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Compact, Disposable Items and Foodstuffs Top Japan's Gift-giving List

With space ever at a premium, exhibitors at the recent Tokyo International Gift Show were finding success with space-saving products, Korean style, retro designs, overly cute animal-themed dolls and somewhat garishly packaged green tea.

Photo: Geisha-ade: Strikingly packaged beverages from Yamakien.
Geisha-ade: Strikingly packaged beverages from Yamakien.
Photo: Geisha-ade: Strikingly packaged beverages from Yamakien.
Geisha-ade: Strikingly packaged beverages from Yamakien.

The most recent edition of the Tokyo International Gift Show (TIGS) proved a lively and well-attended affair with visitor numbers up and the exhibition space just that little bit more crowded than usual. As ever, the event provided a number of genuine insights into the peculiarities of the Japanese market in general and the local gift-giving culture in particular.

Among the many things to stand out at the event was the growing demand for space-saving items, most notably small, well-designed ones. At the same time, disposable items, such as paper goods and foodstuffs, were also at something of a premium.

Perhaps more surprisingly, though, was that the high cost of retail space and the need to rotate products quickly is pushing the market towards eye-catching items that are somewhat at odds with established Japanese tastes and aesthetics. On top of all that, there was also the growing popularity of garden furniture – as well the indoor equivalents inspired by it – to contend with.

There was also a sizable contingent from Korea, a country that seems to have a particular affinity with the preferences of Japanese consumers. It also benefits from a well-earned reputation for quality and reliability, attributes certain to appeal to famously skittish Japanese buyers.

Enjoyment of Giving is a Tokyo-based distributor with long-standing links to Korea. This year, it displayed a series of stylish desk toys/office decorations, assembled by the customer from small flat-packs. Typically, these tend to be retro takes on 21st-century items, such as a lamp, a record player or a clock radio that actually function as amplifiers for smartphones. The majority of these items sell for between US$80 and $110.

According the Gan Lee, the company's President, although imported from the US, this particular range had clearly struck a chord with Japanese buyers. He said: "We only introduced these items in November and they had already won design awards back in the US. Part of their appeal is that they are all made of authentic materials, real wood and so on.

"Across the three days of the show, they've met with a hugely positive response. In total, 12 companies have expressed an interest, including the Mitsukoshi Department Store, a large bookstore and an online shop."

Lee also had on offer an ultra-thin keyboard that can be folded down to roughly the same size as an iPhone 7. Available for about $75, it can connect to tablets and smartphones via a Bluetooth connection.

Explaining the appeal of this particular item, Lee said: "This was made by a Korean company and it won the grand prix at the Osaka Gift Show. It really helps when a product gets a prize."

Unsure as to how the overall level of trade between Japan and Korea was shaping up, Lee noted that his own company's business with the country's westerly neighbour had increased by 40% over the past year. He said: "While the Japanese are sensitive when it comes to price, they like Korean products on account of their good design and reputation for quality."

One of the most common problems in Japan is a lack of space, something that is a challenge given the country's tradition of gift-giving. Now, though, rather than giving objects that may just be viewed as clutter, many are opting to gift foodstuffs.

In line with this, the show included several large pavilions – paid for by the appropriate prefectural governments – where various local delicacies were on display. Such items are not only popular with customers, but also with retailers. Food, after all, tends to be rotated more frequently than many other items, resulting in higher sales.

While high rotation is important everywhere, it is especially so in Japan, with retail space being both limited and expensive. Inevitably then, fast-selling items and goods that occupy distinct retail niches are favoured. This also influences the style of goods selected, with each product struggling to attract the attention of consumers in a highly crowded retail space against competition from hundreds of other items.

Photo: Enjoyment of Giving’s retro desk toys.
Enjoyment of Giving's retro desk toys.
Photo: Enjoyment of Giving’s retro desk toys.
Enjoyment of Giving's retro desk toys.
Photo: Always a winner: Compact technology.
Always a winner: Compact technology.
Photo: Always a winner: Compact technology.
Always a winner: Compact technology.

Under such conditions, small – but highly visible – items clearly have an advantage, a factor that has pushed packaging design into a distinctly gimmicky and lurid direction. A clear casualty of this was Yamakien Co, a Japanese tea producer that was marketing its green tea in brightly-coloured cans, all printed to look like maiko (young geishas). Even though there were many different coloured tins on show, the tea inside was all the same, with a 50g tin selling for $6, while the smaller 18g tins were available for $4.

While Yamakien's colourful ningyoucans (doll cans) kind of suited the Japanese aesthetic, other popular items had actually erred on the tacky side. Despite this, they were clearly proving popular, largely on account of their success in achieving stand-out in the crowded retail space.

A prime example of this was a range of animal-themed dolls, manufactured by the US-based TY Warner, distributed in Japan by Meteor APAC, and selling for $5-50 depending on their size. With their bright colours, various sizes and exaggerated large "cute" eyes, these dolls are ideally equipped to thrive in Japan's crowded retail space, at least according to Hiro Masuki, Meteor's Managing Director.

Expanding on their appeal, he said: "They are completely different in style to the older, more realistic animal dolls. While, traditionally, Japanese taste has been far more muted and low-key than its American counterpart, we do follow American style far more than they follow our style. This is especially true of the younger generation, who go for a very colourful pop look."

Masuki, too, acknowledged the importance of compactness and high product rotation when it came to finding success in Japan's retail sector, saying: "It's always a challenge to find space in any store. As a result, we often propose some kind of space-saving display.

"Typically, we deal in products with a very fast cycle. So, even if a shop has only very small space available, they can still rotate very quickly. In fact, our smaller products are far more popular than our larger ones."

Outlining the typical sales curve for a new product, Masuki said it usually began with a period of slow growth, followed by gradual acceptance and then a sales spurt. He attributed this to the fact that, in Japan, distributors are more important than consumers when it comes to determining the ultimate success or failure of any given product.

He said: "Take these dolls. We have been selling them in Japan for about six years now and, finally, we are coming out of the tunnel. In the Japanese market, the distributor is the key decision maker, rather than the consumer."

Interestingly this "noisy" eye-catching style of design, which often dominates retail spaces, also creates an appetite for its polar opposite – the clean, low-key, minimalist look. Capitalising on this was Favorist, a Japanese brand that presents various OEM items emphasising simplicity under its own label. This year, it had a characteristically wide range of items on offer, ranging from electrical goods to cups and bags and even indoor growing kits.

Explaining the company's approach, Yousuke Mori, a Senior Manager with the brand, said: "We opt for simple colours and shapes for our products because we're trying to differentiate ourselves by doing the opposite to all of those vendors and manufacturers who favour novelty colours and shapes. This is our way of standing out."

A similar dynamic is arguably embodied in the growing trend for a 'garden aesthetic'. This has been inspired by the increased prominence of garden centres in recent years, a development that has seen a distinct outdoor furniture style beginning to have an impact even on those who live in apartments and have no access to green spaces.

This year, pavilions and booths catering to this particular trend were more noticeable than ever. Significantly, many of the companies in this sector appear to have little interest in developing their export sales, a route Japanese companies invariably opt for when the domestic market reaches saturation point. The clear inference here, then, is that there is plenty more growth to come in this particular sector.

Photo: Retail stand-outs: TY Warner’s brightly-coloured animal dolls.
Retail stand-outs: TY Warner's brightly-coloured animal dolls.
Photo: Retail stand-outs: TY Warner’s brightly-coloured animal dolls.
Retail stand-outs: TY Warner's brightly-coloured animal dolls.

The 83rd Tokyo International Gift Show was held at Tokyo Big Site from 8-10 February 2017. The event attracted 200,867 visitors, an increase of 3% over the equivalent show last year.

Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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