Have you ever imagined a whole aisle devoted to cup noodle? How about shelves of variously flavored Kit-Kats?
For those who are used to driving a few blocks to Walmart at any time, shopping in a foreign country can be a shock. Luckily, Walmart actually exists in Japan, if by another name: Seiyu. Plus, many other chains of hypermarkets, supermarkets, and department stores give you plenty of options. In the end, getting your shopping done in Japan is as easy and convenient, if not more so, than back home.
Walmart is a multinational corporation based in Bentonville, Arkansas. It started with a single store in nearby Rogers, Arkansas, in 1962. Since then it’s grown to be one of the largest companies in the world with $524 billion in revenue and 11,484 stores worldwide in the fiscal year of 2020.
45% of that revenue comes from international operations. Outside the US, Walmart has 6,132 stores and over 800,000 employees. Walmart began expanding globally when it opened stores in Argentina and Brazil in 1995. Now the company operates in 26 countries besides the United States and is the largest private employer in Mexico.
In many cases, especially Latin America, Walmart has chosen to open its own branded stores. However, in countries like the UK and Japan, Walmart has instead bought out large supermarket chains that were already established. In Japan, this is the Seiyu chain of stores.
Seiyu (西友) is a large chain in Japan. It was formed in 1956 by Seibu Department Stores and currently operates 332 locations across Japan including hypermarkets, supermarkets, and other layouts.
In 2002, Walmart Inc. bought 6.1% of Seiyu’s publicly traded stock. Three years later in 2005, Walmart bought more shares to gain a majority interest. Walmart then continued to buy the stock until it owned 100% of the shares in 2008. As a result, Seiyu is no longer a publicly-traded company but rather a subsidiary of Walmart Inc.
In general, the Seiyu experience is very similar to visiting an American Walmart. The supermarkets especially feel more or less like a Neighborhood Market, which is to say, any normal Western grocery store.
The hypermarkets are similar as well, but there are some differences. For one, in the US, Walmart tends to stay out of major urban areas, instead opting to build large, warehouse-like buildings in suburbs or rural towns. You can find Seiyu hypermarkets in the densest parts of Tokyo, though, often in the basements of large buildings.
You can probably guess that these are a little more tightly packed than the Walmarts you’re used to that take ten minutes just to walk across. Of course, the products will be different as well. For instance, you’ll have a wide selection of discount kimonos for men, women, and children.
Walmart, or Seiyu specifically, has also created a strategic alliance with the Japanese company Rakuten. Rakuten is an online retailer, the largest in Japan and one of the largest in the world. It’s frequently referred to as the “Amazon of Japan.” The partnership between Walmart and Rakuten involves all aspects of online retailing, but Walmart also uses the company to offer an online grocery delivery service.
Supermarkets And Hypermarkets In Japan
Don Quijote is one of the most famous chains of discount stores in Japan. It features floor-to-ceiling merchandise at low prices, and for this reason, is sometimes called the “Walmart of Japan,” even though the companies aren’t related in any way.
Don Quijote operates over 160 locations throughout Japan and a few abroad. Unlike Walmarts in the US or Japan for that matter, the stores are crammed with goods. The huge inventories and discount prices draw hordes of customers. Adding to its convenience, the stores are open late by Japanese standards, often till the early hours of the morning. Some are open 24 hours.
Don Quijote is something every foreigner in Japan has to experience at least once. The packed aisles and bizarre merchandise are fun even if you don’t purchase anything. Inevitably, though, you’re sure to find something to buy that you never even knew you needed.
Ito Yokado is a major supermarket chain that now has 178 locations in Japan, including hypermarkets, supermarkets, and even department stores. At its department store locations, you can find a high-quality grocery store along with specialized departments for clothing, electronics, books, etc. The company is a subsidiary of Seven & I Holdings, the parent company of the Japanese 7-Eleven stores.
While Ito Yokado is less of a discount chain than its competitor Seiyu (Walmart), they still have relatively low prices. It’s a good place to go for a comfortable shopping experience and name-brand items without paying too much. The grocery stores specifically are excellent places to shop for traditional Japanese foodstuffs from quality producers.
An interesting thing about Ito Yokado is their use of music for staff communication. For example, they may play “Help!” by the Beatles when they need more employees at the cash registers. Watch out if they play “Symphony No. 5” by Beethoven, though. That means there’s a bomb threat.
AEON is the largest retailer in Asia. The company owns and operates a number of different stores including convenience stores, supermarkets, and shopping malls. While most AEON supermarkets you see will be branded with their name and logo, it’s also possible you’ll find yourself in a store by some other name that’s also owned by the company.
The large AEON shopping centers are multi-storied and have just about everything. They sell large quantities across the country, so they can bring costs down a lot. Their store brands are of high quality while usually much cheaper than name brands.
Life is a supermarket chain in Japan’s large cities, specifically Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. As far as supermarkets go, they’re very convenient and open late, sometimes until 12 AM. Finding a supermarket in Japan’s denser urban areas can be tough, and shopping at convenience stores can be expensive. Life is a great alternative.
Life supermarkets specialize in groceries, so you have a wide range of options at great prices. They’re very popular with Japan’s city dwellers.
The Japan Hypermarket Experience
In general, discount hypermarkets as we know them in the US are less common in Japan. What you’re more likely to find are dedicated supermarkets or large department stores or shopping centers that have a lower level supermarket.
In many ways, your shopping experience in Japan won’t feel all that different from back home. Stores feature aisles of shelves displaying unboxed merchandise with price tags. Of course, with a more detailed glance, you can begin to see the many differences.
Naturally, you’ll find much more typical Japanese foodstuffs and much fewer Western. This means a lot of fish as well as instant noodle options. Dairy products are less common, but you can still find milk and Japanese cheeses. There’s plenty of produce too, but imported fruits and vegetables will be much more expensive than what you’re used to in the US.
Crowds and Lines
The Japanese tend to do their shopping more frequently and buy fewer items. Besides a lower prevalence of large shopping carts, the main result is that there are usually more people in the store. In large cities, stores are a lot smaller already, so you may notice the conspicuous lack of space.
It’s common to have to wait in an aisle for a turn browsing a particular shelf. You can also expect lines at the cash registers, though these lines move faster and more efficiently.
Cleanliness is a stereotype of Japan in general, and the supermarkets live up to this. Even discount stores, while packed with merchandise—and people—are clean and organized.
Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but personally, I cannot say enough about the customer service in Japan. In general, the US and other English-speaking countries are well-known for customer service, but Japan still manages to eclipse it.
Japanese store employees are friendly and always ready to help you, even if it means having to use a translation app to communicate. They’ll go out of their way to give you shopping advice, even if it means directing you to a competitor’s store.
Lastly, Japan is a great place to take advantage of online shopping. American companies like Amazon are well established, and Japanese companies like Rakuten perform the same services. All the competition keeps prices low and services high.
That doesn't just mean ordering your electronics. Things like grocery delivery are becoming more popular, so you can skip the line. Then you'll have even more time to spend exploring Japan.