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Hawaii’s Shirokiya Japan Village Walk Is a Testament of Transformative Retail

More than 9,000 U.S. stores shut down last year, making the 5,800 stores that closed shop in 2018 seem like small change. And while MoneyWise points out that 2020 may be yet another year of grim closings, it’s therapeutic when customers refuse to let their favorite companies shut down.

Some small department stores have been able to fight their way back into business over the years, one of which did it with the help of 40,000 people signing a petition to try to save it from closure. Residents in Hawaii may already be familiar with the Shirokiya Japan Village Walk. This Honolulu-based company transitioned from being a small department store to resembling a theme park village in the image of Monzen-machi—a Japanese temple town.

While so many of today’s department stores are met with a collective shrug when they close a location, this is an example of how customers helped a company overcome its own grim odds. And they managed to do it with locals instead of relying on tourist dollars.


What makes people visit the Shirokiya Japan Village Walk?

According to its official site, Shirokiya Japan Village Walk is the only commercial property of its kind in the world. When visitors take a walk through Shirokiya, they’re traveling through four themed locations: Yataimura, Nippon Komachi, Omatsuri Hiroba and the Guardian Statue Sanctuary.

The Guardian Spirit Sanctuary is composed of eight buddhas and the 12 signs of the Japanese Zodiac. The Keiki Corner has more than 300 Gachapon machines full of toys (manga, video games, anime) that are priced as low as $1. Stationary Japan has customized original notebooks. Those interested in live entertainment can hang out at the Omatsuri Hiroba or listen to KZOO radio.

Customers who are in the mood for refreshments are covered, too. Beer, wine, sake or shochu (Japanese distilled liquor, usually compared to vodka) are served at the Beer Garden. And there are plenty of places to eat, including 32 food kiosks at Yataimura; six specialty bistros at the Gourmet Plaza Japan; ramen shops at Ramen Plaza; and bentos at Okazu Plaza.

Shirokiya visitors of age can collect Dream Reward Coupons for $1 beers for every $10 spent. And children can exchange those beer coupons for tokens to buy kawaii capsule toys. Monthly rotating gourmet dishes give the company a “you snooze, you lose” mantra that keeps customers curious enough to keep coming back without getting bored with the same refreshment options.

And retail shoppers can bank on the pop-up shops and holiday festive gift items at Nippon Komachi. Shoppers can purchase omiyage (regional food gifts found in colorful boxes, often intended to give to co-workers and/or friends), kimonos, electronics, artifacts and household items.


Why was Shirokiya Japan Village Walk in danger of closing?

When Hikotaro Omura opened a notions store at Nihonbashidori, Edo (now Tokyo) in August 1662, this was the business inspiration that would later expand into Shirokiya, Japan’s oldest department store. Almost a century later, in 1958, Shirokiya was purchased by a larger Japan-based department store. According to Career Kokua, in 1959, the first branch of Shirokiya outside of Japan opened in Honolulu’s brand new Ala Moana Center. Seven years later, in 1966, the store moved next to Macy’s department store (formerly Liberty House) in the same mall.

But by 2001, its other Hawaiian locations weren’t doing so well. The Pearlridge branch story located in Aiea, Hawaii closed after 20 years, due to financial strains. Then the Maui store closed one month later after being in business for 28 years. Not even 26,000 signatures from a petition started by loyalist Joanne Ninomiya could save the Maui location.

And Shirokiya stores had already shut down in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand. But when parent company Tokyu Department Store Co. of Japan announced it would close Shirokiya’s flagship store at Ala Moana Center, the local Honolulu community wouldn’t take this news lying down. The State Legislature issued a resolution, and reportedly 40,000 loyal customers signed petitions to protest the closing. In turn, Tokyu Department Store Co. of Japan sold Hawaii’s Shirokiya store the same year (2001) at Ala Moana Center to local management. The parent company lost $23 million in the process.


The transformation of Shirokiya

When local customers are loyal to a store but it’s not paying off financially, retail stores have to walk a fine line. On one hand, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Forty thousand customers clearly liked what was being offered at Shirokiya. On the other hand, some parts were clearly “broken” if the store wasn’t making enough money to stay out of the red. The small department store knew it needed to evolve but keep its central theme in mind.

In the summer of 2016, the department store evolved into the theme walk park that it’s known for today. The Ala Moana Shopping Center store became a walkway that snakes the entire ground level of the new ‘Ewa wing. Approximately $35 million was spent to build the 44,680 square-foot site, housing approximately 56 stores and 900 seats to accommodate customers.

Eighty percent of its sales are from a local customer base who loyally support its retail experience. Quality customer service, listening to local customer feedback and offering authentic Japanese goods that local shoppers want are a top priority for this theme park village. And Japanese merchants have made this walkway its liaison to showcase their own products when they visit the United States.

In 2003, General Growth extended the store’s lease for 15 years. And as of 2020, Shirokiya is still going strong.