WOMEN IN JAPAN: VIRTUALLY UNTAPPED

Byline: Koji Horano

TOKYO — Online retailers and computer makers are enthusiastically courting young Japanese women as the segment that offers them their best shot at long-term happiness, for the still-immature, rapidly developing market.
For their own part, Japanese women are showing increasing interest in the online world, and as they gain access to computers, they are finding that spending time with the Net can be fun. That’s good for online marketers, because for many of them, female shoppers are expected to be the key to future success, say expert market watchers in Japan.
“There is no doubt that women in their 20s and 30s with much disposable income are becoming strong consumers on the Net,” said Gen Miyagaki, Researcher of Life Design Institute. “Young Japanese women are starting to make great use of computers and the Internet network as communication tools.”
Computer manufacturers are not about to be wallflowers, either. The trend to designing and marketing cute-looking units is directly aimed at young women. “i Macs and other cute PCs have paved the way for female users here to get to the Internet,” said Hideo Mori, president of Merchandise Laboratory.
Electronics giant NEC reports that the number of women among users of its PCs has grown impressively. While in 1998 about 14 to 15 percent of registered users were female, that proportion now stands at about 30 percent, said an NEC spokesperson.
NEC attributes that dramatic growth in large part to its decision to build an advertising campaign around popular 30-year-old actress Miho Nakayama. The company currently is pitching its PC “simple,” which has a flat-panel display and retails at about $1,700 (180,000 yen). “It is popular among consumers at a wide range of ages, and of course young women,” the spokesperson said.
Other manufacturers, including Panasonic with its WiLL PC and Hitachi with its Prius model, are also busily touting specific products as especially suitable for young women. Aside from the attention of cute-computer makers, more women are being induced to use the Internet because the generation in ascendance is highly educated and quite familiar with the technology. “Women in their 30s or younger have no hesitation in front of the keyboard, while people in their 50s or older are not familiar with computers,” said Tetsuji Kanai, director and executive general manager of the Internet business division of catalog ordering company Cecile. “Using a keyboard was not common in Japan for many years.” Enough of these computer-savvy women in Japan are going online now that they are showing up on the e-commerce radar. “Apparel sales are becoming bigger as the number of female users of e-commerce increases,” said a spokesperson of Andersen Consulting, which conducted a major study of the market in conjunction with Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry.
“From now on, women in their late teens to 30s will become the core customers on the Net, since they will spend much money on apparel products,” said Kana Sasaki, senior analyst at Tsubasa Research Institute Ltd. “The higher the numbers of core families in Japan, the greater the chances for housewives to shop for basic apparel products on the Net since they are busy baby-sitting,” Sasaki suggested.
Sasaki added that apparel catalog retailers are likely to have a leg up on the Web because, with their expertise in fulfillment, they know what it takes to make women happy.
“There is a dilemma when selling fashion-related merchandise on the Net, offering unique and attractive products while still holding inventories to the minimum,” said Sasaki of Tsubasa Research Institute.
Catalog retailer Cecile is an example. With registered customers of about 20 million under its belt, it now generates about $1.9 million (200 million yen) in sales a month on the Net, according to Kanai.
Cecile’s catalog clientele is 95 percent female, said Kanai, and “now, about 85 percent of its Net consumers are women. There is a high possibility that female consumers will reach 95% [of the Net business] in the future,” he added. In addition, 37% of its cyber consumers are in their 20s, while consumers in their 30s make up 41%. “These numbers show that many young women enjoy Net shopping in Japan,” said Kanai.
Cecile now has 50,000 Net consumers and expects “200,000 customers by the end of this year and one million within three years,” said Kanai.
Rakuten, one of the most popular cyber-shopping malls in Japan, with 2,200 cyber-shops, including 370 related to fashion, attracts customers in their 20s and 30s. “Compared with the summer of 1997, when 30% of the consumers were female, now about 50% are women,” said Haruko Shimoyama executive vice president of the marketing division of Rakuten. “They will make up 70% sooner or later.”
Females make up 80% of the users at an Internet navigation service called Webstyle that includes an online shop in which Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Tiffany are popular, according to Aya Ishihara, president of RCY Vision Corp., which runs the site.
Shimoyama said consumers here understand the advantages of Net shopping. “Japanese women are busier than before and they need to find time to shop. The Internet is their answer.”
As Japanese consumers get better used to Internet shopping, and the cyber-retailers win their confidence, the business will explode, predict some observers. “Consumers try Net shopping, and if they are satisfied with the merchandise and systems, they become repeat customers,” said Shimoyama of Rakuten, which generated $5.7 million dollars in sales for fiscal 1999, converted from the yen.
“The Internet is a communication tool. Just like the shopping at traditional retailers, communication between retailers and consumers will be very important on the Net,” said Shimoyama. “And in order to establish and maintain communication, cyber-retailers have to keep working on a wide variety of merchandise, effective personnel strategies and merchandising systems.”
The work should pay off. As of March 2000, 38.6% of the households in Japan had personal computers, 9.1% up from the same month in an earlier year, according to the nation’s Economic Planning Agency. And currently, 18 million Japanese, or 15% of the population, are said to be connected to the Internet.
A study by the Electronic Commerce Promotion Council of Japan (ECOM) found that Net sales to Japanese consumers skyrocketed to $2.36 billion, converted from the yen at current exchange, in 1999 from the previous year’s $614.3 million. It will hit $52.8 billion in 2004, said ECOM. The study also revealed that apparel worth $133.3 million was sold through the Net last year, twice as much as in the previous year.
While Japan’s cyber-market is ready for more expansion, its development is about three years behind that of the U.S., according to Yoko Ohara, President of Institute for the Fashion Industries Business School. “Last year, there was a difference of five years between two countries. Japan has been catching up, but there is still a distance left to go,” Ohara added.