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No Windmills Here: Don Quijote Lets Land of the Rising Sun Shop Until It Drops

The Japanese discount retailer has won the hearts of housewives and dating couples, among others.

TOKYO -- At last there's relief for Japanese insomniacs.

No, it's not melatonin. Nor is it better late-night television programming, something night owls, who regularly suffer through philosophical discussions of footwear between bikini-clad women, are desperate for.

Sleep-deprived Japanese can now wander out to their local

Don Quijote

, a discount retailer that is better at merchandising than it is at spelling, to shop through the wee hours. The chain's 20 stores, which can be open for as many as 22 hours a day, are a riot of goods -- you can buy the TV to go with your TV dinner -- that has won the loyalty of housewives, salaried men, nightclubbers and even dating couples.

And analysts say the company's success is unlikely to falter any time soon.

Japanese consumers, worn down by a decade-long downturn and corporate restructuring, have become more cost-conscious than they were during the

Bubble Economy

of the late 1980s, when sushi flaked with gold was the delicacy of choice. Now, like puritanical New Englanders, the Japanese are more likely to boast about how many years they've gotten out of a videocassette player than how new it is.

"Why someone hasn't stolen this idea is beyond me," says

ING Baring

analyst Robert Burghart. He says the company will likely report its earnings for the first half of fiscal 1999, which are expected to be announced on Tuesday, doubled from the year-ago period to about 1.3 million yen ($11,683). ING Baring has a buy rating on the stock and hasn't done any recent underwriting for the company.

While other retailers may not have noticed, stock investors certainly have. Its shares are up about 120% this year, better than the 33% rise in the


, a broad index akin to the

S&P 500

. On Monday, shares went limit up, rising 2,000 yen, or 9.7%, to 22,670.

In addition to appealing to the average Japanese consumer's newfound thriftiness, Don Quijote, whose officials could not speak to


ahead of the earnings release, has successfully challenged the traditional kings of late-night shopping, the convenience stores, by sliding through a dense thicket of regulation. The law says that any retail store larger than 1,000 square meters must shut down by 8 p.m. By keeping its floor space below that threshold -- Don Quijote is like a


squeezed into a


-- the stores can remain open after midnight.

These hours have helped propel sales as everybody from late-shift workers to barflies wander in. The company reports on its Web site that 44% of its sales are racked up between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m.

Don Quijote has also won points by playing to Japan's obsession with the automobile.

"In addition to cheap toilet paper, they have parking," says shopper Michio Kawasaki, as he cruises aisles so narrow that it isn't unusual to knock a few tubes of toothpaste or a can of hairspray off the shelves just by turning around.

But perhaps the most important component of the company's success is the enthusiasm of its branch managers, most of whom are in their mid-20s and early 30s. Their age is likely part of the reason for the

esprit de corps

: Japan is still a fogy-ocracy, not a meritocracy. It's unusual for anyone under 40 to have any authority or power.

Not only do the managers try to steal customers from rival convenience stores, but they also battle one another. Each branch manager gets a detailed weekly sales report, which includes a weekly countdown of the best-grossing branches. The tactic of in-house rivalry has even led to an annual company shelf-stacking competition where time, space usage and presentation are judged to determine the top shelfer of the year.

Don Quijote says it wants to add eight new stores during the fiscal year. It's also considering subletting any additional space to other late-night retailers, like hair salons, restaurants and opticians.

Others vendors, Don Quijote is betting, feel sleep is overrated, too.