The Japanese grocery chain redefining the traditional shopper experience

Don Don Donki

Outside a Don Don Donki store in Singapore. Source: Supplied.

We hear that what traditional retail needs is an improved shopper experience. We are told that if the shopper experience — the retail trifecta of great store formats, knowledgeable and passionate store staff and seamless technology to ease the transaction — was compelling enough, then shoppers would abandon online shopping and opt for in-store shopping instead. And we hear that if the experience is good then shoppers will increase their ‘dwell time’ (the total minutes they spend in a store) and their ‘basket size’ (the total money they spend in the store during each visit).

We sort of saw these promised effects in Australia when Zara opened and there were queues outside the Sydney and Melbourne stores. A similar thing occured in Adelaide when Aldi opened with amazing catalogue-driven offers and shiny new store formats. And it’s likely to happen again when German retailer Kaufland opens their new stores here (but more of that in coming weeks).

Last week, when I was walking through stores with some team members from my Singapore business Now Asia, we came across a Japanese grocery chain called Don Don Donki. This is a store that saw queues on its opening day, sells ‘boobie towels’ and ‘Japanese whitebait and seaweed pizza’ in its grocery aisles, has a company song on YouTube, and a mascot that isn’t a Donkey but a blue penguin called Donpen. Even that single sentence alerts you to the fact we’re talking about Japanese retail: cool, quirky, bold, innovative and ever-changing.

At the core of Don Don Donki’s offering is the shopper experience.

In Australia, you’ve probably experienced something similar in Uniqlo, where “welcome to Uniqlo” is shouted randomly by store staff, who simultaneously keep the shelves immaculately merchandised while you shop. You may have also experienced it in the laid-back and cool Muji stores.

In the case of Don Don Donki, the store is a very brightly lit space showcasing very brightly coloured packaging. And, as the company song explains, the store encourages shoppers to go on a treasure hunt for unique and innovative products.

I’ve actually walked their stores in Hawaii too, where the store shares the same name as Japanese parent company ‘Don Quijote’. In Singapore, they were apparently concerned about a brand clash with a restaurant chain of the same name, so they took the name ‘Don Don Donki’ phonetically from the company song.

Don Don Donki founder Takao Yasuda said: “Japanese retail is built on the concept of saving time. We want our customers to spend more time at our stores.”

This is the basis for the idea of the treasure hunt, built around a very wide and quirky range of products. It’s a bit like the Aldi centre store concept, or Costco’s ‘fence’ at the front of store, except that in Don Don Donki (or Don Quijote) there are 20,000 products hidden around the store. The role of the shopper is to go looking for these things. This retail model is designed to increase dwell time and basket size.

Another rationale behind the Don Don Donki opening in Singapore is a little simpler: Takao Yasuda, now a consultant to the business, based himself in an expensive villa on Sentosa Island in Singapore as he wanted a change of scenery, so they opened there.

Well, Mr Yasuda, if you would like to spend some time living in an expensive villa on an island off the coast of Queensland, I would like to say that the Gold Coast would be a perfect location to launch a bright, glitzy, in-your-face store with an innovative retail model and, of course, ‘boobie towels’. Just a thought.

NOW READ: From Golden Age to the Silicon Age of retail

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