Fukubukuro: The lucky dip where everyone’s a winner

Fukubukuro: The lucky dip where everyone’s a winner

Sales events like Black Friday are regularly lambasted as wasteful and pointless. Is Fukubukuro the craze that can fulfil retailers’ needs and silence their critics in one fell swoop?

Black Friday isn’t going anywhere, whether retailers (and critics) like it or not. As the primary sales event of the year – arguably unseating Boxing Day – it’s amazing to think that just six years ago, Black Friday didn’t exist in the UK.

Such is the power of global retail influence: even though it’s fundamentally tied to the American Thanksgiving holiday weekend, British businesses were, and still are, happy to use it as a reason to get people online and into store to make major profits.

But in the years since it crashed onto the scene, Black Friday continues to be a sales day that doesn’t differentiate from any other discounting event that came before it. For an exciting, fresh sales tactic that benefits both customers and retailers, it’s time to draw inspiration from even further afield – and from the east, not the west.

Hailing from Japan, Fukubukuro has barely registered on British culture. Aside from the event’s adoption by the occasional specialist Japanese memorabilia seller such as Artbox, it’s still an unknown quantity – despite being an incredibly simple and fantastic way to excite customers and market a real brand experience to them.

What is Fukubukuro?

Translating as “lucky bag”, Fukubukuro (福袋) was initially popularised in Tokyo in the early 20th century, when department stores created a new way to get rid of old stock. The lucky bags in question are identically wrapped packages containing items adding up to a set retail price, yet sold at an often-drastic markdown – often 50% or more.

Fukubukuro's traditional lucky bags.

Fukubukuro sales take place at the start of January and usually run until the goods are sold out. This isn’t exactly a drawn-out process, as shoppers regularly queue around the block at their favourite stores just to get one, and numbers are purposefully limited. What typically follows is a huge outpouring on social media, where people compare their hauls.

It’s customary in the much more mild-mannered Japan for disappointed Fukubukuro advocates to swap unwanted items with friends, or simply sell them online. The agreement between seller and buyer is that it’s a gamble: a literal loot box, except everyone’s technically a winner due to the perceived value within.

Because of this continued, adapting popularity, Fukubukuro is no longer limited to traditional Japanese department stores. Supermarkets, fast-food chains and a multitude of international retailers have jumped on board – Starbucks and Armani are the most notable overseas businesses happy to embrace a cultural phenomenon in order to capitalise on sales.

They’re not wrong to – if anything, UK retailers are the ones in the wrong by entirely ignoring Fukubukuro, a simple premise that provides incredible benefits. Providing it’s done well, of course.

How can Fukubukuro help the British high street?

In its true form, Fukubukuro relies on several basic rules:

  • The bags must all have a truly equal RRP prior to discount;
  • Individual items or whole packages cannot be returned;
  • Two of the same item cannot be put in the same lucky bag.

With these guidelines in mind, UK retailers can reap plenty of benefits from running a sales event like it.

A great opportunity to ensure stock is shifted

The fundamental reason many retailers run sales is to rid themselves of end-of-line or seasonal products to make way for the latest trends, models or titles. However, the element of choice still available in a standard British high-street sale, meaning many products stay on shelves, unsold, until they’re packaged away, sold at a marked loss or literally buried. Fukubukuro guarantees that ring-fenced sale stock is paid for and moved, so long as the lucky bags are all bought.

Getting excited people into your store

While Fukubukuro could just as easily be offered online, the big draw of lucky bags is that they can be opened as soon as they’re bought. It’s a tangible experience comparable to buying a scratch card, except everyone gets back more than they paid. The excitement of proceedings is enhanced by the potential wait to get the package itself – leading to an all-too-familiar response on social media.

Shoppers queuing for a Fukubukuro sale.

An incredible free PR opportunity

As Japan has already proved with its Fukubukuro hashtags across social channels, shoppers cannot resist showing off what they’ve won, especially if their experience is positive. From simple tweets to delicately laid-out, heavily branded photos on Instagram, the hype is never-ending, not least because revealing one package does not give away what’s in the rest. Showing off is regularly what social media is used for, and it’s a free PR coup for businesses willing to offer real deals.

The opportunity to offer true – and extra – value to shoppers

The whole point of Fukubukuro is that every person gets real value, given each bag has the same RRP. Nonetheless, some bags will be considered more special than others, and can be further enhanced with ease. At the top end, “golden ticket”-style extras could be considered: for example, putting gift cards of £500 in a handful of them. Alternatively, those buying lucky bags could get a further discount in store on that day for non-sale items, or get vouchers for their next visit to the store.

Building and maintaining brand loyalty

It goes without saying that like Black Friday (or any sale, for that matter), people will usually prioritise their preferred retailers first – and this would be even more the case with multiple lucky-bag giveaways. The savvier brands can use it as a real opportunity to deliver incredible value to their consumers. Simply ensuring they break even is often all a retailer needs from a sales event, and with Fukubukuro, it’s possible to do this and ensure most (if not all) customers walk away with a bag they’re happy with – one they see their money’s worth from.

When the benefits are laid out as simply as this, it’s difficult to understand why the British high street hasn’t seized upon the idea. Yet to make it work, it must be adapted to the domestic audience properly.

Making Fukubukuro work for the UK consumer

It cannot be treated as an excuse to get rid of unwanted stock

Businesses that create lucky bags for the UK audience can’t just throw any old products in a bag, especially as British consumers are more vocal about poor experiences than positive ones. Especially if the event was to take place in January, the last thing they’ll want to see is, say, Christmas-themed stock: its RRP will have been what it was until December 25th, but not at the time of sale. There needs to be a level of expectation – even if there are marketing materials outlining the chances of getting one item or another, trust must be built well before a sale.

Fukubukuro bags ought to be limited to make the biggest impact.

Returns culture must be considered

While lower-ticket lucky bags can be written off by buyers as a risk worth taking, those companies selling £100 of goods for £50 may need to consider options for limited returns specific to their products to match demand in the UK, keeping the lucky bags flexible.

If a clothing brand puts together a bag and a customer receives five items for £50, but a large shirt turns out to fit closer to a medium or extra large, a retailer could give them the option to trade it for store credit equivalent to its percentage of the bag itself. As it’s a fifth, it could be classed as £10 in value. The item can be repackaged, while the shopper is incentivised to return to store with ring-fenced credit. A limit on the number of individual returns is important, however – the luck of the draw still needs to be emphasised, while it lowers chances of the sale being abused.

There must be a limit

While the temptation to dedicate a whole floor to lucky bags may be a department store’s dream, there needs to be a limit to the number of bags available. The whole point of lucky bags is that you’re lucky to get one in the first place, and this exclusivity is the key driver of excitement, social media PR and the number of people in the store on the day.

Time to get lucky

At its heart, Fukubukuro is a fair, honest, easy and anti-wasteful sales tactic that prepares businesses for new stock at a time that’s right. It’s also something that can be easily planned over the preceding months and is flexible enough to respond to any highs or lows in pre-Christmas product sales.

However, it must be done well and stay true to the originators’ approaches in Japan. As an import, Black Friday may be more popular than ever, but it’s fair to argue that it has more detractors than ever before. Lucky bags need to live up to their name, and any Fukubukuro-style campaign should be founded on the idea that even the most cynical British customers will feel like they’re missing out on something new, exciting, different and value-driven.

Early adopters of Fukubukuro should see the opportunity as a win-win. Consumers always remember who kickstarted a trend – and as public sentiment increasingly sees “all high streets as the same”, there’s little harm in trying something different.

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