Here are two ways to become a huge success in Japan:
1) do something that no one has ever done before, or
2) do something that everyone else says is impossible.
The former case seems to be more common. There are hoards of creative people in Japan constantly coming up with first-ever goods and services. A standout among foreign firms is Citibank, which pioneered after-hours availability of ATMs and other innovative banking services. The latter case – doing something that everyone else says is impossible – seems a particularly promising approach for foreign firms. An example: When Starbucks decided that all of its stores in Japan would be no smoking, many predicted its market entry effort would fail. While the no smoking policy certainly isn’t the only reason for Starbucks’ spectacular success to date, it has turned out to be a powerful plus.
It may seem counterintuitive, but in our experience Japanese consumers love it when companies do something that goes completely against the grain. But how does this translate into the online world, where text and images, not coffee and bank notes, comprise the initial medium of interaction with a corporation? One way is to be open and forthcoming with your information and offers, rather than closed and exclusive. Japanese companies tend to be secretive with their information and overly wary of transacting with new customers, even as a vendor. As an example, I recently went online to buy a multifunction, home-use facsimile/copier/scanner/printer. I started off at www.askul.co.jp, a leading Japanese office supplies retailer, but they cheesed me off mightily by requiring me to “register” before I could do anything useful on their site. So I tried another domestic competitor. Same story, plus lousy usability.
I threw in the towel and trotted off to www.officedepot.co.jp, who, to my great satisfaction, promptly and efficiently succeeded in parting me from nearly U.S. $600 in a transaction accomplished entirely in the Japanese language (incidentally, the Canon MultiPASS C70 is a greatmachine).
The point is simple: Open your offer to everyone and make it easy for anyone to buy. Forcing potential purchasers to register before they can even view merchandise online is the equivalent of shaking down visitors before they even step inside a shopping mall. (That happened to me in the Philippines once, but they were looking for guns, not trying to assess my ability to pay). A big part of the success to date on the part of companies such as www.officedepot.co.jp and www.amazon.co.jp is their open, democratic, non-membership approach to information-sharing and merchandising. Instead of making you register in order to gain the privilege of shopping online, they just do it the commonsense away: let you walk all the way up to the cash register with your merchandise, then make the “registration” simply part of the purchase.
This logical, commonsense approach to buying online has been established and visible in the U.S. for seven years, but many online Japanese retailers remain stuck in a misguided “membership” mode – designed to do what? Keep out the riff-raff? No wonder Amazon has become the top online book retailer in Japan, despite being late to the market and publicly exposing its merchandising methods for years beforehand. Some may say that the membership model better fits the group-oriented, security-seeking Japanese psyche, and that I have a normative bias regarding how the Internet ought to be used ($25 word donated by Bill Underwood, it means “using one’s own cultural beliefs as a yardstick to judge something in a different culture”).
But in our experience, when it comes to convenience-driven online shopping, consumers viewing the Internet through PCs in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and the U.S. are quite consistent in their preferences regarding function and usability. Rather than “over-localize” and emulate domestic firms, an approach that would have resulted in undifferentiated offers, U.S. online retailers here in Japan have stuck to their open, forthcoming approach with tremendous success. This is an example of success in a narrow category and not meant to imply that to be a success in Japan you should do things the U.S. way. In fact, U.S. companies are notoriously poor at localizing effectively for Japan, and their online efforts fail more often than not. But when open sharing of information is combined with an approach that everyone says is impossible, the results can be dynamite.