In Japan, the old find a shelf life

From rows stacked with diapers to ‘gentle’ food for the elderly, supermarkets in Japan reflect the reality of a country that’s greying rapidly.

Written by Saritha Rai | Japan | Published:October 28, 2014 1:31 am

In a third-floor section of the Ito Yokado supermarket chainstore in the Asakusa neighbourhood of Tokyo, the shopping racks are overflowing with an astonishing assortment of diaper brands. A couple of aisles away are ‘gentle’ foods, stewed and pureed meals pulped into varying grades of chewiness, packed into small plastic containers and packets. In a corner nearby are a variety of strollers and toys. At a fleeting glance, the products might seem straight out of the “Baby and Toddler” section.

Far from it. The entire section actually caters to “Seniors”, a familiar sight in supermarkets in a city — and country — where the elderly (those over 65 years) make up a stunning 25 per cent of the population.

Japan has 46 centenarians for every 100,000 people today and by 2060, 40 percent of its population will be over the age of 65. Japan holds the Guinness World Record for both the oldest surviving male, at 111 years old, and female, at 116 years old.

Several European countries are ageing rapidly too but nowhere is the demographic tilt more askew than in Japan where a low birth rate and long life expectancy is making the country look very grey. Japan has the world’s worst generational imbalance as total population began declining almost a decade ago, earlier than population experts had predicted.

It is a stunning contrast to a ‘young’ India, where every second person is less than 25 years of age. Unlike in India where adult diapers, if in stock, are relegated to the back shelves, there is no social taboo whatsoever attached to incontinence products in Tokyo. Elderly shoppers, or the ‘super-aged’ as they are termed, using strollers are commonly found walking through the shopping aisles. To suit them, companies have started packaging products in single units or small, convenient-to-carry packs.

Japan’s supermarket shelves accurately reflect the reality in the city and the country, said a store assistant in the ‘Seniors’ section of the Ito Yokado store. “I have been working in this division for three-and-a-half years and in that period, it has become bigger and bigger,” she said. First, there were mainly adult diapers, incontinence products as they are politely referred to. Slowly, ready-to-heat foods and clothing got added and then items in categories like toys she never would have imagined, she said.

The sales of adult diapers in Japan overtook the sales of infant diapers last year, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. “In the coming days, the Seniors section will expand even faster,” the sales assistant said.

If multinationals and domestic companies in India are focusing on the profitable children and young adult lifestyle segment, in Tokyo, the focus is on the opposite end of the demographic spectrum. Last year, leading mall developer and supermarket chain Aeon launched a new senior-friendly shopping center in the suburbs of Tokyo where stores and services target the elderly with their large signs and slow escalators. Offerings include an Aeon optical store where bifocals are delivered on the day of the order.

The products and services are mind-boggling. For instance, video games maker Nintendo has been tweaking games and gadgets and introducing products like the Wii-Fit targeted at older people who want to stay fit and active. Adult diapers, canned senior food and games for older people sell for price multiples of the same products aimed at children, both often manufactured by the same company.

“Old people in Japan are in good health, want to remain active and, above all, are wealthy. Businesses do well by targeting them,” said Yozo Komuro, a business adviser at the Japan External Trade Organisation, Jetro. Many senior product categories are now worth billions of dollars in sales for these companies, he said.

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