Japan is Becoming "the Land of the Free" Again

I am not talking about the freedom of speech or the freedom to meet... but that businesses are turning to the one tactic that helped spread mobile phone ownership lightning fast - FREE MOBILE PHONES - to other business areas now.

Namely, Yahoo has announced that merchants will no longer need to pay to sell on Yahoo! Shopping and Yahoo! Auctions.

There is a lot of controversy around this since it was announced:

On the one hand, advocates believe this will give Yahoo! a badly needed boost to catch up with front runners Rakuten and Amazon.co.jp

Antagonists are convinced that this will fill up the space with lots of crappy merchants and chase good business away to the very people Yahoo! hopes to conquer; the theory that bad gold will chase away good gold.

The verdict is still out, but Yahoo is busily promoting away. 

Another interesting FREE campaign is cable service provider J:com's 100,000 free tablets giveaway campaign. 

They seem to have teamed up with Huaway for the free 100,000 units. (Users can choose SONY as well, but that won't be for free.)

Of course there is a catch, that one must sign a one-year contract, but we are all familiar with these thanks to the mobile phone companies, one of which has a strong tie-up with J:com, au.


Next Logistic Wave: Shared Logistics Services by Newly Independent Subsidiaries of Manufacturers?

It is said that one of the reasons why 3PL services in Japan have not done as well as expected is because most major manufacturers and retailers have their own logistics companies as subsidiaries. Still, according to ongoing research by an Industry Publication from 2005, 3PL services have been growing at an average rate of 9.45% per annum from the start of the survey.

However, it is now believed that their main source of growth, dedicated distribution centers for large retailers, have now come to hit a ceiling. According to Masahiro Oya, Publisher of Monthly Logitsics Business, there is no decline in the number of orders received, but each project is getting smaller and smaller. He also points out that existing centers are suffering from a fall in volumes.

He analyzes that the 3PL service providers need to go upstream to the manufacturers to continue to grow. But the large manufacturers have their own subsidiaries that specialize in providing logistics services.

The key difference in the way 3PL has been growing in Japan vs. that in Europe is in that while European manufacturing businesses opted to outsource non-core operations in the form of endorsing 3PL, the Japanese market has grown in quite the opposite direction. It was not the manufacturers, but retailers who wanted to take advantage of their purchasing power by collating all their purchases in a warehouse, and then break bulk and ship to their various stores efficiently that embraced 3PL.

But that has all now come to a head, it seems...

So, will manufacturers be able to cut their logistics subsidiaries loose so that they can go ahead and offer their services to competitors as well?

Will such former subsidiaries, once cut loose, become prime acquisition targets for the likes of Sagawa and Yamato? - Maybe not as especially Yamato likes to build everything in-house.

Japan Post tried acquisition and learned the hard way that service disruptions due to tatty integration processes are a much higher price than it wanted to pay.

Either way, a new trend will emerge in the Japanese 3PL market because not having one is not an option if the industry wants to continue to grow.


New Trend? EXTREME Commutes

An Australian friend who works as a mountain climbing guide in Nepal told me once that the extremely hard core climbers are usually Japanese... Doing something in the extreme, in a way, is a Japanese trait.  Why else would we be known as the market with the most demanding consumers in terms of quality, convenience, and hospitality?

EXTREME Commuting is a hash tag on Twitter that is gaining popularity.

The idea is to play first and work later - on week days - and tweet about it.

Let's look at a day in the life of self-proclaimed leaders who spearheaded the hashtag/trend. They are two men, aged 29 and 34.

At 5:20 am, the duo meet up at Kita Kamakura Station, some 50km outside of Tokyo.  Takahiko Shiina, aged 34, has left home at 4 am. His partner, Sota Amatani, aged 29, left Tokyo the night before and spent the night at a manga kissa, or coffee shop that specializes in providing private space and lots of comic books.

They head to an old Zen temple, Enkaku Temple. It is the first time for Amatani.
Their EXTREME Commute on this day started with a one-hour zen meditation.

Then, they moved on to Yuigahama beach just after 7:00am. Shiina rolls up his trouser legs and Amatani strips down to his boxer shorts and the two splashed about for around 5 minutes, though they claim "it felt like half an hour of fun!" They progress to using Shiina's tie as a blind fold to try to break a watermelon with a baseball bat - a traditional summer beach picnic event.

They manage the break the watermelon open on the fifth round of trying and lap up the fruit like a pair of hungry dogs, according to a Nikkei reporter who was with them and who reports on their EXTREME Commute of the day.

"I feel like I am at the extreme opposite position of a white collar worker right now!" proclaims Amatani.

Though the clock is ticking, the pair insist on wrapping up their excursion with a bowl of ramen noodles. They rush into a noodle shop before 8 am and devour their meals in under 5 minutes to catch the 8:12 train to Tokyo.

The rule is to play hard and never be tardy for work, they say.

Their EXTREME Commute started as a fun discussion over drinks. Now, they may have up to 10,000 followers checking their tweets on their latest adventure with other people sharing their EXTREME Commutes.

From 2 through 6 September, the duo called out to their followers to participate in an EXTREME Commute-athon. More than 100 groups have joined so far.

"It is more refreshing than taking a day off" because every minute counts and there is no dilly dallying around, it seems. And another important factor is to "try" and "challenge onself" to do new things.


Cool Geeks Have Deep Pockets: 3-Months Target Achieved in 5 Days - Domino's Pizza x Hatsune Miku

In March 2013, Domino's Pizza launched an app that enables customers to place orders using the vocaloid software Hatsune Miku; take AR (augmented reality) photos with the popular vocaloid character, and have her perform live using the delivered pizza box as a stage: http://youtu.be/gW2D_Votd2Y

They achieved their 3-month target in 5 days.

Until then, Domino's, like many other national brands, focused on securing popular TV animation characters from such mega hits as Pokemon and One Piece.

The collaboration with Hatsune Miku was the first time they went for a niche and a deep dive - which paid off.

They have launched an upgrade and a second campaign since, and continue with their success.

It is Cool to Be a Geek
When Dentsu ran a survey of 10,000 youths aged 15 ~ 39 in 2012, 49.9% of teenagers said they are "Otaku" or a geek.

The survey in dicated that the younger the group, the higher the tendency to be proud to be a geek, which clearly shows that there is no stigma attached to geekhood for teens.

"They obviously see the expression 'Otaku' to mean that 'I am really passionate about something' rather than for it to mean anything negative," says Yuichi Yanagida, Strategic Planner at Dentsu who oversaw the survey.

The "ultimate geek fest," the Comic Market (a.k.a. "Komike") showed that there are less traditional geek types and more "normal" kids who are just passionate about animated films and manga.
Held twice a year, Komike boasted a whopping 590,000 visitors in three days from 10 through 12 August 2013.

This year, it was such a popular event for exhibitors, that it was said that only 60% of applicants actually got to exhibit.

Microsoft, Yukijirushi (Snow Brand), and Suntory were among the national brands that participated this year.

While some die hard Komike fans had a chilly reaction to having such brands and companies come to Komike, many said "it is OK so long as they team up with someone on the inside who is cool (as in the case of Yukijirushi and Suntory, they joined forces with Pixiv and had fans submit drawings of pretty girls for labels. Komike became the place where the winners were announced)."

Convenience Store Chain LAWSON'S has a reputation for being geek friendly with their promotions that attract approximately 30,000 viewers when it comes to time to announce them. They have offered such services as "wake up calls in popular animation character voices," among others.

These promotions are created by an internal committee of geeks who really are in the shoes of the target audience.

There has been a lot of talk of "bid data getting personal," but these are examples of targeting a very obvious niche and diving deep into their pockets.


Mixi's New CEO - Is He Too Late To Bat?

As of 25 June, founder of Mixi, Kenji Kasahara will step aside from the helm and become Chairman, passing the baton to Yusuke Asakura, 30. Once synonymous with social networking, Nomura Research Institute estimates in its report released in November 2011 that approximately 9.7 million consumers have left Mixi, of the 23 million who they believe have used Mixi at least once in their lives.

Last I checked, Mixi was for humans,
but at the moment, their home page is full of pets!

Nomura estimates that there are 21 million FB users (active and non-active combined), while the figure for Twitter is 20.7 million. Compared to these "foreign players," Mixi definitely remains the biggest. Yet, as at end March 2013, Mixi posted a 5% decline in revenue due to stagnant advertising revenue growth.

At the May Strategy presentation, Asakura announced that there will be three strategic pillars for Mixi in the immediate future: (1) Increasing revenue both in and outside of the SNS Mixi; (2) Aggressive investment activities into external business opportunities; and (3) Nurturing entrepreneurs from within.

Currently, 90% of Mixi's revenue comes from the SNS Mixi, and about this, Asakura says, "Mixi has been making money on advertising revenue for mobile phones (pre-smartphones). That market is fast disappearing. It is obvious to everyone that there is a massive shift towards smartphones, but on the one hand, the smartphone advertising market is not as big as we had hoped it would become."

"Instead of waiting for the market to grow, it is imperative that we first build services that users are happy to pay for."

Mixi has announced that it will launch 50 apps by March 2014. At the moment, half of their paid-for apps revenue comes from games.

"There is still much more room for games to grow," says Asakura. But if we look to a slightly longer term future, we can see that as with (recipe site) Cook Pad, consumers will pay if they feel that the service features are of value. Mixi plans to release apps that are relevant to people's every day lives, too."

Asakura also says that Facebook and other SNS are not the only competition. "Be it the weather forecast or apps that help users find trains and make connections - whatever app is on the top screen of a smartphone is competition."

Asakura explains that the founder, Kasahara, is also undertaking a mission to create new businesses within Mixi. "The goal is not for us to increase our revenue from the current 12 billion yen to 15 billion yen. We want to grow exponentially and we hope to be able to create three or four new services that will be bigger than Mixi in the process," he says.

A 29-year old office worker looks back 7 years ago when she had just graduated from university and says, "When I was in college, everyone was using Mixi. But ever since I have begun to work, I continued with my public diary for a couple of years and kept in touch with classmates and friends, but "eventually, I was connected to too many people and that began to restrict what I could write."

Another woman, aged 33 says, "One of the reasons why I stopped using Mixi is because my friends stopped."

A man in his 30s says, "I have begun to use Facebook and could not see why I also need Mixi."

The Nikkei MJ summarizes that people who used Mixi to enhance their real life relationships have moved on to Facebook and LINE.

A marketer with a brand that has a Mixi page says, "At the moment, when we discuss online marketing, we start out by plotting what to do on Twitter and Facebook. We continue to update our Mixi page, but we question whether Mixi is the right platform to establish the kind of sticky relationship we hope to have with our customers on SNS."

Some analysts say that Mixi lost its edge when it failed to launch new services that fueled loyalty among its users. But others point out that the more than 100 million users is still a force to be reckoned with and it is not too late for Mixi to get back on track.

Mixi launched its Innovation Center in August 2012, and such services as the online album creator, Nohana, has come of it. However, there is yet to be a service that could be bigger than Mixi itself, and the market is split on whether Mixi actually has it in them to do it.

As mentioned by Asakura himself, the smartphone market seems to be reaching a plateau at the moment, and certainly, LINE and its wanna-be's have changed the landscape in that smartphones are phones only in name, and that they are more of a connectivity device.

This was taken in the "no mobile phones car"
of a train... Who said only the youths are addicted to
being on their mobiles?
Using Facebook messenger, LINE, Comm, and Viber makes email addresses obsolete. As Japan is not a GSM market where texting is dominant, mobile email was _the_ killer app for mobile phones, in addition to games. But now, all one needs is a phone number or Facebook account to chat and talk to friends.

A survey showed that mobile phone and smartphone users spend 50% of their time using the phones on games and SNS, but the other time is split among shopping, reading the news, listening to music, and watching TV (one seg).

Will Asakura and Mixi be able to come up with something in addition to the above? Or is Mixi already a thing of the past?

Reference: Nikkei MJ 12 June 2013 interview with Yusuke Asakura


100 Billion Yen Market: Japan's Booming Fragrance Market Leaves Perfumes in the Dust

In around the year 2000, the market for perfumes and scented fabric softener was around the same size, but now, the latter is double the size and Kao predicts that the market will hit the 100 billion yen mark in 2013.

I have heard repeatedly from the CEOs and COOs of major European luxury cosmetics brands that unlike the western markets, only around 8% of total revenue comes from perfumes in Japan. Some surveys indicate that Japanese women are very fickle when it comes to perfumes and cologne; that they change their fragrance every season. Others show that Japanese women tend to avoid perfumes from the 1990s, or after the burst of the bubble economy, citing that we have been in a "no fragrance" era.

Sure enough, Kao's chief perfumer, Shigeru Sawamura is quoted in the 3 June 2013 issue of the Nikkei MJ as follows: "There was a long time when adding even the slightest fragrance to products meant across-the-board rejection from consumers," looking back at his 36 years on the job. But he says now, "we can't seem to put enough fragrances into products!"

Supermarket shelves are filled with scented fabric softeners
Kao's research shows that one out of every user of fabric softener has at least two different products on hand at all times, even in single-person households. This is because consumers are changing their fabric softeners depending on their mood or what they wash.

In some homes, each family member has his/her favorite fragrance. Yoriko Hashimoto (47) says, "My daughter insists on a fresh floral scent while my husband wants his clothes to smell like soap. I use a (rich) romantic fragrance or fresh citrus fragrance depending on my mood."

Yuko Hashimoto, 41, has eight different scented fabric softeners on her shelves. She lives with her three daughters and husband, and each have their own fragrance. Not only that, but whenever a new scented fabric softener comes out, they get one and the entire family evaluates it.

Among the eight items, Hashimoto has created her original blends as well, combining aroma therapy oils with citric acid, and other ingredients with unscented products. In fact, she is such a scent fanatic that she is now the "Aroma Guide" on the information site, All About, responding to numerous queries about fabric softeners.

P&G's Downy is said to have kicked off this scented fabric softener trend from around mid-2000, when mothers and home makers in their 40s who remember the Bubble Economy of the 1980s jumped on its sweet fragrance.

Double the Price, Triple Sales - Fafa
NS FaFa Japan Co., Ltd. (previously named Nissan Sekken), took it further by developing a range of "fragrances to be worn on clothing" concept. On top of that, the concept behind Fafa is "not one fragrance for the entire family, but individual fragrances for individual people."

The Fafa range has fragrances for everyone now - shown below are Fafa Baby, Fafa Dubai, Fafa Fine Homme, and Fafa Fine Beaute, among others. It was test launched online in autumn 2009, and has been steadily increasing fans since through word of mouth and online promotions.

Fafa's retail price starts at around 700 yen for a 600ml bottle which is almost double that of major brands. Yet, its sales have been tripling every year. 

The Next Step - Customize Your Own Fragrance
P&G is now taking scented fabric softeners to the next level - customization.

With Lenor, it has launched the Lenor Happiness Make Your Own Fragrance site:

Customers can adjust the amount of fragrance and blend fragrances through the site. 

Perfumers would probably seldom let amateurs take matters into their own hands to blend oils and fragrances, but with fabric softeners, that is the next stage in Japan. 


Reference: The Nikkei MJ 3 June 2013


Earning Points Is the Surest Way to Increase Spending Power

Points are now a currency and no one does that better in Japan than Culture Convenient Club's T-Point Japan who boasts a whopping 44.5 million members.

As at end March, 2013, T-Points can now be earned with 155 brands and 52,981 stores, and in this age of the thrifty-as-a-virtue-again consumers, one way to increase one's spending power is to make sure every yen goes to earn points, which are usually awarded at much more favourable rates than interest on cash.

And though once upon a time not so long ago, T-Point only accepted one brand/company per product category as partners, they have become less discriminate of late and has just announced that commencing on 21 May 2013, T-Point card holders can earn points for every 200 yen they spend online with Expedia.co.jp, according to the press release on 8 May 2013.

It is obvious that the very entrepreneurial and savvy Mr. Masuda saw no reason to build a ceiling in the blue sky of potential members and their point-earning universe, and lifted the early restrictions that justified the high premium T-Point demanded of its corporate partners to have the privilege of accessing their members and exposing them to ads at points of consumption to cross-sell. (When I was running a flash sale site, the first promotion proposal I received from Cultural Convenience Club, the owner of Tsutaya and T-Point, was for a 2-year exclusive deal at $1 million. And they told me that once the two years were up, they will open up to other flash sale sites like Gilt.)

Remembering that Japan has a population of 130 million, 44.5 million members means T-Points are being collected by 34% of the total population.

Once earned, T-Points can be exchanged for goods, tickets, and of course, be used to pay for CD and DVD rentals at sister company Tsutaya's outlets (Japan's version of Block Busters, in a nutshell).

T-Point also launched a service whereby members can donate their points in the wake of the 3.11 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, which was a novel way to collect donations and a further confirmation - if any are needed - that points are indeed a currency.

The Biggest Difference Between Rakuten and Amazon
One thing Rakuten does but amazon.co.jp refuses to do is award points for purchases.

Rakuten Super Points can be used in lieu of cash at an exchange rate of 1 point = 1 yen.

Rakuten offers favourable rates for Rakuten credit card users and vendors on the portal are invited to offer 5x, 10x, and higher rates of points for certain promotional periods and items instead of cash discounts.

Rakuten also has a system whereby miles earned on ANA flights or banking points earned at banks other than Rakuten Bank can be converted to Rakuten Super Points as well.

Rakuten uses points to get registered users to respond to questionnaires for research and to help their clients build up mailing lists by offering points for giving up your name and other personal details.

One thing I found interesting is that I can actually order a pizza with Domino's Pizza and elect to pay via Rakuten even if I am paying cash to the delivery person. This enables me to use my Rakuten points against my pizza order and earn more Rakuten points for the order itself. Since I go directly to the Domino's site or use the Domino's iPhone app because of incentives to do so (like buy one get one free or special discounts for ordering online), I often wonder what Domino's gets for this. It is almost like giving up your customer to Rakuten even though I am an acquired Domino's customer no thanks to Rakuten. Perhaps it is done in the hopes of ensuring that I stay loyal to Domino's and don't wander off to competition, but from where I am standing, it looks like a win for Rakuten and a lose for Domino's... But maybe I am missing something.

"Not Accumulating Points Is Like Throwing Money Away"
Points have become such an integral part of the way we spend and consume that a 44-year old friend says, "Now that I use my Rakuten credit card as my main card and earn points, all my utility bills are paid for on points alone. It's great! I buy things I would buy anyway, and the points are such a bonus."

A 60-year old entrepreneur who is very cash rich and still cash savvy says, "When I need to buy a book, I do my search on amazon but I buy it on Rakuten. I book my business trips and those for my staff on Rakuten Travel, and then use the points to buy other things. It is a really good system. I think amazon does a great job recommending things to me, but I will only buy on amazon if I cannot find the item on Rakuten."

Another entrepreneur, 42-years old says, "Whenever I see a great deal on bonus points for a credit card or site, I concentrate my spending on that card or site. It is foolish not to do that today because it is like throwing money away. Taking a little time to search and check for points creates money out of thin air!"

Free Mobile Phones Every 3.5 Years?
According to Garbagenews.net who visualizes government data into graphs, the average period a Japanese subscriber uses a mobile phone has declined to 3.5 years in 2012, from 2011's 3.6 years. The top reason for changing phones in 2012 was "to upgrade" (42.8%) - most likely to a smartphone; which was much higher than "due to the phone needing repair" (32.2%).

The number of years before users get new mobile phones in Japan
(Data based on Cabinet Office Report)
Phone companies also award points for every yen spent on their services, and my parents never pay cash to get a new phone, but rather, use their points. I have personally put them on the cheapest possible plans that meet their usage profiles, so combined, they spend less than 7,000 yen per month on their mobile phone bills. And still, every three or four years, they both manage to get new phones on the points they earn.

Japan managed to get mobile phone ownership to spread like wildfire in the early days when hardware was given away for 0 yen (because the retailers were given cash backs on the subscriptions the consumers took out). We still see a few 0 yen phones on the display cases, but consumers don't seem to mind the price tags much, because they just use their points to get what they want.

I am a heavy data user who has the largest fixed data plans and hardly use the mobile to have conversations except when we are on SKYPE or LINE. But my last upgrade on both the BlackBerry and iPhone were paid for by points with Docomo and Softbank accordingly after less than three years of usage.

Earn Frequent Flier Points With Banking
ANA, a member of Star Alliance, is an airline, but it also has its own branch with Suruga Bank.

Account holders can earn frequent flier miles in addition to interest for all their banking activities with Suruga Bank and purchase products like a term deposit with additional interest and miles.

As with Rakuten Bank, extra points are awarded to the account holder just for designating their account to receive their monthly salaries or to link automatic debit payments of utilities and subscriptions to the account.

While Rakuten Bank is an e-bank, Suruga has a retail network, though the ANA Branch is a virtual branch.

No Income Tax, No Inheritance - So Far
So far, the Japanese tax man has not demanded that points be declared as income, but rather, focus on collecting consumption tax, which is soon to go up, regardless of mode of payment.

While mobile phone points may be shared among family members and award tickets bought on frequent flier points can be booked for family members, there is no "inheritance tax" associated with the movement of points at this time. (I will need to do more research to find out, but I believe  once the natural person owning the accounts pass away, I believe his/her points expire and cannot be transferred to another person be it a spouse or other family member.)

But points are definitely here to stay and is a real currency and that through which banks now compete with an airline and virtual cash is created even through brick and mortar transactions.