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Introduction to Ecommerce in Japan
Ecommerce in Japan has grown exponentially over the past 10 years. Thanks to a number of factors including increased internet usage and the growth of cashless payments, more Japanese than ever before have become accustomed to online shopping.
Like most countries, Japan has a number of major players in the ecommerce space. In this article we will highlight some of the biggest Japanese ecommerce sites, that encompass many of the most popular industries for ecommerce, as well as some websites that those without experience in-country may not be familiar.
Japan’s B2C Ecommerce Market
Amazon is the biggest ecommerce platform in Japan in terms of total sales. However, it didn’t achieve this feat overnight. Amazon encountered fierce competition from day one from its primary rival in Japan, Rakuten. Despite this uphill battle, Amazon’s commitment to its core mission of being the most customer-centric company, definitely resonated with Japanese customers—who now tend to choose Amazon for their general ecommerce needs.
Amazon in Japan operates as a wholly owned subsidiary, Amazon Japan GK, of the US company. This is important to understand because that means there are not Japanese stakeholders and it operates in more or less the same fashion as in the US. In the case of a foreign brand looking to enter the market, Amazon will likely be one of the most accessible platforms for selling products in Japan.
If you’d like to learn more about Amazon in the Japanese market, check out our article on the pros and cons of selling on Amazon Japan for further reading.
Rakuten Ichiba—usually referred to simply as “Rakuten”—in Japan is an ecommerce marketplace whose platform functions as an online shopping mall. As opposed to Amazon, which introduced its Amazon Marketplace platform for third-party sellers much later in its history, Rakuten has used the online-mall model since its inception. Various retailers can create, design, and manager their own storefronts on the Rakuten marketplace, which while giving retailers more choices in selling comes at the expense of a unified user experience. If you aren’t used to Japanese web design or navigating Japanese websites you might be quite surprised when you take a deep dive into the site.
What makes Rakuten such a big presence in the Japanese market, is because it is not only an ecommerce marketplace (i.e. Rakuten Ichiba), the company has successfully branched out into a number of different industries to create an entire ecosystem of services.
In addition to Rakuten Ichiba, its ecommerce marketplace, Rakuten also has a popular travel booking business, a bank, Japan’s number one credit card (in terms of number of account holders), a mobile payments service, as well as what may soon be Japan’s 4th major telecommunications carrier. That’s not to mention the Rakuten Super Point rewards program, which essentially ties everything together.
While it’s hard to see Rakuten overtaking Amazon purely through ecommerce these days, as a total ecosystem Rakuten is truly a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the Japanese market.
Note: For readers in the US, you may have heard of Rakuten but know it in a totally different form. After previous failed attempts at penetrating the US market, we currently see Rakuten in the US operating as a shopping portal—courtesy of its Ebates acquisition—which would seem to indicate the company has abandoned its hopes of going toe-to-toe with Amazon on the US giants’ home turf.
Yahoo! Shopping is the ecommerce arm of Yahoo! Japan, which, interestingly enough, has fewer total sales than its C2C business, Yahoo! Auctions (ヤフオク).
You may be familiar with the fact that Yahoo! Japan is still relevant in the Japanese market. This is because Yahoo! Japan is and was operated as a separate entity from the US company from the start. Its success can be attributed to Yahoo! Japan being fully localized and adapted to the Japanese market. In particular Yahoo News is still one of the most popular sites for Japanese users—even if its usage as a search engine is in decline.
Much like Rakuten, Yahoo! Japan also possesses an ecosystem of intertwined services and companies (Yahoo! Japan is owned by the Softbank Group) that help to further cement its importance in the Japanese market.
10 years ago Zozotown was the name in online apparel in Japan. Zozotown built its reputation on having the top brands and being very selective about which ones could sell on their site. But a lot has changed since then.
More and more fashion and apparel brands have grown wise to the value of direct-to-consumer (D2C) ecommerce, and middlemen sites like Zozotown are not necessarily needed.
In fact, there has definitely been a shift in Japanese apparel brands’ willingness to set up their own ecommerce operations in the past few years, especially as brick and mortar retail growth has stagnated. As a result, brands are not necessarily reliant on Zozotown, but Zozotown is still heavily reliant on brands.
In 2019 Zozotown was acquired by Yahoo! Japan. It is an interesting move that we are still unsure how it will play out.
We at Plus Alpha Digital don’t expect Zozotown to regain its former prominence within the fashion and apparel ecommerce business, for the reasons cited earlier, but the site is still relevant as of early 2020.
If you’ve ever visited Japan chances are you’ve seen one of the massive Yodobashi Camera stores nearby some of the country’s major train stations. Yodobashi Camera stores are absolutely gigantic with a number of the stores actually occupying buildings that were once large department stores.
An extensive selection of both home and consumer electronics combined with a popular point system (Yodobashi Points) and knowledgeable staff are the reasons the Yodobashi Camera brand is so well-established in Japan. Yodobashi Camera has been able to leverage this brand and find success with their online store as well.
For people who enjoy the comfort of shopping from home OR who don’t want the sensory overload of the in-store experience Yodobashi Camera’s webstore is a popular choice for purchasing electronics.
Much like rival Yodobashi, Bic Camera enjoys brisk online sales in addition to its retail sales. Bic Camera’s offerings are almost identical to Yodobashi Camera, with no small number of shoppers loyal to the brand—those in possession of a cobranded credit card and/or collecting Bic Camera points being especially likely to prefer Bic Camera over competitors.
When it comes to consumer electronics, Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera are the top competitors in the market, however, other retailers, like Yamada Denki, still have a respectable footprint as well. This is perhaps in sharp contrast to the US electronics scene, where few national retailers have survived into the digital era, and the space is not nearly as diverse.
Despite the ubiquity of its brick and mortar stores within Japan, fashion and apparel retailer Uniqlo does a good amount of online sales as well.
The home-grown, fast fashion brand is popular due to its ability to offer essential clothing items at reasonable prices. Because many of the items from Uniqlo tend to be wardrobe staples and basic apparel items, Japanese shoppers generally see the brand as a good value for the money, without veering into the territory of low-quality and uncool that can plague other brands.
Regular sales and promotions are a constant fixture both online and in-store with Uniqlo, and the site itself can offer some good insights into Japanese ecommerce.
Japanese B2B Ecommerce Market
Askul is a company whose primary focus is office supplies, and their online site has nearly everything an office or business might need.
When read in Japanese, the company’s name Askul (アスクル – asukuru) sounds like “will come tomorrow.” This is a nod to Askul’s speedy delivery, which the company prides itself on.
Askul are able to achieve such a high level of service because of their own dedicated logistics network, which also helps to differentiate their brand. Askul’s wide selection and quick and convenient delivery makes this company the top player in the office supply scene in Japan.
Japanese C2C Ecommerce Market
Yahoo Auctions is the most established C2C platform, due in large part to the longtime dominance of Yahoo! in the Japanese market. Interestingly enough, Yahoo Auctions in Japan actually has more sales than Yahoo Shopping.
In terms of comparisons, it’s probably fair to say that Yahoo Auctions occupies a similar position that Ebay has in the US market.
While Japanese startup Mercari’s rise to prominence in the C2C space may gradually chip away at Yahoo auction’s sales and market share, Yahoo Auctions still enjoys immense popularity. Longtime buyers and sellers, who have amassed a good reputation on the site, will not likely abandon it anytime soon.
The newest entrant to the C2C space also one of the Japanese startup scene’s rare unicorns. A mobile-friendly app, an emphasis on UI/UX, mixed together with a very prominent social media slant make Mercari’s offering feel very modern compared to what has come before it.
Mercari is an interesting case study for a number of reasons.
First, it definitely represents one of the new vanguard of tech companies in Japan, that are embracing newer models—while still being VERY Japanese in execution and management.
Second, Mercari is really well-suited to Japanese customers. Users can send packages anonymously through a system that uses the extensive network of convenience stores and their multi-function kiosks. This understanding of Japanese consumer behavior as well as market knowledge, the convenience stores being a fixture of life in Japan, are things non-Japanese companies rarely can implement.
Finally, Mercari quickly expanded to incorporate fintech with their merpay QR code payment system, which is becoming more prevalent as there is a greater push towards a cashless society within Japan.
While, this hyper-localized approach may not yield as much success outside of Japan, for the Japanese market Mercari looks to have carved out a lasting position for itself.
Recent Developments to Ecommerce in Japan
A new entrant into the Japanese ecommerce space is PayPay Mall, which launched on October 17th, 2019. The name is derived from the PayPay QR code app, which is owned by Softbank and Yahoo.
Compared with the normal 1% return found on many ecommerce sites and point programs, PayPay Mall lets customers “stack” a relatively high percent of points back if they use PayPay for their purchases on top of any additional points they receive if they are a Yahoo Premium Account holder or Softbank user. Furthermore, users can also take advantage of the current 5% cashless rebate going on until June 30th, 2020. In real terms, this means that some shoppers can potentially earn as much as 16% back in the form of points.
Besides offering the ability to pay for purchases using their PayPay accounts, the brands whose products are currently sold on the site are limited to a small number of the most popular retailers. Beyond that, however, not much stands out at this time which seems to indicate to us that this is a move to capture revenue market share as well as revenue from shoppers who are heavily invested into the Softbank/Yahoo points ecosystem.
Again, in the short term it might make sense for Japanese customers who are invested in the ecosystem, but long-term when the constant promotions (to gain users) stop and the nationwide cashless rebate ends, it remains to be seen how competitive they can actually be and how sustainable such a model can be while relying on a small fraction of the Japanese consumer base.
We anticipate that some brands, rather than seeing an increase in ecommerce sales across all channels, may see sales decreasing from their own webstore in proportion to the sales gained from PayPay Mall. However, in the case of the latter, the commission or fees these brands pay PayPay Mall might actually make them even worse off than before.
Because of Yahoo! Japan’s size and prominence, PayPay Mall immediately becomes relevant to the conversation of ecommerce in Japan, but it is still far too early to tell what impact it will have on the competitive landscape.
Ecommerce in Japan: Bottom Line
The major players in the Japanese ecommerce market outlined in this article cover many of the most popular consumer categories, like apparel and consumer electronics. Because of the size of the overall Japanese market, however, there is no shortage of competitors in any industry. While Japan’s ecommerce market remains a popular target for non-Japanese looking to expand overseas, as many Japanese ecommerce sites are mainly focused on the domestic market, information in English remains sparse making market research difficult for foreign brands.
The biggest trend lately when it comes to the Japanese ecommerce market is definitely the move away from all but the biggest of marketplace sites by consumer brands. As ecommerce in Japan continues to grow and account for a larger part of the Japanese economy, more and more retailers are beginning to establish their own online stores, some even with in-house departments focused specifically on ecommerce operations.
While the shift towards a more direct to consumer ecommerce model may hurt marketplaces, it actually bodes well for foreign brands selling to Japanese customers through their own webstores. Furthermore, thanks to Japanese customers becoming more accustomed to shopping online, apprehensions about sharing credit card information or addresses have also gone down. Whereas before consumer trust was limited to the biggest online marketplaces, like Rakuten and Amazon, it has reached a point where now customers also feel comfortable purchasing directly from brands as well.
At Plus Alpha Digital we help clients located abroad sell to Japanese consumers using ecommerce. Contact us to find out how we can help your brand expand its sales in Japan.