When you walk through the doors of any shop, supermarket or restaurant in Japan, you will be greeted by staff members calling irrashaimase! which means ‘welcome’. As you leave arigatou gozaimasu, or ‘thank you’, will echo in your ear as the sales assistant walks you to the door, handing your purchase to you and bowing as you leave. Japan’s level of customer service is probably unmatched by any other nation, but it takes a lot of hard work to deliver. Japanese customers can be tough and delivering on their expectations is a far more complex undertaking than simply offering polite customer service.
For overseas businesses it’s a challenge to compete in this market, and the retail sector provides a classic example. Japanese supermarket chain Seiyu became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the US retail giant Walmart in 2008. But by 2018, reports were emerging in the Japanese media that it was going to sell-up and leave. Speaking with CNBC about common habits of Japanese shoppers, Michelle Grant, Head of Retailing Euromonitor International, commented: “[Japanese consumers] enjoy the treasure hunt of prices. Supermarkets will distribute fliers everyday, coupons and oftentimes Japanese consumers will go to multiple stores in order to take advantage of those daily sales.” Among several other problems Walmart was facing, when it came to Japan with its ‘everyday low prices’ strategy, it failed to convince local consumers.
This ‘treasure hunt’ approach to shopping is very different from, say, a mainstream approach of UK and US supermarket shoppers who like to access the lowest priced products in one place. Traditionally Japan has had a much greater proportion of women (wives and mums) staying at home full-time compared with their western counterparts, so there is time to shop around for the best bargains. And, crucially, Japanese shoppers don’t always want the cheapest product. But hunting around for the best-buy would be considered far too time-consuming for many western supermarket shoppers.
At a communication level – for overseas businesses looking to capture the attention of Japanese consumers – differences also exist in the way information is presented at different touchpoints, digital and physical.
Those between Japanese and western web design are well-reported: the former characterised by a homepage seemingly covered in information and statistics; the latter with an almost minimalist feel necessitating more clicks to find all information required. Japanese consumers expect a lot of detailed information and clear advice during the process of making their purchase decision, and this should be delivered effortlessly to them. The Japanese company seeks to provide all the detail upfront, but to the western eye the page looks cluttered. The same situation exists for print, as our client operating in the technology sector explains:
“We operate in all geographical markets… It becomes increasingly challenging when cultures differ from our own. The most difficult part is learning and understanding regional differences – how people operate and what type of information they are used to. For instance, our Japanese customers like to digest lots of information on posters at exhibitions. We would never use that format in Europe though.”
- Technology firm in the Midlands
When it comes to a business’ content assets destined for the Japanese market, translation doesn’t exist outside the rules of marketing. It’s beneficial for businesses to research the cultural and behavioral characteristics of the Japanese consumer and remain adaptable. Assets being rolled-out simply by replacing the text with Japanese words may fail to create maximum impact, so establishing a broader approach to localisation will help on the path to succeeding in Japan.
*CNBC: Why Walmart Is Failing In Japan