The Missus market: population growth driving fashion opportunity

Jan 15

The obsession with youth sometimes seems even stronger in Japan than other markets even though the younger population is shrinking. Recently suppliers and retailers alike have been waking up to the fact that one of the few segments set to grow in the next decade will be over 40s and 50s women: the Missus market. This segment currently has too few fashion shopping options, relying on major department stores at the top end, but then stuck with regional department stores, GMS chains and independent stores for everything else. Savvy retail-led businesses that target this market are booming.

Japan’s contracting and ageing populationmeans much talk of the potential in the  senior market. But, for fashion firms the over 60s have less propensity to buy new outfits, let alone expensive brands. The good news is that there is also another segment that will see significant growth: the so-called ’Missus’ market of women in their 40s and 50s. Government data suggests that women aged 40-59 accounted for more than a quarter of the entire population in 2010, and this will rise to 26.7% by 2025. Under 40s will decline, but by 2030 50-69 year old women will make up 27.6%. Meanwhile, the proportion of women aged 20-39 will decline from 24.1% in 2010 to 18.9% in 2030. Clearly the Missus market looks a good long-term bet but there is significant potential in this market right now, simply because of the lack of competition.

So far at least, specialty fashion retailers have largely ignored this market, investing instead in a plethora of chains for younger women. The few that have targeted maturer women have suffered from lack of investment and little innovation, failing to keep up with the changing tastes and demands of middle-aged women. At the premium end, top department stores have had much of the market to themselves and have been improving sales floors for older women. Mitsukoshi, for example, has introduced new brands that offer contemporary styling but a comfortable fit. Stores have also introduced larger changing rooms with seating, and even a social area with tables, chairs and magazines.

At the middle and lower end of the market, however, this age group has fewer options. GMS chains, struggling as they are to regain sales in apparel, are increasingly targeting younger consumers, notably young mothers with children. Although regional department stores remain relatively popular with 40s-50s women, this is more due to the lack of other options than for any positive reason. Much of the specialty retailing for the Missus market has traditionally been comprised of independent boutiques run by like-minded and similarly aged women, but many of the owners have now reached retirement and are closing up shop. This in turn has hit their supply base badly, forcing small and medium-sized apparel firms in this segment to close down or open their own stores.

Cour Carre and Co for example, which sells brands such as Koos and Cour d’argent, has begun opening boutiques in residential neighbourhoods in Tokyo in order to maintain sales. Lapine, which acts as distributor for overseas labels like MO851 and Maison Ullens, now has its own select shop chains like Pacchia and Laglaia, offering a mix of own and imported brands. It has also begun to buy out retiring boutique owners to create its own chains. Osaka-based Karo has adopted a similar strategy, taking over independent stores and rehiring existing staff to run them.

With competition from generic mass market and GMS chains for basics sold at low prices thanks to offshore production, boutiques and their suppliers are having to adapt. One way they are doing this is shifting manufacturing back to Japan. Made in Japan marketing is now increasingly common in the Missus market, both at department stores and smaller chains. The cheap Yen has encouraged this further with even distributors like Mizuone, the importer of brands like Aramis and Leigh & Luca, switching some production to Japanese factories since last year.

At the same time, other retailers are moving further upmarket, competing directly with department stores and tapping into the demand from wealthy women in their 50s for much higher end brands. As reported last month, womenswear retailer Leilian has unveiled a new chain called Nemika. The first store in Hiroo reflects the radical shift in thinking at Leilian with a modernist interior design stocking brands such as Lanvin, Nina Ricci and Jason Wu. About 50% of merchandise in the Nemika chain is overseas brands, making Nemika into a select shop chain for the older market. Leilian, now owned by Itochu, is optimistic about the Missus market over the next decade, and expects the growing wealth of the upper end of the market to deliver strong sales for its premium brands.

Similarly optimistic is Doclasse, one of the most successful fashion firms to emerge in the over 40s segment in the last five years. Its success is down to its focus on high quality fabrics and stylish contemporary designs that appeal to the modern 40s and 50s woman, marketed as having the quality of luxury brands, but with prices around 30-40% less. Doclasse is run by a former director of Land’s End who started the business because she couldn’t find decent clothes for herself. She started with a catalogue business, but now operates stores too, with 17 as of December 2014.

Since launching in 2008, the company has grown sales to ¥10 billion and boasts 1 million subscribers. Like Leilian, it also sees demand for more luxury, and launched its own premium line, DoClasse Collection, priced at double to triple its usual merchandise, emphasising top quality fabrics such as suede, linen-tweed and Egyptian cotton. Doclasse also branched out into menswear last year.

One of its most successful ventures is a shoe chain devoted to the Missus market called Fitfit. Fitfit aims to offer the comfort demanded by this generation but without sacrificing style and design. Fitfit was launched through the Doclasse catalogue three years ago and the first store opened in 2012, but by the end of 2015, Doclasse expects to have 40 stores in operation, up from 26 last year. New models are introduced monthly to encourage repeat visits.

The Missus market may not have the glamour of the younger fashion sector, but the growth in the population alone over the next decade shows the potential for international brands and retailers. Distribution for this segment is also clearly in the early stages of a shake up, with suppliers learning to become retailers and well-capitalised and focused retailers like Doclasse and Leilian working to take a significant share from department stores.