By  on March 4, 1994

NEW YORK -- The sun may be rising on a new era in the Japanese beauty business.

While Japan has historically been a tough market to crack for foreign cosmetics companies, some American executives say that consumer attitudes may be changing. The younger generation in Japan is developing different shopping habits and ideas of individuality than the older, more conservative generation, and this evolution could lead to great opportunities for foreign cosmetics companies, according to industry executives.

"There seems to be a greater gap between generations than ever before," said Patrick Waterfield, president of chief executive officer of Guerlain Inc. "The one coming up now seems to be very different."

Waterfield, who has been with Guerlain for 25 years, spent 15 years overseeing the company's Asia-Pacific region, based in Hong Kong. During his tenure he lived for six years in Japan.

"We've always addressed the older generation, which is more traditional and comfortable in its habits," he said. "We were perceived to be the highest-priced treatment line in Japan. But when we eventually lowered our prices in response to pressure from the government, it paid off. It brought us down to a level that's very competitive with Shiseido and the main Japanese brands, and this made us more appealing to the younger generation.

The Asia-Pacific region now does about 16 percent of Guerlain's worldwide volume, or over $55 million. Under 5 percent is generated by fragrance.

"Everyone is trying to appeal to the younger generation," Waterfield continued. "The situation is much like here in the U.S., in that the youth are not as brand oriented, they've traveled a lot and seen foreign brands and they're questioning traditional values."

Waterfield said it remained to be seen whether young Japanese consumers will truly break away from the habits of the past.

"The law that determines Japanese buying habits is the mother-in-law," he said. "Young married couples often start out living with the husband's mother, and she doesn't want the wife to wear perfume. It's not acceptable. But while the youth is respectful of elders, it's becoming a question of individuality versus conformity. They've never sought out a perfume that fits their individual personality, as happens in the West."Jeanette Wagner, president of Estee Lauder International, agreed that a significant generation gap exists in Japan, although she thought a real chasm has not developed.

"Younger consumers are definitely different, although they're not changing as fast as we'd like them to," she said. "But there are signs. For one thing, young women who are traveling outside of Japan are more accepting of fragrance."

Wagner noted that when Aramis's Tuscany Per Donna was launched in Japan, what was intended to be six months worth of product sold out in 2 weeks.

"Interest in skin care is growing as well," she said. "Japan is very new driven and technology driven. We've also been seeing growth with color products that have treatment benefits.

Both executives stressed the importance of adapting products and sales techniques to the Japanese market.

"People and quality are the key ingredients," Wagner said. "The Japanese have the highest sensitivity to quality in the world.

"The right people are also essential because you need to use a soft-sell approach," she added. "'Try before you buy' has always been our policy. You need to do a great deal of explaining and have a strong sensitivity to Japanese customs. And we're always willing to provide additional pieces, like extra shades, that are needed."

"Japan is big enough and diverse enough to justify changing shades or formulas," said Waterfield. "This can be a rewarding market for those who are patient and willing to adapt."

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