• Thursday, September 20, 2018
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Flea market apps transforming Japan’s thrift culture

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Tokyo >> When strapped for cash before his next paycheck, Ryo Takezawa would trudge over to the nearest Bookoff, the nation’s largest chain of secondhand bookstores, to sell his novels and CDs.

But the buyback rates were meager: The 37-year-old temporary worker was lucky if he was offered 90 cents for a hardback book in near mint condition. A box full of books and albums might get him $30.

Now when he is falling short of resources, he thumbs his smartphone instead and goes on Mercari. Of the 15 items he recently listed on the online flea market — volumes of manga, a shoulder bag, DVDs and electric guitar effectors — 13 found buyers who paid a total of $450.

“That’s not bad. Best of all I get to decide on the selling price,” he said.

The rapid rise of peer-to-peer mobile marketplaces like Mercari is transforming Japan’s thrift culture and shaking up consumer spending, removing the stigma traditionally attached to buying and selling used goods.

The shift is also posing a major challenge to resale outlets like Bookoff and even more so for smaller operations, forcing them to diversify their business models.

“Mercari is a typical example of how distribution channels have expanded while becoming much more personalized,” said technology writer Hitoshi Sato.

“Before smartphones, people used to visit pawn shops to borrow some money. That involved a certain amount of shame, but now it’s become routine to sell and buy used merchandise online, regardless of whether you’re poor or not.”

That change in consumer behavior is especially pronounced among the younger generation, said Taku Sawada, a board member at Tokyo’s Treasure Factory Co., an operator of secondhand shops.

The options are pressuring brick-and-mortar businesses like Bookoff, which operates 825 shops across Japan and is known as a pioneer in the resale business for upending the shady image of used goods stores with clean, bright interiors and sophisticated customer service.

“Many new players are entering the market and the competition is intensifying,” said Bookoff Corp. President Yasutaka Horiuchi, who said that the company posted a net loss of nearly $8 million last year.

The number of stores Bookoff operates has been shrinking over the past decade as the rise of e-books and digital music downloads has decreased the number of used books and CDs in the market.

Mercari said as of July 13, it had listed more than 1 billion products since its launch in 2013. In direct competition with Bookoff, it launched a sister service called Kauru last year specializing in secondhand books, CDs, DVDs and games.

In response, Bookoff has been opening large-scale outlets called Bookoff Super Bazaar, widening its selection of secondhand products to include clothing, musical instruments and other general merchandise. It has been expanding its overseas footprint, operating nine stores in the U.S. and three in Malaysia.

Called Jalan Jalan Japan, Bookoff’s Malaysian outlets boast massive floor space and sell anything from used children’s toys and women’s clothing to car seats and shoes.

“Most of these products are goods we purchased in Japan and shipped to Malaysia,” said Takaharu Kominato, a Bookoff spokesman, adding that the company plans on accelerating openings in the Southeast Asia.

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