Rakuten Demystified – How to Buy from the Japanese Megaretailer
Back in college, I loved to smoke cigarettes. I don’t know if it was to rebel or to get to know a girl I liked, but it wasn’t long before my packs seemed empty on a daily basis. There were two problems, however. First, my favorite smokes were Gauloises Blondes, a French brand that was nowhere to be found in Ohio. This was less of a big deal as I had other smokes I enjoyed in substitution. The real scourge lay in the form of the only gas station in walking distance, which in true capitalist fashion, jacked up cigarettes $1.50 compared to other stores in the state.
But instead of kicking the habit, I turned to the internet. And after some snooping, I was receiving a couple half-priced cartons of Gauloises each month from St. Petersburg, Russia. My addiction was happy and so was my wallet. Of course my lungs cried, but that’s a different story altogether.
Like my French cigs via St. Petersburg, the Japanese mega-retailer Rakuten is often a great place for western denim heads looking to buy jeans. There’s no replacement for the brick and mortar experience, but the breadth and depth of the offerings on Rakuten are nearly unparalleled. And with the yen in the toilet right now, most products on offer are significantly cheaper as well. These benefits, however, come at the cost of an awkward interface, a language barrier, difficulty sizing, and nearly impossible returns.
This guide should help you avoid, or at least expect, some of those pitfalls when buying goods off of Rakuten.
I had never taken the time to pull the trigger on a Rakuten purchase. I was always a little hesitant at the thought of using a proxy and until the last couple of years lacked the funds to take some fun risks. But beyond the potential savings, many Japanese offerings that don’t see light outside of their country can be had on Rakuten. So, with some incentive from Heddels, I took the plunge to purchase some jeans by Orgueil, a division of Studio D’Artisan that’s been around since 2012. I had worked in the past with Blue In Green to get an Orgueil shirt special ordered, but this took a month due to the delay of waiting for their next import from Japan. So the question became, “Could Rakuten be a quicker and easier alternative?”
You know what? It was a simple and painless transaction. I paid the store Pirates for my new pair of Orgueil jeans on a Wednesday evening and they arrived in less than a week. I asked them to hem the jeans and they did – with a chainstitch – matching the appropriate color and distinct run-off that Orgueil uses. I’m a happy camper.
Unfortunately, getting to that transaction was a little tricky; Rakuten is idiosyncratic to say the least. So, for anyone else who hasn’t yet explored Rakuten, here are some observations and suggestions to help everyone along the way.
Go to the Right Rakuten
Right off the bat, denim hunters need to know the proper url, because Rakuten has a lot! Rakuten.com is a nice place to shop, I’m sure, but it isn’t where you’ll find your jeans, those are located on Rakuten Japan and Rakuten’s Global Market. But simply typing in global.rakuten.com won’t work either. That will take you to Rakuten’s corporate website. Confused yet?
To find the goods you’re seeking, go to rakuten.co.jp. From there, you’ll be greeted with an announcement that says, “Rakuten is now shopping worldwide!” and a button to lead you to the proper Global Marketplace (NOTE: this step can be skipped by entering global.rakuten.com/en/). This may frustrate the first time or two of navigation, but it quickly becomes second nature.
Be Prepared to Sleuth
Rakuten is organized much like eBay’s network of listed sellers, and the B2B business model is both good and bad for consumers. It’s good, because customer service is paramount for these stores; they can’t treat a customer poorly and then expect them to stick around. It also provides incentive stores to diversify their offerings, since prices are fixed at the Japanese retail point.
The downside, though, is the decentralized nature of things leaves Rakuten a little difficult to navigate. This means tracking down the goods you want isn’t always clear cut, nor are search results necessarily going to bear fruit. For instance, searching for Oni Denim might not get as many results as hoped. Some stores refer to it as “Demon” denim or “Ogre” denim. Knowing the style code of the jean (e.g. Oni 527zr) can be more accurate.
Using the category navigation is buggier still once you are selecting jeans within the brands options. Patience is key to dealing with all these quirks. But the flipside is one of the perks of being able to roam Rakuten is also exploring brands that never make it out of Japan. You might just unearth the next brand to obsess over.
To expedite things, here are some of the shops that I came across upon my initial excursions. This is not a “best of” list and there are plenty more to be found. Click here for the base page of the “Jeans” category.
- Big Shot
- Samurai Craft
- Vintage Paradise
Use the Right Browser
Rakuten has been working towards globalization since about 2010. That’s when they decided to prioritize the “English-ization” of every shop for the future. That’s great, but the Global Market needs more polish. It looks perfectly fine and seamless to begin with, but once you start meandering into one shop or another, it won’t be long before you click a random link and end up with Japanese characters all over your screen. I suspect this is due in part to each store having a certain level of autonomy, preventing standard streamlining.
To prepare for this inevitability, make sure you’re using a browser set up to automatically translate Japanese into English. My personal choice for dealing with foreign language websites has is Google Chrome. They make it easy to make translations constant, and their language engine is generally as good as any other. Typically, clicking on the store name will reset everything back to English.
Learn Your Measurements
This doesn’t just apply to shopping on Rakuten. Knowing the measurements of your favorite jeans, shirts, shoes and hats will help you shop anywhere online. I’m sure there are plenty of readers here that have incorrectly estimated whether or not something will fit. Now that you’re shipping overseas, the risk is further increased.
For brands that are already well distributed internationally, like Iron Heart, finding a good size guide is easy. Just take a look around forums (check out Heddels’s Scout) and reputable shops and you’ll be good. For lesser known brands, there’s a little more guesswork and that’s where triple-measuring your favorite clothes will pay off. Rakuten shops will post the measurements of their items (in centimeters), but be sure to find out how they measured. In Japan, many prefer to get the actual circumference of the waist instead of measuring it flat on the ground. This slight difference can render an item too small to wear.
In terms of payment, as long as you have a major credit card and/or a Pay Pal account, getting whatever you want shouldn’t be a problem. Most shops have a good enough grasp on English to answer your questions and answer promptly – although do remember the time difference!
There will be some less than seamless moments along your journey on Rakuten, but the rewards are definitely worth it. The yen is at its weakest in years so your dollars (or Euros) will go a lot farther. There’s a ton of solid brands to try out, such as Dubbleworks, Deluxe Workwear and Warehouse brands Heller’s Cafe and Duck Digger that can rarely be found in the U.S. What are you going to buy first? What are you going to buy next?