropolitan area and concluded that it was still “necessary to have a base where people meet and interact.”

However, the experts also opined that the era of conventional antenna shops selling local products had come to an end and suggested opening a new Tokyo-based outlet to help draw people to Niigata Prefecture, while shifting its product sales online. The prefecture has already begun searching for a location for the new base.