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May 26, 2017

Discover the office market! A profitable channel for hungry food companies

Japan’s retail sales have suffered from anaemia for some years with meagre spurts of growth followed by sudden declines. Inflation has been much talked about but hard to spot, meaning intensive price competition and profit margin squeeze for manufacturers. Some canny companies have however been looking further afield into new channels and routes to market. As anyone who visits Japan soon realises, the country is awash with offices, warehouses and factories; according to official economic statistics there are over 5.5 million such establishments, employing over 57 million people. Whilst there has been much publicity recently about “karoshi” or overwork, the vast majority of folk slave away loyally, often well over 50 or more hours a week. A captive market for entrepreneurially minded food companies. Selling to offices is not new. Yakult was the pioneer with its famous squads of ladies, pushing bik
May 9, 2017

Is Asia far behind on adopting the latest political research tools?

I confess to being a politics aficionado and these last few months have been exciting and unpredictable to say the least. In my business life, I rely heavily upon insights about consumers, shoppers and customer behaviour to formulate decisions and guide recommendations on strategy and tactics. So it’s no surprise for me why savvy politicians want to get the inside ear of what makes their constituents tick. In the last few years, political campaigns, at least in the West, have been increasingly built around the tried and tested research techniques any competent brand manager knows inside out. It is no longer rare to read in newspapers how messages have been “focus grouped” before reaching the cold light of day. UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s “strong and stable” campaign slogan has reportedly been concept tested ad infinitum across key target groups, like swing voters. But he
April 23, 2017

Amazon Fresh. A different kettle of fish?

Amazon finally launched its fresh food delivery service in Japan last week. The business has a dedicated operations and commercial team using tailor-made warehousing in the company’s existing logistics facilities. Amazon Japan is the No 2 online business here after Rakuten with revenue north of US$10b. Not a mean achievement given it only opened shop in 2000. I found the Fresh site layout was standard Amazon fare; flat product images, with brief but uninspiring summaries on product and range assortment. Compared to some other Japanese online supermarket chains which tout specific regional or exclusive produce, for me it lacked engagement. It’s early days and one imagines the offering will be changing very regularly. The key USP is delivery time and speed as the site makes a heavy emphasis on when they need the product. Home delivery services are of course not new in Japan, today most major supermarket and CVS chains offer them. 68% Japanese consumers buy something online every mont
March 19, 2017

Japan’s old tech cassettes in new world stores

I was shopping today in K’s denki, a national electrical store chain and to my surprise found a display of 1980 style cassette and cd radio players. Ap parently there is a market of refuseniks who have yet to adopt to digital or smartphones. All that was missing was Spandau Ballet.
February 21, 2017

Spicy Gangnam style noodles power the K-food export market to new highs

Korean or K-food has become increasingly popular in recent years driven by popular dramas, clever marketing and a consumer thirst for novel and exotic food tastes and experiences. The average Korean eats noodles, Ramyun or Ramen over 71 times a year, followed closely by Indonesia and Vietnam. However, like many North Asian markets, Korea faces demographic challenges of an ageing population forcing businesses to find new international markets to sustain growth. Recent trade statistics from the Korean authorities have revealed that Ramyun exports have tripled in value in the last 10 years and in 2016 were worth USD290m. Growth in Ramyun has been much faster than other categories like Ginseng, Pork, Poultry, Confectionery or even Alcohol. The hottest export markets for Ramyun include China, Thailand and Vietnam.  Whether China’s mid-2016 restrictions on K-drama will hinder future growth remains to be seen. (A move taken in response to South Korea’s THAAD deployment) Nongshim, previou
January 30, 2017

Savouring new wine in old wineskins, the Japanese way

I have long been of the view that most Japanese sake brewers are long on rice polishing, fermenting and koji (yeast) selection skills but short on branding, packaging and marketing. This display by Kyoto’s Sasaki brewery, which I spotted yesterday in prime position in a popular gourmet and import store in Osaka, further reinforced these impressions. The Sasaki brewery dates back to 1893 and is a boutique, artisanal producer, sourcing water from Lake Biwa, and uses manufacturing practises passed down by family members. The current President trained in agriculture at a top Japanese university and even wrote a thesis on sake brewing. No doubt a veritable “toji” or sake master. One of the heirs apparent decided that sake brewing was not his destiny and left for a career in advertising before becoming a rather famo
January 12, 2017

Humble Harris Tweed struggles with Japan’s powerful retailers

Quirky and esoteric Harris Tweed, the handwoven cloth that heralds from Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, has enjoyed a cult like following in Japan for many years. The wool has featured in Doctor Who’s Tardis and celebrities from Vivienne Westwood, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna are fans. In Japan, brand awareness amongst the fashion conscious is over 50% built largely by word of mouth, subtle product placements and endorsements. Whilst Japan accounts for over 40% of the company’s total sales, the absolute business size is approximately GBP4m (USD 6m) which given this large market and its brand history is frankly peanuts.   The Harris Tweed company runs on a quasi cooperative style; the 140 home hand weavers are all self employed (to comply with an arcane law); and Japan’s business and brand management have been left to third parties. In the last two or three years, the brand’s popularity has surged as large Japanese retailers, like Shimamura, a large retail fashion business, listed
December 30, 2016

Foodies’ Heaven: Japanese Department Stores at New Year

Yesterday at the behest of a client, I spent some time in several Department stores in Umeda, Osaka, checking out the pre-New Year displays, merchandise and shopping behaviour. I’ve posted a short video on the Facebook site which you can check out here. Foodies’ Heaven: Japanese Department Stores
December 21, 2016

The secrets of sushi success lie hidden in numbers

Although sushi is one of the largest foodservice categories in Japan – second only to udon – channel sales and restaurant numbers have been slipping for some time. Historically many sushi-ya were small eateries often found in narrow alleys, typically poorly signposted, manned by a small team, and lead by a chef whose only life vocation was fish.   Like many other sectors in Japan, the sushi industry hasn’t been immune from change, the recent census showed a 20% drop in the number of small sushi restaurants just in the last 5 years. Finding and training staff to run a traditional sushi restaurant isn’t easy. The hours are long and the whole industry is regimented by traditions and mores that dictate apprentices spend their formative years washing dishes, slicing vegetables and other tasks before progressing to selecting and slicing fish never mind interfacing with customers.  It
November 26, 2016

“All things are difficult before they are easy” Chinese proverb

This last week I’ve been in China on an out of home, foodservice market research project. I started in the South in Guangzhou before heading North to Hangzhou, where the G20 meeting was held this year and then across to Shanghai. Market research in foodservice is a little more challenging than retail, especially when one is trying to find out what brands and product formats are commonly used; most operators do not openly display or advertise their suppliers. Nonetheless with the support of two experienced associates we wove a pave through a myriad of outlets and combined with some clever questioning we were able to gather a wealth of knowledge. I learnt a lot and our client even more.  I am always surprised by how fast China changes. It was over 20 years ago that I first visited and the speed of development is breath taking. In foodservice I learnt that many outlets last a maximum of 2 or 3 years before
November 1, 2016

Get in shape, quickly, at your local convenience store!

Last month, Familymart, which is now the No 2 convenience store chain in Japan following its merger with Sunkus and Circle K, announced the launch of “Nutritional Care Stations” in conjunction with Nissei Drug. For the first time ever, convenience stores will have a nutritionist on site dispensing dietary advice based upon patient’s blood pressure and sugar levels. Familymart is offering a “menu” of options for patients priced around Yen 3000 designed to improve wellness, and crucially for the retailer, repeat visits. The nutritionists are qualified and the scheme has the blessing of Japan’s Dietetic association. Familymart is estimating that around 150 patients per month will use the service. Japanese consumers’ health predilection is folklore.  The
October 4, 2016

Picking up the pieces after Japan’s media overcharging scandal

“Mum’s the word” has been an unwritten though implicitly understood part of doing business in Japan since time immemorial. What is on the surface versus beneath are often polar opposites. It was an Australian publication, Adnews, who initially hot pressed the story that Dentsu, the media and marketing goliath, had admitted overcharging a key client, Toyota for digital work. The scoop was picked up by the Financial Times, before Dentsu held a press conference 2 days later to admit “improper activities” affecting over 100 companies. Only then did mainstream Japanese media like the Nikkei and others cover the story. It’s the second time this year that Dentsu has unwittingly found itself in the media spotlight. The first was over unsubstantiated allegations it had helped broker the Tokyo Olympics using shadowy consultancy arrangements. Suspicio
September 20, 2016

Is the game up for Yamazaki in the cookie wars?

The beginning of September marked a new chapter in the history of Yamazaki bakeries, a food and retail goliath with sales over USD10bn, when it lost the manufacturing and sales rights in Japan for a stable of thoroughbreed brands including Oreo and Nabisco.   There was a time, not so long ago, when entering the complex and fragmented Japanese market always necessitated partnering with a strong local company. It was a path many international brands trod, but there has been a gradual sea change with many global companies, including Nestle, Danone and now Mondelez taking back control from local partners, confident they can make the business grow faster and be even more profitable.   Yamazaki has been badly stung by the recent turn of events, despite it being on the cards for some time. Whilst the company’s manufacturing capabilities are not in question, its abili
August 25, 2016

Healthy mayonnaise combats high blood pressure

Kewpie is making waves with its new “functional food” mayonnaise that helps those suffering from high blood pressure. The company which has sales of over US$6billion, recently launched a Mayonnaise containing linseed oil, high in α-Linolenic acid, which has similar attributes to fatty acids found in fish oils. In the past manufacturers had to go through an extensive, quasi-pharmaceutical product testing to make strong food claims. In order to spur innovation, there has been some easing of these restrictions, although manufacturers still need to provide a hefty health dossier to support claims. This is the Kewpie “amani” (アマニ油マヨネーズ) TVC. It explains that the product contains 30% α-Linolenic acid, plus shows how it can be used for cooking. Recently Kewpie has set up some “vegetable” cafes in Tokyo and Osaka. Perhaps they hav
August 16, 2016

Gari Gari quenches the cruel summer thirst!

It’s been a long, hot and humid summer and young and old alike have been reaching into the ice cream chiller to cool down. Companies with a heavy focus on impulse products typically make over 65% of their annual sales in July and August alone.  Get your sales forecasts wrong and you can easily miss the annual target just because of supply issues. I spent several years in the business and learnt this the hard way. Still that’s another story! Gari Gari Kun, is a quintessential Japanese water ice, whose name derives from the crunching of its inner core of ice crystals, has steadily risen up the market share charts, although its brand owner, Akagi, is not one of the mega dairy companies. Akagi’s rise to fame was thanks in no small part to its cherished relationship with 7-Eleven, the leading CVS retailer. Earlier this year the company hit a publicity sweet spot with an “CE
July 28, 2016

Are Japan’s drinkers losing their thirst for alcohol free?

Ten years ago there wasn’t much of a market for alcohol free beverages in Japan. As anyone who’s lived and worked in this urban maze knows, drinking after work several times a month is an expected, although unwritten part of the job, a tread mill for workers and monolithic beer companies alike.  That changed in 2009 when Kirin launched it’s “Kirin Free” targeting drivers, plus a growing army of health conscious workers. Not to be outdone, Kirin’s initiative was quickly researched and duplicated by the likes of Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory. By 2011 the non-alcoholic beer market had grown almost 10 times in size to a whopping 21 million cases a year. The category further expanded with ready to drink cocktails, chuhai (a shochu based beverage) and plum wines. For a while these additions added another 6 million cases to the pile. However sales data for the last 3 years
July 19, 2016

Surge of shoppers bargain hunting in Japan’s wholesale supermarkets

Kansai people have a reputation for finding hot deals and striking quick bargains. So it’s not a surprise to find that a whole class of business or wholesale supermarkets are thriving in the region.  Called “gyomu super” (業務スーパー) in Japanese these outlets sell more foreign sourced products that many mainstream Japanese supermarket chains and their retailing style is old style bulk displays in large boxes rather than neatly merchandised aisles with not a price ticker out of place. But given the growing divide in Japan between the “haves” and the “have nots”, business is booming. The shopper profile skews heavily to those on a budget and for whom time is of the essence. Kobe Bussan, a major importer, is a leading player and sells directly to its fully owned and franchised store base which now exceeds over 600 outlets.
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June 20, 2016

Tempted by a tipple of Japanese Malt Whisky?

Japanese Whisky is going through a heyday with rapidly growing demand for unusual and hard to find malts. This special corner, spotted in Hankyu Department Store in Umeda, Osaka today, is designed to tempt punters into tasting a tipple. In the past Whisky accounted for about 1% of the Japanese spirits market but like the raging Craft Beer boom, that’s all changing. Campai!
June 1, 2016

Hanamaru Udon strives for Gold in global fast food race

The Hanamaru Udon and Yoshinoya brands (Yoshinoya Holdings) are front runners to take Japanese fast food global. They already have over 600 International outlets and this year will open 100 more.  China is a key focus where the foodservice market is set to triple in size by 2020.  The “Hanamaru” logo (flower-circles) is the sign Japanese school teachers write on test scores when you get 100%…One assumes Hanamaru are doing extensive product testing to make sure their noodles score just as highly…


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