Apita in Taikoo Shing on Hong Kong Island Photo: Google Maps
Apita in Taikoo Shing on Hong Kong Island Photo: Google Maps

The sale this week of retailer Apita/Uny to Henderson Investment, which is controlled by Hong Kong tycoon Lee Shau-kee, was another sad chapter in the slow demise of the city’s dwindling number of authentically Japanese department stores.

Aeon Stores, formerly known as Jusco, is now the only remaining  franchise actually controlled by a Japanese company — which is somewhat ironic considering Hong Kong’s love affair with Japan. In their 1980s heyday, famous brands like Daimaru, Mitsukoshi, Tokyu, Isetan and Yohan boasted some of the busiest shops in town.

On Thursday, Henderson Investment announced it would pay HK$300 million (US$38.2 million) for three stores branded as Apita, Uny and Piago, which have more than 30 years of collective experience of selling Japanese fresh produce and other foods here.

The stores made a combined profit of HK$30.56 million (US$3.9 million) in the nine months to the end of September 2017 on a turnover of HK$1.09 billion (US$138.919 million),but this was a 25% drop on the same period a year earlier. Henderson Investment’s Citistore department store chain will now expand to nine stores.

Other Japanese chains have followed a similar path. Back in 1993, Dickson Concepts chairman Dickson Poon bought Seibu department store, though he has since become less interested in expanding the  brand because of the high rental costs in Hong Kong.

Property tycoons Thomas Lau Luen-hung and Cheng Yu-tung jointly bought the pricey Sogo assets in Causeway Bay in 2000 when its Japanese parent went bankrupt. The brand was listed under Lifestyle International four years later. In 2005, Sun Hung Kai Properties, one of Henderson’s competitors, bought the popular Yata brand in New Town Plaza; it was included in the group’s new shopping mall. 

Aeon Stores, which operates an impressive 96 outlets (including snack shops) in Hong Kong and southern China, may also be on borrowed time after two successive years of losses. In 2017 the firm lost a record HK$74 million (US$9.4 million), four times more than in 2016.

The listed company had almost HK$10 billion (US$1.2 billion) of sales, but is sinking fast: its market capitalization is now just HK$1.3 billion (US$165.6 million). Hang in there, Aeon.